Eva Harut’s “La Realtà” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Yerevan, October 2014.
Eva’s great-grandmother Hripsime Betnesian came from an educated family in the city of Erzurum. Around 1910 she married an Armenian officer by the name of Lujs Paronian, who was deployed to the Persian front a few years later and never heard of again. “They had three daughters, three-year old Varsik and the six-month old twins Aghavni and Lusaber. In late 1914, all my great-grandmother’s seven brothers were drafted into the army. She stayed behind with her three little children, her sister Mariam and her parents,” Eva remembers.
“As time went by, a Turkish neighbor urged Hripsime to take her kids and leave, adding she was a fool to believe that her husband would ever return. Hripsime, however, refused to heed the warning. For her father, Hovhannes Agha, a well-known owner of a large rug store, it was even less conceivable that his Turkish customers could ever be capable of committing atrocious acts of violence against the Armenian people.”
It wasn’t until Turkish soldiers began searching Armenian homes for valuables that the family realized the true gravity of the situation. “Their first reaction was to hide their gold and jewelry in the yard and house, but it soon became unequivocally clear that it wasn’t just their wealth that was at stake, but their lives,” says Eva. Hripsime and her few remaining family members tried to make their way to Kars, from where they could take the train to Russia via Gyumri.
“En route, however, they were prevented from proceeding onto the bridge across the River Araks and forced to find another way to cross. My grandmother would always break down in tears at exactly this point of the story, as she tried to tell us about the tragic events of that day. All the Armenians were on foot, trying to run as fast as they could. Most of them stood no chance against the mounted Turkish cavalrymen, who would indiscriminately behead anyone they caught – men and women, young and old. When Hripsime came to she was in a small, dark room; that was all she remembered. She was safe with the Turkish neighbor to whom her family had left their house. The woman was married to an officer and must have found out through him about the Armenians’ attempt to flee across the River Araks. She went there to see if Hripsime had made it, only to find her passed out by the water, with her mother and children weeping bitterly beside the body,” Eva says.
“As soon as the neighbor kneeled down to see if my great-grandmother was still alive, she was approached by a Turkish soldier. She had the presence of mind to tell him she was only trying to collect gold from the dead, which seemed to satisfy him. As the crying twins were attracting too much attention, she quickly hid them behind a bush and left them to their fate.
That done, she waited until dark to take Hripsime, her old mother, and three-year old Varsik to her home, bringing them back on a handcart loaded with rugs that she had borrowed from a Kurd. In order to avoid suspicion, she hid the women in two of the rolled-up rugs on the cart and dressed the little girl as if she was her own.
Despite my great-grandmother’s utter helplessness that day, she could never forgive herself for not being able to save her twins, mourning them until the day she died,” Eva recalls.
Twice a day, the woman’s home was searched by soldiers, making it all the more dangerous to smuggle even a little food to where she hid her Armenian friends. “One day, her husband told her to stop it because of the risks involved. But she was determined not to leave them to die, so she used their few remaining valuables to a pay a Kurd who, under cover of darkness, would take them to Kars on his cart,” Eva says. The fate of Hripsime’s father and brothers remains unknown, but it is safe to surmise that they didn’t survive.