Excerpt from The Knock at the Door: A Journey Through the Darkness of the Armenian Genocide, 2007, Beaufort Books.
Ester – June, 1915
The morning before we planned to leave, zaptiehs came pounding on our door. A youthful Turkish soldier with the authority, might, and terror of the Turkish army in his voice, shouted that we had to leave immediately.
"Whoever remains will be shot," he said. "Move along, yallah, yallah."
Two other soldiers were standing behind him with large rifles in their hands. I backed up against the far wall. Vartouhi threw her shoulders back and stood tall.
"How can we leave so quickly?" she said, catching her breath between words. "We need to prepare."
"That’s not my business," the soldier said. "Just gather some things and leave."
The three zaptiehs looked no older than I did. Fuzzy hairs of manhood were just starting to pop out on their faces. They were just boys carrying guns almost as big as they were. I took a closer look at their faces. Why, they looked like my classmates from school. Could they shoot me? Would they shoot me? I tried to understand why this terrible thing was happening; but all I could think was, we had waited too long. We should have left before they came for us. We should have listened to Haroutoun.
Aksor — the deportation word everyone in town was whispering. What did it mean? What would it be like? There was no time to think. With Papa gone, we were on our own.
Vartouhi quickly tied a canvas over our open wagon filled with food and blankets. She hitched a single cow to pull it, and we fled, joining the caravan of wagons leaving Amasia.
We were only a half hour out of town when a group of Kurds charged down from the mountains and attacked the first group at the front of the caravan. Then the zaptiehs started grumbling. Someone in the group said they were there to protect us from the Kurds. This was a lie, because these soldiers attacked us along with the Kurds. Swinging their curved swords in the air over their heads, screaming and shouting curses, they rode their horses straight into the slow-moving crowd of people.
I slipped to the ground. Around me people were screaming. Some were crushed under wagon wheels; others were bleeding from various parts of their bodies. One man was stuck under a broken wagon wheel. He was holding onto a woman’s hand. Her head was missing! Those who were not killed on the first charge were robbed and beaten.
Then the soldiers came for the girls. The prettiest ones were taken first. I watched as soldiers lifted some of the girls by their hair and threw them over the backs of their horses. Then they rode away.
"Asvadzeem!" cried Grandmom. She pushed me down in the wagon and scratched my face with a sharp rock and rubbed raw garlic and mud into the creases. Grandmom always carried garlic in her pocket to keep away the evil eye.
Then, with a satisfied tone in her voice, she said, "There, this will fester and weep and you will look ugly. Quickly, put on these baggy clothes, and maybe the soldiers won’t want you. Keep your head down and be still."
After the attack, it was very quiet. We moved slowly with the rest of the group. Around us the silence hung heavy like thick fog. By morning, my face was itching and oozing with white pus. I grabbed Vartouhi’s small hand mirror. Who was this creature staring back at me? I turned away with disgust at the sight of my face, the same face that many had said was a pretty face. I looked like a monster. No one looked at me. Grandmom was pleased with her handiwork.
Our group slowly moved ahead. By nightfall, the caravan stopped. Amasia was behind us. I fell into a deep sleep. Through the night, I heard the cries of babies and women screaming in the darkness. I turned my head to a bright, blazing light in the sky. Could it be sunrise already? I turned to Grandmom and whispered, "Is it morning?"
"No, Ester, it’s not the rising sun, it is houses in Amasia burning." Smoke and flying embers filled the air like fireflies on a summer night. I crouched down low and prayed. Was this the good luck I was waiting for each year when I found the coin in my choreg at Christmas? Finding that coin was supposed to guarantee me a year of good luck and happy times. Not this.
There were about a hundred in our group. Some whispered that our destination was the death camp in the desert of Der-el-Zor. It was rumored that those who made it to the death camp were the strong ones, most died along the way. For the first time, I wondered if we would make it to Der-el-Zor or be among those who died.
It was a hot June, and what little water we had was drying up because of the heat. I held on to a small water jug I had saved from our wagon, but it was almost empty. The next night we camped near a well. The Turkish soldiers filled their canteens and water jars to the brim.
After they finished, they shouted to the crowd, "Anyone caught trying to get water will be shot."
We sat close to each other, our bodies touching. No one went near the well. Later that same night we heard a woman’s scream coming from the direction of the well. Nobody moved. In the morning we saw the body of a young bride we knew from Amasia. A water jug was hanging from her blackish-blue fingers. Someone said she had been stabbed many times. I saw her pregnant stomach sliced open and her unborn baby stuck on a sword that was shoved in the dirt near her head. As we walked past, Vartouhi pushed my face into her chest so I could not see, but I had already seen it all very clearly.
We hadn’t eaten for five days when we came upon some women so thin that the skin hung on their bones. I wondered how many days would pass before we looked the same. A tiny baby was sucking on the breast of its dead mother, while other women were tearing pieces of flesh from the bodies left by the road. Arsen yanked hard on my arm.
"Please, please, promise me you will not let anyone eat my body except you."
"Arsen, don't talk crazy. No one is going to eat your body."
"No, no, you must promise me now," he said.
I was weary. "All right, I promise."
The ground was dry and cracked. The following day shortly after sunrise dark clouds swept across us, turning day into night. Then the rain came. The weight of the water pushed me to the ground. Some people nearby tried to fit under our quilt. There must have been fifteen or more bodies covered by that quilt. A hand, a head, half a body, a finger. Everyone was looking for some cover from the pounding rain.
Then a flood of water rushed down from a hill close by, bringing with it a mixture of small rocks, sand, mud, and all kinds of human filth. The little children were the saddest. Some slipped right out of their mothers' arms and disappeared into the thick mud. The lightning, thunder, and pounding rain seemed to make the soldiers crazy. They attacked us harder than before, as we ran to get away from them. I tried to fill my small cup with some of the water that spilled from the corner of the quilt. I collected only drops.
We held on to each other, afraid to move. I looked for Arsen. He was gone. Sometime during the night, he had been taken. I never felt his tiny hand leave mine.
"It’s my fault. I should have held on to him tighter," I said to Grandmom. But she didn’t hear me. She and Vartouhi were crying and praying for God to save us.
Now we were three.
There was no time for anyone to mourn the dead. Those who were alive marched along, hoping to escape the next attack. Grandmom was walking more and more slowly. The soldiers cracked their whips across our backs to make us move faster. Grandmom fell. I grabbed her. I carried her on my back for a while before she fell again.
"Go on without me," she whispered. "I'm old, I will not make it, but you must live."
Then she reached up and pulled a little blackened iron cross from her neck. She stuffed it into my hand and said, "Keep this, Ester, and pray for God’s help."
I reached for her again, but a soldier on horseback came between us. I was pushed ahead with the others. She was left behind. I turned to look for Grandmom and saw the butt of a rifle coming down on her head. A splash of red flew through the air.
I shouted, "Grandmom, Grandmom!" but I knew she would never hear me again. What kind of God could let this happen? The little cross was burning in my hand. Women ran screaming in all directions during the killing. They rushed ahead to get away from the dead.
I looked at Vartouhi. Her hair had turned gray. When did this happen? Could one’s hair turn gray in days? Would mine turn gray too? Her dress was torn and her arms were scratched and bleeding. Would she die? Would I be alone? Vartouhi was all I had left. She could not die. I thought of the poor people getting ready to leave their hometowns as we had. If only they could be warned.
The next night Vartouhi had her baby. I rubbed her stomach as she twisted and turned in pain. I had never seen a baby born. I saw some women I did not know holding Vartouhi down by her shoulders.
"Keep her down or the soldiers will see us," said one. Hiding behind a tree, with strange hands covering her mouth to cut off her screams, Vartouhi gave birth. It happened so fast I was surprised when the spot I was rubbing on her belly suddenly went flat and a baby slowly came out from under her on the soft dirt.
"It's a boy, Ester, it’s a boy," Vartouhi said.
Quickly, two more women came to help. They buried the slimy afterbirth with more care than they did the dead we left along side of the road. The burying of the afterbirth was a custom the women would not give up, even on this death march. Barely able to stand from the pain of her labor, Vartouhi picked up her newborn baby and marched with the rest of us for six hours. We gathered some weeds and dandelions and boiled up a broth for Vartouhi in a small pot of water that one of the women shared. The baby cried all the time. Vartouhi's dried up breasts had no milk.
Still hopeful, I said, "Perhaps when we catch up with Papa, he will have food and water for us." Vartouhi looked at me sadly.