The Ottoman government’s precautions, policies, and helpful activities to make the negative life conditions of Armenian immigrants better have often been ignored. The matter in question has a great importance in terms of the 1915 discussions. This study handles the activities of the Ottoman government to improve the accommodation, eating and health conditions of Armenians and their attitude towards the activities of other charities.
In the regulations passed on 30 May 1915, it is ordered that camps will be prepared to accommodate Armenians in a healthier environment and the necessary conditions will be created (Askeri Tarih Belgeleri Dergisi, 2005, p. 132,133). Article 2 of the regulations allows immigrants to take their portable properties and animals to make sure that they are economically relieved. According to Article 4, Armenians reaching their places of placement will be accommodated either in houses to be constructed in villages/towns there or in villages to be founded, which the government will decide where to be founded. It is also recorded that the government will give suitable lands and farms belonging to the state treasury for setting up the camps. Expenses for providing food for Armenians till they reach their final placement place and for the construction of houses for those who are in need will be spent from the “immigrants’ fund” which was created to carry out the compulsory migration in a systematic way. Article 12 of the regulations provides that each family placed will be given the economic condition they had before and sufficient lands according to their needs at the time. In Article 15, Armenians who were farmers or artisans and are in exile now are planned to be given capital and materials for production.
The favorable activities of the Ottoman government were shown as propaganda activities by the foreign diplomats and missionaries of the time, and these activities were desired to be hidden. USA Ambassador in Istanbul Morgenthau claimed that Talat and Enver Pashas especially prevented help to Armenians in exile. According to Enver Pasha, Armenians would create more problems if they felt that they have the support of a strong country like USA. Said Halim Pasha also defended this opinion. In other words, the Ottoman Empire had a rightful anxiety due to psychological targets of the American support. However, Talat and Enver Pasha did not object to the support, but proposed the support to be distributed by the state. The Ottoman government, which gave up this anxiety after the middle of 1915, did not pressure governors or tenants in the issue of help to missionaries. According to some reports in 1916, the organization of aid activities in camps was completely left to the initiatives of American charity institutions called ACASR and Red Cross. The government co-operated with foreign aid institutions in the places they declared as settlement places though now desired in the beginning and co-worked with these institutions as much as their sources allowed. The most important of these aid institutions are ACASR, Lord Mayor’s Fund and Red Cross. On the other hand, American missionaries who reached to an agreement with the Ottoman government started a large aid campaign in their countries to bring help to the immigrants. As Dr Wilfred Post informed, ACASR carried out its aid in four categories which are general aid, special aid, medical aid and orphanages. American archive documents show that both the Ottoman Commission of Immigrants and the American aid institutions constructed camps and places of accommodation in temporary settlement places. Apart from Istanbul and Thrace, there were accommodation centers founded in places such as Afyon, Konya, Cilicia, Harput, Diyarbakır, Urfa, Antep, Birecik, Cizre, Mardin, Maraş, Kilis, Suruç, Bab, Islip and Meskene, Hamam, Rakka, Ebulharara, Sebha, Selimiye, Hama and Damascus. Besides, there were also camps in Armenia, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Iran and Trans-Caucasia. In places such as Konya, Birecik, Harput, Diyarbakır, Aleppo and Cizre, there were camps directly constructed by the Ottoman government. All of these camps were under the control of Ottoman government officers and their administration was left to foreign missionaries or other aid institutions in time. The government opened its doors to all kinds of aid when its own sources fell short. No matter what the reason is, the extermination of Armenians here cannot be mentioned if the Ottoman government is able to leave the administration of the camps to missionary institutions and aid associations. Moreover, the Ottoman government was aware that camps being open to international public opinion would protect itself from the claim that they were maltreating the immigrants and would maintain the support of aid institutions. For this reason, they founded the camps not in isolated places but nearby stations, riversides and close to the city. Foreign missionaries visiting the camps also told their opinion of the situation in the camps and pointed out that the claims about the negativity of the camp conditions were exaggerated or far from reality. The fact that Armenians in the camps were regularly given monetary aid to be able to meet their needs is understood from the missionary reports and the statements of Consulate officers. These aids were maintained by NER also after the war. It is for sure that the biggest aid operation by NER during the war and after the war was done in Russian Armenia. As it is seen, the Ottoman government planned to support all victims of compulsory migration from its own sources, but they did co-operation with ACASR when the sources were not sufficient. In time, the aid organization of camps were completely left to this institution. It cannot be said that the aid met all of the needs of Armenian immigrants. Though the conditions of those reaching the camps recovered with the aid, camp residents could not completely escape plagues. Many aid institutions like NER and Red Cross played a significant role in the process.
Some of the orphanages, which have a separate place due to being both in camps and outside of camps, were opened by the Ottoman government, and others were opened by missionaries. However, after the war destroyed the budget balance, the Ottoman government quickly handed over the orphanages in Maraş, Urfa, Diyarbakır, Konya, Kayseri, Samsun and other regions to international aid institutions after the middle of 1915 through a decision taken. The number of orphans in orphanages under the control of ACASR immensely increased after this decision. It is also known that there were a lot of children in the orphanage of the Church Missionary Association. After the war ended in 1918, children gathered from Muslim families, also made the orphanages crowded and many children were accommodated in houses outside of the orphanage thanks again to the support of orphanages. According to NER sources, thousands of children could not get care. While the Turkish Independence War was going on, orphanages decreased to one dozen, but they continued their activities. The place where the orphanages were most found was in the Caucasia region.
Camps founded for those transferred to Syria were founded in many various places and served an important function in easing the problems of Armenians to be placed. However, their physical insufficiency prevented them from being functional as well. Foreign diplomats and missionaries visiting the camps, therefore, mentioned the disorganization of tent cities and the low quality of the tents. However, this misery and poverty was not peculiar to Armenians. The conditions of the soldiers in the Ottoman army were also not good. A majority of the low ranking soldiers had to wear torn and old uniforms which were made out of cloths not suitable for the climate conditions. In a country where the condition of the soldier is so miserable, it cannot be expected that civil people in camps would have better conditions (Sabis, 1991, p. 331). Besides, the fact that immigrant camps were founded nearby the stations and in riversides constituted an advantage and it was eased in that the people in the region helped the camp residents.
The government preferred to set up the camps and accommodation centers on the migration way near stations or cities to be able to ensure the public order. However, groups of war runners or free headed people thinking to take revenge on Armenians often attacked the camps thinking that these people had their precious jewellery and belongings with them. For this reason, ensuring the internal and external security in the camps was an important problem which troubled the government. The security precautions were not efficient for reasons such as the co-operation of some policemen with those attacking the camps, taking bribery from the camp residents and the harassing of the women and girls in the camps.
Another important problem in the immigrant camps apart from the security was the access to health services in the camps. The Ottoman government established hospitals for Armenians in exile to deal with plagues. The camps were open to all kinds of plagues as there was not enough cleaning. There were lots of needs and very few resources. The fact that the exiles started in the summer months and there was problem of water almost in all camps made the hygiene conditions worse and worse with every passing day. During and after the First World War, the American Red Cross and ACASR established hospitals in various accommodation places and temporary camps. These were administered by missionary institutions and their numbers rapidly increased after the end of the war. To be able to recover the hospital services and health conditions in the camps, hot public baths were provided for the immigrants. The efforts of the government to ease the troubles by co-operating with charity institutions also started to give results.
The main reason of health and hygiene problems in the camps was hunger and poor nutrition. Food needs of the migrated Armenians during the journey, settlement areas and camps were partly met by the government and partly by missionary aid institutions; but these efforts were insufficient. As there was not yet any work about the social and economic dimension of the compulsory migration, it is not possible to exactly know how much the orders sent from the central government to meet the food needs of groups were implemented in the local areas. However, even in the regulations published on 30 May 1915, the duty to provide food for the migration groups was given to the governors of the places they passed through. Also, it was ordered in the regulations published later that centers, food storages, kitchens and bakeries were prepared and a sufficient number of officers was present. The state planned to give 1.2 kg of bread or flour to each immigrant. The financial resources of the government did not make it possible for more support. This situation has no relation with Armenians being left hungry deliberately. Ottoman soldiers and Turkish people also did not have a better nutrition. There were increase in prices, famine and hunger in the country due to the war. Before this situation, the government opted for receiving support from foreign aid institutions. Many missionaries started food aid for Armenians both at accommodation points in the journey route and in the camps. However, these aids were also insufficient for thousands of Armenians. On the other hand, it is for sure that the problem was felt more in the faraway places where delivery was difficult to be done.
The information based on the reports mostly written by missionaries and diplomats show that the Ottoman government was eager and zealous in the matter of meeting the needs Armenians in exile. The government, which aimed at easing the adaptation of Armenians during the journey and in the settlement areas, made sure that the deportation and placement happened in a disciplined way with the regulations they released. In this way, the needs of the daily life in the camps such as accommodation, food, health and religious services etc. were rapidly met and it was tried to minimalize the troubles of Armenians due to the exile. It can be observed that life conditions in the camps were better than those of the people in the inner parts of Anatolia. The diplomats reporting the gossip that the people in these camps were exposed to mass murders informed that such information was unrealistic, as understood from their inspections.
Askerî Tarih Belgeleri Dergisi (2005), 83 (March 1983), Document No. 1916. Krş. Arşiv Belgelerinde Ermeni Faaliyetleri, 1914-1918 (B.I), Ankara.
Sabis, A. İ. (1991), Hatıralarım, Birinci Dünya Harbi, (b.III), Istanbul.