The last Armenian: How a genocide survivor spent a century hiding her identity

  • By Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian

A century ago, 10,000 Armenians lived in a village in south-east Turkey – today, only one remains.

Asiya’s mother was one of 13 who survived a lesser-known massacre during the First World War at the Dudan gorge, two hours from her home in Chunkush.

Aged just 10 at the time in 1915, her mother was saved from the edge of the 200-ft ravine by a soldier ordered on April 24 to wipe her people out.

Asiya, now 100, still lives in her mother’s hometown village, where she takes solace in rare meetings with travellers who share her heritage.

A visitor greeting Asiya. Credit: George Aghjayan

One such visitor to the now-predominantly Kurdish village was novelist Chris Bohjalian, whose group was stopped by an impatient local insisting they visit the village elder in 2013.

“The first time I met Asiya and her family, I was one of seven Armenian-Americans, and mostly we were devastated: we had just come from the unmarked mass grave,” he said.

“We were all an emotional mess, but she was contemplative and serene. We were moved by her quiet dignity and calm. She was a hell of a lot stronger than we were.”

Little is known about Asiya’s upbringing. Government papers show her birth was registered in 1936 but we know she was alive well before then.

At 11, she was married off to an older Kurdish man, with whom she had one son and two daughters.

Asiya wore a head scarf to maintain her secret. Credit: George Aghjayan

As the survivors of genocide, she and her mother were forced to repress their true identity and live the following decades as so-called ‘hidden Armenians’ for their own safety.

She therefore never learned the language and seldom spoke of the massacres.

Reflecting on his visit, Mr Bohjalian wrote: “Here was someone whose mother had been at the edge of the gorge — and who was still living... where her ancestral culture had been exterminated.”

The deep drop seen from the edge of the chasm. Credit: Arpa Vartanian

Whenever she was asked what her mother had told her of the chasm, Mr Bohjalian said she would look down and murmur: “I was too young. I don’t remember.

“Sometimes she would begin a sentence, ‘my mother said…’ but then her voice would trail off.”

As she passes 100, her speech has become almost incomprehensible, ITV News has been told.

Her son-in-law, Recai, who once filmed Asiya recounting her memories, was killed by an ISIS car explosion while he was in prison.

It’s not known what happened to the footage.

Asiya's son in law, Recai, was killed. Credit: Arpa Vartanian

Her eagerness to meet other Armenians has never waned, according to those who have been briefly hosted by her family.

She was moved to tears in 2015 when a group of around 70 young Armenians from as far as California and Australia visited her during a trip through their ancient homelands.

George Aghjayan, who accompanied Mr Bohjalian and has since returned several times to Chunkush, said Asiya is now known as the only openly Armenian resident.

“From the first time we met and each time since, she has always been so happy to see us,” he added.

“Particularly the younger ones among us, like when my daughter and those her age that have been with us.

“She does not speak much, preferring to listen and she would always pull her grandson close to her.”

Asiya often pulls her grandson close. Credit: Arpa Vartanian

Mr Aghjayan, who discovered by chance through DNA matching that he has previously unknown cousins next door to Asiya, is trying to find her own relatives, however distant, before she passes.

“They ask if we learned more about the family origins and any relatives I may have found,” he said.

“We are getting closer on that front and know that at least in part she has roots in the village of Hoghe in the Kharpert region as that is where her closest DNA matches originate.”

In the meantime, she treats the few visitors she sees as her family.

Mr Bohjalian returned in 2014 to see Asiya and said of their second meeting: “The second time I saw her and her family, a year later, it was like a family reunion.

“Again, there were seven of us, three who had been there that first visit. This time it was lovely and downright cheerful.

“Her family put out a small feast of their strawberries and honey and bread and tea.”

The village residents were taken to the Dudan gorge in 1915. Credit: Arpa Vartanian

If the Ottoman Empire had their way, Asiya would have no chance of finding any blood relative from her mother’s side.

As part of the Turks’ efforts to exterminate its Armenian population, villagers were convoyed two hours north-east to the Dudan gorge in July 1915.

The men were tied up in small groups of fewer than ten, according to historian Raymond Kevorkian, then butchered with bayonets and axes before they were thrown into the chasm.

Soldiers stripped the women and slit their throats before throwing them into the pit.

Some threw themselves in, dragging their children with them before they could be murdered in one final act of defiance.

Just 13 villagers survived – a few men who took refuge in the mountains and women who were abducted at the gorge.

Turkey denies that this or any of the many massacres across the region were genocide, putting the deaths down to casualties of the First World War.

Some threw themselves into the pit. Credit: Arpa Vartanian

Around five years ago, a primary school was built by the ravine in the village neighbouring Chunkush.

The school’s playground overlooks the chasm.

Some fear this specific location was picked to give authorities an excuse to fill the gorge with cement, using the pretence of safety fears to forever cover up evidence of an entire village’s massacre.

Locals are well aware of the horrors that unfolded at the gorge in 1915, according to Mr Aghjayan, and schoolchildren describe it as “the place where the Armenians fell in”.

“They know better than we do what happened, when it happened and where it happened,” he said.

The school stands just yards by the gorge. Credit: George Aghjayan

The decimation of Chunkush’s Armenians was one of many brutal and systematic massacres across eastern Turkey, which began on April 24, 1915.

In Van, the pre-war Armenian population totalled 197,000. Just 500 remained in 1922.

Over the same period, 215,000 became 1,500 In Erzerum.

As many as 1.5 million were killed across Turkey, with even the chief orchestrator Talaat Pasha telling American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau: “We have ready disposed of three quarters of the Armenians; there are none left at all in Van and Erzurum.”

The scene in Turkey in 1915 when Armenians were marched long distances. Credit: AP

General Mustafa spoke out against the wartime leaders in a memorandum published in two Istanbul papers shortly after the war.

He wrote: “They have established tyrannies of all kinds, organised deportations and massacres, burned suckling infants to death with oil, raped women and girls in front of their wounded parents.”

The international outcry was considerable, with the New York Times writing 145 articles in 1915 alone, describing the massacres as “systematic” and “organised by the government”.

Today 29 countries have formally recognised the Armenian genocide, including Canada, France, Germany, and Russia.

A church in the village is now used as a barn. Credit: Arpa Vartanian

In Chunkush, the ruins of an old church – now used as a barn – still stands as a reminder of the once-thriving Armenian community.

After Asiya, that’s all that will be left.