Land of the Stalking Death

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November, 1919


A Journey Through Starving Armenia on an American Relief Train

By Melville Chater

Ask the average American what he knows about the Transcaucasus, and he will probably draw from his boyhood memories the fact that it produced those blonde-haired beauties who used to be headline curiosities in dime museums. And if you particularize in Transcaucasian topography by asking "What do you know about Georgia?" it is ten to one that he will answer promptly, "Sherman marched through it."

And so, it was not without curiosity that I, as an average American, caught from a British transport's deck my first glimpse of those mountain-ringed shores which the maps of one's childhood depicted as a pea-grean isthmus lying between the Black and Caspian Seas.

Everyone was on deck for the night - British Tommies and their officers, the little Mongol-faces Ghurkas, the tall and dignified Sikhs, the gray-clad nursing sisters - and even the Punjabi cooks in our fore hatchway ceased work on the flour-and-water cakes, which they had been baking incessantly for four days, and shaded their eyes toward the wide, squat port of Batun, with its foreground of British warcraft and its sky-line where the pear-shaped church domes of Russian civilization spired upward.

Out went the Black Sea's raw wind, like an extinguished candle, and over us crept a soft, warm land-breath, heavy with springtide, from the base of snow-capped mountains. And hardly were we trudging off over Batum's waterside ways - cobbled in high relief like Spotless Town, in the country of Advertismentia - when the dingy scene burst into brilliant patches of blue and yellow, where February's violets were hawked for sale and mimosa trees drooped, heavy with bloom and scent - a sight to stun sea-wearied eyes, and to make one believe again in long-lost miracles.

I visited the British base-commander and mentioned Tiflis and a first-class carriage.

"Good Lord!" ejaculated the B. C. "Wish I could wave a wand and produce such a thing! Try the American flour-train that's moving out tonight. And here's an order for three days' rations. One never knows, you know."

And so I climbed aboard a stumpy little living-car, hitched midway on a long freight train, to be welcomed by a genial-faced American doctor, who was en route to gather data for one of the various relief commissions at home.

The B. C.'s warning that "one never knows" was well founded. As we lounged lethargically over the distance that required but sixteen hours from Batum to Tiflis in peacetime, days passed uncounted, and the engineer held us ip while he dropped off at various towns to spend the night with friends; and dogs snoozed and cats kittened under our car between the rails during lenthy waits on sidings.

Though we had American flour aboard, a British guard, Russian-built cars, an Armenian cook, and a Georgian engineer, we were not sufficiently polyglot to read the station signs, all of which had been changed from Russian lettering to that of Georgia's own peculiar alphabet. Yet the red flags which presently sprouted all along the line apprised us that we were traveling on the anniversary of the Russian revolution, and hence of Georgia's second birthday as a republic.

(IF YOU WANT TO HELP DIGITIZE THIS ARTICLE - Let Raffi Kojian know. He just needs help typing...)

Everybody's Playing Dolls' House"

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More Than A Hundred Different Peoples In This Region

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How Twelve British Soldiers Brought Peace

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"Lend Us A Britain Thomas"

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Tiflis A City of Suprises

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Where Every One Wears A Uniform

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The Art Of Conversation In Georgia

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How The Georgian Entertains

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The Georgian Is Enjoying A Belshazzar's Feast

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Succoring 20,000 Armenians In Tiflis

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Curing The Cupidity Of A Georgian Blackmailer

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The Tragic-Faced Chorus

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A City Of Harrowing Silence

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Humanity Massed Like Bees In Swarming Time

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A Daughter In Exchange For A Sack Of Flour

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Erivan, Armenia's Capital

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Children In The Weaving Shops

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Selling The Belongings Of Their Dead

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Gaunt Tragedy In A Cellar

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To Igdir Through 40 Miles of Desolation

A war-battered motor of American body, Russian tires, and second-hand parts from every country in the world jounced us to Igdir across forty miles of flat country, throughout which mud-hut villages clustered and old trenches scored the plain, while Ararat loomed ever ahead, more dazzlingly white and sky-filling, as morning turned to noontide. Cutting his right shoulder, a faint line betrayed the cleft through which the great hordes of refugees had filed in their flight from Turkish Armenia during the massacres of 1915.

Three times in as many years have masses of these 300,000 people crossed and recrossed the mountains, advancing and retreating, as Russia threw the Turkish armies back or withdrew before them. In 1916 the refugees were even repatriated long enough to sow the soil, but not to reap the crops, which were abandoned to the enemy. Finally, at Bolshevism’s outbreak, the disorganised Russian troops went home, leaving the Transcaucasus undefended. Of its main peoples, the Georgians welcomed the Germans, while the Tatars were co-religionists with the Turks; wherefore the latter’s despoliations were directed solely against the Armenians.

The country through which we were passing revealed neither sowed acres nor cattle, nor sheep at graze: for seed, agricultural implements, and all else had been swept away by the Turks.

Once the Arax River was passed, however. one could recognise the Tatar villages by the presence of field animals and husbandry. Still farther on. the population became preponderatingly Armenian once more. And now, across the wide plains which must lie tragically idle through these, the fleeting precious hours of sowing, everywhere we beheld women astoop. in the attitude of those who fill Millet’s canvas, "The Gleaners". Had another Millet been there to study those emaciated figures and downcast. painfully searching faces. he could have touched the world’s heart with a second masterpiece, called "The Root Diggers".

"...We Are Dying, All Dying"

Suddenly an Armenian came dashing across the fields, to bar our passage - his face wild, his voice shrill with anguish. But he was not seeking protection from pursuing Tatars. as I had thought. He had seen American uniforms in our car - the first promise of hope which had passed through that desolate section in many weeks - and he was telling us of the many refugees who lived over there. among that cluster of war-demolished mud huts, starving in this wilderness.

"We are dying, all dying !" he reiterated in a kind of delirium. And, though we told him we had not bread, it became necessary to remove him from the road. where he had thrown himself face downward under the car’s wheels to prevent our departure.

Another, and a happier figure, was that of an old woman who hobbled up with a bright smile on her face to show us that day’s bonanza - a miserable apronfull of the roots which would keep her three motherless grandchildren alive for twenty-four hours more. Indeed, watch those painfully scrutinising diggers, and the way they flock from spot to spot whenever some luxurious patch is detected. and you would think that they were searching for yellow metal, not mere roots, in the first feverish hours of a gold rush.

"Dying or Deads?"

As we neared Igdir our interpreter, a cheery, affable young Armenian, who had long since grown accustomed to the horrors of this famine-blighted land, turned to us from the front seat and inquired with just a trace of the showman’s manner:

"What you like to see, gentlemens ?"

"Conditions?" snapped the doctor.

"You like best conditions of dyings or deads? Dyings is easy to see everywhere in the streets. But I know where many deads are, too -in what houses - if you like."

"Drive on !" I said hastily. "‘We’ll decide later."

The town of Igdir, with its local and near-by populations of 30,000 Armenians. 20,000 Tatars. and 15,000 Yezidis, revealed some squalid streets with but a few people seated disconsolately here and there, as we drove in. Throughout those tortuous, sun-beaten, byways no children played and no animals roamed. The air was heavy with dreadful silence, such as hangs over plague-smitten communities.

We found the children, such as they were, inhabiting an orphanage wherein one sickened at putridity’s horrible odour, and were informed that there were neither medicines nor disinfectants wherewith to allay the condition of the many little sick-beds.

Sick? Say, rather, the bed-ridden - a word which more justly describes those tiny, withered up, crone-like creatures, upon whose faces the skin seemed stretched to a drumhead’s tightness: whose peering eyes shot terror and anguish, as if Death’s presence were already perceptible to them, and who lay there at Famine’s climax of physical exhaustion. In those young, yet grotesquely aged faces, we seemed to see a long lifetime of tragedy packed into eight or ten childish years.

"They’ll all die," was the brusque observation of the doctor, who had taken one glimpse and gone out. "We can’t do them any good. Silly business anyway - to come out here in a broken-down car."

"We will see now conditions of the deads ?" inquired our interpreter, sweetly. "Twenty-five deads was took out of one house here in one day. It is a big house, or khan. There would be plenty more deads in it by now."

The local manager of the American Committee, having heard of our arrival. turned up to greet us. With him we walked through the local bazaar - rows of mean shops that mocked starvation with their handfuls of nuts and withered fruit.

The mud huts which we visited presented an invariable picture - a barren. cave-like interior, lacking one stick of furniture or household utensil, and with a few bleached bones scattered here and there. The occupants, stretched on the clay floor, would half lift themselves to regard us with dazed and questioning eyes.

Those gaunt faces, those attenuated bodies clad in a shagginess of filthy rags, seemed centuries removed from civilisation. You felt that you had stumbled into prehistoric man’s den during some great famine year.

The Human Levelled to Brute Beast

Suddenly a shriek went up and a woman rushed out of her hut. with agonised face and with hands lifted to heaven. Hers was such abandonment as proclaims that death has struck the firstborn; yet it was a tale of mere robbery. What the captured thief delivered back to her proved to be a paltry handful of roots. And upon entering the woman’s house we found, in fact, her only daughter lying dead, not yet cold, while the mother crouched dry-eyed before a tiny fire, intently watching the pot wherein bubbled those precious roots, her next stomachful. It was to have seen the soul dead and the human levelled to the brute beast.

Nearby, in the open, fifty wizened children sat about a long board, eating the American Committee’s daily dole of boiled rice. This was accomplished at a gulp: then the children scattered, searching the ground as I had seen others do beside our car at Alexandropol. Soon one was chewing a straw, another the paring of a horse’s hoof, a third a captured beetle. One seven year old girl crouched by herself, cracking something between two stones and licking her fingers. The doctor bent over, examining the object. He asked with peculiar sharpness, "Where did she get that - that bone ?" The child looked up with a scared, guilty glance; then her answer came through the interpreter, who said in a low voice, "Yonder in the graveyard."

I am not sure that we preserved our composure.

Starvation Outruns Typhus

We passed on, the doctor asking of our guide: "Is there much typhus ?"

"Not so much now," was the rejoinder, "for the reason that starvation is killing them more quickly than typhus could."

"What is the death-rate in the villages hereabout ?"

"I will give you a few instances. There are some thirty villages in this district, and a recent census showed 2,277 deaths for a period of fifty days. Etchmiadzin contains 7,000 refugees, of whom 1,000 are dying each month. At Evgilar a population of 1,900 was reduced to 1,519 in ten days. During those same ten days Alletly’s 965 people were diminished to 612, and Atgamar’s 2,093 people to 1,530."

"In reality, the death-rate is much higher than these figures indicate. We cannot search every house once a day. The best we can do is to send ox-carts through the street each morning, so that the people can bring out their dead; but often they are too weak to rise from their beds for that purpose, and so the living and dead remain lying side by side. Perhaps a week or two will pass before..."

"I understand," said the doctor, briefly. "I also understand that American flour is not yet arriving in sufficient quantities to feed what must amount to half a million starving people. Tell me, then, what they eat beside mere roots?"

"Cats and dogs, for example. These have been sold at thirty to fifty rubles apiece. The other day a famished horse dropped dead in the streets, and in half an hour it was picked clean. And then - yes, I have seen it myself, between dead brother and living sister. She lay there beside him and told me what she was going to do. I urged her against it, but there was no bread to give her that day. And later, when they called to remove her brother’s body, his right arm was gone."

Graves Dug With Human Bones

We had taken a short cut toward where our car waited, and by chance we were skirting the cemetery. Our guide pointed thither and said:

"It is not a pleasant sight. You must understand that the Turks left this country so bare that there are not even spades. Graves must be dug with any available thing, even with human bones. If the dead has a relative - someone who is still strong enough to carry a weight - big stones are placed on the grave; but if not" - he shrugged significantly.

I asked, hardly knowing how to frame my question, "Exactly what - exactly whom do you mean? "I mean," he answered, "the pariah dogs by day, and under cover of night - well, come and see for yourselves."

I will never forget that terrible acre of earth - the low, boulder-heaped mounds, and those others, the unprotected graves, now revealed as empty, scooped-out holes, whose brinks were strewn about with remnants of torn-off garments, among which lay vague, blackened semblance of humanity. As we turned away, the apparition of a great yellow pariah dog, pawing among the graves, drew from us a volley of stones. Then, as he slunk guiltily off, a skeleton-like man sprang up from behind the wall (under cover of which he had been stalking his prey), and, braining the beast with a club, disappeared, carrying its carcass with him.

Having seen enough, we started to leave Igdir with all the dignified speed possible, being halted by unlooked for obstacles, such as impede one in an evil dream.

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