By Hagop Vartivarian
Arapgir, 1881 – Van, January 23, 1908
“He lived for two years secretly in Van. He impelled forward the idea and work of national self-defense, strengthened the Armenagan organization and fell victim to a terrible betrayal.”
Sebuh, known initially by the baptismal name of Yervant Keoseyan, was born in Arapgir in 1881. His older brother was a teacher who was sympathetic to the Hnchagian political party. As an adolescent, he heard many moving stories about the mysterious and secret activities of the Hnchagians. During the 1895 Armenian massacres, Sebuh’s father was killed by Kurds and his paternal house was plundered. This caused the family to move to Kharpert. As Sebuh also was struck by the plundering Kurd, this woe remained affixed in his memory for many years. In 1896, when he was but 15 years old, at his own request he was sent to Echmiadzin by his older brother the teacher to the Kevorkian Seminary as a student. The catholicos at the time was Mgrdich I of Van.
A Student in Echmiadzin
During this period of time Eastern Armenia was feeling the oppression of the Armenophobe policies of Viceroy of the Caucasus Prince Grigorii Golitsyn. Yervant as a pupil was always busy reading at the Seminary, and after some time joined a literary club composed of Turkish-Armenian and Russian-Armenian students.
Until then, his relations were not that friendly with his fellow students. He often liked to find a remote corner of the gardens of the seminary and alone, surrender to his thoughts. He did become friends with Ardag Tarpinian, who was in a class one year ahead of him.
While he was in sixth grade, there was dissatisfaction among the students concerning one of their teachers. One day it was unanimously decided that the next morning, when that teacher would enter the classroom, the students would declare that they no longer wanted to have him teach them. The next day, when the teacher entered, no one dared to “bell the cat,” but out of respect for their decision, Sebuh did it anyway. At the end of the academic year he received a notice from the seminary’s administration that he would not be allowed to attend lectures, as he was “unreliable.” However, Sebuh had already made his plans prior to this communication.
It must be noted that 10 youth from Vasburagan who had studied at Echmiadzin’s seminary in this period returned to Van in order to pursue vital educational and revolutionary work. The seminary was as much an ideological smithy as an intellectual furnace. This group included Ardag Tarpinian, Hamazasb Pagheshtsian, Ghevont Meloyan, Hayrabed Banirian, the Tovmazian brothers, Hampartzum Hatsakordzian, Mihran Terlemezian and Armenag Maksabedian. All of them were inspired, enthusiastic and promising youth, imbued with the desire to serve the homeland. The majority were members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF).
In those days, the influence of the ARF had begun to penetrate the ramparts of the seminary. The seminarians from Van had come to know the members of the Vagharshabad ARF Committee. The latter proposed to Yervant that he join the party, go to Van as a political party activist and “adopt the Armenagans’ tactics.” Sebuh rejected this “dark and murky” proposal. Meanwhile, the sympathies he nourished as an adolescent toward the Hnchagians had diminished thanks to their forcing the sign of “Social Democrat” on the Turkish Armenians.
For Sebuh, the cause of the Turkish Armenian people was the cause of the weak. It even would be necessary to sacrifice lives in its defense. Therefore it was necessary to enter into the ranks of the political party which was considered the weaker one, but which had been born in the heart of the country and which was guided by knowledge of its true conditions with heavenly messages.
He found it suitable to remain distant for a while from political party circles, and seriously study the situation of the Turkish-Armenians in particular and the Armenian people in general. He preferred to choose as the center of his activity the Armenian center of Van.
Sebuh in Van and Iranian Azerbaijan
Indeed, in the summer of 1901 Sebuh succeeded in entering Van, but was unable to obtain permission to teach in various districts. In a period of time that approached a year, he lived in the districts of Mogs, Kavash and Arjesh in Van, and then crossed over to Iranian Azerbaijan, which in those days was a revolutionary center distant from Tsarist and Ottoman persecution.
He remained there three years, thoroughly studying the Armenagan, Hnchagian and ARF parties, including their purposes, activities, and military and intellectual activists. After this he chose the Armenagans, despite the conveniences promised him by the ARF. During part of this time, he worked as a teacher in Urmia (Iran).
After consulting with the well-known Armenagan leader Nerses (Krikor Beozigian) in Tabriz, on January 9, 1906 he left for Van disguised as a deaf and mute man, with a Kurd as his guide. His host in Van was known as Farhad. This was Krikor Ararktsian, an important activist from the Armenagan organization in Van, who preserved constant ties between Van and Salmas. In the summer of 1897, Farhad returned to Van with Armenag Yegarian’s group. After remaining as a fugitive for a period of time, he received a pardon from the government. With the exodus of the summer of 1915 from Van, he arrived in Yerevan, where he died, 60 years old, in 1925.
During this period, the remaining Armenagan leaders in Van expended a good portion of their energies in efforts to neutralize or soften the disastrous results of the imprudent acts of the ARF. The Armenagans also continued to reorganize the self-defense of Vasburagan, and in particular focused their labors on movements dedicated to education and the cultural advancement of the people.
The reorganization and revitalization of the Armenagans in Van increased in 1906 when Sebuh came from Salmas to definitively resettle there and devote himself to the restoration of the party. Through his modest, serious, courageous and farsighted behavior he turned into the worthy successor of the martyred Mgrdich Avedisian, and earned the sympathy and trust of all the Armenians of Van. Sebuh reorganized the Armenagan Party and through his prudent tactics on numerous occasions prevented bloody clashes that were about to arise from Armenagan-ARF conflicts.
Sebuh was not satisfied with simply acting as Armenagan leader in Vasburagan. He also maintained ties with Armenagans remaining abroad, and as a result of discussions with them, a movement of fusion arose between political factions believing in the same programs, goals and methods of action. The first organization that emerged from this was in Bulgaria, and was called the Armenian Revolutionary Union.
The Conflict between the Armenagan Party and ARF
Conflict between the ARF and the Armenagan Party gained new momentum, especially concerning the proper manner of action for political parties pursuing the Armenian cause.
First it should be noted that the Hnchagians had adopted the general uprising as their tactic, but this remained something unrealized, not going further than the imagination of the Caucasian Armenian founders of this party. The ARF preferred partial uprisings instead. An Aram Manugian, a Vahan Papazian, or a Nikol, who did not even know anything about his native city or village, would be sent by the ARF “Eastern Bureau” located in Tiflis to excite an uprising with the hope that the European states would then satisfy Armenian demands.
The Armenagans advised adopting prudent and restrained behavior, warning against easy demonstrations and disastrous bravado, but despite Sebuh’s broadminded approach, bloody killings began to take place between the two parties. The Armenagans fought against this foolishness of the ARF. It was first necessary to educate and arm the populace, and only then under favorable circumstances act.
This was the true source of the conflict. This point of view had its countervailing effect on the manner of action of the ARF members. It was under such circumstances that the revolutionized villagers applied to the Armenagans. The intervention of the latter could have led to a long war between the two political parties. In those days, for the ARF, “it was more important to maintain their prestige at a high level” than to extend the hand of cooperation. It was the Armenagans who would act with circumspection. Often they avoided direct intervention, and attempted to speak with leading ARF figures, but in vain. Sometimes when ARF members would learn that a certain villager had applied to the Armenagans in protest of an ARF group leader’s capricious decision or order, they would even subject the protestor to beating, imprisonment and fines. Thus, villagers would be forced to submit to these ARF oppressions with loathing.
After Sebuh entered Van, the ARF Regional Committee of Vasburagan, or, it would be more proper to say, Aram, Papazian and Ishkhan, who had come from the Caucasus, made their battle against the Armenagans more intense. Sebuh was barely able to have one or two meetings with the ARF chiefs in the hopes of creating a basis for cooperation, but this was in vain. Sebuh remained cautious and liberal in his dealings with the ARF leaders but this had the effect of encouraging the latter and their followers to continue further on the path they had adopted.
Although the matter of Tavo’s treason is an incident internal to the ARF, its reverberations led the Armenians of Van in general, and the Armenagans in particular, to feel great sorrow. This was in 1908. Led by the traitor, the Ottoman military authorities had gained control of the hiding places of arms in the city. Dhetsi Tavo had gained the confidence of the ARF Central Committee of Van due to his brave and selfless services. The guarding of the party’s hidden weapon stores was entrusted to him.
The police, led by commander-in-chief Mahmud Pasha and Jemal Pasha, after ascertaining that the revelations of the traitor corresponded with reality, began the work that they could have only dreamed about before. The goal of their searches was to collect all the weapons the Armenians possessed, as well as to arrest the revolutionary leaders pointed out by Tavo. Hundreds of suspect residences were examined.
The traitor had taken this insane step because of a love quarrel involving Aram Manugian. Aram had relations with the wife of Tavo during the latter’s absence, and this news reached Tavo. The affair was investigated by the ARF Central Committee … which condemned Tavo and decided to remove him from Van. When Tavo heard of this decision, he sought his revenge through this terrible betrayal.
After the government gained possession of the ARF’s weapons, party leaders Aram and Sarkis and some 20 others took refuge in a well prepared specifically for such an occasion, but were betrayed and captured. The populace was in a panic, though no general massacre took place.
Instead, the Armenians were in great mourning.
Sebuh Falls Victim to Betrayal
It was January 23, toward evening, when the news of his death spread throughout Van city. He had been killed.
The police soldiers or gendarmes searching the homes of the populace that day had entered the street where Sebuh was found, and surrounded several homes. The news reached Sebuh. It was necessary to leave the home of his host, the Armenagan Dzerun Bezazian. The host family tried to persuade him to stay, but he replied, “If I stay, you will be sacrificed because of me, whereas if I leave, only I will be killed and perhaps I too can escape.”
With revolver in hand, he went out to the vineyards in the hopes of disappearing. However, under the rain of bullets from soldiers who were standing guard behind walls, Sebuh barely managed to shoot three times before falling down senseless.
His tragic death caused great grief for the entire Armenian people, as he had turned into the most popular figure in Van after settling there. He was worshipped in Armenagan circles, respected by ARF members, and loved by all strata of the population.
Sebuh’s character, his humble way of life, his always frank speech and the ideas he expressed left a profound impression not only on fellow party members but on any interlocutor.
(Translated from the Armenian)