90 Years after Musa Dagh: “I remember everything . . .”

Ninety years ago, when she was seven, Varsenik Lagisyan heard voices that would follow her till today:

“Haаааlаh, Haааlаh. We have come to take the priest’s daughter.”

Turkish regulars mounted on their horses shouted the words for villagers of Youghonoluk, in the region of Musa Dagh (Musa Ler, in Armenian) to hear. It is where Versenik lived with her family in 1915. And these were the words that marked the resettlement of Armenians from their homes.

Musa Dagh – made famous in Franz Werfel’s “90 Days at Musa Dagh” – was those few Armenian populated villages, subject to exodus, where people didn’t obey the Turkish government decree of July 26, 1915. According to this order Armenians were given one week to leave their homes and move to the deserts of Syria.

Varsenik clearly remembers how the men and women, old and young, gathered and decided to fight the Turks. They thought “We will either kill, or be killed”. And they decided to climb up Musa Dagh. The mountain was rocky and hard to climb, but its thick forest made a good place for Armenians to hide and to defend themselves for 40 days, until help arrived.

Life on the mountain was difficult. Because of the rush and obstacles on the road, not much could be brought to the mountain. The villagers would just leave their doors open and climb the mountain without hardly taking anything with them. It was 40 days of hardship, but the alternative was death.

There were times when they had nothing to eat, except berries they could find in the forest. Fortunately it was fig and cornel (a type of berry) season.

“Mothers had nothing to fееd their children with. Nor could they light a fire, since the light would bring the Turks to our shelter and that will be the end of all our attempts to survive,” Versenik recalls.

Varsenik recollects her memories of the time spent on the mountain. She would help her mother and other women on the mountains to bake bread, do the washing, while the men were busy preventing the attempts of the Turks to climb the mountain.

Varsenik’s brightest memory of her childhood is the trip from Musa Dagh to Port Said, Egypt. After defending for 40 days Armenian white linen sheets, with messages signaling that Christians were in danger, were seen by French battle-ships and the Armenians were taken to Port Said. This is where Varsenik and her family together with other Musa Dagh villagers found their home for four years.

“The priest said that those who have small children can not come on board. They will cry and the Turks will find us” Varsenik remembers the priest’s words.

She can remember very well the sight which they saw when their ship put ashore.

Оlive, mandarin and fig trees with their branches bent under the rich crop. All the children would run to gather the fruits. They would run from tree to tree, they would greedily gather the fruits with laughter and joy. I remember. I remember everything.”

Varsenik also remembers that on their way to Egypt a woman gave birth to a child, symbolizing a new beginning in the history of Musa Dagh villagers. But Varsenik’s family mourned. Their happiness of salvation was saddened by her uncle’s death. He was wounded on the mountain and died on board the ship. All in all, Varsenik says she was lucky to have all her immediate family members alive and together.

Varsenik had a big family. She was the eldest of the 8 children. Her father was a shop keeper and had a lot of goats. Her mother was a housekeeper.

The family lived in Egypt for four years, during which time Varsenik – no more than 11 at the time – married a boy from her village, and would later have five children.

After living in the country that gave them bread to eat and a roof to have above their head they left for Russian- Armenia that was under Russian rule at that time. They left for their motherland.

They settled in AlaVerdi, but again found themselves short of money and food. Varsenik would knit socks and handkerchiefs to earn their leaving.

If her 40 days on Musa Dagh bring black thoughts, it seems that a lot of good memories connect Varsenik with her temporary shelter in Egypt. First the brightest memories of fruits, trees, laughter and happiness of her relatives, friends and the second, her marriage.

Varesenik’s children have their own children. And now Varsenik’s family is as big as it was in the times in Musa Dagh, before memories of Turks on horses, making threats and shaping a horrible history . . .