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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. I. 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 enemy'. 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. II. 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. (p134) 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.