Christian Short Stories
Journey To Freedom
By Lori Ciccanti
Lori writes: "I particularly enjoy sharing the Gospel through various forms of writing, teaching bible studies, and prayer outreach. Having a son with autism, I am also interested in church ministries for the disabled. Besides that, I support the efforts of missions such as "Voice of the Martyrs" and "Open Doors International" in raising awareness for the plight of persecuted Christians worldwide."
What you are about to read is the amazing true story of Armen John Arakelian. It is also a story about the suffering and faith of the Armenian people.
These historical events took place during World War 1. All quotations are cited from the book, Under A New Banner" by Estelle M. Grant (copyrighted 1935).
I dedicate this narrative to my dear friend, Parease Arakelian, who has graciously allowed me to retell her father's story.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. (Romans 8: 35-37 KJV)
The church bells rang loudly as usual in the village of Neshver, Turkey during that fateful day in April, 1914. To thirteen year old Armen and his family, it was just another Sunday morning when they arrived at the beautiful Armenian stone structured house of worship. But inside the church, the atmosphere was tense. The congregation listened intently to the trembling voice of their beloved Pastor, Dir Souran, as he spoke with tears streaming down his face:
"My friends, we are facing the greatest crisis ever met by the Christian church. I have a notice here that was placed in my hands by the Turkish guards, I will read it:" By order of his most gracious Excellency, the Sultan this church is hereby ordered to disband and not reorganize except in the name of Mohammed. This is a final notice, and if it is not recognized within twenty days, the building will be burned and all of the people destroyed.
When the day had arrived, congregants remained in the church building and prayed for strength to stand firm in their faith, even in the face of death. All agreed: "We will not bow down to Mohammed - Christ died for us, and we are ready to die for His cause, if need be - we will fight to the end for our God."
On the fifth day, all hell broke loose. Shouts of enemy voices rang through the doors of the church - "Open the door in the name of the Sultan! Out of the way, dogs!"
Next, the unthinkable happened. Armenian homes were ransacked and burned. Many were cruelly beaten, tortured, and brutally killed. Hundreds of men and boys lost their lives, including Armen's father and three of his brothers. Sadly, young girls were taken captive; among them was Armen's lovely sister, Parease - she would never be seen again. Still, survivors huddled together in the very spot where it all began - their sacred place of worship.
Agayne , (Armen's mother) was a remarkable woman. She had no intentions of giving up. Concerned for her children, she devised this plan: Her two sons would disguise themselves as old women; therefore, increasing their chances of survival. Agayne instructed Armen's older brother, Hoannes to sneak away at night in order to find women's clothing. So, when no one was looking, Hoannes narrowly squeezed through the church basement window into the dark street; thankfully he returned safely before daybreak with ladies apparel. And by morning, unbeknown to the guards, both Hoannes and Armen looked much like any other old woman.
Immediately upon awakening, flames were raging in back of the church. Suddenly, someone shouted: "Fire, Fire!" What followed was a wild frenzy of frightened people making a mad dash toward the front door. In the midst of all the panic and turmoil, Armen heard the unmistakable reverberation of the enemy's laughter. After that, the roof came crashing down, killing those who were trapped underneath. Some made it to the street but were shot. Survivors were rounded up like a herd of cattle. But for Armen, his mother and brother, the worst was yet to come.
No one could have imagined the tremendous horror the Armenian Christians were about to endure. For weeks, they traveled miles on foot toward the Syrian Desert. Meanwhile, scores of individuals were dying from lack of food, exhaustion, and disease. Later, the survivors of Neshver were deported by train in foul-smelling cattle carts to a place called "Gutmo" in Arabia where they remained for the next two months. There, they joined thousands of refugees from other towns.
Once again, the Armenians were commanded to resume the "death march" through the hot sands of the Syrian Desert. This time, however, dangerous Bedawee tribes were in the area. These wild nomads were mounted upon Arabian horses carrying swords, heading straight for their targets. By their hand, multitudes were massacred, including Armen's own mother and brother; except Armen, still disguised as an old woman, barely escaped alive.
A woman was sent to strip the dead of their belongings. She realized the young boy was still alive and brought him to a cave near an oasis, not far from the Bedawee camps. At that time, she nursed him back to health.
"Are you better?" was the friendly voice Armen heard when he regained consciousness.
"Where am I? How did I get here?" Armen asked with a gasp.
"Never mind that now, try to rest. Keep quiet and eat of the bread and water I have brought you."
The woman, whose name was Zatar was a captive herself, so it was urgent she leave until the following nightfall. Even so, she was determined to save the young Armen. By the next day, Zatar had come up with a plan for the boy's escape -he would travel behind the scenes with the Bedawee caravan.
In a week's time, Zatar's idea was successfully carried out. The Bedawees were on their way to the city of Mosul - a trade route in Northern Iraq situated near the Tigris River. Carrying only some food, water, and a sharp little knife Zatar had supplied, Armen hid quietly in a huge bag of foul-smelling camel hides hanging from the camel's back.
Anxiously peeking through the poke holes, Armen could see as they were drawing near the city. He spotted a large raft near the river bank which was being prepared for the marketplace in Mosul.
I must wait for the right time when the Bedawees are asleep to make my escape, he reasoned.
Now, the prospect of freedom was just moments away. Armen carefully cut open the sack and stood up for the first time in days. His legs were weak and wobbly but he managed to reach the raft where he found another hiding place under a cargo of melons. Then finally, he reached the marketplace of Mosul, quietly slipping through the crowd without notice. Armen wandered aimlessly around the city feeling worn out and depressed, until one Sunday morning, he heard the comforting noise of church bells; a sweet-sounding melody beckoning him in that direction.
Inside the shelter of the church, Armen collapsed from sheer exhaustion; when he awoke, it was a relief to see the friendly faces of Mr. And Mrs. Soulehmen, a kind-hearted Christian couple who provided a home until he was fully recovered. Eventually, a relative of the Soulehmens offered Armen his first job as a camel driver. This work involved the transport of various items such as figs, wheat, dates and other products across the scorching hot wilderness.
In the wide open space of the Desert, news traveled slowly. Therefore, Armen had little knowledge of the war that was taking shape worldwide. Finally, after returning to the Soulhemen household for a season, he was informed of America's support for the Armenian people. Upon hearing President Wilson's speech, Armen was deeply touched by his words:
"Many are the peoples who have suffered as a consequence of this war, but the fate of no nation has touched the hearts of America as much as have the sufferings of the Armenians."
From that point on, Armen became fond of America and desired to learn more about the American way of life.
By the end of the war, Armen was grieving for his family. However, God gave him a new vision for the future - a dream to go to America. In the meantime, he found temporary work at a coffeehouse located in the city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). Time came and went and Armen began to wonder if his dream would ever become reality. Subsequently, before all hope was lost, he came across an announcement printed in an Armenian paper from Boston, Massachusetts:
Will the survivors of Hagub Arakelian, late of Neshver, Turkey, please get in touch with Mamas Casapian, 747 E. 14th Street, New York City, U.S.A.
My eyes must be playing tricks on me, Armen thought - this is too good to be true!
But over the next several weeks, it became evident to both parties that Mr. Casapian, was indeed Armen's uncle.
Months later, on June 3, 1920, the day finally arrived for Armen to board the passenger liner, "Lafayette." Dressed in the latest New York fashion, he proudly wore a stylish new suit for the journey. And after a long eventf