After Deir ez-Zor – “Do Not Be Afraid, These Are Armenians. You Are Safe”

After Deir ez-Zor

The girl was carrying water through the desert. She had to reach the nearby small boulder as quickly as possible, behind which her dying mother was lying. She knew that water would save her mother’s life, and then, she would not be alone in this world.

She quickened her steps, but her feet sank very deep into the sand, and she had to make an effort to move forward. That stone seemed to be drifting away, and the girl was horrified: she realized that she could no longer help her mother.

The girl was left alone in this desert which swallowed her into itself: the sand reached her face, and it became difficult to breathe.

She tensed, opened her mouth to scream, and woke up. Salima, an old woman who had long been a servant in this house, looked at the girl sternly and hissed: “It’s time to make breakfast for the masters, and yet you are all asleep.” Then, squinting, she asked. “What did you see in your dream?”

“We went to the bathhouse, and the pipes burst there, and we almost drowned,” the girl replied innocently and remembered how her mother said that lying was a great sin, for which God would definitely punish.

“Such a thing happened in the year when we punished these unfaithful Armenians,” Salima said and immediately cut her speech short. She threw an intent look at the girl.

“I don’t remember that.”

Over the past years, the girl had managed to convince others and, above all, herself that she had completely forgotten her previous life. She was now a small Turkish girl named Asmia who served in the family of Mr. Khalil. Her master had bought her out of Bedouin captivity and brought her to Constantinople as an unpaid housekeeper.

Only dreams treacherously returned her to the terrible past.

Having prepared breakfast, the hungry 14 years old girl went shopping for the dinner table.

“Girl, are you an Armenian?” she was asked in Armenian on the street.

“Sorry, khanum, I didn’t understand you,” said Asmia, wishing to slip past the questioner.

“Are you an Armenian?” the woman who blocked the road repeated her question in Turkish and, not waiting for an answer, said, “I see that you are Armenian. You have Armenian eyes.”

“I am a Turk,” Asmia whispered, turned around sharply, and ran home.

She had already heard from adults that people from faraway countries looking for Armenian orphans had appeared in the city. And she firmly knew one thing: if someone is recognized as an Armenian, it means inevitable death.

The girl did not buy anything, and for this, she was assigned a tough job – to beat wool until the night.

It was already dark when someone suddenly knocked on the door. A tall, gray-haired man in a black dress and a cross on his chest entered the house, accompanied by the woman who had spoken to her in the morning. It was an Armenian priest.

“I came for our girl,” the priest said in a confident and loud voice, and the girl was very surprised that the owners did not even dare to object.

On the street, there were some people who went after them. When she looked back, she noticed that the crowd behind them became much larger, and many were armed. Involuntarily, she stiffened, which was sensed by the priest who was holding her hand.

“Fear not, my daughter,” said the priest, “They are Armenians. They guard us. They themselves arrived when they learned that I was going to save an Armenian girl. You’re safe with your people now.”

Asmia spent that night in the Armenian church. Here, she learned that the priest who had brought her here was the Patriarch of Constantinople himself, and only his high position made possible her quick escape.

“You’re very lucky, my girl,” the old woman said, putting her to bed. She then sighed: “Oh my God, why do you punish your people like that?”

Asmia immediately fell asleep. Again, in her sleep, she was running across the desert of Deir ez-Zor with a half-broken pitcher in her hands. Her feet sank deeper and deeper into the sand, and she knew that she would not be able to bring water to the dying mother.

And she knew that she, Hasmik Boyadjian, remained completely alone in the world because her mother Anaid Boyadjian, grandmother Astghik, elder sister Mariam, elder brother Levon, and younger brother Poghos perished in the desert of Deir ez-Zor. Her father Sedrak Boyadjian and grandfather Vagharshak had been killed by the Turkish gendarmes in the yard of their own house.

In the morning, the Patriarch led her to a judge.

“This is necessary, my daughter,” he said, “He has to make sure that you are Armenian. That is their law. If you speak Armenian, that will be enough. He must ask you a few questions in order to pass judgment.”

The judge had a look at the girl and burst out laughing.

“No, girl,” he said and slapped his thick book with his hand, “I will not ask you anything. It can be seen from your eyes that you are Armenian.”

They went outside, and the Patriarch raised his hand with the fist clenched. The crowd standing at the door of the court responded with the same gesture. And the Patriarch, who had tears in his eyes, took out his handkerchief, blew his nose, and said in a shaky and quiet voice:

“And now, my daughter, you must learn the language of your people again.”

David Balayan

Miniature by Khoren-Ter-Harutyunyan-Der-Zor-Hachn-1975

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