Days of Tragedy in Armenia: Personal Experiences in Harpoot, 1915-1917

Days of Tragedy in Armenia: Personal Experiences in Harpoot, 1915-1917

London: Gomidas Institute, 1997,
xviii + 220 pp.
ISBN 1-884630-01-4, paperback,
UK£17.00 / US$25.00 OUT OF STOCK
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The American missionary Henry Riggs wrote a vivid account of the Armenian Genocide in Kharpert (Harpoot). Completed in 1918, Rev. Riggs's memoir, Days of Tragedy in Armenia: Personal Experiences in Harpoot, 1915-1917, has now been published by the Gomidas Institute.

Days of Tragedy in Armenia is probably the most detailed local history of the Armenian Genocide written in the English language," said the historian Ara Sarafian, who wrote the introduction to the volume. Rev. Riggs's narrative is the first in the Gomidas Institute's Armenian Genocide Documentation Series, of which Sarafian is general editor.

"This is the story of an engaged observer," Sarafian added. "Rev. Riggs was born in the Ottoman Empire. He spoke Turkish, Armenian, and English. His narrative is based on his personal observations and his conversations with Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkish friends and neighbors, Ottoman officials, other Americans, and foreign nationals. It really is an amazing account."

Rev. Riggs prepared the manuscript in 1918 and it was submitted to a U.S. government commission investigating various aspects of the First World War, including the destruction of Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire. It has never before been published as a book.

A State of War

Rev. Riggs's story begins with the Ottoman Empire's preparations for entering World War I. According to Riggs, the Ottoman government was hardly ready to fight a war in 1914, at least in the Harpoot region.

The Ottoman army confiscated some of the buildings of Euphrates College, the American missionary compound in Harpoot, to house conscripts. The army also took over the Annie Tracy Riggs hospital to care for wounded soldiers. Thus, Riggs had a close-up view of army life in Harpoot and its surroundings.

Through sad and sometimes amusing vignettes, Riggs shows that the army was simply unable to process the enlistment of thousands of Ottoman subjects who heeded the general call to arms. Nor was the army able to adequately feed the soldiers, meet their other basic needs, and care for the wounded. Meanwhile, a language barrier existed between Turkish officers and Kurdish conscripts. Under these circumstances, draft-dodging, desertion, and various forms of corruption were pervasive.

Race Extermination

Rev. Riggs describes how ordinary Armenians were rounded up and destroyed by the Ottoman government after June 1915. Riggs observes that these killings were not expected and came as a surprise.

The first convoy of so-called deportees consisted of men. After the men were destroyed, women, children, and the elderly were gathered in convoys and marched out of the city. Riggs describes the systematic way in which individuals were sought out by gendarmes. He also describes the state of innumerable caravans of Armenian exiles from other regions that passed through Harpoot.

Riggs heard the firsthand reports of several reliable eyewitnesses who observed mass graves of Armenians outside Harpoot. These included the local American consul Leslie A. Davis and his colleague Dr. Henry Atkinson. He concluded that the abuses and murder of Armenians were too persistent to be dismissed as simple aberrations of a purportedly benign policy of population transfer.

Rev. Riggs's account is particularly valuable as a historical document because the author provides a great deal of detail and distinguishes what he personally saw, what he was told, and what he thought. Moreover, Riggs's account can be corroborated with several other contemporary sources from Harpoot.

Defiant Kurds

Rev. Riggs pays close attention to the Kurdish population of the Dersim region, adjacent to Harpoot. Noting that the relationship of Kurdish tribes in this region with the Ottoman government had long been tenuous, he reports that in the spring of 1916 a Kurdish uprising took place. After suppressing the rebellion, the government began an abortive effort to deport Kurds from the region.

Riggs credits the Dersim Kurds with saving tens of thousands of Armenians by providing them with safe passage to Russia. He writes:

"It was during this period that the hunted Armenians began to flee into the Dersim. To those who knew of the depredations of the Dersim Kurds in the massacres of 1895, this sounds like a strange situation, for then the Kurds were the persecutors of the Armenians. That was, however, as it were, strictly a matter of business, as the Kurds in 1895 were invited to come and plunder the Armenians, and the killing at that time was merely incidental to getting the loot, which forms so large a part of a well-regulated Kurd's income. In 1915, however, there was no loot to be had, for the government took care of that. And when it came to dealing with a defenseless Armenian fugitive, the instinct of the noble savage is to save rather than wantonly to destroy this neighbor against whom he has no grudge (p. 111)."

Clandestine Relief

Rev. Riggs and his fellow missionaries did what they could to help the Armenians during the various stages of the genocide. Riggs reports his meetings with the governor, the police chief, and other officials--including the visiting minister of war Enver Pasha, one of the masterminds of the Genocide.

He found the officials indifferent to his pleas. At best, they were willing to make promises they had no intention of keeping. Riggs discusses the various ways he worked around the official restrictions on helping Armenians.

He describes his own efforts to get messages to and from relatives and to transmit money on behalf of Armenians, contrary to the strict instructions of the governor.

After the bulk of the Armenians had been eliminated, Riggs was closely involved in helping the few destitute survivors. Much of the relief work took the form of helping people help themselves. The missionaries were involved in setting up bakeries, textile mills, and the like.

About the Author

Rev. Riggs was born in Sivas in 1875 to a family of missionaries stationed in the Ottoman Empire. He grew up in the area, traveling to the United States to attend Carleton College in Minnesota and Auburn Seminary. He was president of Euphrates College in Harpoot from 1903 to 1910. After a break, he resumed missionary work in Harpoot in 1912, where he stayed until 1917. He worked as a teacher and evangelist among Armenian refugees in Beirut from 1923 to 1940. Rev. Riggs died in Jerusalem in 1943.

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