Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 11.
Towards the end of November 1916, after he had spent a couple of weeks at the Central Hospital in Aleppo, Sisir too was struck down by the typhus. For about a month he was so sick that at times he does not know whether he was dead or alive (p. 148). But in December, he was once again the beneficiary of a stroke of good fortune: his friend Bhola was also sent to the General Hospital in Aleppo. After that Sisir’s health began to improve steadily.
In Sisir’s description, the conditions at the General Hospital in Aleppo appear as a startling contrast to the situation in the camp at Ras al-‘Ain, where Indian prisoners were suffering terrible hardships. In the hospital, on the other hand, the POWs were in some ways, better off than the Turkish soldiers who being treated there.
Sisir often remarks on the difficulties that the Turkish soldiers had to deal with: ‘They were in a bad way,’ he comments, ‘they didn’t have money for cigarettes and would beg from us.’ (p.160)
Elsewhere, he writes: ‘Today there was a pitiful sight in our ward. The Turkish soldiers don’t receive any pay; they are all poor; they don’t even have money for cigarettes.
Some of them ask us for money; but mainly they pick up butts from the street, take the tobacco out and use it to roll cigarettes. Four or five butts yield one cigarette. (p.154).’
Sisir evidently made great progress with the Turkish language during his stay at the hospital. ‘We were quite friendly with the Turkish soldiers,’ he writes. ‘None of them were literate but they were friendly and warm. They used to say, you can’t fight us now, so we are all brothers or kardeshes. The word kardesh was much in use[i]. If they saw someone they didn’t know they would call him kardesh. We did the same.’ (p.157)
The Turkish soldiers at the hospital were themselves quite a diverse group. While most were from Anatolia, there were also some from Bulgaria and Albania. (p.158)
Sisir notes that there ‘there was no lack of bad men amongst them … Many times we were insulted by them and we often had to suffer their blows.’ He describes how he once went to the hospital’s barber for a shave, and was spat upon for no reason; he also mentions a corporal who would beat Indian patients for no reason at all. (p.159)
[i] Vedica Kant suggests that this term was: ‘kardeç (pronounced kardesh) which is the term for brother.’ I have followed her suggestion here although Sisir’s spelling of it would properly be transcribed as ‘kardash’.’