The Armenian nation lived the most horrible phase of its history in 1915. The Ottoman authorities executed the Genocide which resulted in the killing of over 1 million Armenians, while most of the Armenians remaining on the western parts of historic Armenia were compelled to leave there cities and villages and deported, marched towards the deserts of Iraq and Syria. Parts of the deported Armenians reached Lebanon where they believed that they were left in peace without realizing that in one of the not-so-far villages of Lebanon, namely Aintoura, near Zouk, Keserwan, which is about half an hour drive from the capital city Beirut, a plan of Turkification of Armenian orphans had been put in motion in 1915. Such a new page in the history of the Armenian Genocide was recently discovered by Missak Keleshian, who is an avid collector of all kinds of photos of the Armenian Genocide.
This is how he speaks about this most recent discovery: “A few months ago I was reading a book entitled “The Lions of Marash” by Stanley E. Kerr, (President of the American Univerity of Beirut) who tells about his personal experiences with Near East Relief during the years 1919-1922. In the book I came across a shocking photo with the following caption: “Jemal Pasha…on the steps of the French College at Aintoura, Lebanon. Jemal Pasha had established an orphanage for Armenian children in the college building and had appointed Halide Edib to be its directress”. Halide Edib Hanum was a famous Turkish feminist and very well known for her efforts to turkify Armenian orphans. Beside being shocking, the photo was the first step that lead to a new discovery. “
On December 8, 2005 I visited the village of Aintoura and located the school where the photo was taken. It’s a famous French College and it was established by the Jesuit priests 1657-1783 and Lazarist priests 1783-1834. I met with the school principal Superior Lazarist Father Jean Sfeir and after showing him the photo, I asked for his permission to research the school’s archives for additional information about it and reveal its entire history. He was also amazed by the photo and asked the archivist of the school to assist me.” “The archivist of the school Mr. Jean Sebastian Arhan, a Frenchman who came to Lebanon 43 years ago and has been since working in the archive of the French College in Aintoura. I showed him the photo and explained to him what I was looking for. To my amazement he was not only well aware of that part of the school’s history that I was interested in but he had also gathered all the archival material pertaining to that period in a separate file which he gave to me.” According to Missak Keleshian, the most important revelation of the photo is the presence of Jemal Pasha and Halide Hanum beside Armenian orphans. Halide Hanum (Halide Edib Adivar 1884-1964) was one of the world renowned feminists of her times. She had received higher education American College for Women in1901. Best known for her novels criticizing the low social status of Turkish women; her first novel Seviye Talip, was published in 1909, Her first husband, Salih Zeki, then she remarried Dr. Adnan Adivar in 1917. She served as a sergeant in Turkey’s nationalist military. Lived in UK, France, and as one of the early feminists met with Gandhi and visited the United States of America for meeting with the leaders of the feminist movement there. She fell in love with Kemal Atatourk but the latter rejected her. Halide Hanum was a strong supporter of the pashas who planned, organized and executed the Armenian Genocide and played a crucial role in the efforts to turkify the remnants of the Armenians and was one of the leaders of that effort with Nigar Hanum. Halide Adivar was Member of Parliament 1950-1954. On October 29, 1914 the Ottoman Empire declared war against France, Great Britain and Russia. Therefore the agreement signed between the great powers and the Ottomans giving Mount Lebanon special status on June 9, 1861 was voided. The last christian governor of Lebanon, Ohannes Kouyoumdjian Pasha, is replaced by Ali Mounif Bey, during whose reign Lebanon lived horrible condition including hunger, very harsh economic conditions and a surge in the number of executions. At the end of 1915, the kaymakam (district governor) of Jounieh informs the responsible of the Aintoura College that they must close it down. The clergy are compelled to leave to another monastery on a higher altitude, others are taken to Anatolia and Ourfa while a few older priests, who are unable to travel, remain in Aintoura. Following the expulsion of the Lazarist priests the school is transformed into an orphanage for Armenian, Turkish and Kurdish children. In 1915 the school housed 800 orphans and 30 soldiers who guarded the school. The staff consisted of 10 Lebanese and the director was Nebih Bey. This is when efforts to turkify the Armenian orphans start to be implemented. The boys are circumcised and they are given Arabic and Turkish names by keeping the first letters of their Armenian names. This is how Haroutiun Najarian becomes Hamid Nazim, Boghos Merdanian becomes Bekim Mohammed, Sarkis Sarafian becomes Safwad Suleyman. Poor sanitary conditions, lack of nourishment and diseases prevail in the school and as a result a big number of children die. Turkish responsibles visiting the school blame Nebih Bey and accuse him of incompetence. In 1916, the commander of the Fourth Turkish Army Jemal Pasha decides to visit the orphanage. Upon being informed that the official who had appointed him to his position and charged him with the responsibility of turkifying the orphans is planning a visit, Nebih Bey orders the statues of St. Joseph and the statue of father Saliege removed from the school’s entrance. Jemal Pasha arrives at the school accompanied by feminist Halide Hanum, who is immediately appointed to replace Nebih Bey as the principal of the orphanage. Halide Hanum is assisted by five Lebanese nuns from the Sacred Heart Order, who are responsible of the sanitation and nutrition of the orphans and other chores. Beside the Aintoura orphanage, Halide Hanum is also responsible of the Sister Nazareth school in Beirut, which is closed down in 1917. 400 new orphans between the ages 3-15 are brought to Aintoura with Jemal Pasha. They are accompanied by 15 young women from Turkish elite families, who join the team of 40 people working towards the islamization and turkification of the orphans. Halide Hanum, the principal of the school, was the highest authority and was supervising all the activities aiming at the full turkification of the orphans in the shortest possible interval. Her goal was to transform the Aintoura College into an idea Turkish institution. While famine was prevailing in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon and the Turkish plan to exterminate the Armenians by the sword and the Arabs by famine was being carried on, cows, sheep and flour were abundant in the Aintoura orphanage.The goal was to have well fed and healthy newly turkified children. Lebanese outside the compound walls used to gather and beg for food. Teaching at the orphanage was in Turkish. Older orphans were trained in trades – shoemaking, carpentry and others and the mullah assigned to the schools called the children to prayer five times a day. Every night the band used to play “Long live Jemal Pasha”. In the summer of 1916 leprosy starts spreading within the orphanage while the Ottoman Armies start loosing on the fronts in the Balkans and in Palestine. Lutfy Bey, Rashid Bey and Halide Hanum abandon the school and the orphanage starts falling into chaos. Students start leaving the school compound and disorderly conduct leads to fights between the Turkish and Kurdish students on one side and the Armenian orphans – who were blaming the parents of the Turkish and Kurdish students of having killed their parents – on the other. It is only through the interference of the Turkish soldiers stationed at the school that killings are avoided.
From the 1200 orphans kept at the Aintoura orphanage one thousand are Armenians and the remaining 200 are Turkish and Kurdish. The Armenian orphans used to keep forks and other sharp objects to defend themselves. When the Ottomans retreat and the French and British arrive in the region, accompanied by members of the clergy, they find a chaotic situation in the school. One of the Lazarist leaders approaches Bayard Dodge, an officer of the American University of Beirut for assistance, who immediately complies with the request and arrange for shipments of food through the American Red Cross. On October 1, 1918 the Turkish Army abandons Lebanon. On October 7 Father Sarlout returns to Aintoura and realizes that the situation is untenable. He arranges for the Turkish and Kurdish orphans to be transported to Damascus to ease the tension within the orphanage. He then gathers the Armenian orphans and starts working with them to remember their Armenian names and tries to explain to them that the turkification process they were going through is no longer in force. Once convinced, the Armenian orphans start calling each other by their original names then they gather all the forks and sharp items they were hiding and “surrender” them to the school officials. The statue of St. Joseph is returned to its podium and the French flag flies over the school. But father Sarlout realizes that his resources are limited and he cannot support that many orphans. He calls upon Bayard Dodge and the American Red Cross to support the school and the orphans. Mr. Crawford is then appointed principal of the Aintoura school, the staff of the school is replaced by Armenian teachers and the orphans are offered lessons in Armenian and English. Later “Near East Relief” takes over the school and keeps it until the fall of 1919, when the male orphans are sent to Aleppo and the females to the Armenian orphanage in the village of Ghazir, Lebanon. While the school was under Turkish control, as a result of malnourishment, lack of sanitary conditions and diseases (mainly typhus), 300 Armenian orphans die. They are buried during 1916 in the backyard of the school. In 1993 the school directors decide to build an extension in that same backyard. When they start digging the ground they come across human remains which they gather and rebury in a few joint graves in the cemetery belonging to the Aintoura priests. When the Turks leave and Father Sarlout returns to the school, he finds there 670 orphans – 470 boys and 200 girls. “Wondering in the different parts of the school, one corner looked very familiar to me. At a first glance I couldn’t remember where or how I had seen that spot but I was sure that this was not new to me. When I returned home I started working in my collection of photographs and after three hours I found what I was looking for: it was the photo of a young orphan, which was actually taken in the same corner of the Aintoura school that looked familiar to me. The original of the photo was in the archives of the Catholicosate of the Holy See of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon, in the documents and photos belonging to Maria Jacobson. The writing on the side of the photo notes: “Armenian orphan, clean-cut and bright”. The seal of “Near East Relief” is still visible at the bottom-left of the photo. At the time, the photo in question did not seem that important but toady, following the newly discovered facts about the Aintoura college, it was another piece of the puzzle I was faced with”,- says Keleshian. By putting the photos side by side and researching the archives of the Aintoura College, Missak Keleshian succeeded in reconstructing one of the most horrifying phases in the life of the orphans of the Armenian Genocide – Turkification, which was nothing else but another portion of the general plan of annihilating the Armenian nation.
Article By: Nora Parseghian English
Adaptation: Simon Beugekian
Aztag, Armenian Daily, Lebanon February 2006