Khanem KetenjianThe Armenian Resistance in Urfa 1915
By Bill Milhomme
Khanem Ketenjian (Armenuhi) – Armenian Resistance fighter in Urfa. Ketenjian was the daughter of a wealthy Armenian family and a graduate of Euphrates College in Harpoot (Kharpert). She actively participated in the resistance of Urfa in 1915. Ketenjian was a Women’s Unit Commander and lead a women’s fighter’s unit in defense of the city. She is personally credited with killing over twenty Turkish gendarmes before she herself became a martyr. The Urfa Resistance or Urfa Rebellion (Turkish: Urfa Isyani) was the Armenian resistance in Urfa during World War I developed as a reaction to genocidal actions by the Ottoman government. On May 27, 1915, several hundred Armenians were held captive by Ottoman authorities in Urfa. The community held a meeting in order to adopt a solution. The participants thought of many different tactics. Mgrdich Yotneghparian and his partisans were among the few who preferred to fight to the death rather than yielding to the Ottomans.
Khanum Ketenjian had thirty young women in her contingent. They were all well trained as fighters and proficient in marksmanship. They had gathered their long hair under woolen caps and were dressed in man’s clothing. Each one carried poison pills, to use in case of being caught alive. They had determined to commit suicide in order not to fall into the hands of the Turks.
Khanum presented herself to Muggerdich and asked permission to attack the Turkish guard house situated near the lake of Father Abraham and destroy it. “The zaptiahs,” she said, “in that guard house are continually harassing our position on that front and doing much damage. They go up on the roof of the mosque and shoot the men behind the barricade.”
Muggerdich, although admiring the women’s courage, was diffident to give his consent. “It is a tough job, Khanum; are you equal to it?” “We will try it, sir. If we are sacrificed in our attempt, you may be sure that our lives will cost dearly to the enemy. I have my plan here on this paper. I hope you will approve of it.”
Then she showed him a chart indicating the location of the guardhouse, with the adjoining streets; where to take position and when ; how to begin the assault and so on. Muggerdich was looking at the sketch with undisguised amazement. “Who drew this plan?” he asked. “We did,” she answered.
“Very well, then, you have my permission. Only be careful. You all realize what it means to fall in the hands of the Turks alive.” “No fear of that, I assure you.” Khanum, with a smile, gave a military salute to her beloved commander and departed.
There was a bridge near the lake on which the Turkish guardhouse was built. About an hour after midnight, Khanum, with her followers, took a position around the guardhouse, stationing them on various strategic points. She could see from a distance that two zaptiahs stood sentry outside the entrance of the building. Two girls, pointing their guns at the sentinels, noiselessly followed her. When they were sufficiently near, she gave the order and they fired. Both bullets found their mark and the men fell to the ground. Those inside awakened and ran to their arms.
The women surrounded the guardhouse. The officer in charge cautiously approached the door to find out what had happened. A bullet flattened itself against the wall near where he was standing. At the same time, a woman’s voice ordered him to surrender. The Turk felt insulted. What, to surrender to a woman! He had heard that the Armenian women were fighting shoulder to shoulder with the men ; but to be assailed by them in his own station was intolerable. He gave the order to charge and the inmates, a dozen zaptiahs, lifting their weapons, contemptuously rushed out. A volley from an unseen enemy wrought havoc among them, throwing half of the men to the ground. The survivors retreated and took shelter in the building.
There followed a regular warfare. The Turks firing from the windows into the darkness outside; while the Armenians had a good target, dropping their bullets inside the rooms. After a while the firing ceased from the guardhouse. Khanum, stealing through the darkness, approached one of the windows and looked in. There was no sign of life. Only dead bodies lying on the floor in various positions. She entered to investigate. The body of the officer could not be found anywhere. She saw a back window wide open. He had escaped with his life.
Khanum took a whistle from her pocket, blew the call for assembling. When the fighting women came out from their hiding places and surrounded her, she read the names from a small book. All answered present, without an exception. Then they gathered the guns and the remaining cartridges of the Turks and set fire to the guardhouse. When the flames were well spread, and they were assured that the building could not be used any longer, they left the scene of fighting in military order, singing a song of victory. From the Armenian position, higher up the hill, the men, who were watching all the time, saw them returning in triumph, met them with shouts of joy.
On the following day, when the Turks discovered what had happened, they decided to make short work of the rebellion by concentrating their main forces in one position and give a crushing blow to end this foolery of continued fighting once for all. Their anger had no bounds especially on hearing from the escaped officer that the destruction was wrought by a company of women. It was unthinkable that a group of women dared to attack a government institution and massacre men in military uniform. The Moslem dwellers of the neighboring section of Calaboyun, a fierce and blood-thirsty race of Kurds, were exceedingly excited, taking this as a challenge, because the scandalous act was perpetrated in their vicinity, they swore to revenge the insult, by putting the men to the sword and capturing the women alive.
The attack was organized by the captain. The assault was so fierce that, though they lost many, they succeeded in taking the Lake Abraham position. Encouraged by this first success, they advanced, with the help of new arrivals, and entered the Armenian quarter. Here they met the women’s contingent, who disputed every foot of ground against their further advance.
A party of Turks seeing one of the side streets unguarded, ran towards it, intending to cut the line of retreat of the women. They turned the corner quickly and accomplished their purpose. The women were left between two fires, fighting desperately and losing very heavily. The intention of the attackers, however, was to capture them alive. In spite of the rain of bullets, they advanced in large numbers and at last took captive only five girls. Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were sent out of the fighting line to be left under the care of the captain.
Captain Nadim Bey, seated on a chair, had the five captive girls in front of him, and was questioning them. “What is your name?” asked the Captain, addressing the young woman, who had an orange colored cross on her cap. “Khanum,” answered she. “Khanum what?” “Khanum Ketenjian.”
“Ha! I have heard of you. Are you not the daughter of Toros Ketenjian?” “I am.” “How will you show your gratitude, if I spare your life?” “By going back to continue the fight,” answered Khanum.
“The cause of the Armenians is hopeless,” said the Captain. “They cannot last much longer. The cannon, which we have ordered, has already left Aleppo. It will arrive in a day or two. A dozen shells, well aimed, will be enough to destroy the entire Armenian quarter. What will you do then?”
“We will die fighting,” replied Khanum.
“Very well, then, if you are so foolishly stubborn, let the men fight. Why do you mix yourselves with them? It is a pity that young and good looking girls as you are should be sacrificed. You are destined to a better life. Surrender to us and marry with whom you choose and you will have a happy time.” “We prefer to die rather than be the wives of Turks,” said Khanum. This was heard by the rabble. Their wild nature stirred up. They shouted and gesticulated. They threatened violence. “Deliver them to our hands. We will show them what it means to insult a whole Turkish nation.” But the Captain quieted them. Turning to the girls he said:
“Do you hear what they say? If you will not submit with a good grace, they will take you by force. Khanum, I am willing to take you to be my wife. Let the other girls pick the men they would like to marry. There will be no force used. Every one is free to choose. In this way the difficulty will be solved and you will save your lives with honor.” “With dishonor, you mean,” said Khanum.
The Captain changed color. The wild beast awoke in him. Torn with passion he stood up and coming nearer, struck her hard in the face. “You giavur slut! You consider it a dishonor to marry me, do you? Wait a minute. I will teach you! You will soon be sorry for your insolence !”
He ordered his soldiers to surround the women and point their rifles at them. He called a corporal and told him to strip the clothing from off the girls, one by one. The officer approached and removed the garments of one of them. The crowd was watching with savage relish. The poor girl could not resist ; her hands were tied behind her back. “Release her arms,” commanded the Captain. “She cannot escape in this crowd,” he mocked, with a sarcastic smile. The first girl was undressed, standing stark naked among those howling demons. She was the object of lascivious gazes. The same process was gone through with the second. They were being compared with one another and obscene remarks were thrown at them.
The turn had come to Khanum. She asked that her hands be untied, saying that she would undress herself without any assistance. The Captain gave his consent. They freed her arms. She moved them up and down to ease the circulation of the blood. She began to unfasten the buttons of her jacket with both hands.
The corporal stood aside. The Captain was leering with lustful eyes. She lifted the corner of her waistcoat and suddenly drawing a small revolver, emptied its contents into the Captain’s head, heart and stomach, in rapid succession. He slumped from his chair to the ground. When the soldiers saw what had happened, without a moment’s thought they discharged their guns at the women. All five fell dead.
The mob was wonderstruck, looking on the tragedy with gaping mouths. They never expected such courage, such heroism from a persecuted and downtrodden race of women.
These Armenian heroines were martyred, dying bravely, keeping their honor, worthy descendants of their chaste ancestress, Saint Ripsimia, the Virgin.