BY MARY NAJARIAN
Author’s Note: About seven years ago, I became aware that my father, Haroutun Kevorkian had left behind a 250 page hand-written autobiography spanning the years 1903-1955. I have decided to tell my father’s story by translating it from Armenian into English. This task is much harder than simple translation. The stories are horrendous, painful, and heart wrenching. Every time I start translating, I end up in tears and remain sleepless all night. How did my 12-year-old father and the thousands of children like him endure, and survive? Here are a few pages from my father’s diary.
In 1912, my father Krikor Kevorkian killed a Turkish Genderme in self-defense. The village elders arranged that he leave Vasgerd, go to Marseille, France , and then to America for the safety of all. My brother Garabed was born four months after my dad had left. We were anxiously waiting for my father to settle and take us to America , but it never happened. Few days before the death march started, our Turk neighbor, Khadre Khanem told my mother: “When they make you leave your homes, and displace you, leave Haroot behind. I will take care of him. If you come back, he is yours, if you don’t come back, he is mine.”
The Good Bye
On the morning the march began, I was twelve years old. My mother took me to Khanem’s house. She was carrying a bag of food on her back and holding my three-year-old brother’s hand. She gave me my woolen yorghan (quilt) and embraced me. We hugged each other and would not let go. We were both crying. “Mayrig, don’t cry. I will be a Moslem, but when I grow up I will go to Adana, make enough money to join my father in America, and become Christian again.”
I kissed my mother for the last time. My three year old brother, not knowing what was happening, waved to me. “Goodbye Apar!” (brother) he said. This was the last time I ever saw my mother and brother.
Khanem was very nice to me and he treated me well. I helped around in the house doing chores like cleaning the floors, making coffee for guests, helping to make bread , and help her do the shopping. One day she asked me to run and buy some henna for her mother to color her hair. Khanem’s mother swore that henna helped cure her headaches. The two were getting ready to go to the hamam (public bath house) and she needed the henna immediately.
Instead of going by the regular path, I took a shortcut through the fields. Halfway to the store, I saw a half-naked, emaciated a tiny human form, like a skeleton covered with skin, leaning against a tree behind the bushes. I closed my eyes to avoid the sight. As I got closer I heard a soft voice. “Haroot, its me.” I stopped in my tracks, and then started walking slowly towards him. I did not recognize him. “I am Sako, your friend Hagop’s brother.”
I was shocked. Sako could not have been older than seven. I had so many questions. What happened to him? Why was he hiding in the fields? “Sit here and wait for me,” I told him. “I will be back for you as soon as I can.”
I bought the henna and ran back to Sako. He was still standing there, waiting for me.
“I will take you with me, Sako.” I helped him walk. The soles of his dirty feet were raw and bloody. He could hardly walk. He leaned on me and tried to walk, but I carried him most of the way. When we got to Khanem’s house, I told him to wait behind the barn in the bushes until Khanem and her mother leave for the hamam.
As soon as they left, I took Sako to the barn. My mother’s wool yorghan which I was hiding in the barn came in very handy. I took a bale of hay and placed the yorghan on top of it. I told Sako to sleep on half of the quilt and to use the other half to cover himself. I went inside and brought a cup of milk and some bread. Still standing, he gulped down the milk and put a chunk of bread in his mouth. He had hardly swallowed it when he threw everything up. “I will clean it,” he offered, embarrassed. “Don’t worry,” I said. Sako had not had anything to eat for days. I was sure his stomach had stuck together.
“Why are you still standing, Sako? Sit on the bed and rest. I will bring you some warm milk, maybe that will be good for you.”
“I can’t sit nor I can lie down. My rear end is sore and painful,” he said. I lifted the rags that partially covered his waist down, and was shocked by what I saw. His anus was torn apart. The flesh was hanging loose in some parts, and yellow pus oozing from the deep wounds. “Sako, what happened to you?”
With tears he said, “My mother when she left asked Abu Subhi, our shepherd, to take care of me. Every day he did the bad thing to me. I used to beg him, cry and scream from pain, but he didn’t care. When my wounds got bad and started to bleed, he said, ‘It makes me sick to look at you, go away,’ and just like that, he threw me into the streets. I have been wandering for weeks. Will you take care of me?”
I was afraid to keep Sako in our barn. If Khanem’s older brother found out, he would kill both of us and no one would ever know. Still, I felt responsible to take care of Sako, and I had to be very careful.
Sako My Apar
Life at Khanem’s house went on, and every day I would go to the barn to see Sako. I shared my food with him, but I managed to get some extra food to Sako to get back his energy. We shared more than the food with Sako. We talked about our friends and family, sometimes we laughed together, and many more times we cried. We became best friends.
One day Sako said, “My brother Hagop fought with me and sometimes hit me. You are so much nicer, can we be brothers?”
“Of course, Sako,” I replied. “You can call me ‘Apar.’ My little brother Garabed used to call me ‘Apar.’ I miss him. But now I have you, and you are my brother, my Apar.”
Every day I looked forward to spending some time in the barn. I pretended to feed the animals and sweep the place, but secretly I was meeting and talking with Sako.
The Mulberry Tree
Spring came. Sako ‘s wounds were healing and he was getting stronger. He had stacked some bales of hay in the barn so he could climb up and look outside through a small hole in the wall. One day he told me, “The trees have started to grow their leaves, and soon they will have fruit. Will you take me outside some day?” “Of course I will, Sako Apar. I will take you out when it is safe.”
The trees did start to grow mulberries. Sako’s pastime was peeking through a hole in the wall, looking at the trees and counting how many mulberries were on each branch. One morning Sako said, “Last night I had a dream. I climbed the mulberry tree and was sitting on a branch when all of a sudden the branch broke and I fell. Please, Apar, take me out today.” I couldn’t say no. Sako had been hiding in the barn for almost six months. After all, it was Friday, which was the day when Khanem and her mother visited Khanem’s brother, Hassan.
As soon as they left, I took Sako outside. At first, he had a hard time opening his eyes. He had spent so long in the dark that the sunlight was blinding him. Eventually his eyes adjusted and he started laughing happily. He ran up to his mulberry tree, put his tiny arms around the trunk, and started kissing it. Sako and I climbed the tree and sat among the highest branches. He picked the sweet berries and ate them by the handful. All the while he repeated, “Thank you, Haroot Apar, you made me so happy.” We sat at the top of the tree talking, laughing, and eating. We were so content, and carefree that we didn’t know how long we had been there.
The Two Young Turks
All of a sudden, from no where, two young Turks appeared. One of them carried a rifle. I climbed out of the tree to talk to them. The younger of the two pointed to Sako and said to the other, “There is your chance to get to heaven. Shoot him.” The older one hesitated, but the younger continued to prod. “Come on, don’t you want to go to heaven?”
The older boy raised his rifle, aimed down the sights, and fired. The bullet passed effortlessly through Sako’s head. His body fell from the tree to the ground.
I was sure I was next, but for some reason they walked away, laughing. The boy bragged, proud of his marksmanship, “I killed him with a single bullet!”
I carried the lifeless body of my Sako Apar to the ruins behind the Armenian church. I dug a whole with my hands as deep as I could and buried my brother. I made a wooden cross from some twigs. I put the cross on his grave and said the Hayr Mer. All the way home I cried for Sako Apar. After years of torture, he had only a few hours of joy. His death happened just as he had dreamt, and it came from the bullet of a Turk.