Aguline Tatoulian, 85 and blind, summoned her children and grandchildren to the dining-room table and began recounting a story she had told each of them when they were very small.
It was the story of her role as a resistance fighter during the 1918 siege of Hadjin, Tatoulian’s village home in the mountainous reaches of northeastern Turkey. But this time, her loved ones said, the story had a pointed tone to it.
Tatoulian wondered out loud why the President of her adopted country had recently refused to support a national day of remembrance for Armenian victims.
President Reagan said in April that a resolution honoring the estimated 1.5 million Armenians massacred by Turks during a 1915-1918 genocide might damage relations with Turkey and inadvertently encourage terrorist attacks against Turkish diplomats by Armenian extremists.
Now Tatoulian was holding up an X-ray of her hip as proof that she still carried a Turkish bullet inside her. She said the X-ray is her personal indictment of Turkey, which denies that it systematically exiled and then massacred Armenians.
“Let Reagan come and I will tell him it happened,” said Tatoulian. “I saw it with my own eyes. Let them come and ask me. Let them see my bullet.” Tatoulian lived in Greece for five years, Syria for nine years and Lebanon for 30 years before settling in Pasadena in 1969. She taught in private Armenian schools much of her life. A published poet, she lives with a son and daughter in a modest home near Washington Boulevard, a commercial strip of Armenian-owned shops and stores.
With little to occupy her time, Tatoulian enjoys having articles from Armenian newspapers read to her by her grandchildren. Mostly, though, she spends her day relating stories to them.
Several of her five children and nine grandchildren gathered recently in the Pasadena home of Tatoulian’s son Edward and listened as she told them that Hadjin in the early 1900s was a town of 35,000 Armenians.
She had one older brother and one younger sister, and the family farmed grapes and tomatoes. At the age of 10, Tatoulian left for school in Istanbul. Five years later, in 1915, she learned in a letter from home that Hadjin’s people were being deported to Syria. When news of massacres came later, Tatoulian was certain that her family had died with others in marches across the Syrian desert.
Three years later, Tatoulian said, she received a letter from her family saying they had survived and were leaving Syria to return to Hadjin, where the situation had improved. Tatoulian waited and then wrote back that she too wanted to come home.
She ignored her mother’s warnings that Turkish soldiers were once again invading Armenian villages and that a trip would be dangerous. Shortly after she arrived home, Tatoulian said, Turkish soldiers surrounded Hadjin.
For nine months, the soldiers laid siege to Hadjin while townspeople fought back, awaiting an impending rescue by nearby French forces. But the French never came. Tatoulian said the resistance held the Turks at bay by rationing a meager supply of guns and bullets and by using their mountain as a natural fortress through which they tunneled passageways to transport food and weapons. Tatoulian was wounded by the same bullet that killed her girlfriend.
Today, the siege at Hadjin is one of few stories of resistance that survivors can tell their grandchildren, who invariably wonder if the Armenians fought back.
“In the sixth month, we drove away the Turks,” Tatoulian said in Armenian, her face flushed. “There was peace for 8 to 10 days. But they came back, this time with cannons and stronger bullets.
“My family was in a neighbor’s house. We were all hugging each other and crying and asking God for help. I couldn’t stand that scene. I couldn’t stand the thought of dying at the hands of the Turks. So I ran outside hoping that a stray bullet would strike me.”
Tatoulian escaped by hiding in a cave overnight. She was met by hundreds of other villagers who had also fled into the mountains. As she and the others reached the mountaintop high above the town, Tatoulian took one last look at her home.
“Down below, Armenian girls were dancing naked while Turkish soldiers laughed and shot bullets at their feet. Hadjin had been turned into a dust bowl, a graveyard. I turned and said, ‘Goodby, my Hadjin.’ ”
Tatoulian can still recall every detail of the photograph that her children keep with them. It is a picture of Tatoulian during the battle of Hadjin, a 18-year-old resistance fighter, her hair closely cropped, a rifle at her side and a bandoleer of bullets draped over her shoulder.
“Girls were fighting alongside boys,” she said. “I just fired the gun. Whether I killed a Turk or not, I’ll never know.”
Three months ago, Tatoulian traveled to Washington for a national gathering of Armenian genocide survivors. Many of the survivors, now nearing their 80s, have related their stories to Armenian-American institutes still documenting the genocide.
“Time is against us,” said Bill Paparian, a spokesman for Pasadena’s Armenian community. “Each year, more and more survivors die and each year Turkish denials grow more and more strident. If we don’t make our case now, we stand the chance of forever losing (recognition of) our genocide.”