Khachadoor Pilibosian in a family photo. He is seated on his mothers lap. Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, Watertown, MA.

Khachadoor Pilibosian, They Called Me Mustafa

Khachadoor, or Archie, Pilibosian (1904-1989) was born in the village of Ichmeh in the Kharpert province of Turkish Armenia in 1904. Several years later, his father left to find work in the United States, leaving his mother and four children behind. In 1915, when Kachadoor was 11, Ottoman soldiers invaded their village, killing young men and terrorizing the Armenian population. After his family fled to another town, Turkish soldiers drove them and other Armenians in a “deportation”—or forced march—toward the Syrian desert. During this horrific ordeal, Khachadoor witnessed mass starvation and thirst, kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder. By the time they arrived in Shashika, hundreds of Armenians in their caravan had perished. Ultimately, Khachadoor was the only one in his family to survive the genocide, ironically because he was kidnapped by a local Kurd and pressed into labor.

Four years later, he escaped and made his way to America to reunite with his father. He later settled in Watertown where he was employed at Star Market (a store founded by Armenian immigrant Stephen Mugar) and eventually opened his own retail business in Cambridge. In the passage below, the author describes his experience during the genocide and how he survived his kidnapping and servitude.

Chapter 7: The Valley of Death

Late one afternoon gendarmes invaded our camp looking for boys ten or older. They found about forty of us, got us together and forced us to march to a valley. There we saw hundreds of bodies that had been tortured, and the odor was so bad we had to stuff our noses and close our mouths and eyes not to smell or see.

Among us there were a few older and bigger boys who were separated and taken away where we could not see them. Finding myself alone for a moment, I left the group behind and began to run toward the caravan. Shots were fired and I passed out. When I came to, it was dark. I started walking, and though I occasionally fell, I succeeded in reaching the caravan and getting to my mother safe but trembling. The next morning many mothers were crying, for their sons never returned.

The commanding voice of the gendarme rattled in the air, “Get ready, we have to start our march.”

The caravan began to move, and no one had any idea how long and where to. Again the gendarmes demanded ransom for the children. We saw men with Kurdish clothing roaming near the crowd and taking small children by the hand, then disappearing. Women with the same kind of clothing (long, colorful garments that covered the body neck to toe) were selling food. When the soldiers saw them, they ordered them away. We walked from sunrise to dusk and finally arrived at a village called Shashika.

The caravan settled there for the night, and as we rested for a few moments, my sisters began to cry, saying they were starving. Mother said she had sewed some money in the edge of my dress-like suit. She tore the garment and freed the money, telling me to go to the nearest open air market and bring something for the girls to eat. I went to the open air market where all the merchants were praising their goods and yelling.

As I approached one of the merchants and ate a couple of bunches of grapes, I felt two heavy arms winding around my body. I was then picked up and carried away from the crowd. My kidnapper started to climb the hills as I screamed, trying everything to get away without success. Then my kidnapper warned me that he would kill me if I did not behave.

When we reached the top of the hill, I looked back and saw another man with a little boy coming toward us. When they joined us I felt better, for I spoke Armenian to the boy and he answered in Armenian. The kidnappers soon stopped our talking, though I found out that my companion of fortune was from Erzouroum and was eight years old.

I cried loudly and often, thinking that my sisters still were waiting for something to eat and would probably starve to death. I received the second warning that I would be disposed of if I continued to misbehave.

Chapter 8: I Was Sold for a Kid

We stopped at a village, stayed overnight and started our journey in the morning. My kidnapper told me he lived in Belajik. On a mountainside we saw a shepherd with whom the kidnappers spoke Kurdish for a few minutes. The shepherd’s son went to the flock and returned with a kid (baby goat) in his arms. My kidnapper turned to me and said, “From now on this shepherd is your father.” Then I realized I had been sold.

I began to cry, telling him in Turkish that I did not want to be left there. He did not pay attention to my pleading, and carrying the kid in his arms, he walked away and left me with strangers.

It was fortunate the shepherd, a Kurd, knew the Turkish language almost as well as I did. We communicated fairly well. But later during my four years in Kurdistan (in the mountains of Turkish Armenia) I experienced his cruelty and learned that the nomad Kurds who lived by grazing flocks had no written language and not much civilization. Over the centuries many Armenians had run to the mountains to escape Turkish persecution only to be assimilated into this group.

This shepherd had two sons and a daughter who was just a baby. His name was Mouhammad, but I called him Babo. His wife’s name was Najieh. The older son, Mahmoud, was a few years older than I and the younger one, Navo, two years younger than I. The baby was called Nazo. When I became part of their family, they changed my name to Mustafa and gave me the nickname Msdo. The younger son did not bother me but the older one did, always forcing me to do tasks that I was not strong enough to do.

My responsibilities for this family were to take care of the baby, bring water from the well for family use and for the animals, clean the stable every day, take the animals to the field to graze, accompany the shepherd and take the sheep to pasture. All this had to be done from daylight to dusk. My master was very harsh, and I could not satisfy him no matter how well I performed my duties. Often when he was angry at something, he would take it out on me by beating me. In time these beatings became daily routine, and I got used to them.

Chapter 9: Beginning to Realize

I lived this kind of life nearly six months while learning to speak and understand the Kurdish language a bit. One day my master wanted to visit the deported Armenians and asked me to go with him. It took us more than six hours to get to where the deported Armenians were camped. It was a horrible scene, for in that group were only women and children, the women half naked and children looking like dead bodies risen from the grave. They were pale with only skin on their bones and were steadily crying, “Ma, I am thirsty. . .water, please a drop of water. . .” The Turkish gendarmes had forbidden them to go to find water, and they had to cry to their last breath. As I talked to some of the deported Armenians, one of the women asked me where this would end. I had no answer but told her that many caravans had come and gone.

My master wanted to buy some valuable items as reasonably as possible or almost for nothing. There I was introduced to my master’s brother-in-law, Hasoe Perae. He seemed to be an understanding man, a little more educated than the rest of them and able to read and write in Turkish. Evidently he also had good intentions towards me and asked me about my background. I told him where I was from, who I was, and of my displeasure with the people I served.

That same day we got back home late at night, and I was so tired I went to bed. The next morning they had to wake me because I overslept. My master then told me where I could find his son Mahmoud. The dog had not gone with the flock, and as soon as I was ready, he wagged his tail and pointed the way to go. We became friendly, for I had the job of feeding him and he liked me because of that. His name was Gouro, meaning wolf.

It took more than half an hour to get to Mahmoud. As soon as Gouro saw the flock, he began to run around, happy to see his master.

Chapter 10: Punishment

I had been living with the Kurds a little more than six months but did not understand their language too well. Mahmoud instructed me in Kurdish to go and bring the flock nearby. Unfortunately, I did not fully understand him and did the opposite of what he wanted me to do. The shepherd dog was very well trained, so Mahmoud called him and told him what to do. Within a short time everything was orderly and under control.

Mahmoud was furious at me and could not realize my mistake was an act of misunderstanding. Then he told me that he was going to punish me. We had to climb a hill nearby, and as soon as we got there, he began to scold me. I tried to tell him that I did not understand him, but nothing could calm him.

He always carried a heavy shepherd’s stick made to fight wolves and chase them away. He struck me with the stick a few times and knocked me unconscious. This happened late in the afternoon, and when I woke up in bright moonlight, I realized it was midnight.

The dog was sitting near. When I made a move, he began to make noises like a good friend at the bedside comforting someone who is ill. My body was stiff and sore. “Gouro, we must go home,” I said as he wagged his tail and came and stood by me. I could hardly walk, and going home took us much longer than usual.

When we got home the doors were locked. Gouro barked, and my master Mouhammad opened the door. He looked surprised to see me alive, and with uncommon language and a harsh voice accused me of trying to run away and join the deportees. I insisted that was a lie. When we went into the house I told him the truth, but he was not convinced. He believed his son’s story, though it was totally false.

My mind was taken by terror as I went to bed on a mattress made of hay and full of fleas. I hardly slept.

In the morning my body was like a piece of cast iron, firm and stiff. My master wanted me to accompany his son and take the flock of sheep to the pastures to graze. I told him I could not do it, and fortunately he did not insist.

I stayed in bed for two days, during which time my master’s brother-in-law, his sister’s husband, came to visit us. When Hasoe Perae noticed that I was in a very bad mood, he wanted to know why. I took off the nightgown I was wearing and showed him the bruises on my back.

“Who did that?” he asked.

“Mahmoud,” I answered.

He cursed and said, “I must take you away from these people.”

But he did not know how he was going to do this. Two months went by, and during that time something worse happened.

It was a religious holiday and family and friends had gathered in my master’s brother’s yard for a feast. As they began to serve the food and I had hardly had the first spoonful, my master asked an unexpected question: “Would you rather live with my brother or stay with me?” The question was too sudden. Without thinking of the consequences, I blurted out my answer: “I prefer your brother’s home.”

He went wild and grabbed my shirt and took me to the stable. I saw the knife in his hand aimed at my throat getting closer. Shaking with fear, I lost the senses in my body and defecated in my pants. If his mother had not followed us and held back his hand in time, I would have been killed there like any animal. Terror from the incident stayed with me for a long time, though from then on I became a diplomat and said things that he liked. For in these mountains the only teacher was experience.

I was glad his brother-in-law came to visit again, especially with the intention of convincing my master to let me go with him. At that time there were rumors that the Turks were searching the Kurds’ houses for Armenians, and if they found a Kurdish family protecting them, the family would be killed.

As they pondered the matter, my master said, “I can kill him in a second, and they will not find any trace of him.” But the brother-in-law argued about the killing and replied, “I shall take him to my village and will bring him back whenever the danger is over.” I was overjoyed when my master agreed with the plan.

Chapter 11: Another Journey

The next morning I started my journey with my new master who seemed to be a very fine man. We arrived in his village by noon and saw his wife and two children in the doorway waiting for us. My new master was neither wealthy nor poor. My duties in that house were to take care of the children, one four years old and another eight months old, and to be responsible for a horse and its colt, a cow, an ox, a donkey, and a few sheep. I had to feed them, bring water from the well for them, and clean the stable and the house. My work had no end except late at night when I was in bed.

My new master was a peddler in the business of buying goods and taking them to other villages to sell. For that reason he was absent from home for many weeks at a time or sometimes for months. His wife, being the sister of my first master Mouhammad, was a temperamental and cruel woman and made my life there miserable. If I dared to eat more than her children–the Kurds ate out of one common dish–she would yell and scream at me stating that I did not deserve all the food I ate and the comfort I received and enjoyed. When my master was absent, I always went to bed in fear, and more responsibilities were added. I had no choice but to obey and do everything I was told as much as I could.

I was part of the poor and backward life of Kurdistan. The medical care they had was less than that of my home town. Once I had a badly infected and swollen arm, and their cure for it was to pour hot black tar on it. The cure was very painful, but it worked.

Another time, I was very ill, so ill that I became unconscious for a couple of days. When I woke up, I was rubbing my hand across my nose and feeling blood. As I looked around, I saw that the Kurds around me were getting ready to bury me. They had thought I was dead.

Another fact of any Armenian’s life there was the matter of religion. One had to be a Moslem as they were. I was forced to accept their religion and at least pretend to pray as they did on my knees and bowing down to Allah. I did this to save my life and with a feeling of betraying my parents, my people, and myself. But in my mind, I was still a Christian and an Armenian. But where was God on those terrible days?

Then one day when I took the sheep to the fields to graze, a frightening thing happened. Suddenly the mountain I was standing on shook violently, knocking me down. The ground just two feet away from me opened into a large crack, then closed again. A number of sheep fell into it as if they had been swallowed by the ground. I was stunned but not hurt. And I was amazed at how nature in this harsh place could also be harsh.

Things became so bad and so difficult that I could not live there any longer. My master asked me to take a couple of bags of wheat to the water mill and have it ground. I went with someone, and it took us six or seven hours to get there.

As soon as we arrived, I became friendly with the miller, an Armenian who had accepted the Islamic faith in 1895 at the time of a massacre of Armenians in order to stay alive. I had sores on my feet and limped as I walked. I did not want to return and asked the miller to find a home for me.

“I will send you to my brother’s house,” he declared.

That same night I slept in his brother’s house, an iron worker who had not been deported because the Turks needed people who worked in his trade.

Two weeks later as I was taking a sun bath sitting alone in the doorway, I noticed a horse’s shadow. I looked in that direction and saw my master Hasoe Perae, riding his horse. In a harsh voice he said, “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you come home, Mustafa?”

I could not because my feet were sore,” I said.

Then he asked, “Are you coming with me?” Trying to preserve my life, I did not refuse. No one could protect me, for my new master’s wife was in the house giving birth to a child.

I mounted the horse and we started our journey going back home. On our way he asked me many questions connected to my life in his house, all of which I answered sincerely and fearlessly. Our journey lasted more than four hours, and it was dark when we arrived.

The next day when I started my duties, the villagers had a different attitude toward me. They looked at me as if I were a stranger or a criminal. Since I was unwelcome, I immediately made up my mind to run away again at the first opportunity. In the meantime I learned from an Armenian woman who had become a Kurd (thus was no longer considered by Armenians to be Armenian) that the war was over. The year was 1919. Then I made plans to run away two days later, four months after I had arrived.

I left the house before sunrise carrying with me a rope and a burlap bag, my excuse in case they came looking for me. I could tell them I was looking for cow dung to bring home for the winter. (It was the custom there in the villages to collect cow dung and dry it to burn for heat in the winter.) When I went back to the miller and told him the story, he adopted me.

Chapter 12: New Master, New Life

That same night he took me home. My new master was poor and a great gambler. They called him Avdo, for Avedis was his full name. I met his wife and his daughter, who was two years younger than I. She had been born blind in one eye. I was then almost fifteen years old.

My duties in this house were to feed the animals, give them water every day and take them to the pastures to graze and also do some of the housework. My life was more comfortable than it had been. But here the family was poor, and we did not have enough to be happier.

After a while my master, who understood my feelings, arranged a new life for me. An Armenian man who was working for an English railroad company came to that village on business. My master asked this man to take me with him to Aleppo, Syria. Upon arrival, I was sent to Rev. Aharon Shirajian’s orphanage where I stayed five months.

While in Aleppo, I found out my mother had died when she reached the city after the death march. There was no word about my sisters or brother then or ever, and I had to assume they were dead or taken by Kurds as I had been. A woman at the orphanage who was from Ichmeh said she knew my father and helped me to find his address in America and write to him.

My father thought everyone in his family was dead. To get proof that I was his son, he wrote asking me to describe something that had happened that no one but his son would know. The woman helped me to write back to him, telling him the story of my little brother Garabed who had swallowed a coin he had been playing with in our home before my father returned to America. No one knew he had swallowed the coin until weeks later when he became ill. The coin had poisoned him, and though my father took him to the hospital in the city, it was too late to save him. That incident happened before the genocide, and sometimes I thought it was a blessing that he had died that way rather than be massacred or tortured to death. When my father read about this, he was convinced I was his son and sent me the money to go to America.

From: Helene Pilibosian and Khachadoor Pilibosian, They Called Me Mustafa: A Memoir of an Immigrant (Ohan Press, 1999), pp. 18-31.