Zarmandukht’s Memories: Five year old victim, 95 year old survivor

Five years short of a century in age, Zarmandukht Khachatryan has no particular complaints about her health. She says that her appetite is good, her hearing is sharp, and she used spectacles only until she was 80 years old; after that her eyesight seems to have restored.

She complains of fluctuations of blood pressure or headaches, but not frequent ones. She feels no lack of sense of humor. As she herself says laughing, she doesn’t drink coffee – only three cups a day, and doesn’t eat chocolate at all.

“That’s why I have lived so long,” she says.

After hiding for some time from the summer heat of Yerevan in a summer cottage, Zarmandukht returned to the capital a few days ago to the house built by her husband where she lives with the family of her youngest son. However, here her everyday life does not essentially differ from the days spent in the tranquility of her dacha.

During the day she sits in a small yard in front of the house – under the vine, surrounded by family members, and in the evening she watches TV.

“And sometimes I serve my daughter-in-law,” Zarmandukht jokes again.

The memories of her 95 years seem inexhaustible.

“I remember everything as if it happened today, from my early childhood till today,” she says. And from her childhood till today Zarmandukht went a long way, which several times collided at the crossroads of light and darkness shaping nerves as hard as steel.

Starting in 1914, as victims of genocide, Zarmandukht’s family moved three times from their village of Panik, in the Surmalu province of historical Western Armenia (presently situated in Turkey).

Those were the darkest years of her life when a little five-year-old girl could not perceive the drastic changes brought about by extreme and horrible events. She had known a village in which everybody seemed to lead a peaceful life. She grew into a world in which she lost her father, elder sister and the families of her three uncles – remaining with her mother alone.

“The village of Panik is about three kilometers away from Igdir (the administrative center of the Surmalu province). If I go there now, I will stand on my house, but my son says, why did that house remain for you to go there and find it?” says Zarmandukht and adds: “I remember the house like a dream.”

Using her hands she begins to describe figuratively: “It was two houses like this with gates, in one my uncle’s family lived, in the other were ours and my other uncle’s family. Men yoked oxen with carts and went to the orchards. There were peaches, grapes, grains . . .”

The province of Gavar belonged to the province of Yerevan at the beginning of last century, it was situated in the Ararat valley – on the right bank of the river Arax. The province’s administrative center of Igdir was situated 40 kilometers to the south-west of Yerevan. The location of Igdir is flat, it is known for its orchards and poplar trees.

In 1914, Igdir had a population of about 10,000 people. They were engaged in farming, vineyards, orchards, cotton, crafts and trade. There were two gymnasiums in Igdir (one for boys and the other for girls) and three churches.

In the autumn of 1920, during the Armenian-Turkish war, Igdir was seized by the troops of Karabekir pasha and was never returned. By the 1921 Kars Agreement between the Soviets and the Turks the province of Surmalu, including Igdir, was handed over to Turkey, to which it had never belonged. Now it is a Turkish-populated town where the number of Azeris from Nakhijevan has been growing lately.

“We emigrated three times,” Zarmandukht continues to tell of her bitter memories. “They sounded alarm three times, come out, the Turks are coming. We went out and ran. We crossed the Araz (Arax) and stopped. Then they would say – the Turks retreated, come back.”

“With a meal on the fire, my mother put a lid on it, put out the fire and we would run away. My father drove a cart, my mother clutched me and wrapped me with a blanket so that I would not get frozen in the cart. That way we would go and come back until 1917. The last time we came to Echmiadzin and didn’t go back.”

“Still when we were in Panik, the Turks drafted my uncle’s young sons to the army, then they came and said that the snow on Mount Ararat melted and they remained under it. We never found them. Their families also died on the roads of deportation. My uncle’s wife died in the middle of the road, with her baby in her arms.”

A new life-and-death struggle began in Echmiadzin, where many of the thousands of deportees who had gathered in the monastery yard could not stand hunger, cold and diseases and died.

“Children would die under the walls of the monastery and remained there unburied, they didn’t even have time to collect their dead bodies. There was a pregnant woman who had lost her husband, she came and sat on our bags and gave birth to a child.”

Zarmandukht’s 12-year-old sister decided to go to Gyumri’s orphanage on foot together with her nephew – in search of food and clothes. They both died on the road.

Zarmandukht and her mother settled down in the village of Yonjlakh and later 17-year-old Zarmandukht married Aramayis Khachatryan, who was also a deportee from Igdir. They moved to Yerevan where her husband occupied high posts until his death.

“The fate of my husband’s family was even worse. He lost his father and three little children died in the orphanage. And his seven-year-old sister, Ovsanna, was secretly taken from the orphanage and transferred to an orphanage in America.”

“My mother-in-law would tell her son every day: write an application to the monastery, let the monastery get information from America whether my daughter is alive or not. But who had contacts with America then?” says the old woman.

Zarmandukht was the happiest during the years of her marriage when Aramayis was regional committee secretary (prefect), besides he also occupied other positions. She says that due to the hard work of her husband they lived a carefree life, mixed with the families of almost all high-ranking officials of Soviet Armenia.

In their joint life they had four children, but in 2003 her 63-year-old and 73-year-old sons died within a space of half a year.

“I believed in God, but lately I have lost my faith. How can God take my two sons from me during one year? And such clever boys,” she says.

Zarmandukht’s birthplace in her passport is indicated as Turkey, although in 1910 Panik, Igdir or Surmalu did not historically belong to Turkey.

Towards the end of the conversation the 95-year-old woman enthusiastically offers to sing the “Surmalu” patriotic song. Then she stops.

“I seem to have forgotten the words . . .”