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The Critical Corner - 04/02/2007

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Why we should read...

`To the Desert: pages from my diary' by Vahram Dadrian
English language  edition translated from the Armenian by Agop J Hacikyan,
(408pp, Taderon  Press, London, 2006)

Armenian News Network / Groong
April 2, 2007

By Eddie Arnavoudian

Anyone interested in the debate on the Armenian Genocide has good
reason to say a big thank you to Agop J Hacikyan for translating and
to Ara Sarafian from Taderon Press for editing and publishing this
English language edition of Vahram Dadrian's `To the Desert: pages
from my diary'. Little known and even less commented upon this Diary
with entries that begin on 11 May 1915 and end on 26 June 1919
constitutes an invaluable, indeed an irreplaceable primary source.

This second printing like the first also opens laudably with a `New
Dedication' in which Vahram Dadrian's nephews affirm that its
republication is `... not undertaken with the intention of condemning
the Turkish and Kurdish peoples. 'It is offered rather as `a testament
to the human spirit to overcome adversity and as a tribute to genocide
victims past, present, and, regrettably, future.' This New Dedication
sets excellent and necessary democratic terms for any serious
contemporary discussion of the genocide.

Reading these Diaries we can reconstruct, with no a-priori knowledge,
the central mechanisms of the anti-Armenian genocide machine organised
by the Young Turk government in 1915: the propaganda that isolated
Armenians in society and made them targets of mass hatred, the
formation of death squads, the arrest and murder of the local Armenian
leadership, then the deportation of a defenceless population through
land that had become hostile territory and finally the forced march
into the deadly Syrian deserts.


Penned by 15 year old Vahram, son of the well to do Dadrian family
from Chorum in north central Anatolia, the very first entry suggests
something of the Young Turk's anti-Armenian propaganda campaign. At a
public gathering of Muslims and Christians to bid farewell to soldiers
going to the war front, the words of a `leader of the Union and
Progress Party' `chilled the hearts of the Christians'. 11 May 1915
`We are going off to fight' said this Young Turk leader`and, God
willing, we will smash the heads of all the giaours (i.e. Christians),
infidels, who are the enemies of our faith and our homeland.'(p8)

Another `fanatic Turk' asked `So what are we waiting for? Let's begin
cleaning up the giaours inside the country first...' (p8). Like those
of the Nazi regime later, Young Turk leaders also understood that they
could not succeed in their project to uproot the entire Armenian
community from historical Armenia and Anatolia without first securing
the collaboration of a substantial segment of ordinary Turkish people
in addition to those serving in the army, the police and the security
forces.  Thus the campaign that depicted Armenians as traitors, as
less than human and so deserving of any cruelty that a frenzied mob
was capable of. Here the Young Turks merely continued earlier Ottoman
State policy of whipping up hatred for Armenians.

Together with the preparation of Turkish public opinion for the
destruction of Armenians went the task of organising the instruments.
Central here were unofficial death squads, formed in close
collaboration with local government officials. 2 June 1915:

    `(A) new law has been passed which allows Yusuf (a convicted
    criminal) and all bandits like him to be pardoned and set free,
    provided they join the chetes (irregular troops)...(A) few days
    later he came down to the city and was received by the governor
    with great honour. A few days after that everyone condemned to
    life imprisonment was also liberated. Under Yusuf's command, all
    these murderers formed an army of assassins.' (p10-11)

Thereafter on the pretext of searching for weapons and literature
began the raids, the rounding up, detention and murder of anyone
deemed a leader of Chorum's Armenians community.  Left disorganised
and powerless the Armenian population was then forced to leave their
homes for deportation centres hundreds of miles away, on the edges of
the Syrian deserts. There were no measures in place to tend or care
for them. Deportees were refused the time to make arrangements to
safeguard their property or to secure financial means of survival on
their journey.

>From the earliest stages supposedly protective police escorts `used
their whips on the poor souls who were incapable of walking fast and
couldn't even keep up with the horse-drawn carriages'. `Men and women'
`were beaten over and over again'. Along the journey to desert
destinations in the reigning atmosphere of anti-Armenian hatred
deportees were robbed, plundered, beaten, starved, murdered or
abducted with impunity. Slowly but surely men and women were wasted
away, reduced to miserable wretches, to powerless victims. If they did
not succumb to human executioners many fell, victim to illness,
disease and hunger.

Here the Vahram Dadrian's Diaries become more than a historical record
of Young Turk political barbarism. They tell heartrending stories of
the terrible cruelty that man is capable of inflicting on man. Many of
the entries remind us of tragedies in our own time when racist and
nationalist hate campaigns against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia
also swept former friends, neighbours and business partners into a
tidal wave of vicious violence against people who had now become `the

Gathered into camps at the desert's edges, surviving deportees were
prepared for the final phase of what was a death march into the core
of Deir Zor.  Though the Dadrians were fortunate to escape that
infamous mass grave where tens of thousands more perished, it features
throughout the volume as the ultimate nightmare, the living hell that
all attempted their utmost to avoid. 4 September 1916:

    `News of the martyrdom of Armenians in Deir Zor filled our hearts
    with terror. We have hundreds of relatives, friends, and
    compatriots there. Have they all been killed? Even the thought of
    it numbs the mind.'  (p166)

That this genocide machine operated with a deadly uniformity
throughout both historical Armenia and other regions of Anatolia is
underlined by another important aspect of Vahram Dadrian's Diaries.
Besides his own, he also recorded horrific eye-witness accounts from
other refugees he met in desert camps, among them Sarkis from Mush,
Karekin from Trabzon, Khachig Aghbar from Zeitun, Takouhi from Harpoot
among others.


Herded in camps devoid of all elementary facilities, there were never
any plans for the resettlement of Armenian communities that had been
deported from their homelands. Quite the contrary... Even in these
squalid centres and deadly deserts there was to be no relaxing of the
vice of central power seeking the utter destruction of its Armenian
victims, both as individuals and as a national group. 20 March 1916:

    `(government inspectors)...have been registering the name and
    birth date of every Armenian refugee. Since the deportation they
    have registered us at least twenty times.' (According to)
    `pessimists... the government is trying to establish the exact
    number of remaining Armenians in order to improve their
    extermination methods.' (p138)

The pessimists appear to have been correct. Young men were the first
targets with attempts to conscript them, use them as cheap labour and
then murder them. On 16 April 1916, only 22 from a group of five
hundred had been earlier conscripted returned to Dera. Any attempt at
the recovery of an exhausted and weakened people was impeded further
by assaults on what remained of the Armenian Church and by a campaign
to force Armenians to convert to Islam.  14 August 1916:

    `The question of Armenians converting to Islam gains momentum from
    one day to the next. After the arrest of the village priest, my
    uncle Hagop Dadrian, Djamdjian and Kehyayan of Caesarea, and Minas
    and Garabed Geovderelian of Sis were arrested five days ago. In
    the neighbouring villages they have also arrested a few
    influential people to prevent them from campaigning against the
    conversions (p163).'

Through the genocide years Vahram Dadrian and his family escaped the
worst.  Well off, they had resources in the early stages to hire carts
for transport.  They had cash and jewellery with which to bribe their
way through crises that for other became vicious and fatal. When they
had `no money left' and `no more gold or jewellery to sell' they still
had `extra clothes and shoes' to exchange for wheat (p133). With
friends in Istanbul they could still receive cash with which to afford
rent for putrid rat and scorpion infested rooms in desert villages
while the less fortunate were forced to live and often die in caves.

Most of the Dadrians survived and rebuilt their lives in the Diaspora.
There, before his early death in 1948 Vahram Dadrian not only edited
and published these diaries but also wrote a novel based on his
personal experience.

`Forsaken Love' (326pp, 2006) translated into English and edited by
Ara Melkonian and Ara Sarafian is also published by Taderon Press. A
literary evaluation requires separate consideration but this novel
merits note here as a valuable historical document, one that
significantly supplements the Diaries.  This is so particularly in
relation to its exposure of the role of Armenian accomplices upon whom
the Young Turks relied. Moreover, in this age of anti-Muslim and
anti-Arab bigotry, `Forsaken Love' incorporates a more positive vision
of Armenian-Arab relations and of the role that Arab people played in
the survival of Armenian refugees.

			    *  *  *  *  *

There are many honest historians, Armenian, Turkish and foreign who
debate the 1915 Genocide and even its definition as such. But there
are also fabricators who intend more than just to deny the fact of
genocide. They also deny any Young Turk culpability for what happened
to the Armenians. Thus they serve to exonerate the criminals and by
doing so legitimise the virulent racist and chauvinist xenophobic
nationalism that defined the Young Turk political attitude to, and
action against, the Armenians. Vahram Dadrian's `To the Desert: pages
from my Diary' is a necessary riposte to such fabrication.

These Diaries will furthermore help refocus debate away from abstract,
a-historical and frequently tendentious discussions of the 1915
genocide. They bring into relief the scale of a crime that is often
concealed by dogmatic discourses about genocide definition. There can
in fact never be a single definition of genocide. Neither the Jewish
experience at the hands of the Nazis nor the Armenian at Young Turk
hands can be used as a defining model. Genocide will take different
forms depending on the conditions, the politics, the social
organisation and the history of the state within which it occurs.

In the case of the Armenian Genocide Vahram Dadrian's Diaries show
that the charge of genocide need not be dependent on any comprehensive
central organisation, explicit central instruction or statement of
intent to annihilate all Armenians. The Diaries readily reveal that
the mass deaths that followed the deportations organised by the
Ottoman State and the Young Turks in 1915 did not come about
accidentally, or as unintended consequences of the chaos or turmoil of
war. The Young Turk government framed the conditions, the laws and the
forces that led to the uprooting of the Armenian people, to their
terminal destruction as a viable national community in their homelands
and to the death of one and a half million innocent men, women and
children. This is sufficient evidence to indicate criminal Ottoman and
Young Turk culpability for genocide.

`Have Vahram Dadrian's `To the Desert: pages from my diary' at the top
of your reading list' should be the advice of all seeking to enlighten
people about the 1915 Armenian experience of genocide.

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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