A friend of mine sent me an email that was a documentary about the migration of Armenians from the diaspora to Soviet Armenia in the late nineteen forties. The migration is known as Ներգաղթ. “Nairqaght” (The immigration). For my birthplace, Kessab, a village in Syria, the Nairqaght was like a large-scale out-migration that I witnessed as a young boy.
The months prior to the day of the actual Nairqaght, the talk of the town was the resignation of the ARF (Dashnagtsoutyun) members from the organization. (It was a requirement by the Soviet Armenian authorities). As a young boy, at the time, I did not comprehend the politics of the Nairqaght. My understanding was that the resignation was perceived to be a bad thing, and only the weak ones will do so. In a way, I was pleased that no one from our immediate family members did resign.
Some of the wordings of the resignation letters that were rumored/circulated were sort of embarrassing for the signatories. Words like “I resign with disgust (զզուանքով) from Anti-Armenian ARF organization”, or “I resign from the traitor (դաւաճան) ARF organization” etc. Apparently, there were few ARF members who resigned and among them was Albert Gerjikian? (Gairjins Albertuh), a store owner, who was rumored to be a high-ranking ARF leader in the village, and the father of a young girl who was a classmate of mine.
I remember the actual Nairqaght day fairly well. It was a bright sunny day. The church bells start to ring continuously, and the people started heading to the “bus terminal” Խոդը (Khotuh). As a young boy, I was wondering why the church bells were ringing. (A narrow pedestrian road separated our house from the church, and the church bell was just in front of our front porch).
At the time, my understanding was that the church bell rang only for the church services, or when death had happened. (When the death notification bell rang it always conveyed the sad news with a special “tune”. It rang three times with short intervals, and lasted for a few minutes).
That day my mother had a very sad look on her face. She was standing on the front porch and wishing farewell and good luck to everyone passing in front of our front porch. I had never seen the pedestrian path in front of our house so busy. Everyone heading to the Khot, for the out-migration, was carrying heavy personal belongings.
When we saw Mkho nanar (nanar means grandmother in Kessab dialect) coming out of the church, my mother walked down from the porch and we followed her. Mkho Nanar hugged and kissed us and told my mother not to deprive my older brother of the church, and added, one day he will be an important person but she will not be able to witness it.
My mother and Mkho Nanar hugged each other while crying out loud which made us cry too. (Mkho Nanar was an old and very pious lady who seldom missed any church service. She loved us like her own grandchildren, especially my older brother, who was also a very pious person and attended almost all the church services).
We followed Mkho Nanar to the Khot. There were many open trucks lined up on the two-lane main road. The whole village people seem to be there. Everybody was hugging each other and crying, and then the ones who were traveling climbed on the open trucks.
Soon the trucks start arriving from the nearby villages and lined up on the road. Everyone on the trucks wanted to come down and say a lase farewell to their relatives in Kessab, but were not allowed to do so. My maternal grandmother who had many relatives in the village of Kaladuran was crying out loud that made all of us cry as well. It was sad, very sad.
Soon the truck drivers started to blow their horns and the trucks started moving away. Everyone was waving goodbye and crying. About half of the more than five thousand population of Kessab, and the nearby smaller villages, were gone within minutes.
Needless to say, close relatives and friends were separated and missed greatly. I recall one young man (the son of the postman by the name of Noubar “Postajain Nubaruh”) left his parents and siblings and joined his departing grandparents. Another young mother (a maternal relative of ours) left her husband and two young children, a boy, and a girl, and joined her departing parents as well. It was a sad day for everyone.
In hindsight, the large-scale Nairqaght from almost every diaspora community was an unprecedented and huge undertaking initiated by the Soviet Armenian authorities. It never got repeated again. It probably remains one and the only large-scale Nairqaght organized by any Armenian government in the history of the Armenian people.
With all its shortcomings and huge personal sacrifices, the Nairqaght served its purpose. It was initiated to increase the population of Soviet Armenia to help minimize the impact of the heavy casualties suffered by young Armenian soldiers serving in the Soviet Army during the second world war. (The war is known in Armenia as the Great Patriotic War. (Հայրենական Մեծ Պատերազմը).
As for Kessab, this out-migration had a significant negative impact. As I said earlier, apart from the huge social “cost” caused by the separation of families and close friends, the economic cost was significant as well. The ones that left were mostly the hardworking farmers who cultivated the land and produced the crops that sustained the village life.
After the Nairqaght, the remaining families had to hire non-A Armenian farm workers (mostly Alevis) to cultivate the land. This Alevi population eventually grew and settled in Kessab and thus started the decline of Kessab’ distinct and centuries-old Armenian identity.
Today, Kessab is populated almost equally with Armenians and local Alevis. There is a Public School that is free, and there is an Armenian School with tuition fees. As usual, the Armenian School implements the public school program in full, plus, teaches the Armenian language and history. (I have heard that few Alevi students attend the Armenian School as well).
Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian.