By Ludér Tavit Sahagian
WATERTOWN (Tab) — The year is 1915. The world is engulfed in warfare. In the cradle of civilization, an unprecedented genocide against the first Christian nation is festering. And Arusyak Hajinian, my maternal great-grandmother, is caught in the middle of it:
They smash open the house door and take her husband to purportedly serve in the army. Amid the pandemonium, she runs and hides a small portion of the family’s gold in the wall of the garden’s chicken coop. Arusyak (though pregnant), her young child, and other inhabitants of this small Western Armenian town, lying inside Ottoman Turkey, are seized and sent marching south towards the scorching heat of the Syrian desert. With little food and water, she can no longer breastfeed her child. He dies in her arms, and she has the heartbreaking task of burying him.
During the death march through treacherous terrain, a sadistic Turkish military officer bayonets her abdomen, killing her unborn child. She loses consciousness. When she finally awakens, she finds herself in his home, stitched up and recuperating. He then chains her in his basement when she refuses to be his latest wife. Weeks later, with the chains improperly placed, she breaks free, escaping through a small window secured with metal wire.
Arusyak makes her way back to her original village on foot, but nevertheless ends up in abject poverty, working, as she later puts it, as “a slave for Turks on my own land.” Her husband never returns. Neither do her brothers-in-law and raped sister-in-law. With most of her family gone and a living sister having fled to Abkhazia to safety, she is introduced to another genocide survivor, Garabed Ayvazian, whom she soon marries and begins to build her family anew. Eventually she returns to her first home and recovers the gold she had hidden in the chicken coop years ago.
Arusyak becomes a devoted mother to her five children, by day faithfully tending the farms and fields of her home village. Though the oppressive Turkish Empire morphs into an equally oppressive republic (using essentially the identical crescent and star flag), she remains a tireless purveyor of goodwill to all ethnicities for the rest of her life, including, for example, the renowned blind Turkish minstrel and poet Asik Veysel. She perseveres to the age of 110, physically disabled the last 10 years due to multiple strokes, weeping beside her sole daughter each and every night in prayer for the unspeakable losses and horrors she and her nation had endured decades earlier. This remarkable woman, “Partridge” as she was fondly called, departs at last in peace.