A Story of the Red Cross

by Clara Barton

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Chapter VII: Armenian Relief - 1896

Leaving the Port Royal field past midsummer of 1894, after an absence of nearly a year—at a day's notice—the remainder of the autumn and winter was scarcely less occupied in the details which had been unavoidably overlooked. Before spring our correspondence commenced to enlarge with rumors of Armenian massacres, and so excited and rapid was the increase that, so far as actual labor, consultation, and thought were concerned, we might as well have been on a field of relief.

Unfortunately, the suspicions of the Turkish Government had fallen upon the resident missionaries, both English and American, as favoring the views and efforts of its anarchistic population, or the "young Turks," as they were designated. This had the effect of placing the missionaries in danger, confining them strictly to their own quarters, preventing all communication and the receiving of any funds sent them from abroad.

England had a large waiting fund which it could not distribute, and appealed to the American Missionary Boards of Boston and New York, to find them equally powerless. The need of funds among the missionaries throughout Turkey was getting painfully urgent, and as a last resort it was suggested from Constantinople that the Red Cross be asked to open the way.

A written request from the Rev. Judson Smith, D.D., of Boston, was nearly identical with one received by us from Mr. Spencer Trask, of New York, who with others was about to form a national Armenian relief committee, to be established in that city.

Following these communications, both of these eminent gentlemen, Mr. Smith and Mr. Trask, came in person to urge our compliance with their request that the Red Cross accept the charge and personally undertake the doubtful and dangerous task of distributing the waiting funds among the missionaries in Turkey.

As Mr. Trask was to take the lead in the formation of a committee for the raising of funds, his interest was naturally paramount, and his arguments in favor of our acceptance were wellnigh irresistible. Immediate action on the part of some one was imperative. Human beings were starving, and could not be reached. Thousands of towns and villages had not been heard from since the massacres, and only the Red Cross could have any hope of reaching them. No one else was prepared for field work; it had its force of trained field workers. Turkey was one of the signatory powers to the Red Cross Treaty. Thus it was hoped and believed that she would the more readily accept its presence.

These are mere examples of the reasons urged by the ardent advocates of the proposed committee, until at length we came to consider its acceptance, on conditions which must be clearly understood. First, we must not be expected to take any part in, or to be made use of, in the raising of funds—one of our fundamental rules being never to ask for funds—we did not do it for ourselves.

Second, there must be perfect unanimity between themselves. We must be assured that every one wanted us to go. Our part would be hard enough then; and finally we must be sure they had some funds to distribute.

Of the amount of these funds no mention was made by us, and I remember a feeling of good-natured amusement as I heard the officers of this untried effort at raising funds speak of "millions." It was easy to discern that they were more accustomed to the figures of a banking establishment than a charity organization dependent on the raising of funds. They were likely to be disappointed. In reality, the amount, so there were something to go with, made very little difference to us, as we were merely to place what was entrusted to us where most needed, and when that was done we had but to return. We never named any amount as preferable to us.

The means resorted to in raising the funds were unfortunate. In the great public meetings called for that purpose the utmost indiscretion prevailed in regard to language applied to Turkey and the Turkish Government. This aroused the indignation of the Turkish officials, who very reasonably took measures to have our entrance into Turkey forbidden.

A date of sailing, however, had been given Mr. Trask, and his committee, feeling that any change would be detrimental to their efforts, no change was made, and we sailed on time, to find in England no permission, and further efforts necessary. With time and patience the troublesome effects of these mistakes were overcome, and Constantinople was reached, and a heavenly welcome by the harassed missionaries awaited us.

The first step was to procure an introduction to the Turkish Government, which had in one sense refused to see me. Accompanied by the American Minister, Hon. A. W. Terrell, and his premier interpreter, Gargiulo, one of the most experienced diplomatic officers in Constantinople, I called by appointment upon Tewfik Pasha, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, or Minister of State. To those conversant with the personages connected with Turkish affairs, I need not say that Tewfik Pasha is probably the foremost man of the government—a manly man, with a kind, fine face, and genial, polished manners. Educated abroad, with advanced views on general subjects, he impresses one as a man who would sanction no wrong it was in his power to avert.

Mr. Terrell's introduction was most appropriate and well expressed, bearing with strong emphasis upon the suffering condition of the people of the interior, in consequence of the massacres, the great sympathy of the people of America, and giving assurance that our objects were purely humanitarian, having neither political, racial, nor religious significance.

The Pasha listened most attentively to Mr. Terrell, thanked him, and said that this was well understood, that they knew the Red Cross and its president. Turning to me he repeated: "We know you, Miss Barton; have long known you and your work. We would like to hear your plans for relief and what you desire."

I proceeded to state our plans for relief, which, if not carried out at this time, the suffering in Armenia, unless we had been misinformed, would shock the entire civilized world. None of us knew from personal observation, as yet, the full need of assistance, but had reason to believe it very great. If my agents were permitted to go, such need as they found they would be prompt to relieve. On the other hand, if they did not find the need existing there, none would leave the field so gladly as they. There would be no respecting of persons—humanity alone would be their guide. "We have," I added, "brought only ourselves; no correspondent has accompanied us, and we shall have none, and shall not go home to write a book on Turkey. We are not here for that. Nothing shall be done in any concealed manner. All dispatches which we send will go openly through your own telegraph, and I should be glad if all that we shall write could be seen by your government. I can not, of course, say what its character will be, but can vouch for its truth, fairness, and integrity, and for the conduct of every leading man who shall be sent. I shall never counsel or permit a sly or underhand action with your government, and you will pardon me, Pasha, if I say I shall expect the same treatment in return—such as I give I shall expect to receive."

Almost without a breath he replied: "And you shall have it. We honor your position and your wishes shall be respected. Such aid and protection as we are able, we shall render."

I then asked if it were necessary for me to see other officials. "No," he replied, "I speak for my government," and with cordial good wishes our interview closed.

I never spoke personally with this gentleman again, all further business being officially transacted through the officers of our legation. Yet I can truly say, as I have said of my first meeting with our matchless band of missionary workers, that here commenced an acquaintance which proved invaluable, and here were given pledges of mutual faith, of which not a word was ever broken on either side.

The Turkish Government, when once it came to understand American methods and enthusiasm was forgiving and kind to us. No obstruction was ever placed in our way. Our five expeditions passed through Armenian Turkey from sea to sea, distributing whatever was needed, repairing the destroyed machines, enabling the people to make tools to harvest their grain, thus averting a famine; providing medical help and food as well for thousands of sick; setting free the frightened inhabitants, and returning them to the villages from which they had fled for their lives; restoring all missionary freedom that had been interrupted; establishing a more kindly feeling toward them on the part of the government; and through all this, we had never one unpleasant transaction with any person of whatever name or race.

While our expeditions were getting ready to go out by the Black Sea, a request was brought to me by Dr. Washburn, of Robert College, from Sir Philip Currie, the British Ambassador at Constantinople, asking if I could not be "persuaded" to turn my expedition through the Mediterranean, rather than the Black Sea, in order to reach Mirash and Zeitoun, where the foreign consuls were at the moment convened. They had gotten word to him that ten thousand people in those two cities were down with four distinct epidemics—typhoid and typhus fevers, dysentery and smallpox—that the victims were dying in overwhelming numbers, and that there was not a physician among them, all being either sick or dead, with no medicine and little food.

This was not a case for "persuasion," but of heartfelt thanks from us all, that Sir Philip had remembered to call us, whom he had never met. But here was a hindrance. The only means of conveyance from Constantinople to Alexandretta were coasting boats, belonging to different nationalities, which left only once in two weeks, and irregularly at that. Transport for our goods was secured on the first boat to leave, the goods taken to the wharf at Galata, and at the latest moment, in order to give time, a request was made to the government for teskeres, or traveling permits, for Dr. J. B. Hubbell and assistants. To our surprise they were granted instantly, but by some delay on the part of the messenger sent for them they reached a moment too late. The boat left a little more promptly, taking with it our relief goods, and leaving the men on the dock to receive their permits only when the boat was beyond recall. It was really the fault of no one.

With the least possible delay Dr. Hubbell secured passage by the first boat at Smyrna, and a fortunate chance boat from there took him to Alexandretta, via Beyrout and Tripoli, Syria. The goods arrived in safety, and two other of our assistants, whom we had called by cable from America—Edward M. Wistar and Charles King Wood—were also passed over to the same point with more goods. There, caravans were fitted out to leave over the—to them—unknown track to Aintab, as a first base. From this point the reports of these three gentlemen made to me will be living witnesses. They tell their own modest tales of exposure, severe travel, hard work, and hardship, of which no word of complaint has ever passed their lips. There have been only gratitude and joy, that they could do something in a cause at once so great and so terrible.

While this was in progress, a dispatch came to me at Constantinople from Dr. Shepard of Aintab, whose tireless hands had done the work of a score of men, saying that fevers, both typhoid and typhus, of the most virulent nature, had broken out in Arabkir, two or three days north of Harpoot; could I send doctors and help? Passing the word on to Dr. Hubbell at Harpoot, prompt and courageous action was taken by him. It is something to say that from a rising pestilence with a score of deaths daily, in five weeks, himself and his assistants left the city in a normally healthful condition, the mortality ceasing at once under their care and treatment.

During this time the medical relief for the cities of Zeitoun and Marash was in charge of Dr. Ira Harris, of Tripoli, who reached there March 18th. The report of the consuls had placed the number of deaths from the four contagious diseases at one hundred a day. This would be quite probable when it is considered that ten thousand were smitten with the prevailing diseases, and that added to this were the crowded condition of the patients, the thousands of homeless refugees who had flocked from their forsaken villages, the lack of all comforts, of air, cleanliness, and a state of prolonged starvation.

Dr. Harris's first report to me was that he was obliged to set the soup kettles boiling and feed his patients before medicine could be retained. My reply was a draft for two hundred liras (something over eight hundred dollars) with the added dispatch: "Keep the pot boiling; let us know your wants." The further reports show from this time an astonishingly small number of deaths. The utmost care was taken by all our expeditions to prevent the spread of the contagion and there is no record of its ever having been carried out of the cities, where it was found, either at Zeitoun, Marash, or Arabkir. Lacking this precaution, it might well have spread throughout all Asia Minor, as was greatly feared by the anxious people.

On the twenty-fourth of May, Dr. Harris reported the disease as overcome. His stay being no longer needed, he returned to his great charge in Tripoli, with the record of a medical work and success behind him never surpassed if ever equaled. The lives he had saved were enough to gain Heaven's choicest diadem. Never has America cause to be more justly proud and grateful than when its sons and daughters in foreign lands perform deeds of worth like that.

The closing of the medical fields threw our entire force into the general relief of the vilayet of Harpoot, which the relieving missionaries had well named their "bottomless pit."

The apathy to which the state of utter nothingness, together with their grief and fear, had reduced the inhabitants, was by no means the smallest difficulty to be overcome. Here was realized the great danger felt by all—that of continued alms-giving, lest they settle down into a condition of pauperism, and thus finally starve, from the inability of the world at large to feed them. The presence of a strange body of friendly working people, coming thousands of miles to help them, awakened a hope and stimulated the desire to help themselves.

It was a new experience that these strangers dared to come to them. Although the aforetime home lay a heap of stone and sand, and nothing belonging to it remained, still the land was there, and when seed to plant the ground and the farming utensils and cattle were brought to work it with, the faint spirit revived, the weak, hopeless hands unclasped, and the farmer stood on his feet again.

When the cities could no longer provide the spades, hoes, plows, picks and shovels, and the crude iron and steel to make these was purchased and taken to them, the blacksmith found again his fire and forge and traveled weary miles with his bellows on his back. The carpenter again swung his hammer and drew his saw. The broken and scattered spinning-wheels and looms from under the storms and débris of winter again took form and motion, and the fresh bundles of wool, cotton, flax, and hemp in the waiting widow's hand brought hopeful visions of the revival of industries which should not only clothe but feed.

At length, in early June, the great grain-fields of Diarbekir, Farkin, and Harpoot valleys, planted the year before, grew golden and bowed their heavy spear-crowned heads in waiting for the sickle. But no sickles were there, no scythes, not even knives. It was a new and sorry sight for our full-handed American farming men to see those poor, hard Asiatic hands trying, by main strength, to break the tough straw or pull it by the roots. This state of things could not continue, and their sorrow and pity gave place to joy when they were able to drain the cities of Harpoot and Diarbekir of harvest tools, and turned the work of all the village blacksmiths on to the manufacture of sickles and scythes, and of flint workers upon the rude threshing machines.

They have told me since their return that the pleasantest memories left to them were of those great valleys of golden grain, bending and falling before the harvesters, men and women, each with the new, sharp sickle or scythe, the crude threshing planks, the cattle trampling out the grain, and the gleaners in the rear as in the days of Abraham and Moab. God grant that somewhere among them was a kind-hearted king of the harvest who gave orders to let some sheaves fall.

Even while this saving process was going on another condition no less imperative arose. These fields must be replanted or starvation must be simply delayed. Only the strength of their old-time teams of oxen could break up the hard sod and prepare for the fall sowing. Not an animal—ox, cow, horse, goat, or sheep—had been left. All had been driven to the Kourdish Mountains. When Mr. Wood's telegram came, calling for a thousand oxen for the hundreds of villages, I thought of our not rapidly swelling bank account, and all that was needed everywhere else, and replied accordingly.

When in return came the telegram from the Rev. Dr. Gates, president of Harpoot College, the live, active, practical man of affairs, whose judgment no one could question, saying that the need of oxen was imperative, that unless the ground could be plowed before it dried and hardened it could not be done at all, and the next harvest would be lost, also that "Mr. Wood's estimate was moderate," the financial secretary was directed to send a draft for five thousand liras (twenty-two thousand dollars) to the care of the Rev. Dr. Gates, to be divided among the three expeditions for the purchase of cattle and the progress of the harvest of 1897.

As the sum sent would be immediately applied, the active services of the men would be no longer required, and directions went with the remittance to report in person at Constantinople.

Unheard-of toil, care, hard riding day and night, with risk of life, were all involved in the carrying out of that order. Among the uncivilized and robber bands of Kourds, the cattle that had been stolen and driven off must be picked up, purchased, and brought back to the waiting farmer's field. There were routes so dangerous that a brigand chief was selected by those understanding the situation as the safest escort for our men. Perhaps the greatest danger encountered was in the region of Farkin, beyond Diarbekir, where the official escort had not been waited for, and the leveled musket of the faithless guide told the difference.

At length the task was accomplished. One by one the expeditions closed and withdrew, returning by Sivas and Samsoun, and coming out by the Black Sea. With the return of the expeditions we closed the field. But contributors would be glad to know that subsequent to this, before leaving Constantinople, funds from both the New York and Boston committees came to us amounting to about fifteen thousand dollars. This was happily placed with Mr. W. W. Pect, treasurer of the Board of Foreign Missions at Stamboul, to be used subject to our order; and with our concurrence it was employed in the building of little houses in the interior, as a winter shelter and protection, where all had been destroyed.

The appearance of our men on their arrival at Constantinople confirmed the impression that they had not been recalled too soon. They had gone out through the snows and ice of winter, and without change or rest had come back through the scorching suns of midsummer—five months of rough, uncivilized life, faring and sharing with their beasts of burden, well-nigh out of communication with the civilized world, but never out of danger. It seemed but just to themselves and to others who might need them, that change and rest be given them.

It would scarcely be permissible to express in words the obligation to our American Minister, Hon. A. W. Terrell, at Constantinople, without whose unremitting care and generous aid our work could not have been accomplished. And, indeed, so many were the duties of that difficult and delicate field that it seemed the help of no one hand or heart could be spared. We felt that we had them all; from the palace of the Sultan to beloved Robert College, from the American Legation to the busy rooms of the American Board, with its masterly treasurer, Peet, were the same outstretched hands of protection and care for our little band.

They knew we had taken our lives in our hands to come to them, and with no thought of ourselves. We had done the best we knew to accomplish the mission so persistently sought of us in our own country.

That our work had been acceptable to those who received its results, we knew. They had never failed to make us know. If also acceptable to Him who gave us the courage, protection, and strength to perform it, we need care for little more.

Funds to the total amount of $116,326.01 were cabled us by Mr. Spencer Trask's committee, all of which were placed in the hands of Mr. W. W. Peet, treasurer of the missionary board at Constantinople. All proper receipts were given and taken, and feeling that we had faithfully and successfully accomplished the work we had been asked to perform, we closed the field, and prepared to return to America.

Some days of physical rest were needful for the men of the expeditions after reaching Constantinople before commencing their journey of thousands of miles for home, worn as they were by exposure and incessant labor—physical and mental. I need not attempt to say with what gratitude I welcomed back these weary, brown-faced men and officers from a field so difficult and so perilous; none the less did the gratitude go out to my faithful and capable secretary, who had toiled early and late, never leaving for a day, striving with tender heart that all should go well.

And when the first greetings were over, the full chorus of manly voices—"Home Again," "Sweet Land of Liberty," "Nearer My God to Thee"—that rolled out through the open windows of the Red Cross headquarters in Constantinople fell on the listening ears of Christian and Moslem alike, and though the tones were new and strange, all felt that to some one, somewhere, they meant more than the mere notes of music.

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