During the endless Turkish arguments and Armenian/international counter arguments about the number of massacred Armenians in 1915, Hrant Dink would repeatedly remind both sides about a more critical topic: “We keep talking about the gone dead, let’s start talking about the remaining living…” The remaining living meant the unknown number of Armenians remaining in Anatolia, remaining not as Armenians, but as Turks, Kurds, Alewis, Moslems and other identities. Ninety eight years after the attempted destruction of a nation, it is time to talk more about the hidden Armenians, mostly orphans of 1915 assimilated into identities other than their own Armenianness.
Hrant had the courage to reveal the real identity of one of the best-known Turkish heroes as an Armenian orphan. Sabiha Gokçen, the first female military pilot and Ataturk’s adopted daughter, was in reality Hatun Sebilciyan, an Armenian girl orphaned in Bursa in 1915. This revelation was the beginning of the end for Hrant, triggering a massive hate and threat campaign against him by the government, the military and the media, resulting in his assassination three years later. But Sebilciyan/Gokçen was only one of tens of thousands of Armenian girls and boys torn away from their parents during the 1915 events. What happened to these orphans? How many were there? This article will cite some examples from different parts of Anatolia.
It is a well-documented fact that during the deportation of the Armenian population from all corners of Anatolia to the Syrian desert, as the convoys approached their towns or villages, local Turks and Kurds snatched Armenian children from their parents to take them home as servants or wives. Many children were sold as slaves by them or the gendarmes escorting the convoys. There were also a few children entrusted by their parents to Kurdish and Turkish neighbors before starting on the deportation route. There were some children initially rescued by European/American missionaries or Pontian Greek religious leaders, but inevitably they were also later seized and sent away or murdered. We can cite one of many documented tragic incidents in Trabzon, where 600 Armenian orphan children were taken to the Greek monastery with the government’s permission after their parents were massacred by drowning in the Black Sea. But after three months, by the order of the Trabzon governor Djemal Azmi, the police forcefully removed the orphans from the monastery and handed them over to a Turkish boat captain, Rahman Bayraktaroglu, who placed each child in a flour sack, securely tied the top and dropped each into the Black Sea. It is documented that Governor Jemal later joked, “The harvest of smelt (hamsi) will be plentiful this season with all the drowned as fish feed.”
Trabzon Governor Djemal Azmi selected about 450 of the best-looking girls from the Armenian community of Trabzon and converted the local Red Crescent Hospital to a whorehouse for the Turkish elite and visiting dignitaries, even sending some of the girls as treats to his superiors in Istanbul. The supply of the orphans got replenished as needed. He kept a supply of 15 Armenian girls for himself but also gave one to his 14-year-old son, Ekmel, as a present. Most of the girls were forcefully Islamicized; a few eventually escaped or committed suicide. These experiences came to light from witnesses during the trials of the Ittihat ve Terakki leaders after the war, but also were told in 1921 by Djemal Azmi’s son himself to his close friend, known to him as Mehmet Ali. The friend, however, happened to be an Armenian named Hratch Papazian, disguised and even circumcised as a Moslem, who had succeeded infiltrating the Ittihad ve Terakki circles hiding in Berlin, in preparation for assassinating the Turkish leaders as part of Operation Nemesis (Djemal Azmi and Bahattin Shakir, head of the Special Organization [Teskilat-i Mahsusa] who was the chief organizer of the deportation massacres, were both assassinated in Berlin on April 17, 1922, right in front of the bewildered widow of Talat Pasha, a year after Talat himself was brought to justice).
The Ittihat ve Terakki government had special plans for the surviving orphans. In an organized operation, while there was a world war going on, most of the surviving orphans were rounded up and sent to orphanages set up in multiple locations, with the objective of converting them to Islam and to be assimilated as Turks. One of these special Turkification orphanages was in Ayn Tura, near Zouk, an hour’s drive from Beirut, where 1,000 Armenian orphans were kept, between the ages of 3 to 15. By the orders of Djemal Pasha, governor of Syria and Lebanon, and under the supervision of Turkish intellectuals and teachers, including the newly-appointed principal, Turkish novelist Halide Edip Adivar, these orphans were converted to Islam and Turkified. The boys were circumcised, and were given Turkish names, but preserving the initials of their Armenian names and surnames, so that Haroutiun Najarian became Hamid Nazim, Boghos Merdanian became Bekim Muhammed, Sarkis Sarafian became Saffet Suleyman. The orphanage was converted from a Christian school after expelling the Lazarist Catholic priests. While famine prevailed everywhere in Lebanon and Syria during the war, abundant food was provided to the orphanage, with the objective of raising well-fed and healthy newly Turkified children. Based on the memoirs of one of the orphans, Harutiun Alboyajian, the children were expected to speak Turkish only; if the supervisors heard any Armenian spoken, the boys would be beaten severely. They were dressed as Turkish children and were taught Islam. It was Djemal Pasha’s firm belief that the Armenians had superior intellect and capabilities, which would help the Turkish nation immensely. Despite efforts to keep the orphanage sanitary, about 300 Armenian orphans died from leprosy and other diseases until 1918. Some of the orphans were placed with families in towns where there were no Armenians left, and some were distributed to other orphanages. At the end of the war, when Near East Relief took over the orphanage, there were 670 orphans, 470 boys and 200 girls, who still remembered their Armenian names.