The Sanjak of Alexandretta/Iskenderun was an autonomous province within Syria during the interwar years. Its inhabitants included a significant number of Armenian natives and refugees, among them the indigenous population of Musa Dagh near Antioch. A political crisis beginning in 1936 shook Sanjak society to its core, as winds of change from a French mandate to Turkish suzerainty increasingly caused panic. The turmoil grew to alarming proportions for the Arabs, Alawites, and Christians when a farcical “election” in the summer of 1938 installed a Turkish majority in the Sanjak’s legislature. A year later Turkey annexed the area. This was the final straw that compelled the overwhelming majority of Armenians, among other groups, to seek refuge in other parts of Syria as well as Lebanon, refusing to live under Turkish rule.
During the period between the summer of 1938 and the summer of 1939, socioeconomic life in Musa Dagh deteriorated rapidly. Exports and imports from and into the Sanjak were drastically reduced. Merchants conducting business with Aleppo were obliged to deposit with the Hatay government a sum equal to the value of their merchandise as collateral. After selling the goods the merchants had to convert the Syrian lira into the Turkish lira to be able to carry their money back into the Sanjak. The merchants were able to regain only 70 percent of the collateral they had deposited at the time of export, that is to say, the government kept 30 percent as tax on profits, in addition to customs fees. As a result, unemployment in Musa Dagh rose to 90 percent. Construction was halted. Artisans sold their merchandize for 25 percent less, and bought other necessities for 25 percent more. Poverty and misery became rampant.
Beginning in late spring 1939, Turkish police posts were set up in and near the Armenian villages. There was also an attempt to establish Turkish Halkevleri (nationalistic people’s houses, i.e., clubs) with the help of Armenian collaborators, described as “paid enthusiastic Kemalist propagandist agents.” They reported regularly on compatriots who remained opposed to the emergent Turkish regime, and even sent representatives to propagandize about the Sanjak (then called the Hatay Republic) among Musa Dagh expatriates in Aleppo, Damascus, and Beirut.
When in April 1939 two French senators, who were also members of the French Mediterranean Committee opposed to the Sanjak’s annexation to Turkey, visited Musa Dagh, they received an immense popular reception. After their departure, a number of Armenians were arrested. Serop Sherbetjian was sacked from his Musa Dagh governorship position. Tateos Babigian from Vakef replaced him as an appointee of the Turkish regime in Antioch.
On June 30, 1939, the Armenian National Union (ANU) in Beirut sent High Commissioner Gabriel Puaux a letter signed by the political and religious leaders, including the Primate of the Aleppo Ardavazt Surmeyian. In it, they expressed with sadness the fact that efforts in Paris had failed to save the Sanjak; that the Armenians and especially those of Musa Dagh would be the biggest losers; that they wanted to live under French protection given Turkey’s record of persecutions and massacres; that the Musa Daghians must be settled as a group in a mountainous area in Lebanon reminiscent of Musa Dagh and affording agricultural opportunities; and that France should assume the transportation expenses.
Four days later, on July 4, Bishop Surmeiyan sent Puaux a letter, saying that since “the question of selling their [the Musa Daghians’] houses is dead,” they should at least be allowed to carry their movable belongings. He similarly asked that the goods be inspected when packed in the villages rather than at the border customs to avoid long lines and undue delays, that laissez-passers be issued free of charge, and so on.
When Col. Philibert Collet, the French officer in charge of the Armenians’ exodus, heard rumors that the Musa Daghians were contemplating burning their homes before departure, he issued a call for them to leave their doors open and their homes and orchards intact. Those rumors proved unfounded.
Collet similarly instructed Khat Achabahian, prelate of the Sanjak Armenians, to form special committees to determine the number of persons and livestock, and the weight of movable belongings that would be transported. The Musa Dagh survey revealed the following results: 1,272 families or 7,888 persons, 3,232 animals, and 781 tons of luggage. These figures were later adjusted at the Ras al-Basit encampment as follows: 1,204 families (68 families less), 5,125 persons (2,763 persons less), approximately 1,850 tons of goods (nearly 2.5 times more than the initial amount). The reasons for these changes will be discussed in a more comprehensive study.
Those who stayed behind
Not all Armenians elected to leave Musa Dagh. Such cases numbered 68 families or 384 persons, constituting about 6 percent of Musa Dagh’s total population. The breakdown was as follows: 4 families/12 persons in Bitias; 1 family/8 persons in Haji Habibli; 4 families/28 persons in Yoghunoluk; 4 families/27 persons in Kheder Beg; 3 families/15 persons in Kabusiye; 11 families/64 persons in Zeituniye in the nearby plain of Svedia; and 41 families/232 persons in Vakef. Most of these families lived together as a group in Vakef. Presently Vakef is showcased as the sole Armenian village left in Turkey.
They stayed behind for several reasons. To begin with, these Armenians believed that they could live peacefully and harmoniously in republican Turkey (intense Turkish propaganda aided in shaping this favorable opinion). Second, it was emotionally and psychologically difficult for them to abandon their ancestral lands (this torment certainly applied to those who elected to depart, as well). Third, they entertained the false hope that they would be able to acquire the fixed properties abandoned by those who left. Fourth, they belonged to a political faction—mainly members and sympathizers of the Social Democrat Hnchakian Party—that had failed to break the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s (ARF) hold on the governance of Musa Dagh during the interwar years. Therefore, by staying they would be able to rid themselves of the ARF’s dominance. That being said, most others with similar anti-ARF sentiments still decided to leave the area.
The exodus from Musa Dagh took place from July 15-20, 1939. The goods were shipped by boat to Ras al-Basit, between Kesab and Latakia; the women, children, and the elderly rode trucks and buses, and the men walked, some of them accompanying the animals. Turkish soldiers manning border checkpoints inspected the goods strictly in search of weapons, especially. Some Turkish civilians attacked the caravans and stole about 340 animals, killed 4 pigs, and took 330 Syrian liras. Turkish gendarmes succeeded in retrieving just 63 animals, and only a fraction of the money.
When the refugees arrived at the Armenian enclave of Kesab, the locals welcomed them with open arms by offering food, water, and tan (yogurt juice). Then, at Qastal Muaf, en route to Ras al-Basit, they were vaccinated against typhoid.
The camp at Ras al-Basit
The first batch of refugees arrived at Ras al-Basit on July 18 and camped in the open, as no shelter was available. As the rest began to join them, they congregated in groups according to their villages. Families built sheds with branches and whatever materials they could muster, and hoisted the French flags on them. They made water sources in the immediate vicinity operational with pumps, and opened ditches just 50 meters away from the camp to be used as restrooms. This unsanitary arrangement attracted “millions” of flies, which caused serious health problems. The women cooked food outdoors, while the men herded the animals and opened makeshift stores. People commuted to Latakia to purchase necessities. The French government paid 25 Syrian liras per adult and 10 liras per child under the age of 10 beginning on Aug. 7.
Social life resumed to some degree. The various denominations in each village-grouping worshipped in their respective “churches.” The political parties held their own meetings. Some voluntary associations likewise tried to keep a semblance of normalcy. For example, the annual meeting of the Union of Former Légion Arménienne Combatants took place on Aug. 24 in the presence of 173 members. An executive committee was elected unanimously. A report of activities read revealed the type and amount of donations that the Union had received beginning in the second half of 1938 from the Syrian Armenian Relief Cross in Aleppo (one box of medicines), and Union affiliates in France (1,600 FF) and the United States ($240).
A Central Relief Committee approved by the French and Vicar General Bedros Sarajian of the Catholicosate of Cilicia at Antelias, Lebanon, managed all refugee affairs. The Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Central Executive in Paris cooperated by forming an Extraordinary Central Fundraising Committee on July 21. In turn, the Harach (meaning “forward,” in Armenian) newspaper in Paris made its front pages available to publish the lists of donors from Europe and North Africa. Compatriots from the United States likewise contributed.
Due to the unsanitary living conditions, disease increased to an alarming degree, afflicting children especially. Torrential rains from Aug. 22-24 soaked the campers and exacerbated the situation. Collet sent 12 tents to shelter the children. A French military doctor established a six-bed infirmary. An Armenian pharmacist from Aleppo donated 100 Syrian liras worth of medicines. A maternity with 20 beds was also opened in Latakia with a midwife sent by the Syrian Armenian Relief Cross; by Aug. 30, some 180 sick and elderly people were admitted. A French military health inspector, upon visiting Ras al-Basit, ordered the transfer of some 60 sick children together with their mothers to Beirut to be placed under the care of the Armenian National Union (ANU). The government-run trade school building was placed under the ANU’s disposal, with its chair and Lebanese Armenian Relief Cross representative, Dr. Onnig Gergerian, managing it.
In search of a final settlement site
The Turkish government asked the French to refrain from installing the Armenians near the Syrian-Turkish border. The French obliged, and initially considered four possible sites in Lebanon: (1) in the mountains overlooking Tripoli, especially around the villages of Sir and Bakhune; (2) in the district of Hermel, along the Orontes River; (3) in the west of Baalbek, around the villages of Shemestar, Hadith, and Budaye; (4) in south Lebanon, in the foothills of Hermon, between the cities of Marjayun and Rashaya. Hermel was regarded as the most suitable, not only because of the available land, but also because the Armenians “would constitute a moderating element and a factor of appeasement, in a corner which troubles, permanently, the dissentions between Christians and non-Christians.” For various reasons, however, none of these places were selected.
The High Commission ultimately negotiated with a retired Turkish military officer named Rushdi Hoja Tuma, who owned a 1,540 hectare domain at a place called Anjar in the Bekaa valley. Although Rushdi Bey asked for 10 million FF, he was willing to accept, out of “patriotic sentiments,” an “important reduction” if the Turkish government asked him to. The land was purchased at a reduced price.
The relocation from Ras al-Basit to Anjar took place from Sept. 3-16. The refugees were sent to Tripoli by ship, and then to Riyaq by train, where they received food, fruit, and refreshments from a local Armenian reception team. From Riyaq, they were transported aboard trucks to their final destination of Anjar. This was a rocky and thorny terrain with no dwellings whatsoever. Because the refugees received an inadequate number of tents (accommodating 12 people each), ordinary linen was additionally distributed for the uprooted to make their own shelters. As in Ras al-Basit, here, too, the population stuck together in compact groups according to their villages of origin. Given the inhospitable geographical milieu, scores fell ill and/or died. With the cold winter fast approaching, some 1,778 women and children were dispersed among 14 villages and towns in the general vicinity and housed in vacant buildings or among Christian families with accommodation possibilities. The men in turn stayed at Anjar to construct stone dwellings that the French had planned. The original project would give each family a house comprised of 2 rooms, a kitchen, and a restroom on a 400 sq. meter lot. But as France entered World War II, and with its finances earmarked for that effort, the original plan was reduced to a single room with an outdoor restroom. Each adult male received an addition parcel of land for farming. By spring 1940, the Armenians occupied their new houses. The three religious communities (Apostolic, Evangelical, and Catholic) in turn received specific plots within the village for their churches and schools. A new life in a new country thus began to take shape for the Armenians from Musa Dagh.
Today Anjar is a beautiful 73-year-old thriving town with all kinds of community facilities and businesses. Yet, given the political turmoil in the Middle East, its future status and that of the Armenian communities in the region as a whole remain tenuous at best.