The Armenian Genocide:
Noyemzar will never forget
With only the cloudy afternoon light sifting through the windows, it feels like a day for which funerals are made. It seems fitting, almost planned. For the life story of an 88-year-old Armenian woman named Noyemzar Alexanian - and for most Armenians of her generation - is a story of death
They came looking for rope. On a spring morning in 1915, the villagers of Baghin, Palou - an Armenian territory occupied by Turkey - awoke to the sight of the Kurdish cavalry surrounding them. "Nobody knew what was happening at first," says Grandma, my Armenian grandmother-in-law. "The Kurds were hired by the Turks to do their dirty work," says Avedis Mahdesian, my Armenian father-in-law. He's doing the tough job of translating her rapid-fire anguish into English.
Sitting at the edge of the couch in her tiny living room, Grandma's telling me the story of her life. With only the cloudy afternoon light sifting through the windows, it feels like a day for which funerals are made. It seems fitting, almost planned. For the life story of an 88-year-old Armenian woman named Noyemzar Alexanian - and for most Armenians of her generation - is a story of death.
The soldiers went from house to house asking for rope. After that they took the males, 15 and older and collected them. "They used the rope to tie their hands," says Grandma.
The men and teen-aged boys were taken to a distant field and stabbed to death. "I remember my father and three other people from Baghin being taken away to be killed by the Kurds, and my mother is yelling, `Please help! Please help!' as they're taking him away. A friendly Kurd later told my mother that my father begged to be shot, not butchered," says Grandma. The 6-year-old Noyemzar watched the white shirt of her father as he was led up a mountainside by the soldiers. The white shirt became a white dot, and then it was gone.
Baidzar Khimatian took her four children - her daughters Noyemzar, Satenig and Zevart, her son, Markar - and her mother to a friendly Kurdish family's house in a nearby village. One day they heard a knock at the door. A Turkish soldier entered and ordered all the Armenians - women and children - into a caravan to be taken away and killed.
Before being herded into the caravan, Baidzar gave two gold coins to a friendly Kurd and persuaded him to keep two of her children, Noyemzar and Satenig. In the panic and confusion, little Zevart disappeared. "She's lost," says Grandma, raising her hands in a plea.
As the caravan arrived at the village where they were to be killed, Baidzar pleaded with the Kurdish leader of that village to spare her life and the lives of her son Markar and her mother. The leader agreed. He spared the lives of many other Armenians, including numerous families from Baghin.
The Khimatian family was still divided between two villages, almost 10 miles apart. They could only visit by getting permission from the Kurds. Noyemzar was only 6, yet she was the mother to her little sister, Satenig, who suffered from chronic stomach problems. "She died in that Kurdish village," says Grandma, stroking the couch cushion.
One day, her brother, Markar, and his friend, Hovagim Hagopian, came to take Noyemzar to visit her mother. Along the way, Hovagim told her, "Learn the way so you can escape from where you are." After a Kurd brought Noyemzar back to where she was staying, she made up her mind to escape the next day. "It was a cloudy, rainy day, like this," says Grandma, motioning toward the window. "I ran and ran and ran." This 6-year-old, frightened girl ran for miles across wolf-infested fields and mountainous landscapes and miraculously reached the village where her mother was staying.
Baidzar's brother, Hovsep, who worked in the village, came to their house one day and told his sister that the Kurds had beaten him. "My mother gave gold coins to my uncle so he could escape to Kharpert," says Grandma. Markar also escaped to Kharpert, a town with orphanages for the children of refugees.
By this time, Noyemzar was about 8 years old. Her mother asked for permission to visit Markar and Hovsep in Kharpert, and told little Noyemzar to escape to her aunt's house in another village. Fifteen days later, Noyemzar's aunt found a friendly Kurd to take her young niece to Kharpert.
The year was 1919 and the Turkish government was relocating the Armenian refugees out of Turkish-occupied territories, including Kharpert, and into Syria. Noyemzar, Baidzar, Markar, and Baidzar's mother were herded once again into wagons, bound for Aleppo, Syria. They stayed only a few weeks before being herded into caravans to orphanages in the villages near Beirut, Lebanon. Eventually her mother and brother and grandmother tracked her down, with their sites set on America - via Marseilles, France, and Havana, Cuba.
Fifteen-year-old Noyemzar and her family arrived in Cuba on Aug. 31, 1924. Before that year, the United States had no quotas on the numbers of Turkish citizens