Letter to the Editor: Goodbye Antoura

Little Orphans’ Victory

Rachel Melikian

The recent discovery of a cemetery containing the approximates remains of 300 orphaned children who were buried over one hundred years ago produced three documentaries and the fourth is underway. Before the documentaries, their unheard stories were first printed on the front page of the London newspaper, The Independent, titled as the Living Proof of the Armenian Genocide by British journalist Robert Fisk in 2010. Prior to that publication, their story was published in Lebanon in the Armenian language newspaper Aztag, and in Turkey in the bilingual of the Armenian newspaper Agos by Hrant Dink who was assassinated in 2007, allegedly by the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide.

The children were buried in a mass grave. A memorial was built in their honor, engraved with Khachkars (woven stone-crosses), a bronze statue of a boy, and King Levon’s crown in 2010 by the KOHAR Symphony Orchestra & Choir’s owner Harut Khachadourian, during private inauguration. In 2015, 10 years after its discovery, on the Centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the book “Goodbye Antoura” was translated into English and published by the Stanford University Press. With great appreciation across the globe, this book will find its way into American classrooms and be apart of textbooks in colleges and universities. 

Who were these orphaned children and what made them unique? Since their discovery, these remnants had been buried in silence for over 100 years, so why do they deserve such an honor and a place in history? It was the battle between a brutal government and young orphans who were able to assert their rights against harsh treatment and forced conversion.

I attended a book-signing of “Goodbye Antoura”, a memoir written by late Karnig Panian, one of the surviving orphans. It took place in Glendale at Armenian Society of Los Angeles, on  February 18, 2016, which had many sponsors and attendees such as NAASR and Ararat-Eskijian Museum, and notably his surviving daughter Houry Panian Boyamian.

During the event, two professors, Dr. Keith D. Watenpaugh from UC Davis, Professor Richard Hovannissian from UCLA, and researcher Maurice Missak Kelechian explained why the orphaned children were taken into the hilltop village Antoura Orphanage in Beirut, Lebanon. The speakers depicted how the children’s parents had been massacred during the Armenian Genocide between 1915 and 1918 by the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide. Their new journey to Antoura had the ultimate goal to reverse the damages done by the Turks. These children had given up on humanity and were expected to lose any traces proving that their culture ever existed. 

Kelechian discovered a hidden cemetery and unearthed it in a raw, uncensored fashion, describing the brutal punishments underwent. The victims, including many children, were abused  and died under harsh treatments. Yet, we learned that the orphaned children, under five years of age, defeated the forces of a brutal governmental regime without their fathers, mothers, or an adult’s wisdom to guide them.

The orphans’ graves were discovered due to one archival photograph. In 2005, Kelechian saw a single photo in Stanley Kerrs’ book, “The Lions of Marash,” which was taken in 1916 where Jamal Pasha, one of the main orchestrators of the Armenian Genocide, stood before the Antoura orphanage along with 40 elite Turkish teachers headed by Halide Edib.

It was Kelechian’s curiosity that helped him locate the orphanage where he discovered a book buried under the dust in Armenian bookshop, written by one of the orphans, Karnig Panian. Kelechian follows the footsteps of Panian and unearths the orphans’ graves mentioned in Panian’s book, which have been buried without crosses or memorials. The discovery of these graves produced four documentaries and news broadcast on TV and radio, including a number of newspaper articles.

Watenpaugh gave his presentation through a prerecorded video. He claimed to have read the book in one sitting and 80 of his students will use Panian’s book as textbooks. The speakers gave an overview of the horrific event of the orphaned children. “The cruel form of punishment depicted the terrorism of the orphanage,” said Hovannissian. One of their horrific punishments was forcing the orphans to look at the sun and blinding them. The perpetrators agenda was to make those children forget the Armenian culture by prohibiting them from speaking their native language and renaming them with Turkish names. Hovannissian proudly described how those young children spoke, sang, and prayed in Armenian in secrecy. When they were caught speaking Armenian, the children were brutally punished by falakha (bastinado), the act of hitting the sole of the feet with an iron rod up to 300 times. 

“You do not understand,” Hovannissian said. This shows the resiliency of the children who stubbornly defeated the Turkish government without having their parents’ wisdom to guide them. In his article, Living Proof of the Armenian Genocide, Fisk says, “For this is a tragic, appalling tale of brutality against small and defenseless children whose families had already been murdered by Turkish forces at the height of the First World War, some of whom were to recall how they were forced to grind up bones in water to make soup…..in order to survive from starvation and avoid the orphanage terror through their resiliency and resourcefulness.”  Many children died due to the cruel punishment and abuse, yet they proudly died as Armenians.

“No sword, no blood, no massacre, why is the Antoura orphanage unique?”  This is the question Kelechian posed during “Goodbye Antoura” book signing event. He stated that people think the Armenian Genocide is about blood, swords, and killings, but Antoura is different. Kelechian unearthed a fact that focused not on blood and sword, but on what the United Nations convention say.

First, Kelechian gave us a brief overview of the history of Antoura. The Antoura College was established by the Jesuit Priests in 1656. Later the Lazarist brotherhood took over Antoura in 1834.  Both Professor Hovannissian and Kelechian told us Antoura was confiscated by the Turks, emphasizing that it was done to run the biggest experiment of the world of forced conversion.

We were surprised to hear as an audience how a Catholic College was turned into a major ‘Turkification’ center and what the Turks were doing under the pretense to provide care to orphans. The audience was completely in shock to hear how systematically and brutally the Turks planned to convert Armenian orphans into Ottoman soldiers. Not only did the speakers give vivid details of the incident, but provided materials and archival photos.

“The Antoura Lazarists college priests have recorded how its original Lazarists teachers were expelled by the Turks and how Jemal Pasha presented himself at the front door with his German bodyguard after muezzin began calling for Muslim prayers once the statue of Virgin Mary had been taken from the belfry.” – Fisk

The answer to Kelechian’s question asking why Antoura is different was provided by the UN Convention. Both Hovannissian and Kelechian who quoted 2nd Article 5th point of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide specifically states that the definition of Genocide – “to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” – includes “forcibly transferring children of one group to another group.”

It is a Genocide to convert the orphans by force and erase Armenian history from their memory. Armenian children systematically were deprived of their Armenian identity and were given new Turkish Muslim names, forced to become Muslims, and beaten savagely if they were heard speaking Armenian. They were forced to circumcise, to be trained as Ottoman soldiers, were forbidden to speak their native tongue, and were dehumanized and stripped of their cultural and ethnic heritage. “This is exactly what was happening at Antoura Orphanage,” Kelechian said.

How did they survive? The orphaned children ate paper, drank ink, swallowed dead flies, and grinded bones mixed with water to make a soup to survive from starvation in the orphanage Antoura, Lebanon.

They survived by praying, secretly speaking Armenian, not giving in but staying strong, and beginning to rebel in their own kind of way. They survived against the ‘Turkification’ by being strong Armenians and children asserted their rights of courage which was expressed by catalyst survivors. They became little orphaned survivors of the Armenian Genocide. 

“We [Armenians] did not have [someone like] Elie Wiesel,” said Hovannissian, for the Armenians’ story to be spread around the world. I believe those little children were the little angels of the catalyst of survivors from the Armenian Genocide, for the world to hear their voices and story one century later.

By surviving and holding strong to their heritage and religion, they were able to have their story written in history, Armenian history. Their voiceless voices, pain and cries, and the impact of their irreversible pain and suffering inflicted upon them were heard as well, even if this took almost a century for their existence to be discovered. The goal of Turkey was never succeeded and failed. These orphans were able to establish a historical presence for the Armenian culture and the world. 

“Three hundred orphans were buried and when WWI ended, the American Red Cross and the American Near East Relief (NER) took over the orphanage” said Kelechian. Because of their bravery, they survived as Armenians and the orphan girls were taken to Ghazir Orphanage in Lebanon, who wove a special carpet to be gifted to the US President Calvin Coolidge, in 1925, as a golden gratitude that was represented by the American Near East Relief.

One of the orphans, Karnig Panian, who survived wrote the book “Goodbye Antoura” recording his memoirs. “Why should we care? Their horrible experiences matter,” Hovannissian said, “who had a stubborn determination to survive, depicting the childhood experience and their resilience being able to resist the irresistible, which became resourceful to safeguard the Armenian language and identity, and preserve their identity and culture.” Hovannissian also brought up another orphan experience led from the same genocide, but in Syria rather than Lebanon; and made reference to the book “Man Without Childhood” by Andranik Zaroukian which also depicts the orphans resourcefulness.

Hovannissian explained the difference between an autobiography and a memoir and the power of Panian’s memoir. It is the story of a boy born in Gurin village and his grandfather, where their lives were surrounded by orchard trees whose grandfather made sure that there was no sickness within any one of the trees. Suddenly their happy lives were interrupted as depicted by Panian who brought the audience before the reality of the crimes of the Armenian Genocide. 

Panian found himself in Antoura where his story begun and as Hovannissian described, the naiveté of the Cilician Armenian, not realizing that one month later they themselves were going to undergo genocide, greeted the Armenians in Killis with bread and water to help give some relief to the genocide deportees. Hovannissian then began to describe what the real history of Armenians were like.

Fast forward, the little Armenian orphans were able to establish historical presences by resisting all the attempts of the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide to safeguard the Armenian language and prayers, and assert their rights. Hovannissian repeatedly made it clear that  “We are Armenians”. The confidence in his voice lit up the room. “These orphans give us reasons to care. Let us remember that writers are custodians of the memory.” Therefore, these orphans became the custodians of the Armenian history. As Hovannissian continued, the energy in the room sparked with much more Armenian pride, and it was evident that the audience in the room suddenly were prouder than ever about their culture’s history and people. 

“True resilience of children, is after Turkification, they tried to bury our people, but we still dared to speak Armenian, still maintained our identity, and kept our courage.” It was interesting seeing the power and difference of Hovannissian’s word choice – saying “our” instead of “their” reminding us that all Armenians represent each other and our sacrifices are done as a whole. “You can’t understand” said Hovannissian, “People forced us to forget how to speak Armenian and we still speak Armenian! ”

To show the power of their choices, if when Hovannissian did an impactful move – if asking everyone in the room to raise their hands if they speak Armenian and faster than a heartbeat, every hand would shot up in the room. Not only did Hovannissian say his story, but he showed us that it really is based on a true story. Hovannisian made us feel that he was our uncle whose speech was more fatherly rather than dried academic.

When it came to rebuilding their cemetery, Kelechian was responsible. The donation of the land to expand the cemetery as a mass grave to establish a memorial for them occurred recently. Now the orphans have a proper burial and a place in world history, where their cemetery is turning into a form of pilgrimage and adorned by flowers by other children. Kelechian said “A bronze sculpture of a young boy, was built, holding the globe.” This symbolizes the idea to protect and treat all orphans right. The creation of Khachkars, the symbol of the Armenian culture, was adorned in their cemetery, which was once forbidden, yet they prayed stubbornly in secrecy. The entire room was silent, but internally their mouths dropped; this man standing in front of us had practically changed history, not only for the Armenians, but for the world. The event was very informative and it was beyond expectation.

Now, Armenians have the voice for other children and orphans who truly are angels on this planet earth. The recent committed crimes explicate that Turkish people did in fact commit genocide, according to the UN convention, because they tried to convert and torture these Armenian children. Even though these children were tortured, they were able to stay strong in their heritage and religion.