Harutyun Alboyadjian tells the story of how he and other underage kids were broght to an orphanage belonging to Jamal Pasha to be turkified. His family name has been changed into a number – five hundred thirty-five, and he was given a name Sukri. Another of his Armenian friends was renamed Enver. He depicts their lives in the orphanage before the day of their release.
…When they killed my parents, they took me and other under-age children to Djemal pasha’s Turkish orphanage and turkified us. My surname was ‘535’ and my name was Shukri. My Armenian friend also became Enver. They circumcised us. There were many others who did not know Turkish; they did not speak for weeks, with a view to hiding their Armenian origin. If the gendarmes knew about it, they would beat them with ‘falakhas.’ The punishment consisted of twenty, thirty or fifty strokes on the soles of the feet, or being forced to look directly at the sun for hours. They made us pray according to the Islamic custom, after which we were compelled to say three times ‘Padişahım çok yaşa!’ (Long live my King! – Turk.). We were clothed in the Turkish manner, a white robe and a long black, buttonless coat. We had a mudur and several khojakhanums. Djemal pasha had ordered that we should be given proper care and attention, since he appreciated the Armenians’ brains and graces and hoped that, in case of victory, thousands of Turkified Armenian children would, in the coming years, ennoble his nation and we would become his future support. Towards that aim Djemal pasha had teachers brought from Constantinople; he had brought doctors, because most of the orphans fell ill with scurvy and died. I was a very feeble, small child.
Our orphanage was about seven miles from Beirut towards Cilicia. It was at the foot of Djyuni – a huge mountain, and it stretched until the building of Antoura, which had a French, semi-independent status. That was why the French, the English, and the Germans had their colleges separate from each other. But each one had already retreated.
We were given little food at our Turkish orphanage. Our gharavanadjis were on duty in the dining-room. One day one of the gharavanadjis, an Armenian boy from Gyurin, saw me while entering the dining-room, held me by the arm and said in Turkish: “Shukri, will you make a belt for me?” I thought – he was a gharavanadji; he might help me in return and give me some more dinner.
The building of our orphanage had been a French college, and the French had left it after the war started. There were monasteries surrounding it. Statues, mummies and velvet clothes were found there.
That boy from Gyurin brought me some clothes, to make a belt for him with pockets, where he could keep money, for he sold small loaves of bread to the Arabs and received money. One day, at night I thought of climbing to the roof of the building, where a few things might be left by the French, for my father was a blacksmith, and I had taken after him in crafts. I went to the roof. There I found some steel wire. I had no instruments: my instruments were stones. I had neither needle, nor anything. I cut some wire, rubbed it on a stone; the edge became sharp. Then I thought to flatten the other edge with a stone, to butt it, then fold it and then rub it with a piece of glass. I fashioned a hole. I searched and found a broken nib, which was hard and had a sharp point. With it I opened a hole. Now I had a needle. So, I could sew. But there was no thread. I thought of undoing the cloth and spin the thread. I looked through the garbage; I found something like leather. I made a belt with pockets for that Armenian boy. He liked it very much. Now other boys also began asking me to make belts for them. By and by, I began earning money.
One day, Djemal pasha came to the orphanage to see the state of his Armenian boys, who had become Turks. It was one of the Muslim religious holidays. I do not remember – it was either Ghurban Bayram or Ramadan. On those days, they gave us good food with meat. Once, when Djemal pasha came, they called me: “‘535’ – Are you Shukri?”
I said: “I am.”
My friend held me and took me to the guests. Djemal pasha asked me: “My son, Shukri, what have you made?”
I had a drawer made by hand and a belt. I showed them to him.
He said: “With what instruments are you making them?”
I said: “I have no instruments.”
Djemal pasha was astonished. He said with regret: “It’s a pity, pay attention to him; he’s a gifted child.”
It seemed he wanted to transfer me somewhere else, but the Arab Sheriff came.
One day, we woke up without the bell ringing; the doors were not opened. When we opened the doors and went down, we saw there were no Turkish guards or soldiers, no officers, inspectors or teachers; there was no one. There was no one to ring the bell for us to go to the dining-room. Our big boys who had become Turks: our chiefs, had attacked the Kurd Silo and were beating him, and Silo was bellowing like a buffalo. He could hardly free himself from the boys and found refuge in the forest nearby. This was that same Silo, who had said to Khoren over and over: “I have killed ninety-nine Armenians. If I kill you too, that will be one hundred.” This was that scoundrel Silo, whom the Armenian orphans had taught a good lesson, feeling free to do so, because not a Turkish officer was left, for they had heard that Beirut would be liberated.
As our orphanage was a military orphanage, we had special rules. Each class had to stand around its table, but there was neither chief, nor corporal or sergeant. All of us were standing and waiting, and there was no bread on the table. Our Erza bey, the pharmacist, came. He had the military rank of major, and three Armenian orphans (Ariph and others) helped him. That doctor of ours came. He was walking between the tables up and down. He gave the order, ‘Sit down.’ We all sat down. He continued going and coming up and down, in deep thought. He came up to our corporal Enver, who was Armenian but he was circumcised and said: “Oglum Enver, senin ermeni ismin ne idi?” (My son, Enver, what was your Armenian name? – Turk.).
“Toros idi, efendim” (It was Toros, Sir – Turk.), said the boy saluting.
Then he went to the corporal of the next class: “My son, Djemal, what was your Armenian name?”
“Vardan idi, efendim” (It was Vardan, Sir – Turk.).
Then he came to the others. All the corporals were on foot and said their names. One minute of silence reigned. All of us were waiting…
He said: “Bu günden sonra hepiniz de gene ermenisiniz” (Beginning from this day all of you are Armenians again – Turk.). And continued in a sorrowful mood: “As you see there’s no one today of our officers; they are absent. Had I wanted, I might be absent, too. I could go with them, but I decided not to go, not to leave you. It may so happen that they come in a few minutes, put handcuff on my hands and take me prisoner. But I remained, I didn’t leave you. I beg you don’t give trouble to the Kurds around you. Continue to live in peace as you have done so. If I were not here; you would not be here either…”
He did not continue, but later we learned that they had asked the pharmacist to poison our last supper, but he had refused to obey their order.
And really, soon they came with the Arab Sheriff, put handcuffs on his hands and took him away. We all were sad and silent. When they were taking him out, he said:
“It’s a pity that God did not return to me all the kindness I have done. God blinded my only son, Nedjatli, and I treated you as my own son…”
Verjine Svazlian. The Armenian Genocide: Testimonies of the Eyewitness Survivors. Yerevan: “Gitoutyoun” Publishing House of NAS RA, 2011, testimony 247, pp. 426-427.