“My people and your people, my Syrian
Brother, are dead ... What can be
Done for those who are dying? Our
Lamentations will not satisfy their
Hunger, and our tears will not quench
Their thirst; what can we do to save
Them between the iron paws of
- From Dead Are My People by Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931)
Almost 100 years ago this month, as the First World War raged across Europe and beyond, a dark chapter unfolded in what was then known as Greater Syria.
The first culprit: the relentless locust. Following a bad harvest caused by a drought, in April 1915 dark clouds heralded the arrival of swarms of locusts, descending to feed on plants, whether green or dry.
For over three months, the tiny but insatiable creatures devoured whatever had been left behind by the Ottoman authorities, who had prioritised food and grain reserves to feed their soldiers as part of the imperial war effort.
This marked the beginning of a period that is now often just a footnote in the history books: the Great Famine of 1915-18, which left an estimated 500,000 people dead. With a lack of accurate data, estimates range from 100,000 to 200,000 deaths in Mount Lebanon alone.
At this time, the population of Lebanon was estimated at about 400,000, meaning that half its people died. At 250,000, the American Red Cross estimated an even higher death toll.
It was the highest death toll by population of the First World War.
“The nights in Beirut were atrocious: You heard the whining and screaming of starved people: ‘Ju3an, Ju3an’ (hungry, hungry),” wrote the Turkish feminist author Halide Edib (1882-1964) in her memoirs.
In his book Al Raghif (The Bread), the Lebanese writer and diplomat Toufic Youssef Aouad – a child during the famine – wrote: “There was a woman lying on her back, covered with lice. A newborn with enormous eyes was at her breast. The child kept pressing the breast with his hands and lips and would then give up and cry and cry.”
There were reports of people eating cats, dogs and rats, even cannibalism. One account is by a priest who tells of a father who came to confess that he had eaten his own children.
Edward Nickoley, 1917, an employee with the Syrian Protestant College, later to become the American University of Beirut, wrote in his diary: “Starving people lying about everywhere; at any time children moaning and weeping, women and children clawing over rubbish piles and ravenously eating anything that they can find. When the agonised cry of famishing people in the street becomes too bitter to bear, people get up and close the windows tight in the hope of shutting out the sound. Mere babies amuse themselves by imitating the cries that they hear in the streets or at the doors.”
The Great Famine was the devastating result of both political and environmental factors, the combination of a severe drought and locusts and a suffocating blockade. After the Ottoman forces joined Germany, the Allies enforced a blockade of the entire Eastern Mediterranean in an effort to cut the supplies to the Ottomans.
In return, a blockade was introduced by General Jamal Pasha, commander in chief of the Turkish forces in Greater Syria, where cereals and wheat were prevented from entering Mount Lebanon.
In a letter to Mary Haskell, dated May 26, 1916, Gibran Khalil Gibran wrote: “The famine in Mount Lebanon has been planned and instigated by the Turkish government. Already 80,000 have succumbed to starvation and thousands are dying every single day. The same process happened with the Christian Armenians and applied to the Christians in Mount Lebanon.”
But the full story is a far more complicated, according to history professor Aaron Tylor Brand, at the American University of Beirut, whose dissertation on the famine is entitled: Lives Darkened by Calamity: Enduring the Famine of WWI in Lebanon and Western Syria.
“Previous interpretations of the famine as a deliberate product of Ottoman or Allied actions are too simplistic. Analysing monthly price lists and climatic statistics of the famine period and contextualising these within the history of famine in the region suggests that the high prices that drove the region towards famine in late 1915 were the product of environmental factors (poor rainfall, a climatic oscillation, and locust attack) and wartime mismanagement that conscripted too heavily in the countryside at a time when agricultural goods were needed for both the war and the population,” he says.
“The result was a crisis in the countryside that led to underproduction of agricultural goods, prompting speculation that increased the cost of living. This, combined with the loss of jobs due to the Allied blockade in Mount Lebanon and the coastal regions, created a situation where people, who were already growing poor due to the work stoppage, were then forced to buy expensive food to feed their families and keep themselves alive.
“State policies like price fixing, the introduction of paper money, the implementation of production and transportation controls of grain and taxation did little to help the situation,” he says. “In the end, it wasn’t that there was no food [in most towns], it was that it was too expensive to purchase, so people and families began to slowly starve.”
The Ottoman authorities issued paper money, depreciating the purchasing power of the Greater Syria inhabitants. Diseases and illnesses soon followed, with rises in epidemics like malaria, dysentery, typhoid and typhus.
“The conditions of the refugees from the Armenian Genocide and those fleeing to the cities in search of work or food increased the incidence of epidemic disease during the period. The increase in susceptible individuals and the wet springs of 1916-1918 meant there were more mosquitoes feeding on more people, allowing the spread of malaria to reach crisis levels by 1917. The anaemia and diarrhoea of malaria, combined with malnourishment, was a bad combination, probably subtly contributing to the death tolls,” says Prof Brand.
All areas across Greater Syria suffered on some level or other, with the highest death tolls in Mount Lebanon, he says, due “to Ottoman mismanagement, predations by certain officials and soldiers, and poor supply systems, and poverty caused by the cessation of the silk trade.” Back then, the production of raw silk was woven by women in mills and then exported to Europe. Also tied to this period is Martyrs’ Day, marked on May 6 in Lebanon and Syria.
Earning him the title Al Jazzar (the butcher), Gen Jamal Pasha, who saw tens of thousands die from starvation, also ordered the public execution of 21 Syrians and Lebanese in Damascus and Beirut in 1916, for alleged “anti-Turkish activities”. Marjeh Square in Damascus and Burj square in Beirut were both renamed Martyrs’ Square.
“Our parents did not like to talk too much about that period. It was a dark ugly part of our history,” says Teresa Michel, now in her late 80s, from the coastal city of Betroun, northern Lebanon, which – along with Byblos and Tripoli – was also hit hard by the famine.
“They lost so many loved ones during that time. My father once said that the rich families survived as they were able to bribe and get supplies on the black market. It was the unemployed, the middle class and the poor that were dying in the streets.”
Today the only survivor of the famine still living is believed to be a 105-year-old man in Batloun, Lebanon. But the story of the Great Famine remains alive through those who remember the horrific stories of death and survival.
* Additional reporting by Carla Mirza