On the morrow of the tragic death of Ishkhan, all communications with Aikesdan were blocked by the government. During the early dawn of April 20th, the Defense Council was exploring means of contacting Aikesdan. The council was also informed that morning, that Armenian families were moving into the center section from peripheral locations, thus causing alarm. Immediately, unarmed men were sent to reassure them and to stop mass movement which, otherwise, would have undesirable effects. Men were instructed to scrutinize the movement of Turks and to discover the cause of the sudden panic. We found out that all exits were being guarded. Men at the lookout point reported hearing rifle blasts from Aikesdan. We immediately verified the report. The sound came from a great distance, now scattered shots, now a crescendo. It crossed our minds, this might be a clash between Jevdet's forces and other Turks opposing his policies. We soon learned that Burhannedin Bey, Commandant of the gendarmery, had loudly announced at Massman fountain, “Tell the Prelate, Armenians in the city have nothing to fear. Do not be disturbed, the government has taken steps to punish trouble makers in Aikesdan. The Prelate may confirm this by visiting Burhannedin Bey.”
The gradually intensifying rifle fire now seemed to be centered in Aikesdan. Occasional cannon fire made it very clear that fighting had already started there. The misleading assurances of Jevdet and Burhannedin had one purpose only, to concentrate the entire fire power of the government on Aikesdan and subdue it first, then turn against the old city.
Our combatants were asked to be at their posts, ready to resist the frenzied Moslem mob when they attacked. For the first few days, while Aikesdan was plunged into general and bloody conflict, the city was quiet. Then, without any provocation, rifles started to crack and murderous shells poured into the Armenian quarters from the top of the castle rock. It all started to happen at 9:00 A.M., April 20th, 1915.
An armed Turkish mob attempted to penetrate Armenian quarters, rushing out from westerly Turkish wards. Our defenders stopped them at the Karagoezian house. Simultaneously from the east a squad of cavalrymen followed by militia were advancing for attack. The combatants, assigned to our Panos Marootian defense, had barely occupied their posts when they detected the attackers. Deserting the protection of the barricades, they rushed out to meet the enemy, killing four and causing the enemy to flee.
It is not possible for me to describe the animation, the dash, the enthusiasm of these young men during the initial phases of the resistance. They manned their posts with exemplary courage, built barricades and ramparts, bricked in windows, pierced holes in the walls ready to meet the beastlike foe, who already had secreted one hundred twenty regulars and many Kurds at the Terzibashian, and sixty militiamen at the Jidechian buildings.
Messengers rushed in to either ask for help or announce successes. The Armenian Democratic Party put its members at the disposal of the Defense Command, who hastened to reinforce the posts, where required.
The two storied, sprawling building, housing the Military Procurement was flanked on the east by Police headquarters, on the south, by the Armory and on the west, by the Courthouse. The top floor contained offices, the ground floor, a restaurant with plate glass windows and a tailor shop. It was a very serious threat to our positions. Our aim was to occupy this seemingly impregnable building; fading, we were to set fire to it. Haro, the area leader of Section 2, his leaders, and men dashed out of their barricade at Tzetzian’s house to carry out the task. As the group advanced, armed with needed courage and cunning, a Mrs. Aghavny Varbedian, a woman about forty years old and a mother, begged to accompany them as guide. The entrance door was impossible to demolish. She called them, “Come over here, break this door down”. In a few minutes the passage was secured. Mrs. Varbedian helped by encouraging the men and participating in the work. Soon they were out of danger of the Turkish bullets. Others came in from the door and broke windows. They had to lay flat on the floor as the windows were barely twenty-four inches above it. Others broke through the ceiling and the entire building was occupied. This handful of heros were able to hold off the enemy until nightfall, in spite of the continuous vicious fire directed at them from three sides. Taking advantage of the darkness, they bricked in the windows, made barricades, and were ready for whatever might come the next day. This was a terrible blow for the Turks who tried to set fire to it at night. Mrs. Varbedian’s watchful eyes noticed the danger in time. “Water, water,” she cried, “they are setting fire to the building, water..hurry.” The fire was put out in short order and the men yelled, “Long live lady Aghavni! Bravo! Bravo!.”
Leader Armenag Mirzakhanian was wounded in the arm. He handed his rifle to another saying, “Fight on brother.” Israel of Sighert was wounded in the lip and the rest of the men carried on the fight as if they were trained and professional soldiers.
Our plans called for the occupation of the Courthouse at the same time. We tried but failed due to clandestine arrangements made by the owner of Jidechian warehouse. This was a large building with stone walls. There were ten stores and shops on the ground floor while the second floor was occupied by the Provincial Court. It was well built and of great strategic importance. The Defense Command had secured the promise of the night watchman, Chooro, to let our men into the building when fighting started. This unsuspecting peasant had revealed it to the owners, who ordered him to lock all doors and deliver the keys to Police Headquarters. Turkish police and gendarmes occupied the building without delay. Poor Chooro was the first innocent victim. Turks shot him and dumped his body in front of our defense. Unaware of the treachery, our men advanced along St. Sahag church, found the doors locked and when they tried to break down the door, Turks opened fire from their ambush. They left in a hurry.
While this was going on, a large number of irregulars were bent on avenging their losses at the first skirmish with our Marootian defense. Artillery, placed atop the rock, pounded the Armenian section for hours, particularly, the Marootian house. Another cannon placed at the cemetery of Haifavank shelled the front walls of it, but its defenders, Levon, Mihran, Avo, Avedis and their comrades stood their ground. By killing the two gunners, they silenced the cannon, but not before one of its shells had shattered the thigh of our inveterate fighter, Avedis Varbedian. He begged to be allowed to fight on, but soon succumbed to the wound. Sensing the distressed situation, area leader, David Sarkissian, accompanied by two combatants left the Shishgo post to rush to Marootian’s aid. He was struck in the face just before reaching there. His assistant, Levon Kaljian, took command and by the arrival of fresh reinforcements, the enemy was thrown back after five hours of fighting of unprecedented ferocity.
The Turks hoped to demoralize and crush the resistance by their tremendous fire power and incessant attacks against all our positions. They possessed all strategic advantages. Even mosques and minarets were turned into fortifications containing death dealing machines and a fanatical force to operate them. They wished to annihilate the handful of Armenians in the old city, to turn its narrow streets into blood baths, and to enjoy free play for their beastly atrocities, which Turkish instinct alone is capable of contriving and only a Turk can revel at the sight.
As the first day of conflict drew to its close, Turkish losses were 60 to 70 dead and 80 or more wounded. We suffered four wounded, one of them Mrs. Varbedian who was struck in the hand.
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Fighting did not stop at night. Shells kept on pouring down from above and rifle fire was intensified. Innumerable red flashes criss-crossed in the dark and the din of the explosions was deafening. It seemed the Turks were ready to rush us that night. Therefore, the Defense Command decided to destroy, at all costs, those anchors of Turkish offensive that were in or near the Armenian quarters. The list included the Jidechian building, Police Headquarters, the Military Procurement warehouse, the Armory, the Terzibashian building, which housed the offices of the “Regie”, the Post-Telegraph, the Ottoman Bank, and the Public Debt and Sanitation.
This all important task was entrusted to Haro and his group. They started with the Courthouse. The wall was pierced but an intense fire from within stopped them. A violent cross fire ensued. A sixteen year old boy, Aram Gabarogian, taking advantage of the momentary confusion rushed and set fire to the building. In less than fifteen minutes the whole building was blazing and illuminating the city. Next they succeeded in destroying the Terzibashian complex by fire. Inside were eighty militiamen and forty of the best Kurdish fighters of Avdo. We fired upon them from our Goghadian brothers and Cook Bedross house. The enemy answered with violent rifle fire peppered with insults and blasphemies.
“Hey. You funny Armenians, we are Avdo’s Kurds and Jevdet’s faithful dogs. There will be no escape for you.”
“Hey. LO. LO.,” echoed in Kurdish the leader. “We are the cubs of the lion Ishkhan. We will soon burn your building and roast you in the process.”
Between the deadly crossfire, Goghadian Mardiros and Arem Gabaroogian carefully crawled to the building. We could hear the noise of the axes striking the door which soon gave in and was set on fire. The conflagration hardly had a good start before it was put out by the Turks inside. Yet the decision was irrevocable. The building had to be destroyed.
Sarkis Shahinian, assistant leader, leaped on the roof from the roof of an adjoining building while the enemy was occupied by the fire. Through an opening in the roof, he dropped the bomb he was carrying.
A moment later it exploded with a tremendous roar. Inside the Turks and the Kurds panicked. The flames quickly devoured the structure.
Before dawn, the same night, the Police Headquarters and the warehouse of the Military Procurement were also fed to the fire.
As a result of these successes, the morale of the people, as well as of the combatants, was greatly improved. Turks were surprised at this exhibition of courage, cunning and endurance on the part of the Armenians. A number of Turkish families, fearful of the outcome, had taken refuge in the castle fortifications above, or moved to Shamiram.
Jevdet exclaimed in desperation, the government’s prestige is besmirched and lost.
In his letter of May 2nd, Jevdet Bey stated; “Armenians in the city, you have done, are doing, a lot of damage. It grieves me to see that you, fighting so bravely, are not imbued with love for the government.”
That night, by order of the Defense Command, Der Boghossian and auxiliary posts in or at Turkish quarters, were deserted and burned. The men who had been fighting all of the preceding day were safely transferred to Unuzes house under cover of darkness.