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Memoirs of a Genocide Survivor

The following is a continuation in a series of student essays to be published by Hye Sharzhoom. If you have an essay about any aspect of Armenian life or culture that you would like to publish in Hye Sharzhoom, please contact Dr. Kaprielian in Social Science Room 216 or call her at 278-6493 or the Armenian Studies Program office at 278-2669.

By Chad Kirkorian Staff Writer

Last semester I interviewed Richard Ashton, an Armenian Geno cide survivor, for a term-paper on the Genocide. While interview ing Mr. Ashton I realized how much I have missed by not discussing the Genocide with other survivors, especially relatives, who lived through the horrific years of bloodshed. There are few survivors left, and I as a student of history believe that we should develop relationships with these survivors who can offer us more than any type of information we may find within a textbook. The following is an excerpt of my interview with Mr. Ashton:

In February of 1915, Jevdet Bey was appointed governor of Van, and demanded 4,000 Armenian men for military conscription. The Armenian community was determined not to provide Jevdet with a pretext for violence, and therefore offered 400 men along with a military exemption tax-payment. Jevdet determined the offer was unacceptable, and government terror began to break out in the countryside. Richard Ashton, a six-year old child during the Van resistance (1915), was living in the small seaport town of Avantz. In April, the majority of the Armenian male population of Avantz was murdered, and throughout the Van province 55,000 Armenians were put to death. Many Armenians in Van expected an attack from the Turks, therefore, a small resistance group took precautionary action fortifying the city prior to assault.

According to Ashton, “The Armenians had formed a defense perimeter around Van consisting of two to three foot high stones. The Armenians would lie down flat on the ground, and shoot at the edge of the stone, so they were only one-tenth of a target to the Turkish soldiers.” Since it was illegal by government decree for non-Moslems to possess arms, the Armenians of Van were outmatched by Turkish firepower. “The Armenian resistance of Van, recalls Ashton, consisted of 150 rifles and 300 pistols against ten to twelve thousand Turkish soldiers with 24 cannons. The Turks would blast our buildings, and we would patch one up and then the other. We were getting nowhere, so we tunneled under the Turkish barracks and dynamited them. It was all the Armenians could do.” Armenians resisted the initial Turkish assault and organized a makeshift system of government to run the city. They held out until the Russian army arrived and forced the Turks to retreat. Ashton acknowledges that, “When the Russian army arrived at Van the exuberance was beyond reason.” However, the Russian army was experiencing enormous bloodshed on the European front, and the Russian government decided to abandon its Turkish offensive in order to save materials and men. Ashton recalls the Russian commander’s explanation, “We have received orders from Moscow to return to mother Russia.. .and we suggest that you Armenians leave too, because any main buildings, food supplies, or equipment we cannot take, were going to burn.”

The threat of another Turkish attack, following the Russian withdrawal, forced many Armenians to leave the city of Van. The destination of these refugee  s was a relief camp near Erevan, which was organized by a relief organization. Although the main route to Erevan covered a distance of 163 miles, the road was subject to constant attack by Turks in search of Armenians, their property, and possessions. Therefore, the Armenians traveled west around Lake Van beyond the Caucasus Mountains and then turned back southeast through Tiflis before reaching Erevan.

According to Ashton, there was a scarcity of water along the 300 mile detour to Erevan. One day a woman approached him and his brother to use their tea kettle in order to fetch water from a nearby spring she had found. In desperate need of water, Ashton and his brother fell out of line and waited for the woman to return. Although the woman never reappeared, Ashton admits, “She saved our life. The next noon we came upon a scene where the Turks had attacked about seventy people, who had their throats cut and their heads bashed from the butt of a gun. They had been the people we fell out of line from.”

There were 30,000 Armenians situated in the refugee camp, which was located three miles from Etchmiadzin. However, an outbreak of cholera caused up to 300 deaths a day. Ashton’s words tell of this tragedy: “They brought in the sick, and if they were going to die they would leave the stretchers outside and take into the barracks only those who could recover… for a while they buried them individually then they opened up a pit and threw in 200 to 300 bodies and covered it up.” Ashton witnessed five of his family members succumb to disease in a total of eight days in these horrendous conditions. Aside from disease, the impoverished living conditions within the camp left many Armenians in despair. A wagon would come by once a day and ladle out soup to only those individuals who possessed their own plate or pan. Refugees lined up in makeshift dwellings. Ashton and his brother left the camp and walked to Baku in an attempt to survive.

Ashton finally found a better life when his eldest brother, who had been shipped to the United States in order to evade the Turkish draft, went back to Erevan in search of his family. In 1916, Ashton’s eldest brother proceeded to the refugee camp, and received word that two young boys had traveled to Baku a few days earlier. Eventually, Ashton was reunited with his brother and taken back to the United States. Richard Ashton now resides in Fresno and has worked hard in order to create a prosperous life for himself in America.