O.C. Author Recounts Armenian Grandfather’s Escape During the Armenian Genocide

Investigative reporter Dawn Anahid MacKeen spent a decade on “The Hundred-Year Walk,” about her grandfather’s escape during the 1915 Armenian genocide. The O.C. resident retraced his steps through Turkey and Syria and met the family of an Arab sheik who saved his life. Students at La Habra High read the book this fall, and the paperback edition will be released in January.

Dawn Anahid Mackeen. Photo by Priscilla Iezzi.
Dawn Anahid Mackeen. Photo by Priscilla Iezzi.

HER INSPIRATION My grandfather believed he had survived to bear witness. One man was shot right next to him, and as he was dying he told my grandfather, “Tell what happened here.” That was his wish, and I felt it was my responsibility to try to fulfill that for him.

HOW HE SURVIVED He constantly reinvented himself. He lost his father when he was just a boy and had to drop out of school to help support all of his sisters and his widowed mother. All of a sudden he went from school to being on the street trying to sell goods. He became very good at approaching and speaking to different people … switching from Ottoman Turkish to Armenian to Greek.

THE RESCUER In the fall of 1916, my grandfather escaped from his caravan (almost everyone else was killed). He crawled through the desert for six days with only two cups of water. He was starving. This after months of eating grass and rotten apple cores and being marched. He heard about this powerful Arab sheik in the area along the Euphrates, and so he disguised himself as a Muslim Arab. He approached this sheik and said, “My name is Mustafa.” That was not my grandfather’s name. The sheik looked at my grandfather and said, “Tell me your real name.” He knew my grandfather was Armenian, he knew what was happening, and he took him in and treated him like part of the family.

REFUGEE CRISIS NOW It’s just heartbreaking to watch what’s happening in Syria today. I traveled there during my research. I went to the mass graves of the Armenians who died during the genocide. In the past few years, we see almost identical images from the same area, of people stooped under the weight of their life’s belongings on their backs, fleeing bloodshed, and holding dead babies, struggling to survive. To have a genocidal campaign in that same area by the Islamic State has been so heartbreaking.

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