Mkrtich Ulikyan with the members of a tribe, whose chief he helped with some painkillers.

By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — In the distant 1980s, during one of the faculty English lessons at school, classmate Azatuhi Ulikyan showed us a family photo. “This is my grandfather in Sudan,” she said.

In the middle of the black-and-white photo was a man surrounded by half-naked women and men. What a surprise! So the grandfather of one of our schoolgirls in this gray Soviet school lived in distant and exotic Africa and was photographed with the people of one of the local tribes, whose women were half-naked! That photo left a strong impression on me. A few years later, based on that, I drew a small painting. And many years later, studying the history of African-Armenian communities, I remembered that photo and decided to follow in the footsteps of Sudanese-Armenian Ulikyan.

I found Azatuhi Ulikyan, now the holder of a doctorate, and an associate professor at the Control Systems Chair of the National Polytechnic University of Armenia and Educational Engineer at the Armenian National Engineering laboratories. She introduced me to her uncle, Andranik Ulikyan, who was born in Sudan. The latter gladly agreed to tell the extremely remarkable story of his family, which I present below.

African Deportation

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Mkrtich Ulikyan (in English he transcribed his name as Magarditsh Ouliguian), was born in 1904 in Constantinople, to Toros and Hnazand Ulikyan. He had two brothers, Garbis and Takvor, and a sister, Madeleine. During the Armenian Genocide, the father took the children to an American orphanage in Constantinople, made them cross over the fence and left, hoping that the children would be safe. Afterwards Toros Ulikyan left for Egypt. In 1920, 16-year-old Mkrtich and his brother Takvor left their younger brother and sister at the orphanage and moved to Egypt to join their father.

From a young age, Mkrtich had a great love for cars, and he became a car mechanic in Egypt. Learning that in neighboring Sudan there was a great demand for car specialists, Mkrtich collected a little money and went alone to the Sudanese city of El-Obeid, knowing no one there. In this city, he met a local man who told him that a wealthy Armenian lived in El-Obeid, by the name of Sarkis agha. The man took Mkrtich to show Sarkis’ two-story house. One day Mkrtich went and knocked on the door of the house, asking the Sudanese servant to tell the landlord that a compatriot wanted to talk to him for five minutes. The servant soon told Mkrtich that the landlord was inviting him inside. He waited for 10 minutes, was served cold lemonade, until a large man with a mustache, wearing a house robe, came down the stairs.

Sarkis agha was very happy to meet the young compatriot, looked carefully into Mkrtich’s eyes and immediately understood his soul. “How can I be useful, son?” Sarkis agha asked. Mkrtich said that he wanted to start a truck business, but did not have enough money to buy a car. Five minutes later, Sarkis agha handed Mkrtich the funds he needed. The young man waited for him to receive a receipt. “My son,” said Sarkis agha, “I know why you are not leaving. If I had not been an honest man, I would not have given you money. Go and buy what you want with this money, enjoy it, when you do not need that money, then you will repay your debt.”

Thus, thanks to the support of the Armenian compatriot, Mkrtich Ulikyan’s business started. One truck became two, three and then four and in the depths of Africa, Mkrtich ran his own business, transporting people and cargo from one Sudanese settlement to another.

Soon, fortune smiled on him in his personal life too. In El Obeid, he met a businessman named Kyriako Hermes, whose wife was an Armenian woman named Aghavni. Some time later, Aghavni’s sister’s daughter, Azatuhi Matosyan, came to see her aunt from Khartoum. Azatuhi was born in Ankara to a large Armenian family. His father, Minas, was a soldier in national hero General Andranik’s army; then his family was deported and settled in Khartoum, where Minas had several shops. Kyriako Hermes introduced Mkrtich to Azatuhi and the two hit it off. Mkrtich’s parents came from Egypt, and the young couple got married.

Their first son, Andranik and other three were born in Sudan, while two more were destined to be born in the Soviet Union. Mkrtich gave Armenian names to all the children, except for daughter Madeleine, whom he named in memory of his prematurely deceased sister in Constantinople. The Ulikyans were deeply religious people who raised their children with a Christian upbringing. Mkrtich Ulikyan subscribed to Cairo’s Arev (Sun) daily newspaper. There were no Armenian school in El-Obeid, and the father ordered to speak only Armenian.

Mkrtich registered a cargo office with four trucks belonging to him all over Sudan, which provided him with a stable income. He recognized all of Sudan and its peoples, the Arabs, the Ethiopians, the Copts, and the local tribes. He once transported a local clergyman with his 40 wives in the back of a truck. Once, while passing through a remote village, the truck was surrounded by the members of a local tribe. Mkrtich was told that their leader was ill and was threatened not to be released until he and his team helped the patient. Fortunately, Mkrtich had a painkiller to alleviate the condition of the sick chief. The incident is reminiscent of the photo mentioned at the beginning of this article, where Mkrtich Ulikyan is standing in front of a sick tribal leader, surrounded by half-naked residents of the village. It was a special honor bestowed on Mkrtich because, according to the laws of that tribe, no one had the right to be at the head of the tribal leader.

In their free time, Sudanese Armenians spent time together, often with 25-30 people, embarking on an outing, during which Mkrtich put out a barrel of beer for them. He always had two guns in his car, and one gun in his pocket to protect himself from the dangers on the roads.

There were few Armenians in Sudan, about 800 people, and their number has decreased year by year. Most of them left for Egypt.

The Homeland Is Calling

After World War II, when the repatriation of Diaspora Armenians to Soviet Armenia began, Mkrtich Ulikyan also decided to join the caravans.

Receiving the privilege of joining the caravan of repatriates from Egypt, Ulikyan sold his house, left the four trucks and the prosperous life to their Sudanese servants, and left for Egypt with his family. In order to take him to Armenia, he bought four new Ford trucks and placed boxes of different goods in each of them: food, clothes, soap and car spare parts. In Alexandria, these cars were delivered to the port to load the ship. Three other Sudanese-Armenian families, the Nalchajyans, the Fabrikatorians and the Semerjyans, were also there in their cars. In Cairo, Mkrtich met a well-known Arab businessman who, knowing about his intention to move to Soviet Union, advised him not to go to a poor country that had just emerged from the war. He offered Mkrtich to return to Sudan and promised to hand over a more extensive cargo business, sharing the profits with him. Mkrtich also met with his French, Belgian and Danish friends, who offered him to move to Europe together and work together, but Ulikyan was not to be swayed.

Those who want to immigrate because of the quarantine announced in Egypt were not allowed to leave the country. The Ulikyans were forced to stay in Cairo for a year with the others, where Andranik’s son attended the kindergarten of the local Kalousdian School.

The day of departure arrived. The repatriates boarded the Soviet ship, which had been confiscated during the war from Germany and renamed “Pobeda” (Victory). By the way, the future famous singer Gohar Gasparyan was traveling in the same boat. The owners of the cars were informed that due to the lack of space on the ship, their cars would come with the next Romanian ship “Transylvania.” Those cars never arrived.

The Collapse of Dreams

One kilometer from the port of Batumi, “Pobeda” stopped, and the passengers were ordered to dump the food they had at sea, reasoning that there is everything in the Soviet Union and that is forbidden to enter the port with the food. People started throwing their food into the water and a few minutes later they were surprised to see that many people were swimming from the shore and taking everything that had not been sunk. Seeing this, Mkrtich’s brother-in-law hid four pieces of basturma in their woolen blankets. People started looking at the port of Batumi through binoculars and saw with horror that a woman was holding a carbine in her hand near the checkpoint, and another was carrying charcoal in a wheelchair. The Egyptian-Armenians, who were mostly wealthy, realized that they had fallen into the trap.

At the port, the people filled the barracks, and were offered sour borscht, which the Egyptian-Armenians had never tasted before. Seeing the low-quality black bread, they mistook it for chocolate cake, until they bit into it and saw it ooze salt water when squeezed.

Arriving in Yerevan, the Ulikyans were housed in a three-story building, which had just been built by German prisoners of war. Mkrtich started working at the truck repair point. Initially, he went to work in his English suit and tie, until he was told that it was not appropriate attire for a Soviet worker: the boss told him: “Take that rope off your neck!”

After the war, wishing to restore the loss of human resources, the Soviet government organized a campaign to return to the historical homeland representatives of the immigrated peoples of the USSR. The Soviet state, at the cost of bringing hundreds of thousands of repatriates to its country, wished to strengthen its image of a powerful state that had won the war, then set about freeing itself from Armenian repatriates by exiling many of them to Siberia and the Altai.

On June 12, 1949, at 2 p.m. someone knocked the door of the Ulikyans’ apartment. An Armenian captain, with two Russian soldiers, entered and ordered to collect the items immediately and leave the house. Seeing four small children and one in a diaper, the captain was filled with pity. “I am commanded to take you,” he said. “Don’t curse me, big brother, if I don’t take you, they will take me with you. I can only do you a favor now. I am given ten minutes to collect your property, but I give you half an hour. Take what is valuable with you, especially warm clothes.” Mkrtich took his wife’s jewelry, which would later come to the aid in their troubled days, so he remembered that captain with gratitude for the rest of his life. In the commotion, they forgot the baby in a diaper at home and had to return after him. In the village of Ulukhanlu (now – Masis), the Ulikyans, along with thousands of other repatriates, filled the wagons of a freight train. And after a cruel journey of eighteen days, the repatriates who obeyed the call of the homeland, as a result of a cruel game of fate, found themselves in wild and wretched Siberia, in Stalin’s exiles. Their only fault was the desire to live in the homeland and serve it, for which they left their quiet life and became the victims of the insidious game of Soviet propaganda.

Mkrtich Ulikyan and some of his staff in Sudan

Life in the Taiga

Thus, for the Ulikians, who had not yet recognized Armenia properly, Sudan was replaced by the Zalesovsky district of Altai krai for six years. There were 45 exiled Armenian families in that district, 25 of whom were repatriates. Mkrtich’s family was taken 32 kilometers from Zalesovo, deep in the taiga, where there were only three hunting lodges and a small kiosk. They gave him a tent and ordered him to cut down the trees and build a house. Mkrtich built a wooden cabin with the other exiles. The woolen blankets brought from Africa allowed the family to withstand the 35-40 degree frost. But even in Siberian conditions, the Ulikyans were able to maintain their Christian identity, they taught their children to cross themselves before meals, which was rare for the Soviet reality.

Mkrtich Ulikyan learned about the accusation of his being exiled, a year later. One night in 1950, at 2 a.m., there was a knock on the door of his Siberian cabin, and Mkrtich was taken away. Two hours later, he was brought home beaten and bloody. In order to have grounds for exile, Mkrtich was forced to sign that he was a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, but he refused to sign it. The same story was repeated in 1951. He was beaten again and refused to sign it again. Moreover, it happened according to an order received from Armenia.

Mkrtich went to work at a local power plant, while his wife, Azatuhi, that educated, mollycoddled aristocratic lady, and her 8-year-old son Andranik tore off the stumps near the cabin to sow potatoes. It was very difficult to get food. Mkrtich soon learned that residents of the nearby Obukhovo village were selling rabbit meat. Together with his eldest son, he reached the village in the woods, ignoring the cold and the fear of wild animals, and gave his wife’s golden bracelets and bought frozen rabbits. Thus, in the harsh conditions of Siberia, potatoes and rabbit meat were a salvation for the Ulikyans. And the large family was made whole with another daughter who was named after Mkrtich’s mother, Hnazand.

Surprise Meeting in Barnaul

Two years after Stalin’s death, in 1955, Mkrtich wrote a letter to Kliment Voroshilov, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, stating that they, being from Africa, were not accustomed to the cold climate and asked for permission to return to Armenia. The answer was not long in coming; a letter signed by Voroshilov himself came in 10 days, but it was written that they could move to any republic of Central Asia, but not to the Caucasus. Mkrtich soon received an official permission to leave Siberia. The Ulikyans traveled by train to the main city of Altai krai, Barnaul, from where they were to travel by train to Central Asia. However, as the number of people wishing to leave was high, they could not validate their tickets for three days. At the train station Mkrtich by accident saw an Armenian repatriate, Mardo Pokrachian, who was a boxing champion in Middle East. Mkrtich did not know him personally, so, wanting to attract his attention, he told his son loudly in Western Armenian: “Son, run and get some boiled water!” Hearing this, Mardo approached Mkrtich and said: “Brother, you are an Armenian. You are one of those who came from there, right?” “Yes, I am from Egypt.” “What’s your name?” “Ulikian.” “Are you Ulik’s brother?” Mardo said, hugging Mkrtich. It turned out that he recognized one of Mkrtich’s brothers, whom he affectionately called Ulik.

Knowing the plight of the Mkrtich family, Mardo, a tall, very hairy man who had spent four years in prison for beating five Russians mocking his hairiness, all of whom were frightened, took the train tickets. Opening the door with a kick, he entered the station chief’s room and, in his broken Russian, demanded a written permission to validate the Ulikyans’ tickets. Then he approached the cash register and forced them to validate the tickets, telling the protesting crowd that he was doing it for a family with six children.

The next train arrived only the next day. Mardo came back to the station with his friend, also an exiled repatriate Kevork, who, as it turned out, was also known by Mkrtich. Mardo approached the train door and shouted at the crowd again in his baked Russian that the first to enter the train was the family with six children. A man with a briefcase and hat approached and yelled on Mardo. The former athlete slapped the man who fell on his back. Only then was the crowd silenced. Kevork was the first to enter the train and take a seat for the Ulikyans. Before leaving, Mkrtich asked Mardo if he was going to return to Armenia. “I have found my life by terrorizing the Russians here, should I go there and be arrested again? No, I will not go,” Mardo said. He later visited Armenia, but lived most of his life in Barnaul and died there.

Mkrtich Ulikyan and his family

And now – Uzbekistan

The Ulikyans reached Uzbekistan and settled in Fergana. As a driver, Mkrtich went to work in a car park in the Toshlok region, 48 kilometers from the city. When he first went there, his son Andranik joined his father to translate the conversation into Russian. Mkrtich, who was fluent in six languages, did not want to learn good Russian, and Andranik, who went to school in Siberia, did not learn to read and write in Armenian and always surprised those around him with his impeccable Russian accent. Therefore, we can imagine the extreme astonishment of the Russian officer during his military service, when after praising Andranik Ulikyan’s perfect Russian, he saw the note “Sudan, Africa” in his passport as his birthplace.

The Ulikyans lived in Uzbekistan for a year. During this time, Mkrtich supplied cotton raw materials and seeds to the processing factories in the Toshlok region. He especially remembered the funny incident that happened in Uzbekistan during the years he lived there. Mkrtich reproduced his photo with the Africans and kept a copy in his wallet, realizing that it could be useful when he met traffic inspectors. And once his car was stopped by the senior traffic inspector captain and instead of the driver’s license, he started to study the African’s photo and asked about it, especially about naked women. In the end, he refused to return the photo, and instead he did not bother Mkrtich again.

In 1956, the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, publicly condemned Stalin’s cult of personality. The Ulikyans finally received the official certificate of the authorities, according to which they were considered unjustified repressed and received the right to return to Armenia.

“Like Everyone Else, So We Do”

Overcoming new kinds of difficulties, Mkrtich’s children became owners of jobs and families in Armenia. Mkrtich himself continued to work as a driver. He never regretted repatriation, did not try to leave the Soviet Union, did not complain about the trials that came to his life, and when his son, Andranik, sometimes complained about the difficulties of Soviet life, he always said: “Never mind, son, like everyone else, so we do.” Only two days before his death, Mkrtich, re-evaluating his past life, considered it necessary to apologize to his son for bringing them to the Soviet Union. “Never mind, dad, like everyone else, so we do,” Andranik replied to his father.

Mkrtich Ulikyan lived for 93 years, dying in 1997, and his wife, Azatuhi, passed away three years later, at the age of 82.

While still living in the depths of Africa, Mkrtich Ulikyan expressed concern about the future of his children growing up in unfavorable conditions for Armenians. Today, his descendants continue to live mostly in Armenia, each contributing to his chosen field. Thus, at least at the cost of certain trials, the efforts of Mkrtich Ulikyan to preserve the Armenian identity, as we see, have not been in vain.


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