Memories of Harsh Days
Translated from the Armenian and submitted by Stepan Hovnanian’s granddaughter, Tanya Hovnanian Baghdassarian
Stepan Hovnanian, the third child of Kevork and Diramayr, was born in 1900 in Malatya, Turkey. Days after the Turks imprisoned and killed his father, teenage Stepan, his mother, younger brother, and sisters were driven from their home and started their deathly journey. In his memoir (written in Armenian), Stepan describes the horrific brutality of their deportation – the rape and slaughter at the hands of the Turkish soldiers.
In the following excerpts from his memoir, Memories of Harsh Days, Stepan speaks of the journey from Der Zor to Mosul, and of his beloved mother and her death.
….The Euphrates River separated us from Der Zor. It was there that I fell terribly ill and was bedridden for more than ten days. The women and the older, experienced folk, came to my mother’s assistance. Even some food and herbal medicines were brought from Der Zor at my mother’s request. It was Palm Sunday when we arrived there, and Easter was spent with such a serious illness. Our friends from the caravan had reached the surroundings of Der Zor, which had turned into an open air graveyard for the Armenian people.
Most of those who had been with us on the march from Aleppo were either lost and martyred one by one in that boundless desert, or ended up in the dreadful waves of the Euphrates. A handful of survivors alone made it to Der Zor, and they were all in mourning for the bitter deaths of their children, spouses and loved ones. Thus in death we reached Der Zor. We were not kept for long. This time they decided to send us off to Mosul. Desert. Only desert.
…Our group of deportees, thinned in ranks, moved along the banks of the Euphrates. Not a small number of people among us preferred death to torments and indignities, and they were throwing themselves into the Euphrates.
But my mother, who had not removed the Bible from her bosom throughout the exile, considered suicide to be sinful, and death, a matter of fate. In spite of all those misfortunes, every evening before falling asleep we heard only prayers of contentment and glories sung from her lips. In her prayers, she would recall the mercy of God, how we were saved during the massacres of 1895-6,* and how we had been safe from the tragic earthquake. She was certain that we would come out safe and sound through this catastrophe as well.
...The Turkish soldiers were unhappy to have our caravan walk by the Euphrates because that way, if we got thirsty, we had the chance to drink some water. The point was to reduce our numbers, and for that very reason, they moved us away from the water and deeper into the desert.
…When we moved from Mosul to the public lodging at the village called Nebi Younes, we got quite tired in accommodating ourselves. My mother, who was a strong and tough woman, was showing signs of slowing down. We tried to do most of the work, but she was unable to carry even a light load. Of course, this lack of health was worrisome to us. We got a half-ruined room at the Nebi Younes lodging, where we put ourselves up somehow or other. We could not leave the room that day; we ate whatever we had brought in our bags.
…Hardly had we settled, then two causes of anxiety came up – my mother’s condition and news that we would be made to move elsewhere. My mother worsened by the day. She was in bed and we spared no effort to get her back on her feet. While we were busy with our mother, the neighbors were making preparations to move. And so as not to be left behind all alone, we also began working in that direction. First I thought to go hire a donkey, as transportation for mother.
In response my mother said, in tears, that there was no need to hire a donkey, as she was ready to walk with the rest of us. We were in the middle of this discussion when the Turkish soldiers were going from room to room, directing the people to the new deportation. Of course it was impossible to get ready within one minute. The old, ill and the frail received hard blows of the whip. Seeing this savagery, we rushed to haul up our mother by the arms and carry her forward. Then she threw herself to the ground, upset, and began watching us while lying on the floor. On the road to a new exile, my mother unexpectedly lay on the ground, and none of us, family or neighbors, could save her.
…Hurt and unwillingly condemned to be separated from her cubs, she roared like a lioness, cried incessantly and called us all to her side, one by one, kissing us. My sisters and I came up to her one more time.
I was the last to approach her. Our tears mixing, just as I was trying to lift her up in my arms, I felt a strong strike of a whip on my back. Terrified of the blows, I curled myself up even more. My sisters and brothers were crying, appealing to the Turk to spare me. As all that was going on, my mother barely managed with trembling lips to curse that Turkish soldier, who paid no heed to her. He took the four of us away from our mother and threw us into the mix of the walking caravan.
And so, giving up our poor mother – the only refuge of our life – we followed the soldiers who were leading us, without exchanging a word.**
Stepan lived to see and enjoy his 20 grandchildren and the extraordinary success of his sons in real estate development.
* In 1895, in a previous onslaught of Turkish persecution of Armenians, Stepan’s Uncle Hovnan, his father’s brother, was brutally killed by a Turkish mob while defending the family’s home. He was cut up and put in the family’s courtyard well.
** The path of Stepan’s deportation and exile is as follows: Malatya, Andiyam, Bablga, Urfa, Suruch, Aleppo, Gharlugh, Meskeneh, Der Zor, Mosul, Nebi Younes, Topuz, Bartella, Baqubah, Kirkuk, Baghdad.