By Robert Fisk
“………In just one corner of their former Turkish homeland, the Armenians clung on; in the province of Alexandretta and the now broken fortress of Musa Dagh, 20 kilometres west of Antioch, whose people had withstood the siege about which Werfel wrote his novel. Alexandretta fell under French colonial rule in the far north of Syria and so, in 1918, many thousands of Armenians returned to their gutted homes. But to understand this largely forgotten betrayal, the reader must travel to Aanjar, a small town of sorrow that blushes roses around its homes. From the roadside, smothering the front doors, all the way up Father Ashod Karakashian’s garden, there is a stream of pink and crimson to mock the suffering of the Armenians who built this town on the malarial marshes of eastern Lebanon in 1939. They are proud people, holders now of Lebanese passports, but holders too, of one of the darkest secrets of the Armenian past: for they were ‘cleansed’ from their homeland twice in a century, first in 1915, then in 1939. If they blame the Turks for both evictions, they blame the French as well. And Hitler. Mostly they blame the French.
Father Karakashian’s sister Viktoria was just ten in 1939, but she remembers her family’s second disaster, a miniature genocide compared to the one in 1915, but nonetheless terrible. ‘The French army escorted us all the way’, she said. ‘But we were dying. My brother Varoujan was only a year or two old, but I saw him die in my mother’s lap in the truck. Like many of us, he had malaria. The French didn’t seem to know what to do with us. They took us first for forty days to Abassid in Syria. Then they put us on ships for seven days. We landed at Tripoli (in northern Lebanon) and the French put us on a cattle train to Rayak. From Rayak, they brought us to Aanjar and here we remained.’
Like most of the Armenians of Aanjar, Father Karakashian and his sister were born in Musa Dagh, the Armenian fortress town which is now in south-eastern Turkey and which held out for forty days against overwhelming odds during the genocide. Rescued by French and British warships, the Armenians of Musa Dagh were cared for in Egypt, then sent back to their home town with the French army after the 1914-18 war. And there they lived, in part of the French mandate of Syria, until 1939, when the French government - in a desperate attempt to persuade Turkey to join the Allies against Hitler - ‘gave’ Musa Dagh and the large city of Alexandretta back to the Turks.
The Karakashian children were born after the 1915 Holocaust, but many of their neighbours have no parents or grandparents. Even when they arrived in Aanjar - which was then in the French mandate of ‘Greater Lebanon’ - they continued to suffer. ‘There were plagues of mosquitoes and this place was a wilderness,’ Father Karakashian says. ‘The French gave each man 25 Lebanese pounds to break the rocks and build homes for themselves. But many people caught malaria and died.’ In the first two years of their ordeal - in 1940, when most of Europe was at war - the Armenians of Aanjar lost a thousand men and women to malaria. Their crumbling gravestones still lie to the north of the town.
The walls of Saint Paul’s church in Aanjar are covered with photographs of the Armenian tragedy. One - taken in 1915 - shows the survivors of the Musa Dagh siege climbing desperately onto the deck of an Allied warship. Another shows French officers welcoming Armenian dignitaries back to Alexandretta, along with several men of the French army’s ‘Armenian Brigade’. In the 1930s, they built a memorial to the siege - it has since been destroyed by the Turks - and when they were forced to leave yet again before the Second World War, the Armenians took their dead, Serb-style, with them. The corpses of eighteen of the ‘martyrs’ of the 1915 battle - whose bodies had been left untouched by the Turks until the French came with the Armenians in 1918 - were stuffed on to trucks in 1939 together with the refugees, and brought to Aanjar along with the living. They rest now in a marble sarcophagus next to Saint Paul’s church. ‘In eternal memory,’ it says in Armenian on the marble.
But memory has been softened for the people of Aanjar. ‘In the first ten years after leaving Alexandretta, the people - there were six thousand deportees who came here - wanted to go back,’ Father Karakashian said. ‘Then after the Second World War, a lot of our people emigrated to South America. Now we don’t want to return. But I went back last year for a holiday. Yes, there is a tiny Armenian community left in our former bit of Turkey around Musa Dagh, thirty families, and they’ve just renovated the Armenian church. The Turks there are polite to us. I think they know what happened and they respect us because they know they are on our land.’
The shame of France’s surrender of the sanjak (provincial district) of Alexandretta - including Musa Dagh - is one of the largely untold stories of the Second World War. Fearing that Turkey would join the German Axis as it had in the 1914-18 war, France agreed to a referendum in Alexandretta so that the Armenian and Turkish inhabitants could choose their nationality. The Turks trucked tens of thousands of people into the sanjak for the referendum, and naturally the ‘people’ voted to be part of Turkey. ‘The French government made the decision to give the place to Turkey and of course the Armenians realized they couldn’t live there any more and requested from the French government that they be taken away and given new homes,’ the priest says. ‘They wanted to be rid of the Turks. So they left. The French made an agreement in their own interests. I blame the French.’ So the sanjak of Alexandretta became the Turkish province of Hatay, and the city of Alexandretta became Iskenderun. And the final irony was that Turkey did join the Allied side against Hitler - but only in the last days of the European conflict, when Hitler was about to commit suicide in his Berlin bunker and the Reich was in ashes. The sacrifice of Alexandretta was for nothing.
Nor have its ghosts departed. In 1998, the Turkish prime minister Mesut Yilmaz launched a warning against the Syrians who were assisting the communist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas operating across the border. He chose a ceremony to mark the French handover of Alexandretta to announce that ‘those who have their eyes fixed on Turkish territory are suffering from blindness - not even a square centimeter of this country will be taken from it.’ Yet Alexandretta had been Armenian. So much for the Treaty of Sevres. ………”
Source: "The Great War for Civilisation", Robert Fisk, 2005
Chapter 10: First Holocaust (pages 388/436)
Excerpt: Pages 409/412