The extraordinary story of 100-year-old Yevnigue Salibian, one of the last people alive who can recall the horror of the Armenian genocide

Her life was saved by the reins of a horse as her family fled the brutality of Ottoman rule

Share

She was a child of the Great War, born on a faraway killing field of which we know little, one of the very last witnesses to the last century’s first genocide, sitting in her wheelchair, smiling at us, talking of Jesus and the Armenian children whipped by the Turkish police whom she saw through the cracks in her wooden front door. It’s not every day you get to meet so finite an observer of human history, and soon, alas, we will not see her like again in our lifetime.

They took me to meet Yevnigue Salibian last week up in the Mission Hills of California, whose warm breezes and palm trees are not unlike the town of Aintab in which she was born more than a hundred years ago. She is an old lady now in a home for the elderly but with a still impeccable memory and an equally sharp and brutal scar on her thigh – which she displays without embarrassment – where a horse’s reins suspended her above a ravine until she almost bled to death in her final flight from her Armenian homeland. “Hushhhhhh,” she says. “That’s how the blood sounded when it poured out of me. “I still remember it: ‘hushhhhhh’, ‘hushhhhhh’.”

The facts of the Armenian Holocaust are as clear and real as those of the later Jewish Holocaust. But they must be repeated because the state of Turkey remains a holocaust denier, still insisting that the Ottoman government did not indulge in the genocide which destroyed a million and a half of its Armenian Christian population almost a century ago. The Armenians were axed and knifed and shot in their tens of thousands, the women and children sent on death marches into the deserts of northern Syria where they were starved and raped and slaughtered. The Turks used trains and a primitive gas chamber, a lesson the Germans learned well. Very soon, there will be no more Yevnigues to tell their story.

She was born on 14 January 1914, the daughter of Aposh Aposhian, an Aintab copper merchant who taught his five children the story of Jesus from a large Bible which he held on his lap as he sat with them on a carpet on the floor of their home. They were – like so many Armenians – a middle-class family, and Aposh had Turkish friends and, although Yevnigue does not say so, it appears he traded with the Ottoman army; which probably saved their lives. When the first deportations began, the Salibians were left in their home, but the genocide lasted till the very last months of the Great War – it had begun within weeks of the Allied landings at Gallipoli – and in 1917, the Turks were still emptying Aintab of its Armenians. That’s when the sound of crying led three-year-old Yevnigue to the front door of her home.

“It was an old wooden door and there were cracks in it and I looked through the cracks,” she says. “There were many children outside without shoes and the Turkish gendarmes were using whips to drive them down the street. A few had parents. We were forbidden to take food to them. The police were using whips on the children and big sticks to beat them with. The sounds of the children screaming on the deportation – still I hear them as I look through the cracked door.”

So many parents were killed in the first year of the Armenian genocide that the orphans – tens of thousands of feral children who swarmed through the land in their absence – were only later driven out by the Turks: these were tiny deportees whom Yevnigue saw. The Aposhians, however, were able to cling on until the French army arrived in eastern Turkey after the Ottoman surrender. But when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk launched a guerrilla war against the French occupiers of his land, the French retreated – and in 1921 the surviving Armenians fled with them to Syria, among them Yevnigue and her family, packed into two horse-drawn carts. She was among the very last Christians to leave her Armenian homeland.

“My family was divided between the two carts. I changed places with an old lady. It was at night and over a ravine, our horses panicked, and the cart overturned and an iron bar killed the old lady and I was thrown over the edge of a bridge and only the horse’s reins saved me when they got wrapped around my leg. Jesus saved me. I hung there and there was the ‘hushhhhhh’ sound of my blood pouring out of me.” Yevnigue shows the harsh scar on her leg. It has bitten deeply into the muscle. She was unconscious for two days, slowly recovering in Aleppo, and then Damascus and finally in the sanctuary of Beirut.

The remainder of her life – as she tells it – was given to God, her husband and the tragedy of losing one of her sons in a Lebanese road accident in 1953. A photograph taken on her arrival in Beirut shows Yevnigue to have been an extraordinarily pretty young woman and she had, she says, many suitors. She eventually chose a bald-headed Evangelical preacher, an older man called Vahran Salibian who had a big smile and whose name – Salibi – means crusader. “He had no hair on his head but he had Jesus in his heart,” Yevnigue announces to me. Vahran died in 1995 after 60 years of marriage and Yevnigue has lost count of her great grandchildren – there are at least 22 so far – but she is happy in her cheerful Armenian nursing home.

“It’s not a good thing to be away from your family – but I like this place. Here, it is my extended family.” She loves America, Yevnigue says. Her family fled there when the civil war began in Lebanon in 1976. “It is a free place. All people come from everywhere to America. But why is our President a Muslim?”

I try to convince her this is untrue. She reads the New Testament every day and she talks constantly of her love for Jesus – this is an old lady who will be happy to die, I think – and when I ask her how she feels today about the Turks who tried to destroy the Armenians, she replies immediately. “I pray for Turkey. I pray for the Turkish officials that they may see Jesus. All that is left of the Prophet Mohamed is dust. But Jesus is alive in heaven.”

And I am taken aback by this, until I suddenly realise that I am not hearing the voice of a hundred-year-old lady. I am listening to a three-year old Armenian girl whose father is reading the Bible on the floor of a house in Aintab and who is looking through the cracks of her wooden front door and witnessing her people’s persecution.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...