SYRIA – The life of Hanna Danho’s grandfather is a small tile in a much larger mosaic: the tragedy that Syriac, Assyrian, and Chaldean Christians have lived through over the last century.
In 1895 and 1896, 20 years before the larger genocide against Christians carried out in the Ottoman Empire, a smaller persecution began, often called the Hamidian massacres after the Ottoman emperor at the time, Abdul Hamid II. Danho’s grandfather was a small child living in the village of Habab in the mountains of Tur Abdin that are now in southeast Turkey. Residents of Habab, like their neighbors in other villages, fled the area for Sinjar in modern Iraq. Along the way, the elder Danho and his brother got lost, and were picked up by a local Kurd near the town of Qahtaniyah, now in northeast Syria. The children were delivered to the mukhtar, a local official, who was also a Kurd. When the people of Habab were at last able to return home to the mountains, the mukhtar sent one of his men to the boys’ village to see if his family was there. They were, and the mukhtar then sent the boys home, an act of kindness that the elder Danho never forgot. Little did he know, however, that the same mukhtar would play a role in his life when tragedy once again struck the Syriac Christian population two decades later.
Most are aware of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16, in which at least a million Armenian Christians were killed by the Ottoman government. The world knows about those horrors thanks to the massive efforts within the Armenian community worldwide to bring awareness to the issue and demand recognition for the tragedy that beset their people. Not as well known, however, is the massacre of Assyrian, Syriac, and Chaldean Christians during the same period, which claimed between 170,000 and 275,000 lives, depending on the estimate. As the Ottoman government set out to eliminate their empire’s Christian population—Armenian, Assyrian, Syriac, Chaldean, and Greek alike—Hanna Danho’s grandfather once again found his entire village in danger, 20 years after they first fled.
Locals in Habab fled, but some decided to take up arms and defend themselves, including the elder Danho, now a young man in his 20s. Those resisting ended up in Ain Warda, called Gulgoze in Turkish, where they tried to resist. The local Kurdish-led Ottoman forces, however, broke the resistance, and Danho fled, this time with his brother and sister. They initially headed once again towards Sinjar, but his sister stopped walking at one point along the way, saying she could not continue without water. One of the brothers ran to a nearby stream. He returned with water and she began to drink, then suddenly she died on the spot. Danho and his brother changed their route, and eventually made it back to the same village where 20 years before the local Kurdish mukhtar had kept them safe. The mukhtar remembered them, and went even further out of his way to ease their suffering: he gave them both land in the village of Girshamo, where Hanna Danho still farms today.
Girshamo always had a Syriac population, but before the genocide of 1915, the area was mostly farmed by those living in the Tur Abdin mountains now in Turkey, like Danho’s grandfather’s village of Habab. They would come down to plant and harvest, and spend the rest of the year up in the mountain. After World War I, however, the modern boundary was drawn between Turkey and Syria, and the small Syriac community that had survived the massacres found itself divided between those in Turkey and those in Syria. Syriac villages on the Syrian side of the boundary grew significantly, populated by those who’d fled from the genocide in Turkey.
Today, in villages like Girshamo, the Syriac community survives—barely. The modern church at Girshamo was built in 1998 on the same site as the original church, which was erected in 1830. With only about 13 households in the village, and with many of the people not there full-time, there isn’t mass every week. The church is dedicated to Saint Kyriakos, and on his feast day on July 15, fellow Syriac Orthodox Christians from the surrounding area come to celebrate with the villagers of Girshamo. But the celebration is not the same as it was in the mid-20th century, when about 70 households called the village home.
Such is the case for other Syriac villages in northeastern Syria. Many of the young people there have left for Europe, unable to see a future for themselves in their home country. The political situation is uncertain, and that makes it difficult to plan ahead. A few kilometers down the road, in the village of Tell Jihan, Turkish troops occasionally open fire on the town. Tell Jihan is less than a kilometer from the Syrian/Turkish border, and the church wall it faces has bullet holes that residents say appeared about five or six months ago. In mid-June, bullets broke one of the church’s windows. Like Girshamo, Tell Jihan has only a few households left. When Turkish bullets land in the village, it reminds the residents of the massacres committed against them a century ago. The modern Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge the genocide.
There would be tens of millions more Christians living in places like Girshamo and Tell Jihan had the massacres not occurred. In that sense, the plan to exterminate Christianity from the region succeeded. Somewhere between two and three million people were killed in the Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Syriac, and Chaldean Christian communities. In what is now Turkey, for example, Christians went from making up about 20 percent of the population before the genocide to less than 0.5 percent today, and those who remain are on the verge of disappearing. Greek and Armenian survivors at least had a country to flee to that was run by their ethnic brethren, even if it only possessed a small fraction of the territory that it once did. The Syriac, Assyrian, and Chaldean communities, however, had no country to turn to, and ended up primarily in places like Syria and Iraq, where 100 years later ISIS would commit the same crimes against them that the Ottoman government committed against their grandparents.
The civil war in Syria has been particularly hard on the country’s Christian community. In the northeast along the Turkish border, villages that had 20 or 30 households several decades ago now have only two or three. Those who remain feel abandoned by the international community. Hanna Danho says the current crisis is more difficult than any the community has faced before. He says it’s impossible to know who wants what is best for the country and who is trying to destroy it. It wasn’t just ISIS that targeted the Christian community; in the village of Ghardouka, south of Qahtaniyah, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra deliberately destroyed the church, leaving the rest of the village mostly untouched. Residents rebuilt the church, and today it stands as a proud monument to Syriac steadfastness.
Even after ISIS’s defeat, however, problems have continued for these Christians, as well as their Kurdish and Arab neighbors. Following a record year of rainfall and hopes for a good harvest, fires have consumed thousands of acres of ripe wheat and barley crops. Dozens have died fighting the fires, and the economic and psychological damage is massive. While no definitive proof of ISIS’s responsibility exists, they seem to be the most likely culprit, and they have claimed responsibility for fires in both Syria and Iraq. In a normal year, some fires ignite as a result of lightning strikes or faulty harvesting equipment. But the scale of the fires compared to past years make it almost impossible that this is an accident, residents say. Someone is trying to disrupt the order of Syria’s northeast, and civilian farmers are paying the price. Exacerbating the problem are the abundant crops in the area after a winter of good rain; this has limited the availability of equipment to bring in for the harvest. In most years, the crops would have already been successfully harvested by now. Instead, farmers are racing to find a spare combine to bring in their crops before the fires take them.
As Syriac Christians in Syria’s northeast face existential threats, their memory of past crimes is taking on new life. For much of the last century, Syriac Christians did not memorialize their genocide in the same way that Armenians did. Over the last few years, however, that has changed. The Syriac community has chosen June 15 as the date to mark the beginning of the genocide in 1915, and this year, events were organized in the cities of al-Hassakah, Qamishli, Qahtaniyah, and Derik. On the evening of June 15, the Syriac Orthodox archbishop for northeastern Syria, Mar Maurice Amseeh, held a mass at the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in al-Hassakah, followed by a procession through the neighborhood of al-Nasira, which has a significant Syriac population. The next day in Qamishli, in the largely Christian neighborhood of al-Wusta, the Syriac Union Party held a commemoration of the event featuring poems, dance, music, speeches, and a documentary video with photos taken during the genocide of starving children, women crucified, and piles of bodies left to the wolves, literal and figurative.
Speaking in Arabic, Sabah Shabo, the director of the Qamishli branch of the Syriac Women’s Union, told the crowd: “What brings us together today is commemoration and remembrance. Commemoration of the sayfo, which [sought to] bring an end to our people’s presence, to remove us from history and eliminate us…. A commemoration of the women whose blood was spilled, whose necks were cut…who were crucified naked, who were burned en masse without mercy or pity. We can still hear the cries of children as they are crying for a mother or a father, asking for a piece of bread.”
In the presence of Muslim attendees, Shabo continued:
We remember that many of our people survived from the killing and slaughter thanks to help they received from their Arab, Kurdish, and Yezidi brethren…. They stood with their human brother, even if he was from another religion or ethnicity. My dear attendees, we don’t condemn these massacres in order to spread discord or hatred, but rather to wake up the human conscience in the international community, and to gain international recognition for the massacres. And today, sayfo has come back again to all, 104 years later, to all people without discrimination for religion or ethnicity. It has come back in the masks of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, who killed and massacred and enslaved women in the Khabur, Sinjar, and all areas; all that under the guise of religion. But the steadfastness of the people of the area was able to defeat ISIS, the steadfastness from all communities who committed themselves to coexistence, who carried arms together, whose Syriac, Arab, Armenian, and Kurdish blood mixed together on this ground…. Brothers and sisters, as a Syriac people we must stand together to struggle, and to defend our dignity and our language, and to demand recognition for the sayfo…. Yes, we must eternalize this day, and promise the martyrs of the sayfo that we won’t forget, and that we will continue to demand recognition of the genocide.
For Syriac Christians still living in Syria, recognition and survival go hand-in-hand. In the village of Shalhoumiyah, three kilometers from the Turkish border, the four remaining families started building a new church last year after the old church, built in 1932, began collapsing. They must expect someone to still be in the village in 2123 when they mark 104 years after the defeat of ISIS, just as they now mark 104 after their genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
Sam Sweeney is a former congressional staffer and a writer and translator based in the Middle East. He has a Master’s degree in Islamic-Christian Relations from l’Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut.