Lebanon News

The tale of Aintoura’s Armenian orphans

AINTOURA: Ninety-three years after the end of World War I, a Lebanese Armenian researcher has discovered additional proof of the first genocide of the 20th century at the Aintoura Lazarist College in Mount Lebanon.

A visit to the college of Saint Joseph Aintoura reveals the history of the Jesuits who settled in Aintoura over 350 years ago; in addition to a magnificent monastery, there is also tragic evidence of the Armenian genocide of 1915.

The remains of more than 300 children, now only bones, lie in a small grave behind Aintoura’s grand 19th-century chapel, which has been brought to light over five years of research by Missak Kelechian, an electrical engineer from California, who began the project as a pastime.

The children buried in the grave were Armenian orphans who, having survived the genocide, were transferred by Turkish authorities to Aintoura, only to suffer neglect and violence.

“It has been recorded and written how the children were beaten with the falaqa [a rod to discipline children], and many of them died from starvation, cholera and forceful attempts to ‘Turkify’ them,” said Kelechian.

While hundreds of orphans, aged 3 to 15, survived the systematic massacres of the Armenians in 1915, many of them arrived in Ottoman-controlled Aintoura to be given new Turkish names and forcefully converted to Islam.

The infamous architect of the genocide, Jamal Pasha, walked on the stairs that still stand at the gate of Aintoura College and was responsible for assigning Halide Edip Adivar to oversee the program of “Turkification.”

Adivar was Turkey’s first feminist and a famous novelist who was elected to Turkey’s Parliament in 1950.

Kelechian told The Daily Star that he came across a photograph of Adivar and Pasha in Stanley Kerr’s book, The Lions of Marash.

“This picture triggered [in me an interest] to visit the Aintoura College,” he said.

Over the past five years, Kelechian has been on a quest to locate the grave and meet descendants of survivors. He is still working with several archivists in Lebanon and the United States to track down and study more documents related to fate of the surviving orphans.

“To my surprise, during my visit to Aintoura in 2005, the archivist of the school had gathered and stored all documents related to the occupation of the college by the Turks and the arrival of around 1,200 orphans, among them Armenians and Kurds,” he noted.

The book by Kerr, who was a volunteer of the American Near East Relief agency, did not provide enough information for Kelechian to locate the burial place of the Armenian orphans. “The documents I found at the library of the Aintoura College led me to another finding: accounts written in a book by Karnig Panian,” said Kelechian.

Kelechian said that Panian’s writings helped him locate the mass graves of around 350 Armenian orphans. A survivor of the Armenian genocide and the “Turkification” at the Aintoura orphanage, Panian described how the Turkish authorities buried several children per week behind the college chapel.

“I was informed by the college’s administration that construction workers in 1993 had unearthed many decaying bones in the area described by Panian in his book,” Kelechian explained.

In his book, Panian also described how more than 1,000 orphans had to recite daily “Long Live General Pasha,” as the Turkish flag was lowered in the school’s courtyard. An article from 1947 written by the head priest at the Lazarite Aintoura College, Emile Joppin, described how Armenian orphans were forcefully converted to Islam. According to accounts recorded by Lazarist teachers at Aintoura, children received punishments for speaking Armenian or Kurdish.

According to Kelechian, he recently discovered that the bishop of Saint Jacob’s Church in Achrafieh is the son of another Armenian orphan from Aintoura. “It’s as odd as it can get; the bishop’s father, Sarkis Kerkezian, was given a Turkish name [Antakli Ibrahim] and was chosen to be a muezzin [a chosen person to lead the call to prayer],” Kelechian added.

While Turkey continues to deny the genocide against the Armenians, describing the massacres as part of brutal reality of World War I, “Turkifying” children and depriving them of their identity alone is considered genocide by Article II of the 1951 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

According to the convention, genocide is “to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” including “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

More than 150,000 Armenian children became orphans as a result of Ottoman policies. Many of these orphans continued their lives in several “Turkification” centers throughout the Middle East.

In a letter to his father in the United States, the former president of the American University of Beirut, Bayard Dodge, also described how hundreds of Armenian and Kurdish orphans were brought down from the north and settled at Aintoura College.

Another survivor of the orphanage, Haroutioun Alboyadjian, was 11 when he managed to escape from Aintoura. According to Kelechian, Alboyadjian has also written extensively on his experience and has disclosed how a Turkish medical officer disobeyed orders on the eve of Ottoman withdrawal from Aintoura to poison the last dinner of the orphans.

For Kelechian, despite the systematic plans to carry out atrocities against the Armenians, there were many Turks who helped save hundreds of Armenian lives.

“After the withdrawal of Turkish troops, the Turkish officer [Reza Bey], who refused to poison the children, helped them to recover their original Armenian names.

“When he asked one of the orphans, ‘Enver, tell me your real name, the child replied: Toros,’ and many others recovered their names as well.”

Kelechian also said that Turkey’s continued denial of the genocide is hurting the country’s image and is a disservice to the new generation of Turks.

“The Turkish government’s policy is denying Armenians [the chance] to praise the good work of the Turkish people,” Kelechian added.

The head of Saint Joseph College in Aintoura, Father Antoine Pierre Nakad, told The Daily Star that even when he was still a student at the school, the priests and the teachers talked about the Armenian orphans who had once crowded the dormitory.

“This is a historical fact and everyone should know what happened at this historic college,” he said.

According to Nakad, the Turkish blockade resulted in diseases such as cholera and many orphans died from starvation. “There are currently around 4,000 students in Aintoura College and apart from their regular classes, they are taught about the history of the school,” Nakad added.

Today, a giant traditional Armenian stone cross and a bronze statue of a 10-year-old boy stands on the site of the mass grave of the Armenian orphans at Aintoura College, which was donated by Harout Katchadourian, the founder of the Armenian Choir, Kohar.

Earlier this week, a group of more than 200 Armenian Lebanese headed by Ararat Association’s President Krikor Keushgerian, visited the site to mark the 96th commemoration of the Armenian genocide. An official delegation of Lebanese ministers and MPs will join the Armenian Catholic community on May 7 for a Mass at Aintoura.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 29, 2011, on page 3.




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