WAR AND CAPTIVITY (PART 1)
· The Fall of Eastern Province Bitlis and Capture of Bediuzzaman
Having taken Van to the east of Lake Van and Mus to the west, the Russians moved south with three divisions to attack another Eastern province Bitlis. Bediuzzaman was in the town with what remained of his volunteers, and fought a fierce hand to hand battle with the enemy cavalry. With one of his legs broken, Bediuzzaman hid with his four surviving students in an underground water conduit. After thirty hours they surrendered to the Russians. We have a description of this from Bediuzzaman’s own pen:
“…Although in one minute three bullets hit me in vital spots, they had no effect. When Bitlis fell, a number of my students and myself found ourselves in the middle of a battalion of Russians. They surrounded us and there was firing on every side. All my friends were killed with the exception of four. Then we broke through the four lines of the battalion and went into a place that was still where they were. Although they were above us and all around us and could hear our voices and coughs, they did not see us. We remained thirty hours in that way in the mud with me wounded; I was preserved with a tranquil heart by Divine succour.”
Finally, since their lives were in danger from loss of blood and extreme cold. one of them went and informed the Russians of their whereabouts. The Russians came and took them prisoner.
One of those four surviving students of Bediuzzaman’s was Ali Aras from the village of Coravanis near Van. Also known as Ali Cavus, he wrote down his memories of Bediuzzaman at the fall of Bitlis, and they were published in the newspaper Ittihad six years after his death, in April 1971. They also give a lively account of Bediuzzaman and his Russian captors after they had been taken prisoner.
“The Russians occupied Mus before we reached it. The people who had ” evacuated Mus said when we met them on the road that all the ammunition together with fourteen heavy guns had remained there. Ustad Bediuzzaman divided up the three-hundred man force according to the fourteen guns and assigned a six-man squad to capture the ammunition. We captured the guns and ammunition and handed them over to a regular regiment which was posted on the Bitlis-Tatvan road. At this point the Russians began to attack from three sides and left us cut off in the Bitlis valley. The defence against the Russians continued day and night for seven days. Three shells hit Ustad. Of these, one hit the handle of his dagger, another his cigarette case, and the , third his right shoulder. Kel Ali, the commander of the regular troops, witnessed this and said to Ustad:
“`Bullets have no effect on you either, Bediuzzaman!’ To which Bediuzzaman replied: `If Allah protects a person, even the shells of a heavy gun cannot kill him!’
“At the end of a week’s fierce resistance, the Russians still could not enter Bitlis, so they evacuated `he Papsin Han on the Tatvin road and withdrew. Then it was seen that guided by the Armenians, they had skirted round the south of Bitlis by the Guzeldere road by way of Simek, had cut the Bitlis-Siirt road, and were holding the Arab Bridge. After midnight they started the attack on Bitlis. There was very fierce fighting. At this point Ustad’s nephew, Ubeyd, of whom he was very fond, and many of his students, and our friends, were killed.
“Since the Russians had taken the town’s three bridges, Ustad wanted to get to the other side of the town. We jumped down from on top of a conduit which passed beneath a large building next to what is now Kazimpasa Primary School. Because the water was entirely covered by snow and it was also night-time, we could not estimate the ground, and Ustad hit his leg on a stone and broke it. Showing me a more suitable place underneath the conduit. he said: `Get me in there, Ali. Then go. I give you permission. God willing, you will get away.’ I got him in there and sat him down. He continued to insist that I go, but when I said that I was not going and that I wanted to remain and die as a martyr alongside him, he stroked my head with his hand, and said: `Fate has made us prisoners.’ I declared that I too had surrendered to fate.
“We remained in the water for about thirty-six hours. The Russians had occupied the building over the conduit and their voices could be heard from below. We were busy planning how we could get out of there when a squad of fifty Russians soldiers arrived. They pulled us all out and took us to a building which was a hotel beneath and in which the Russian Second Army was billeted. They placed us in a room.
“A regimental commander met us. They brought a chicken for Ustad to eat. Two Russian commanders started to speak with Ustad. It was clear they were talking about the War. Ustad was talking to them standing on one leg. It was as though Ustad was the commander and the two Russian commanders were prisoners. Ustad did not take them seriously at all. They realized that his leg was broken, and called a health orderly, who put it in plaster. After about two and a half hours there, we were taken to the Government Building by a detachment of soldiers. A Tatar officer, who we later learnt was a Muslim, took pity on us, and taking us inside, put us in the Governor’s room.
“It was during the first week of our stay in Movernment House that an aide-de-camp arrived. He asked for Ustad, then said the General had summoned him. They took Ustad to the place the General was staying in Mahallebasi by stretcher, because his leg was broken. Ustad went in. The General asked a number of questions. These were centred on someone well-known called Abdulmecid, who had gone to Iran and was planning to go from there to the Caucasus to organize the Muslims there to fight against the Russians. They wanted information about him from Ustad. Ustad answered the questions as required. The General’s questioning and the coming and going continued for about two weeks. Since we waited in the room outside, we could hear them speaking. We would hear Ustad’s terse answers and sharp retorts, and from time to time the sound of a fist being thumped on the table. We would get worried and shudder at the possibility of being lined up and shot, and when from time to time Ustad emerged from the room, we did not neglect to reproach him because of these sharp exchanges.
“On the twenty-seventh day of our stay in Government House they took us to what was then the Gendarme Station and is now the Courthouse. They had brought there around twenty-five captured officers and government officials, most of whom were high-ranking. Then the General’s aide-de-camp again came, and said to Ustad: `Take one of your students, we are sending you away now.’ Ustad took a student called Said. We did not want to part from him. To console us he said to the police chief, Irfan Bey, who also a prisoner: `I entrust my students to you. Show them the police there.’
“Before leaving the Gendarme Station, he said as a prayer: `I am hopeful that, God willing, you will return, but I cannot say the same for Said.’ And in fact, the student he took with him called Said was killed while fighting the Russians in Turkestan. They separated us from Ustad, and sent us to Russia. Ustad told me on his return from captivity that they had made him wait a further month because his leg was in plaster.
“A month later, they sent Ustad to Van, and from there on to Khuy in Iran, from where he was put on a train for Russia. We remained in Russia thirty months as prisoners. On the Communist Revolution, we got away to Rumania by way of Hungary and handed ourselves over to a Turkish division there. As for Ustad, I read in the newspapers in Rumania that he had got to Berlin by way of Warsaw, the capital of Poland, and from there had returned to Istanbul.
“The 15 th Division in Rumania was formed into the North Caucasus Corps with some reinforcements, and I served a further fourteen months in it before being demobilized after the Treaty of Sevres, when I returned to Van.”
The heroism of Bediuzzaman and his students in defending the east against the Russians and Armenians became legendary among the people of the area. They told also of how the Russians had tried to kill Bediuzzaman on his surrendering to them, and how this desire had been transformed into wonder at this courage, since Bediuzzaman did not so much as wince when they handled his broken leg? Also one of his students who fought alongside him tells of Bediuzzaman’s anger on learning, when being questioned by the Russians, that the Armenian interpreter was misinterpreting what they said, so that the Russians brought a Tatar interpreter, and his rejection of the Russians’ proposals that he should write letters to all the tribes calling on them to surrender their arms.
· The Prisoner-of-War Camps
Bediuzzaman was sent to the province of Kosturma in north-western Russia. Firstly, to the town of Kologrif, and then – according to one source, after a period in a large camp further into the northern wastes – to a camp in the town of Kosturma on the River Volga. It was here that a large part of his two years of captivity was spent. There are various accounts of him and his activities in the camp from a number of his fellow prisoners. As the commanding officer of a regiment, he was in a position of authority. This he used to ensure the prisoners’ freedom to practise their religious duties. He won the right for them to perform the five daily prayers, which he led, and secured a room for use as a mosque. Also, as a commander he received a salary which he spent almost entirely on the mosque and things beneficial for the other prisoners. He was in a group of ninety or so officers, to whom he would give ders or religious instruction. Conditions were hard in the camp. The winters long and dark and extremely cold. In this way he endeavoured to maintain the prisoners’ morale.
Mustafa Yalcin, whose description of Bediuzzaman at the Pasinler Front is quoted above, was already at the camp when one day to his amazement he saw that Bediuzzaman had been brought there. Among his recollections, he says:
“…And on our arriving there, they said that some prisoners had arrived from the Eastern Front. We all gathered outside in the camp with interest. There were a lot of prisoners, but there were two they were bringing from the other side and keeping a close eye on. I looked and suddenly saw that these were MOLLA SAID and one of his students, whom we called Iznikli Osman. He was carrying something like a trunk; it had Ustad’s books in it. He did not allow anyone other than Osman to be with him. Osman saw to his needs. He was wounded. He had been wounded in the leg. They treated it there. They put him in a dormitory.
“It was terribly cold. And you could not tell day from night. [In the summer] the sun did not set. And there as well, Molla Said Efendi was not idle at night; he used to go to other camps and read to them, although it was forbidden. He himself used to lead the prayers for us during the day. First of all they intervened and did not let us perform them. Then Ustad spoke to them and they allowed us a bit more freedom. They did not want too many of us to gather together at the same time. We used to call Bediuzzaman `Head of Religious Affairs’. He used to explain religion to the Russian guards even. The Russian officers would harass those of them who listened. Molla Said Efendi always boosted our morale. `Do not worry’, he used to say. `We shall be saved.’ I never knew him sleep at night there. He always read and took notes. He would say to us. These will be Muslims, too, in the future, but they do not know it now.’ We were never frightened or distressed so long as he was with us.”
Mustafa Yalcm went on to describe how one night he escaped along with a group of seventeen other prisoners. Bediuzzaman declined to join them, but among the group was a major who had been trained by him. He acted as their guide, finding the way “from everything from the stars to the moss on the trees.” He continued:
“Molla Said was completely fearless. Night and day he strove for Islam. He always used to say: `It is belief in God that is necessary,’ and, `Belief in God is worth everything’.”
Another fellow prisoner, Dr. M. Asaf Disci, recalled that he first saw Bediuzzaman in the town of Kologrif. They were together there for about six months and then Bediuzzaman was sent to another large prisoner-of-camp further into the interior. In Kologrif they were held in a cinema, and he divided off part of it and made it into a mosque. Dr. Asaf Disci went on to say:
“…Because he was the commander of a regiment, the other prisoners used to be very respectful towards him, but he used to say: `I am a hoca [teacher]’… He lived very frugally. He would make do with two eggs and a slice of bread a day… His time was always full. He would read his commentary on the Qur’an, and teach the prisoners. The officers and men were all extremely deferential towards him… he commanded respect…”
Mustafa Bolay, a prisoner who spent six months in the Kosturma camp with Bediuzzaman, stated that Russians wanted to kill Bediuzzaman and that it was the military high command that had specified his being sent to that camp. Bediuzzaman’s nephew, Abdurrahman, who wrote a short biography of his uncle, corroborated this claim. He wrote:
“They sent my uncle to Kosturma by way of Van, Julfa, Tiflis, and Kologrif. I wanted to describe in detail all the dangers to which he had been subject at this time – the Russian officers had even wanted to kill him on several occasions, then record that he had committed suicide – but he would not permit it, so I just wrote it briefly.”
Perhaps further insight into this is provided by the following statement in `Tal’at Pasa’s Memoirs From Exile’, prepared for publication by Cemal Kutay. According to this, Bediuzzaman informed the Ottoman Movernment that the Bolshevik Revolution would occur. One passage states: “Bediuzzaman Said-i Kurdi, who was in the structure of the Teskilat-i Mahsusa… provided information from Siberia where he had been exiled concerning the state of the Russians that we would not have been able to learn from any other source.” “We learnt the Bolshevik Revolution would happen from Bediuzzaman Said-i Kurdi.”
Both Mustafa Bolay and Mustafa Yalcin also corroborate an event concerning Bediuzzaman which happened in the prisoner-of war camp, and doubtless contributed to the awe in which he was held by captors and captives alike. It is described in Bediuzzaman’s biography, and Necmeddin Sahiner gives a longer version from an article by Abdurrahim Zapsu in the magazine Ehl-i Sunnet, which is what we give here:
On one occasion, Nicola Nicolayavich, the Czar’s uncle who at the same time was Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces at the Caucasian Front, came on an inspection of the camp. While on his tour of it, he passed by Bediuzzaman, who was seated. Bediuzzaman paid him no attention and did not so much as stir. The General noticed him, and finding some excuse, passed in front of him a second time. Bediuzzaman still did not rise to his feet. So he passed by him a third time then stopped. He said to him through an interpreter:
“Do you not know who I am?”
“Yes, I know,” replied Bediuzzaman, and told him.
“So why do you insult me?” asked the General.
“Forgive me, but I have not insulted you. I only did as my beliefs commanded me.”
“What do your beliefs command?”
“I am a Muslim scholar. There is faith in my heart. A person with faith is superior to a person without. If I had risen to my feet, it would have been disrespectful to my beliefs. Therefore, I did not.”
“In which case, you are saying that I am without faith, and you are insulting both myself, and the Army of which I am a member, and my nation, and the Czar. A court martial will be set up immediately, and you will be questioned.”
As the General decreed, a court martial was set up. The Turkish, German, and Austrian officers all came to the headquarters and tried to persuade Bediuzzaman to apologize to the General, but he told them:
“I am eager to travel to the realm of the Hereafter and enter the presence of God’s Prophet. and I have to have a passport. I cannot act contrary to my beliefs.”
Unable to dispute this reply, they awaited the court’s verdict. The examination was completed. Then the decision was given for Bediuzzaman’s execution on the grounds of insulting the Czar and the Russian Army.
When the squad arrived to carry out the sentence, Bediuzzaman requested fifteen minutes “to perform his duty.” This was to take his ablutions and perform two rak’ats of prayers. The Russian General arrived on the scene while Bediuzzaman was doing this. He suddenly realized his mistake and said to Bediuzzaman when he had finished praying:
“Forgive me! I thought you behaved as you did in order to insult me and I acted accordingly. Now I realize you were merely acting as your beliefs required. Your sentence is quashed. You should be commended for your firmness of belief. Once again, I apologize.”
Bediuzzaman mentioned this incident, which demonstrates his extraordinary personal qualities, in a letter to one of his students written when being held in another prison, Afyon, in 1949. The story had appeared in the newspapers. He wrote:
“The incident which happened while I was a prisoner-of war is basically true, but I did not describe it in detail because I had no witnesses. Only, I did not know [at first] that the squad had come to execute me; I understood later. And I did not know that the Russian Commander had said some things in Russian by way of an apology. That is to say, the Muslim captain who was present and told the newspapers of the incident understood that the commander had said repeatedly: `Forgive me! Forgive me! “‘
In the spring of 1918, Bediuzzaman found a way to escape amid the confusion following the Bolshevik Revolution. In later years, he wrote an evocative description of his “temporary awakening” in the winter darkness of the days preceding his escape, and the almost miraculous ease with which it was accomplished. The following is a translation of part of the piece, which forms part of the twenty-sixth Flash.
“In the First World War, as a prisoner, I was in the distant province of Kosturma in Northern Russia. There was a small mosque there belonging to the Tatars beside the famous River Volga. I used to become wearied among my friends, the other officers. I craved solitude, yet I could not wander about outside without permission. Then they took me on bail to the Tatar quarter, to that small mosque on the banks of the Volga. I used to sleep in the mosque, alone. Spring was close. I used to be very wakeful during the long, long nights of that northern land; the sad plashing of the Volga and the mirthless patter of the rain and the melancholy sighing of the wind of those dark nights in that dark exile had temporarily roused me from a deep sleep of heedlessness. I did not yet consider myself old, but those who had experienced the Great War were old. For those were days that, as though manifesting the verse: A day that will turn the hair of children grey, made even children old. And while I was forty years old, I felt myself to be eighty. In those long, dark nights and sorrowful exile and melancholic state, I despaired of life and of my homeland. I looked at my powerlessness and aloneness, and my hope failed.
“Then, while in that state, succour arrived from the All-Wise Qur’an; my tongue said: God is enough for us; and how excellent a guardian is He.
“And weeping, my heart cried out: `I am a stranger, I am alone, I am weak, I am powerless: I seek mercy, I seek forgiveness, I seek help from You, O my God!’
“And, thinking of my old friends in my homeland, and imagining myself dying in exile there, like Niyazi Misri, my spirit poured forth these lines:
Fleeing the world’s grief,
Taking flight with ardour and. longing,
Opening my wings to the void,
Crying with each breath, Friend! Friend!
It was searching for its friends.
“Anyway… My weakness and impotence became such potent intercessors and means at the Divine Court on that melancholy, pitiful, separationafflicted, long night in exile that now I still wonder at it. For several days later I escaped in the most unexpected manner, on my own, not knowing Russian, across a distance that would have taken a year on foot. I was saved in a wondrous fashion through Divine favour, which was bestowed as a consequence of my weakness and impotence. Then, passing through Warsaw and Austria, I reached Istanbul, so that to be saved in this way so easily was quite extraordinary. I completed the long flight with an ease and facility that even the boldest and most cunning Russian-speakers could not have accomplished.
“And that night in the mosque on the banks of the Volga made me decide to pass the rest of my life in caves. Enough now of mixing in this social life of people. Since finally I would enter the grave alone, I said that from now on I would chose solitude in order to become accustomed to it.
“But. regretfully, things of no consequence like my many and serious friends in Istanbul, and the glittering worldly life there, and in particular the fame and honour granted me which were far greater than my due , made me temporarily forget my decision . It was as though that night in exile was a luminous blackness in my life’s eye, and the glittering white daytime of Istanbul, a lightless white in it. It could not see ahead, it still slumbered. Until two years later, Gavs-i Geylani opened my eyes once more with his book Futuhu’l-Gayb.