IF you will look at a map of western Asia, you will see a ragged edge of mountain range lying on the borderlands of Persia and former Turkey. Beginning here, and extending as far west as the Taurus Mountains and north into Armenia, is the region known as Kurdistan, where live, and have lived since the days of Nineveh, a wild and troublesome people called the Kurds. The name is found in the excavations as that of one of the prominent peoples of the Assyrian Empire. On the rocks at Behistun they are inscribed as among those subdued by Darius. They are the Carduchi of the Anabasis, who rolled great stones down the mountain sides upon the Ten Thousand as they fought their way back to the sea. The Great Shah, Abbas, of the days of Queen Elizabeth, was harassed by them during his wars with the Turk; while the Turks, who have ruled the land since the Osman invasion, have never held them in more than nominal suzerainty.
Their origin is unknown. Against the ebb and flow of countless migrations which from the dawn of history have crossed and recrossed this country and left it a hopeless tangle of interlocking races, creeds, and tongues, they have maintained themselves, their race and stock with a tenacity which to-day
leaves them socially at odds with their neighbors, a fruitful source of irritation, disturbance, and antagonism. The diplomacy of the East pits brother against brother; and when the Armenian Nationalist movement began, in 1891, the Turks organized bodies of irregular Kurdish cavalry as a counterirritant. In the massacres of those days the Kurds had a prominent part. The extremely bitter feelings aroused then have never been overcome, and the Great War, far from solving the problem, has left the country in a more disturbed state than before, with any hope of conciliation far below the horizon. With the breaking-up of the Turkish Empire the last curb vanished: the ambition of these wild folk has been fanned into a consuming flame by the pronouncements of President Wilson concerning self-determination for small peoples; four years of war have made their passions bloodthirsty; and Bolshevism has furnished them a next-door example of license and unrestraint. They seized an excuse for demanding lordship over all the land they surveyed and for driving out their neighbors, with an accompaniment of excesses for which there is no parallel in either Russia or Europe. It was these Kurds who killed Mar Shimoon, the ecclesiastical head of the Syrian nation, and it is they who to-day prevent the Christian populations from returning to their ancient homes around Lake Urumiah.
When the Turks invaded northwest Persia during the war, numbers of these Kurds came with them. Some were attached to the army; but for the most part they were hangers-on and looters. Following the evacuation of this territory at the Armistice, and before the Persian Government could reassume control, they, under the leadership of a certain chieftain named Ismail Agha, or Simitko, as he is usually called, made themselves masters of the country and the land formerly held by the Syrian and Armenian Christians. Their pretext is independence and their war cry is ‘Ashiraty the Kurdish equivalent for Bolsheviki. They know no principles of government except extortion; the hapless villagers have all their cattle and grain taken from them, and are left to live as best they can, or are shot. The city of Urumiah, Persia, containing between fifty and a hundred thousand people, was sacked and looted, and great numbers of its Syrian and Persian inhabitants were massacred. An American mission founded in 1835, maintaining a college, hospital, and press, was destroyed. The gardens surrounding the city, upon which the people depended for sustenance, were cut down.
The Persian Government has been too feeble to resist these marauders, and they have grown in arrogance and boldness until they are no longer content with the territories they have seized, but harass by raids the whole surrounding country. They are afraid of nothing, and indeed they have nothing to be afraid of. With their fierce swarthy faces, heavy hooked noses, and long silky moustaches; their carelessly wrapped turbans; their huge frames, encased in baggy and much more huge trousers; and the enormous protuberant belts they wear, made of many yards of cloth wrapped round and round, and stuck full of knives and pistols, they present an appearance that may well strike terror to the hearts of their more peaceful neighbors. Their leader, Simitko, is a man of some education, who has served in the Turkish army, and has demonstrated his ability to maintain his people in fighting unity.
A short time ago tire Persians sent out their latest expedition, in an attempt to repress the invader and retake their lost territories. It was while this army was circling the northern end of Lake Urumiah, trying to encounter the foe, that the crafty Simitko seized the opportunity to hasten south and there commit the most terrible depredation that has yet been laid to his credit.
Just south of Lake Urumiah, in the foothills of the mountains which the Kurds inhabit, is the little city of SoujBoulagh. It is small, but being on the caravan road around the foot of the lake, it was deemed important enough for a Persian garrison of about seven hundred men. Its population was a mixture of Persians and Mamoush Kurds, non-nomadic tribes, which lived quietly under the Persian flag and in perfect amity with their neighbors. A number of years ago the Presbyterian Mission Board established a station there; but a few years later it was turned over to the American Lutheran Board. During the war there had been no force on the fields; but, in the early part of 1921, Mr. Bachimont, his wife, and three young unmarried women came out to reopen the work.
For a number of days rumors had come of possible trouble. On the evening of the sixth a runner came, with word that three thousand Kurds, under Simitko himself, ware in the hills just beyond the city. It was already dusk, and there was no time for conference or for the little mission to take any action. A few of the inhabitants of the city gathered up their children and fled for the plain; but the mass of the people only huddled into their houses, locked the gates behind them, and waited for the storm that was to break. They did not wait long. By nine o’clock the hills reverberated with the rattle of rifle-fire and the whizz of bullets.
A month later, when the four women of the mission arrived, worn, haggard, and bedraggled, in Tabriz, Miss Gudhart, the senior in point of service, told the following story of how it happened.
As soon as we received word that an attack was coming, I determined to save something from the looting which I knew was sure to follow if the Kurds succeeded in entering the city. On account of my medical work, I was living in a separate house, or court, about a hundred paces up the narrow street, and next door to the governor’s gate. With Javahir, my Bible woman and housekeeper, and the gateman, I began to dig a hole in the ambar [cellar] in which to put one of my trunks. We had nothing to work with, except the knives and forks from the table, and nothing in which to carry out the soil, except the aprons of our skirts. We worked frantically, for we did not know at what minute the Kurds might be in the city. When I went out in the open with my loads of soil, I could see the flames from the near-by Persian rifles, and hear the clatter of the Kurdish shots over the roofs. They had a machine gun which emitted an awful rattle distinguishable above the hand-pieces. The SoujBoulagh garrison had one decrepit cannon, I think, which at intervals would burst out in a tongue of flame and a roar that shook the tiny window panes throughout the house. The ineffectiveness of its aimless shooting in the dark would have been laughable had it not been so deadly serious.
The soil was extremely hard, and it seemed hopeless work trying to get a hole big enough for one steamer trunk. We finally finished, however, and the trunk, filled with the things I considered most precious, was dragged downstairs and shoved into the opening. We covered it over with dirt, and on top of this piled faggots of firewood. The morning constellations were now beginning to appear, and the tranquillity of their steady glow was in vivid contrast to the wild scene below. There was no time to prepare another hole, so we put another trunk in a corner and covered it over with firewood. It was then four o’clock in the morning and the Kurds were still firing from the nearby hills. It seemed impossible to sleep through the noise of battle, but the weariness of the night’s work must have overcome my fears, for I remember dozing until daybreak.
The firing still continued, but at nine in the morning the Kurds began to break over the nearest hills. Within a few minutes they were in the city. Pandemonium reigned. The air was full of shouts, mingled Kurdish and Persian oaths, and rifle-fire. I remember hearing the hoofbeats of galloping riders on the cobbles before the gate, and wondering at what minute they would be upon us. It was not long. I heard a wild bombardment, and before the door could be opened, it was smashed in, and several Kurds were in our compound, with guns pointed and knives drawn, shouting, ‘ Ashirat, ashirat,’ and ‘pul—zer’ (money, give).
They rushed through all the rooms, smashing furniture, breaking open cupboards, ripping up the carpets, carrying out everything that pleased their fancy, and loading their horses. I tried to remonstrate with them, hoping that the magical word, ‘Americans, ’ would stop them; but it only increased their madness. In a few minutes they were gone, and in a few more minutes another party was in. When they saw that everything of value had been taken, they took my clothes from me. When I resisted, they beat me with their muskets, until I fell down half senseless.
When I recovered from my daze, Javahir threw one of her garments around me — they had spared her, not thinking her clothes worth while. My anxious mind told me to get out before still others came. I do not know what time it was. I had lost my watch, and time was nothing. The firing had now ceased, comparatively, but when I looked out of the gate, I saw the street jammed with Kurdish horsemen. They were before the governor’s gate, trying to batter it down. Although the other compound was only a hundred yards away, it seemed infinitely distant. I do not know how we got through: I try to remember now. Wriggling between pawing and neighing horses, and crouching along the wall, we finally reached the other gate. The Kurds were so busy that they apparently did not notice us. What I saw here I can hardly tell. The door was open and the keeper dead near the gatehouse. The two young women were running through the house naked, pursued by two Kurdish soldiers. One of them had caught his intended victim by the hair and was struggling with her, when I rushed up and began to tug at him. Javahir intervened between the other two, and by some miraculous means we forced them to desist, and they went off. Bachimont had been killed, and Mrs. Bachimont was nowhere around. There was no time to learn what had happened. We knew that we must leave at once, or suffer death, or perhaps worse. Poor Javahir’s back was again robbed to provide clothes for the two, and through a rear darbend, or alley, we made our escape. The streets were now quieter, — the inhabitants all dead or indoors, — and the Kurds busy carting away the loot. In the streets were dead bodies over which we had to step to get through. There is a small river curling around the edge of the city, and to this we made our way, hoping to cross and find some shelter among the rocks on the other side. It was useless.
In a sort of maidan, or open space, on the outskirts of the city, there is a small hill, and from where we were, we could see that here the Kurdish chief had made his headquarters. Here his share of the booty was being piled up. Once upon a time I had met Simitko, when he was not so war-mad. Then, in his smooth French, he had asked us to establish a mission among his people, that they might be educated and learn the ways of civilization. He had expressed a great admiration for Americans. Now, with this recollection in mind, we determined to take a dangerous and hazardous step — to go to the chief himself and demand his protection. If he refused, we should probably be carried off to the seraglio of some of his lieutenants; if he granted his protection, it would be no certain safety; for Oriental minds are capricious at best; but if we did not go, we should probably meet a terrible fate.
Our feet were cut and bleeding from walking on the rocks; our backs were blue from the beatings we had received, and we were shivering from the chill wind that blew. Our hearts were so filled with the horror of the things we had seen and the constant fear that any moment might be our last, that we had no thought for our bodily pains. If we had made a decision to go, we did not know it; for on every hand seemed death, and to go toward the tent of the chief was perhaps only another way of being killed. But if death seemed near while we were in the streets, it was imminent as we stepped into the circle of terrible Kurds who thronged the maidan. And if it was imminent then, we seemed to be in its grasp as there came before our eyes the last and crowning horror of all. As we mounted to the top of the hill, and the opposite slope appeared before us with the river flowing at its foot, we saw the captured Persian garrison being led forth in small parties, and shot down by machine-gun fire. All of them were stripped to the waist and barefoot. Some were made to crouch on the ground, while the rapid fire raked them over. Others were made to stand in rows and sing the ‘Moharram,’ or national song of Persia. As they sang, the machine gun swept them down like some invisible scythe. The gun was turned so rapidly that in one case it took also a number of Kurdish soldiers standing at the end of the line. One cannot conceive of men having so little regard for their own companions as to shoot them down in this manner.
I do not know how I remained standing when I saw this. I was transfixed with horror, a horror that would let me neither faint nor turn away. Just then Simitko emerged from his tent. It seemed an age before he spoke. Would it be life or death? He said a few words to us, regretting what we had seen, and declaring that ‘it was war.’ My heart uttered a prayer of thanks when he ordered some of his soldiers to take us back and give us aid.
We were taken to the customs house, where we stayed during the night in one of the empty storerooms. There was a guard at the door, so we felt reasonably safe. It was very cold, and we had nothing over us except a dirty blanket we found, too poor for any Kurd to carry off and filled with creeping things. There was fortunately some loose cotton in a corner, and in this we snuggled. We were terribly worried about Mrs. Bachimont, but we could not stir abroad to look for her. As the day had been one of plunder, so the night was to be one of pleasure for the insatiable Kurds, and a thousand nameless horrors were perpetrated. The cold, our distress about Mrs. Bachimont, our fears as to our own security, and the physical strain of the day, were all too much for our bodies, and we were unable to relax in sleep.
It was then that I learned how Mr. Bachimont had met his fate. Even with the Kurds in the city, he had felt a peculiar trust. The Bible lesson that morning had been, by chance, Isaiah 43,1: ‘ But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.’ If these verses were a comfort to him, they were also a prophecy concerning him, for within an hour he had gone to join his Maker. Kurds had burst in, as everywhere, demanding money. Mr. Bachimont had tried to tell them that he had none; indeed, the little mission-safe had been for some weeks rather lean. They went all through the house, ransacking everything, but finally went off, carrying everything of value. In a few minutes two other men came in. When they saw that all the apparent wealth had been carried away, they began to demand the ‘hidden treasure.’ They took Mr. Bachimont upstairs to search, and when they found no treasure, they shot him in their fury. He lived long enough to get downstairs, and die at his wife’s feet. With the only man in the house dead, the two Kurds began the foul attack which Javahir and I had intercepted.
Early next morning we determined to find out. whether Mrs. Bachimont had been carried off, or was perhaps somewhere in hiding; and we were soon successful. Javahir came calling that she had found the khanum. In the rear of the garden, crouching behind a pile of rubbish, completely hidden, Javahir pointed her out. She had run and crept there during the attack of the two Kurds, and had remained in that posture for twenty-four hours. She was dumb from terror, and unable to move from cold. We carried her into the house and somewhere found a few rags with which to cover her. Some of our native friends whose backs had been spared gave us enough clothing to clothe us decently. Somewhere we found a few utensils, in which we might cook our food. There were some boxes in the storeroom, and with these we made a rough coffin for Mr. Bachimont.
By night most of the Kurds had gone, carrying off what plunder they had gathered. People now began to appear furtively on the streets, seeking their lost ones, trying to take up again the thread of life. A small Kurdish force had been left in the city as a rearguard and to look after the wounded; but they molested no one. Indeed, there was no one left to molest except their Kurdish cousins of the city. Every Persian found in the city had been killed; the dead of the garrison, unburied, lying there in heaps on the river slope, numbered about seven hundred according to a count made by my gateman; while in the streets lay the dead bodies of men and horses on which the dogs came and fed. Women had been violated, and children had been left fatherless and hungry. Every house, whether Kurdish or Persian, had been sacked and looted. Our house had nothing in it but smashed and battered furniture, papers scattered everywhere, and crumbling walls which had been prodded in attempts to find secret recesses containing money or jewels. I went below, to see if they had found the hiding-places of my trunks. The one in the corner had been discovered and broken open, but the earth over the other had not been disturbed.
The next day (Sunday, October 9) we held a simple funeral service for Mr. Bachimont. We could find none of the natives who would help us prepare the body, since they thought that to touch the dead body of a Christian would defile them. But we finally induced some of them to dig a grave and to carry the coffin to its resting-place. We found one of our Bibles still intact, and from it we read the service.
That afternoon we deemed it safe enough to unearth the trunk. By stretching here and pinning there, we made the garments I had stored away fit us all. We straightened up the house as best we could, and then began to turn our minds to the problem of getting away. That evening, however, the Kurdish chief who had been left in charge of the wounded learned that I was a hakim, and sent a politely worded request that I come and nurse his sick.
I now had the task of looking after some thirty-odd wounded Kurds, and we were treated with outward respect ; a bevy of guards did duty at our gate, but we were virtually prisoners. To every request that we be granted permission to leave, we received a courteous refusal. While the Kurdish picket was fair protection for us, the court was constantly full of men, ostensibly to see the hakim, but really to set eyes on the light-haired women. Me they respected because of my medical knowledge, but the others I had to keep hidden in the inner rooms during the day.
Mrs. Bachimont’s condition as a result of her night’s exposure was very bad, and was not improved by our constant fears and her brooding over her husband’s death. She began to grow worse; and at last we decided again to brave the worst and try to escape.
One of our Kurdish neighbors was the owner of a near-by village. He had been quite a warm friend to us, and we enlisted his assistance in our attempt. We made our few belongings into small bundles, and on the night of the thirteenth some of his men smuggled them out. We got ready to go the next night. The following day I went to the chief for the last time, for permission to leave the city. Fortune smiled on us. A Syrian doctor had been found, and the Kurd, tired no doubt of our importunities, consented to relieve me. He even granted us a guard to see us on our way.
We were not long in departing. That afternoon we started out afoot for the next village, several miles away. The relief we experienced on passing the outskirts of the city is indescribable. It seemed as if we were emerging from Inferno into the light of day. The dead bodies of horses and men were still lying in the streets, where they had fallen the week before. We could see the heaps of dead on the river slope. Those in the streets had been eaten by the dogs; the bodies of the garrison had been worried by the wolves. Only the coldness of the weather prevented a putrid stench from rising. I saw one or two bodies being buried by the Kurdish police. They were being dragged away by ropes around their necks. As I looked, the whole week passed in review before my mind; I could hear the awful percussion of the rifles, and the clattering of horses through the streets, and the screams of women that first night; I could see again from the maidan the Persian garrison falling before the machine gun.
For several hours we trudged along, while our guards gallantly rode beside us, scanning the horizon for a possible enemy. When we came to the village where we had deposited our bundles, we dismissed the guards, preferring to face the dangers of the road alone rather than in their company. We had only twenty tumans among us, — a little money which, fortunately, I had put in the trunk, — and this sufficed to hire a donkey to carry our baggage, but not ourselves. Hiring a donkey in Persia includes the driver, so we were not without the semblance of a man-servant. For four days we plodded over the plains and hills of the desert country north of Souj-Boulagh. The trail was extremely rough and at every step our loose native shoes kept dangling from our blistered feet. Our limbs were sore, and so weary that we could hardly keep pace with our tiny beast. When night fell, we would curl down in a bundle beside the road, with our few blankets over us, while the donkey driver would go off to find forage for his animal among the scant grasses of the desert. At this altitude and this late season of the year the nights were extremely cold, and we had no fire. The cold, our exhaustion, and the vague dread which even the empty desert conjures up gave us little rest.
The fourth day we reached Bokhan, a village of some importance, from which there was a postal service to Tabriz. We found the chief a comfortable-looking Persian hadji, surrounded by a retinue of lazy servants. He had heard of the Americans, and when he learned who we were, he showed a tremendous solicitude. We were taken to his house and given quarters in the anderun, with the female members of the household. Word was immediately sent to the governor at Tabriz, and to our friends there, that we were safe. We knew that a carriage and a detachment of the governor’s men would soon be on the way to meet us, so we remained under the roof of our Moslem host, resting and recuperating for the further journey. A number of the village elders came to us with a present of some thirty-five tumans, which they had collected for the khanums — holding them out with both hands as a mark of respect. These, they hoped, with many expressions of benediction from ‘Allah,’ would bear us on our journey. The simple cordiality of these people did much to restore our disturbed outlook on life; and when, ten days later, we were bundled into the conveyance that had arrived to take us on to Tabriz, there was some sweetness mixed with the gall.
- In writing the tragic story of her experiences, Miss Gudhart had the assistance of Mr. Elgin Groseclose, who was stationed in the spring of 1920 at Tabriz, Persia, whither he was sent by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. His work has brought him into close touch with Miss Gudhart.—THE EDITORS.↩