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   Chapter 4 ROAD-MAKING AND DISCHARGE

With the Turks in Palestine By Alexander Aaronsohn Characters: 7033

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The news of the actual declaration of war by Turkey caused a tremendous stir in our regiment. The prevailing feeling was one of great restlessness and discontent. The Arabs made many bitter remarks against Germany. "Why didn't she help us against the Italians during the war for Tripoli?" they said. "Now that she is in trouble she is drawing us into the fight." Their opinions, however, soon underwent a change. In the first place, they came to realize that Turkey had taken up arms against Russia; and Russia is considered first and foremost the arch-enemy. German reports of German successes also had a powerful effect on them. They began to grow boastful, arrogant; and the sight of the plundering of Europeans, Jews, and Christians convinced them that a very desirable régime was setting in. Saffêd has a large Jewish colony, and it was torment for me to have to witness the outrages that my people suffered in the name of "requisitioning."

The final blow came one morning when all the Jewish and Christian soldiers of our regiment were called out and told that henceforth they were to serve in the taboor amlieh, or working corps. The object of this action, plainly enough, was to conciliate and flatter the Mohammedan population, and at the same time to put the Jews and Christians, who for the most part favored the cause of the Allies, in a position where they would be least dangerous. We were disarmed; our uniforms were taken away, and we became hard-driven "gangsters." I shall never forget the humiliation of that day when we, who, after all, were the best-disciplined troops of the lot, were first herded to our work of pushing wheelbarrows and handling spades, by grinning Arabs, rifle on shoulder. We were set to building the road between Saffêd and Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee-a link in the military highway from Damascus to the coast, which would be used for the movement of troops in case the railroad should be cut off. It had no immediate strategic bearing on the attack against Suez, however.

From six in the morning till seven at night we were hard at it, except for one hour's rest at noon. While we had money, it was possible to get some slight relief by bribing our taskmasters; but this soon came to an end, and we had to endure their brutality as best we could. The wheelbarrows we used were the property of a French company which, before the war, was undertaking a highway to Beirut. No grease was provided for the wheels, so that there was a maddening squeaking and squealing in addition to the difficulty of pushing the barrows. One day I suggested to an inspection officer that if the wheels were not greased the axles would be burned out. He agreed with me and issued an order that the men were to provide their own oil to lubricate the wheels!

I shall not dwell on the physical sufferings we underwent while working on this road, for the reason that the conditions I have described were prevalent over the whole country; and later, when I had the opportunity to visit some construction camps in Samaria and Judaea found that in comparison our lot had been a happy one. While we were breaking stones and trundling squeaking wheelbarrows, however, the most disquieting rumors began to drift in to us from our home villages. Plundering had been going on in the name of "requisitioning"; the country was full of soldiery whose capacity for mischief-making was well known to us, and it was torture to think of what might be happening in our peaceful homes where so few men

had been left for protection. All the barbed-wire fences, we heard, had been torn up and sent north for the construction of barricades. In a wild land like Palestine, where the native has no respect for property, where fields and crops are always at the mercy of marauders, the barbed-wire fence has been a tremendous factor for civilization, and with these gone the Arabs were once more free to sweep across the country unhindered, stealing and destroying.

The situation grew more and more unbearable. One day a little Christian soldier-a Nazarene-disappeared from the ranks. We never saw him again, but we learned that his sister, a very young girl, had been forcibly taken by a Turkish officer of the Nazareth garrison. In Palestine, the dishonor of a girl can be redeemed by blood alone. The young soldier had hunted for his sister, found her in the barracks, and shot her; he then surrendered himself to the military authorities, who undoubtedly put him to death. He had not dared to kill the real criminal,-the officer,-for he knew that this would not only bring death to his family, but would call down terrible suffering on all the Christians of Nazareth.

When I learned of this tragedy, I determined to get out of the army and return to my village at all costs. Nine Turkish officers out of ten can be bought, and I had reason to know that the officer in command at Saffêd was not that tenth man. Now, according to the law of the country, a man has the right to purchase exemption from military service for a sum equivalent to two hundred dollars. My case was different, for I was already enrolled; but everything is possible in Turkey. I set to work, and in less than two weeks I had bought half a dozen officers, ranging from corporal to captain, and had obtained consent of the higher authorities to my departure, provided I could get a physician's certificate declaring me unfit for service.

This was arranged in short order, although I am healthy-looking and the doctor found some difficulty in hitting on an appropriate ailment. Finally he decided that I had "too much blood"-whatever that might mean. With his certificate in hand, I paid the regular price of two hundred dollars from funds which had been sent me by my family, and walked out of the barracks a free man. My happiness was mingled with sadness at the thought of leaving the comrades with whom I had suffered and hoped. The four boys from my village were splendid. They felt that I was right in going home to do what I could for the people, but when they kissed me good-bye, in the Eastern fashion, the tears were running down their cheeks; and they were all strong, brave fellows.

On my way back to Zicron-Jacob, I passed through the town of Sheff'amr, where I got a foretaste of the conditions I was to find at home. A Turkish soldier, sauntering along the street, helped himself to fruit from the basket of an old vender, and went on without offering to pay a farthing. When the old man ventured to protest, the soldier turned like a flash and began beating him mercilessly, knocking him down and battering him until he was bruised, bleeding, and covered with the mud of the street. There was a hubbub; a crowd formed, through which a Turkish officer forced his way, demanding explanations. The soldier sketched the situation in a few words, whereupon the officer, turning to the old man, said impressively,-"If a soldier of the Sultan should choose to heap filth on your head, it is for you to kiss his hand in gratitude."

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