(WORK BATTALIONS - CONCENTRATION CAMPS)

 

The Amele Taburu or work battalions were instituted by Turkey days before the outbreak of WW1. In effect they were concentration camps or hard labour battalions devised at the recommendation of German General Colmar von der Goltz and Liman von Sanders. The battalions were made up of men taken from the regular army, disarmed, and stripped of their uniforms. Those forced to work in the battalions were primarily made up of Greeks and also Armenians, in other words those considered as being sympathetic to the enemy.

The plan was not only to disarm and isolate them, but to exterminate them without alerting foreign countries and creating international outrage.

In 1914 Turkey mobilised all Greek men from the age of 21 to 45 and in July of the same year sent them to the interior of Turkey to Sou-Sehir in the region of Sevasteia (Sivas). The same fate awaited the Armenians who were mobilised in 1915 and were also sent to desolate regions of Anatolia.

Hasiotis writes,

...both Armenians and Greek men who were fit to fight were conscripted into the notorious ‘labour battalions' (Amele Taburu) at more or less the same time, the purpose being the biological annihilation of both elements.1

The extermination of the Greeks and Armenians was carried out in many different ways. Firstly they were forced to work in the most severe of weather conditions for 18 hours a day. They were made to break rocks for the building of roads. They were made to dig, cut wood, clear snow from railroad tracks and some were even made to push train carriages. All these tasks were done without the necessary food and water and without the appropriate clothing when the weather was in many cases below zero and they were deprived of sleep. The exhaustion gradually took effect and the number of deaths increased from the dozens to the hundreds and eventually by the thousands.

Hasiotis quotes the following from a Greek embassy report from Constantinople of the 6th of June 1915 (when the persecution of the Armenians was in full swing).

The day before yesterday two (Greek) deserters from the Turkish army told us that between Hadem-Kioi, Chataldja, Yurt Tepe and Buyuk-Chekmedje more than 60,000 unarmed soldiers are working feverishly to construct a number of fortifications from one end of the shore to the other.... Of (these) 90% are Greeks and the rest Armenians, with a few Jews and Turks.1

Two months later Hasiotis quotes a similar report dated 15 August 1915.

The Christian soldiers are in a frightful state. They are in danger of dying of starvation.... They are dying by the thousand of diseases, fevers, exanthematic typhus, and cholera....1

The tragic death of these ‘soldiers' led many to escape and to take refuge in the mountains or to hide in places where they felt the authorities wouldn't find them. The authorities took the matter of absconders very seriously. Those who were caught were tied up and walked to the court martial and were sentenced after a brief and mock trial. In some cases groups of officers entered houses of Greeks and Armenians to search for absconders and deserters, and in the process would pillage, rape women, harass old men and women in order to have them confess and in the end would burn their houses too.

There were 2 reasons for isolating the Greeks and the Armenians in the work battalions. The first was the fear from the Turkish administration of a mass revolt by the Greeks and Armenians. And secondly, so that the Greeks and the Armenians wouldn't be able to defend themselves when the Turks took the measures to annihilate them.

In Pontus, Greek men who escaped the Amele Taburu were able to organise themselves into groups. Their numbers were in the thousands, and they took to defending the remainder of the defenceless Greeks from further persecution. These defenders of the nation, freedom fighters or Antartes as they came to be called, took part in fierce battles with the Turkish forces and were able to protect the Greek population from further massacre.

Perhaps the most well known account of the Amele Taburu is that of Elias Venezis in his book titled The Number 31328. Venezis was born in Ayvalik in 1904 but his family fled to Lesbos to avoid persecution. They returned in 1919 after the Hellenic Army landed in Smyrna. In September 1922 and at the age of 18, Venezis was put into a labour battalion. Of the 3000 that were in his battalion only 23 survived. In his book Venezis details the inhumane methods which the Turks used in the battalion. The film 1922 released in 1978 was inspired by the Venezis book. The film is sometimes called Smyrna 1922.

 

References:

• Encyclopaedia of Pontian Hellenism. Achilleas Anthemidis.
• I.K.Hassiotis The Armenian Genocide: history, politics, ethics. Richard Hovannisian. Chapter 6. The Armenian Genocide and the Greeks. p.136

See also:

The Greek Genocide

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