Ethel R. Thompson of Mattapan, Massachusetts was a Near East Relief (NER) worker who witnessed the persecution of Greeks during the Greek Genocide. Thompson spent much of her time in Turkey doing orphanage work for 5,000 orphans that were under the care of the NER in the town of Harput.1 She sailed from Constantinople to Samsun in July 1921 on her way to Harput and arrived in Harput in early September 1921. Thompson witnessed harrowing scenes in both Samsun and Harput and her testimony appears in various newspaper reports around August and November 1922. Her testimony below appeared in an Australian newspaper.
We were supporting the Turkish orphanage and helping the Turkish poor as well as supporting the Armenian orphanages and aiding with clothes and food, when we were allowed to do so, the ghastly lines of gaunt, starving Greek women and children who staggered across Anatolia through the city of Kharput [Harput], their glassy eyes fairly protruding from their heads, their bones merely covered with skin, skeleton babies, tied to their backs, driven on without food supplies or clothing until they dropped dead, Turkish gendarmes hurrying them with their guns. My eyes still ache with the sights I have seen, and I hope my brain will sometime forget that open graveyard around Kharput as it was last winter. People ask if these reports are true! After a year of these experiences, the very question amazes me.
On June 30, 1921, I left Constantinople for the interior of Anatolia. At Samsoun I was held for two months awaiting permission from the Kemalist Government in Angora to continue the journey to Kharput about 500 miles across the interior of Anatolia. During my stay in Samsoun, in the early part of July, the Greek villages round about were burned, and the inhabitants deported, including the women and children. In June, before our arrival, the young Greek men were deported from Samsoun, and soon after our arrival the old men were notified and tramped away in the night. We were kept awake at night by the crying of the Greek women, their wives and daughters. Night after night, from the Armenian orphanage where I spent most of my time, I watched the burning villages. In August word came that the women were to follow the old men. Our house was surrounded by these poor women, hammering at our doors, holding out their children, begging us to take the children, if we could not save the women. They threw their arms about our necks, and we never felt so helpless in our lives. About this time the Greek fleet threatened to bombard the town, and this saved for a time the women.
Our permission arrived at the end of August, and we were allowed to proceed. We crossed Anatolia under blazing sun, passing groups and groups of the old men of Samsoun and the inhabitants of other Black Sea ports walking on, God knows where, driven by Turkish gendarmes. The dead bodies of those who had dropped during the hard tramp were lying by the roadside. Vultures had eaten parts of the flesh, so that in most cases merely skeletons remained.
Upon arriving in Kharput, on September 3, we entered a city full of starving, sick, wretched human wrecks -Greek women, children and men. These people were trying to make soup of grass and considered themselves fortunate when they could secure a sheep's ear to [...] it. When the poor things heard of the killing of a sheep they tried to secure the ear - the only part of the animal thrown away in Anatolia. I shall never forget the look of a black, hairy sheep's ear floating in boiling water, and these poor wretches trying to obtain nourishment by eating it. The Turks had given them no food on the 5OO-mile trip from Samsoun. Those with money could bribe the guards for food or buy a little on the way, until they were robbed. Those without money died by the wayside. In many places, thirsty in the blistering sun and heat, they were not allowed water unless they could pay for it.
When a woman with a baby died, the baby was taken from her dead arms and handed to another woman, and the horrible march proceeded. Old blind men, led by little children, trudged along the road. The whole thing was like a march of corpses, a march of death across Anatolia, which continued during my entire summer.
The heaviest winter weather, when a howling blizzard was raging, during a blinding snowfall, was the favourite time chosen by the Turks to drive the Greeks on. Thousands perished in the snow. The road from Kharput to Bitlis was lined with bodies. I saw women with transparent lips who did not look human. They were like gaunt shadows. The roads over which women and children travelled were impassable for any kind of travel excepting pack mule.
On February 5, 1922, with another American, I was riding horseback to visit an outlying orphanage when we came to an old watershed, five minutes outside the city of Mezereh. We heard a different kind of cry than the usual moan of refugees, and riding nearer we saw 300 small children who had been driven together in a circle. Twenty gendarmes, who had dismounted from their horses, were cruelly beating the children with their heavy swords. When a mother rushed in to save her child she was also beaten and driven out. The children were cowering down or holding up their little arms to ward off the blow.
The attitude of the Turks toward the Greeks who were deported from the Black Sea coast has been one of extermination. From statistics obtained from reliable American sources, we have accounted for the whereabouts of at least 30,000 who passed through Sivas; 8,000 died on the way to Kharput, and 2,000 remained in Malatia up to last winter. The best-looking girls were taken into Moslem harems by the Turks, who boasted openly of the number of women they had taken for this purpose. They then sent them to us for bread, stating they were refugees. Some of the girls whom I knew in Samsoun disfigured their faces with dye to hide their good looks, in the hope they would not be taken. Three thousand of those sent to Diarbakir died on the road, and 1,000 after arriving there.
In the vilayet of Kharput we were allowed to employ any Greek. Some Greeks with money bought the permission to work for a Turk. Money was the only means of temporarily securing safety. When we were preparing to leave, the Turkish Governor sent for us, and asked us to deny the reports given by Mr Yowell and Dr. Ward when we arrived at Beirut or Constantinople. At that time we did not even know what reports Mr. Yowell had given. The Vali threatened that unless we promised he would not give us a permit to leave. Finally, we obtained the permit without giving any promise other than to tell the truth as we saw it, and I am herewith living up to my promise to that Turkish Vali back in Kharput."2