ARMENIA and THE NEAR EAST.

This is the title of a book written by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen (1861 – 1930). He is a Norwegian, and as per the introduction of the book “a man of many facets: scientist, orientalist, diplomat, author, humanitarian, explorer, oceanographer, and laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize”. Emphasis mine.(A quick Google search shows not only the above is true, but he is also a man of many remarkable achievements).

The book is 325 pages long. It was first published in Norwegian in 1927. The same year it was translated and published in English both in London and New York, and French in Paris. It was re-published in 2011 by Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias Lebanon, with a short introduction by Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia.

The book is well researched, well written, and reads like a travelogue of a long journey that Dr. Nansen undertook as the High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations, and the head of a Commission (appointed by the League of Nations), of four people specialized and experienced in agriculture, irrigation, and hydraulic, engineering.

The mission was to go to Soviet Armenia and on the spot study the possibility of the irrigation and cultivation of the “so- called Sardarabad desert” near Erivan, (the capital city of Soviet Armenia).

League of Nations wanted to know if by the irrigation and the cultivation of the “desert” near Erivan, there will be good enough economic and habitable conditions to warrant the transfer of “fifty thousand Armenian refugee who were living in great destitution in various countries”.

The trip lasted from June 4 to July 2 1925. The longue journey started from Trieste in Italy, to Athens Greece, to Constantinople Turkey, to Batum and Tiflis in Soviet Georgia, and then to Leninakan and Erivan in Soviet Armenia.

Apart from the 3 chapters dedicated to Georgian and Armenian history, Dr. Nansen’s presentations of the historical events of the ancient times, dates, places of the areas they visited, are so well written that, they sometimes –overshadow some of the activities they undertook as Commission members.

Here is how Dr. Nansen describes his first impression of Armenia looking through the window of the — train. “The country was bare and treeless; nothing green in sight, and no wooded slops. Was this parched, dun-colored land to be cultivated for for refugees?. It did not look very promising”.

After arriving in Erivan on June 17 and till July 2, the commission members with the cooperation of a local committee of specialists that were appointed by the government of Armenia, worked very long hours and through many meetings and on site expeditions, studied the ways and means how to irrigate the “so- called Sardarabad desert”.

It is fascinating to read the close cooperation of the commission members and the local committee members. At the end, due to financial considerations, and the length of the time it will take to accomplish the project, they mutually agreed on a smaller project which was,

“To drain (a large swamp area) and irrigate Kara-su region and Zangabasar, (currently named Masis, just short distance south of Erivan) that will be far easier to carry out, take less time, and involve a smaller expenditure. We calculated that in this way at least 81,000 acres of fertile land could be cultivated; and that at least 25,000people (probably a considerably larger number) could obtain a livelihood there.

We held that it will be a very good thing to begin, preferably as soon as possible by draining the swampy stretches, which besides being the work that was easiest, would do great deal to diminish the prevalence of malaria.

We further proposed that the Armenian refugees in Europe should be utilized to the fullest possible extent as labourers in these enterprises.

The Armenian Government agreed that at least 15,000 of the settlers on this new land should be Armenian refugees brought by us from Europe.

There was complete agreement, therefore, between the Armenian Government and ourselves in regard to the plans and the course of action that seemed desirable”.

The commission was pleased that “By developing this fertile land it might be possible at long last to make life fairly safe and prosperous for an incredibly mal treated people. Accordingly we considered that we had every reason to believe that the Governments of the Great Powers would gladly give their adhesion to this plan, and thus honour, without incurring any great sacrifice, some, at least, of their pledges to the Armenians”. Dr. Nansen further writes.

“Accounts of the investigations made by our commission, and the proposals based upon them, will be found in our various reports to the League of Nations. They have been collected in a little book published by Secretariat at Geneva and titled A Scheme for the Settlement of the Armenian Refugees. General Survey and Principal Documents, Geneva, 1927” (Emphasis by Dr. Nansen)

Unfortunately Dr. Nansen does not write explicitly whether the League of Nations took any action to implement even this smaller plan. I am also wondering what the Armenian community leadership in diaspora that so actively tried to secure the passage of the Severe Treaty in 1920 did to help facilitate this urgently needed humanitarian project.

But, if some of Dr. Nansen’s concluding remarks (quoted at the end of this Monologue) are of any indication, even this smaller project, did not seem to have been materialized with the financial support of the Allied Powers or the League of Nations.

Apart from their activities to study and prepare a plan for their project, the Commission members were very pleased to witness the opening of an irrigation project “THE NEW CANAL NEAR LENINAKAN” that included a dam, a tunnel, and canals, which could be considered as a small prototype of the project they have agreed on. Here is in part how Dr. Nansen describes it starting from page 160.

“Sunday, June 21st, had arrived at last — the great day of the opening of the new Shiraksky Canal, whereby about 20,000 acres of new, dry land was to be irrigated and rendered fertile. It was a damp pilgrimage — the tunnel was 2.5 kilometers long. The sluice -gates of the dam and the tunnel were lowered and closed. At once the water starts to rise rapidly behind the dam. Soon there was a big lake above the dam, and it went on rising.

” Next came the opening. Together with the president of Armenia and Commissar of the Agriculture and a number of others, including Mr. Yarrow, of the Near East Relief, I was asked to cross to the suspension bridge to the sluice at the mouth of the tunnel. At a given signal the sluice-gate in front of the tunnel, start rising, and the water began to flow with increasing force into the tunnel. One could picture it filling the canals out on the plain and spreading its life-giving far and wide over the thirsty soil”.

The work as a whole, including the dam, the tunnel, and the canal, made a favorable impression, and our expert, Mr. Dupuis, had nothing but praise for it; the undertaking was carefully thought out, cleverly planned, and well carried out.

As we had come to Armenia specially to study the prospects of artificial irrigation and the cultivation of new land, we were particularly lucky to have been present at the opening of a new canal, to have seen how a great undertaking of that kind could be carried out”.

Apart from the “Sardarabad desert” project, and the possibility of the settlement of the Armenian refugees, the commission members also had to visit some of the schools and humanitarian assistance undertakings that American Near East Relief was doing in Soviet Armenia. (Emphasis mine).

Here is in part what Dr. Nansen writes about that visits that starts from page 170 and is titled. “THE WORK OF THE NEAR EAST RELIEF IN ARMENIA”

“We now had to study what the great organization of the American Near East Relief had done for the education of the thousands of Armenian orphan children, and for the cultivation of the country. This organization had several sections round Leninakan. This “communities”, as they were called, were housed in large buildings — chiefly barracks from the days of Russian garrison — on the plain outside the town.

First we visited the well-appointed hospital, where we saw all that was being done for sick children and their relations, and for many others who came from long distances to get treatment. The doors were seldom closed so long as there was room for any one.

In the afternoon we visited the Seversky Community, where we were enthusiastically welcomed by the four thousand (emphasis mine) girls, all dressed in their best, who lived there, and were of all ages from two or three years upwards. It was encouraging to see all those happy, radiant faces, and to notice the way they gathered round and clung to Miss MacCay, the head of the institution.

On the following morning (Tuesday, June 23rd) we went over a third section of the Near East Relief: the Polygon Community, with 3,500 boys and 1,500 girls. Here we saw the little gardens which the boys had made ready in advance to receive the water on the great day when the canal should be opened.

And sure enough it had come! –rippling down the little runnels they have dug for it. Then more — and still more! Indescribable jubilation! All the boys set to work at once to splash the water about with their tin boxes. But one genius found out that the water could be diverted in other direction by damning it up with earth; and this discovery was quickly exploited by every one else.

(I know exactly what Dr. Nansen is describing here. My maternal grand father, (Baibo), thought me this process when I was a young boy in Kessab Syria. In Kessab dialect it was called “mashara chriluh”. It was great fun, specially so, when the water was coming fast through the incoming — runnel).

This completed our two day’s ventures. We had now seen all the different institutions of the Near East Relief at Leninakan. These included homes and schools for 11,000 orphans, probably the largest number to be found assembled anywhere. We were deeply impressed by the magnificent work which had been done, and was still being done, to bring these children up to be efficient members of the society. Especially as many thousands of these healthy, happy, and clever children had actually been reclaimed from death. Moreover, we had seen a colony at Sardarabd, where a thousand young men educated in these homes were cultivating new land. A truly great achievement this, in healing the wounds of war”.

(Dr. Nansen also lists 2 other institutions that were run by Near East Relief in the northern part of Armenia. Here is what he writes).

“In a valley up in the north of the country there was an agricultural school belonging to the Near East Relief; also, farther to the north, an agricultural station where a number of older lads were working and learning scientific methods of the agriculture”. Very impressive indeed.

The last chapter (page 280 – 324 about 45 pages) is titled “ARMENIA IN MODERN TIMES”.

I am fairly familiar with this part of the Armenian History mainly through the memoirs, and the books of “The History of Republic of Armenian” by the two Prime Minsters of Republic of Armenia Simon Vratsian, and Alexander Khadissian, and the Minster of Defense, Rupen Ter Minassian. Needless to say, all three of them were active participants of the historic events of that era and all of them in leadership roles as well.

But, it was an altogether different experience to read about that period of the Armenian History written by Dr. Nansen a none Armenian and an “orientalist, diplomat, author, humanitarian, and laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize”. The book is a “must read” for anyone who is interested in Armenian history.

Here are few of Dr. Nansen’s concluding remarks. (Let us not forget that, most of his observations were written around 1925 – 1927 and his sources of information were mainly obtained through foreign eye witness reports, foreign diplomatic reports, foreign governments archives, and two books written by none Armenian authors. One by A.M. Benedictsen, “Armenien“, Copenhagen 1925, and the other be A.N. Mandelstam “La Societe des Nations et les Puissances devant le Problem Armenien“, Parise 1925).

Here is what Dr. Nansen writes about the Treaty of Sevres.

“Unfortunately, however, the Turco-Armenian territories in question were still in Turkish occupation. The allies did not explain how the Armenians were to get them; nor did they take any steps whatsoever to carry out the new obligations they had undertaken, and secure to the Armenians the area they have given them on paper.

The whole transaction strikes one as a sorry farce — as if the statesmen of the Great Powers took it granted that obligations undertaken in respect of a small people, with no natural sources of wealth, are of no importance if they prove inconvenient.

Encouraged by their strange indifferences, Mustafa Kemal refused to be bound by the treaty, although the legal Government of Turkey had signed it; and he attacked the Armenians instead. The Allied Powers, as usual, took no notice; they had allowed the Armenians to shed their blood in the Allied causes, and had rewarded them with a worthless document“. (Emphasis mine)

Referring to League of Nations inability to support the homeless Armenian refugees Dr. Nansen writes.

“Why does the league of Nations set up committees to see whether anything can be done, for the homeless Armenian refugees? Is it meant as a salve for tender consciences, if any such still remains?

But what is the good of it, when proposals made after conscientious inquiries and recommended by all the experts, cannot secure the support of the governments of the Allied Powers; and when the Powers coldly refuse to make even the most modest sacrifice to relieve the destitute refugees for whom they have promised to do so much”?

And hear are few of the reasons why the League of Nations and The Allied Powers, should have helped the Armenian people.

1. Because the Armenians were encouraged by promises of freedom to support the Allied cause during the war, and suffered for this cause so tragically.

2. Because during the war and since the Armistice, the statesmen of the Allied and Associated Powers have given repeated pledges to secure the liberation and independence of the Armenian Nation

3. Because in part Great Britain is responsible for the final dispersion of the Ottoman Armenians after the sack of Smyrna in 1922.

4. Because the £5,000,000 (Turkish gold) deposited by the Turkish Government in Berlin, 1916, and taken by over by the Allies after the Armistice, was in large part (perhaps wholly) Armenian money.

5. Because the present conditions of the refugees are unstable and demoralizing; and constitute a reproach to the Western Powers . . .

(All the above quotes, and the emphases, are by Dr. Nansen. It is copied from a letter dated September 1924 addressed to Ramsay MacDonald, at the time the Prime Minster of Great Britain. The letter was signed by — Mr. Stanley Baldwin, the Leader of Conservative Party of Great Britain, and by Mr. H.H. Asquith the leader of the Liberal Party of Great Britain, “urging that Great Britten ought to give a large sum of help to the Armenian refugees in Greece and Balkans etc.”)

Needless to say Neither the League of Nations, nor the Allied Powers or Great Britain took any action to honor their pledges. Here is what Dr. Nansen writes.

One should think that this concise and challenging appeal by the leading statesmen of Great Britain could not be ignored; and no doubt Mr. Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party would gladly have done what was asked.

But he (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald the Prime Minster and the Labour Party Leader) was shortly afterwards defeated, (Oct. 29, less than — 2 months from the date of the letter) and the Conservative Party led by Mr. Baldwin, came into power. Surely the time has come at last! But Mr. Baldwin’s Government refused to do anything whatsoever for the Armenian Nation, or for the refugees to whom some compensation was “morally due”.

Mr. Nansen has some harsh words for the League of the Nations as well.

“And the League of Nations — has it no feeling of responsibility either? It was assumed that the League of Nations would not espouse a cause of this nature without being able to deal with it satisfactorily, especially after all the pledges by the Powers. Does the League consider that it has now done its duty, and does it imagine that it can let the matter drop without undermining the prestige of the League, especially in the East”?

Dr. Nansen ends this last chapter (and the book) with the following.

“Woe to the Armenians, that they were ever drawn into European politics! It would have been better for them if the name of Armenia had never been uttered by any European diplomatist

But the Armenian people have never abandoned hope; they have gone on bravely working, and waiting . . . year after year. They are waiting still”.

How true, and very sad indeed.

Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian

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