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The Critical Corner - 04/19/2005

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Why we should read...

`Murad's Journey' by Zabel Yessayan and Murad
(96pp, NB-Press, Yerevan, 1990) 

Armenian News Network / Groong
April 19, 2005

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Entitled simply `Murad's Journey', this booklet is amongst the most
moving and most chilling of witnesses to the 1915 Armenian Genocide -
a sobering, shocking, troubling account of human barbarism and the
process of dehumanisation that it sets in train. The story is narrated
by Sebastatzi Murad and recorded by Zabel Yessayan. Sepastatzi Murad
was one of the most remarkable Armenian guerrilla leaders fighting
Ottoman tyranny; Zabel Yessayan, one of Armenia's greatest modern
novelists and prose writers. Together they tell the dramatic tale of
Murad's flight from Turkish authorities attempting to entrap and
murder him at the same time as they were rounding up other prominent
personalities and community leaders as a prelude to deporting and
slaughtering a defenceless Armenian population.

Suspicious of an official invitation to attend `an important meeting'
Murad mounts his beloved and legendary Pegassus (immortalised in
Daniel Varoujean's poem of the same name) and with a group of comrades
rides into the mountains. His travels take him through a vast swathe
of Armenian, Turkish and Greek villages, through mountains and forests
towards the Black Sea town of Trabzon and then by a Turkish boat they
hijack on to Tsarist controlled Batum. Thereafter Murad was to join
the ranks of Armenian military forces struggling to defend portions of
western Armenia from Young Turk assault. He was eventually killed in
1918 during another engagement in Armenian self-defence in Baku. But
that is another story.

This account of Murad's dramatic odyssey from his home-town to Batum
offers a horrific insight into virtually every aspect of the genocide.
As Murad and his men secretively pass through Armenian villages they
see the disintegration of long standing communities. Welcomed with
open arms in one they are put up in the local school. Murad tells of
how he felt `deeply sad. Desks were strewn about. Abandoned books
reminded one of the young children who should have been there. At this
time each year they used to flood into school happy and eager filling
the hall with great enthusiasm. Where were they now? Hidden behind
their closed doors, trembling with fear and terror.'  Thereafter Murad
continues `with our own eyes we saw the collective slaughter. How can
I describe it all? They were throwing the Armenian people, defenceless
and unarmed onto the streets where they were victim to plunder by the
mob. The people's screams, their cries and their shouts filled the
skies. We could hardly bear it. How many times I thought to try and
find out which group (of deportees) my wife and children were among so
that I could snatch them away&. All the villages in the area had been
cleared. (p47-48)

Pretending to be Turks, Murad's men capture numerous Turkish soldiers
and bandits who confess, proudly, to the most terrible crimes of
murder, rape, torture, plunder and destruction. Relations between
Armenian and Turk strained and tense in the best of times are slowly
transformed into murderous hate. Initially Murad protected innocent
Turkish soldiers arguing that they `too were, like ourselves,
fugitives from the enemy'.  Those suspected of crimes had initially
been questioned to establish guilt. But after witnessing repeated
confessions of barbarism Murad's men now `pulled them (Turkish
soldiers) off the road and without questioning killed them.' Now there
`were no more innocent Turks for us` says Murad and adds that he and
his group were henceforth `convinced that every one of them (Turkish
soldiers) was either a direct accomplice or participant in the
terrible events.' On their side, a Turk, again believing Murad to be
one of their own, responding to fabricated stories of Armenian
brutality retorts `what we have (already) done to them (Armenians) is
not enough.'

In the mountains Murad and his comrades are not alone. They meet
dozens of other small groups of fugitives, all in one way or another
engaged in resistance to the Genocide. Experienced fighters, Murad's
group capture weapons that they distribute to other fugitive
groups. Murad's testimony here is very valuable adding to the record
of countless other such groups, whose resistance is usually overlooked
in Armenian histories that focus on the main centres such as Van,
Diarbekir, Urfa and Musa Dagh.  The widespread emergence of such
groups, that incidentally included women fighters too, confirms that
Armenians did not go to the slaughter like sheep. They underline a
spirit of survival that was afoot and suggest that any nationally
organised resistance to the Genocide would have met with broad popular

In `Murad's Journey' we have an immensely valuable primary source with
almost every aspect of the history and politics of the Genocide
finding some telling reflection. Significant references to the
material and social consequences of the earlier mass slaughter in
1895-96 are coupled with testimony of German complicity in the
Genocide. Murad witnessed how the `killing and plunder' of 1915 `was
carried on before the eyes of German officers' who together with
`Turkish officers` would `carry off valuables for themselves.'
(p63). Anecdotes confirm widespread Armenian blindness to the criminal
intent of the Young Turk government. Even Murad and his men are
initially deceived into `believing that these deportations' were no
more than `part of the project' to `move people away from areas of
military operations.' (p45)

Much, much more can be gleaned from this account, including something
about the lives of ordinary Turks with their own `difficulties and
hardships'; (p37) about the role of Kurds who `in times of peace were
oppressed by the Turks more severely' even than Armenians were; (p26)
about the position of Greek communities in historical Armenia and last
but not least something about the personal qualities, the private pain
and emotional turmoil, the talent for leadership, the immense will,
power and perspicacity of the narrator, Murad, a memorable figure of
the Armenian liberation movement. Narrated and written without
exclamation or rhetoric, this little volume has a depth and breadth
that gives it the quality of a comprehensive history of resistance and

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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