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Recent Developments in Recognition of The Assyrian Genocide by Governments and Scholars (Nineveh, Volume 35, Number 2)

By: Dr. Hannibal Travis
Publish Date: 9/3/2011

Since the publication of, Gabriele Yonan’s Ein vergassener Holocaust in 1989 and Thea Halo’s Not Even My Name in 2000, a consensus has been building on recognition of the Assyrian genocide. On several occasions in the past decade, governors of the State of New York have declared that: it was “alongside their Greek and Assyrian imperial co-subjects” that the Ottoman Armenians “met their end in mass killings, organized death marches, starvation tactics and other brutal methods employed against civilians.” In 2006, the European Parliament urged Turkey to recognize the Assyrian and Greek genocides along with the Armenian genocide. In a statement in 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan stated that past regimes in Turkey had “ethnically cleansed” non-Turkish minorities, using a term linked by the United Nations to genocide. In 2010, the Parliament of Sweden recognized the Assyrian genocide with those of the Armenians and Pontic Greeks.

Scholars have provided the documentary and analytical foundation for recognition of the Assyrian genocide. We now know that estimates of a death toll of about 250,000 were circulated internationally in the 1910s and 1920s. We know that fewer Assyrians survived inside the Ottoman Empire or Turkey than did Armenians. We know that unlike Armenians or Greeks, the Assyrians were not numerous or prosperous enough to claim their own state in the post-World War I process of transitioning Middle Eastern peoples to self-determination. Armenian and Armenian- American scholars have admitted that there are so few Assyrians left that their very existence was nearly forgotten.

As a result of careful work in many archives and libraries, we know a great deal about the processes on the ground that led to such a thorough eradication of the Assyrian presence in Anatolia and the Anatolian-Persian border. We know that nearly a third of those slain were lost in the massacres in Persia that followed the fall of the czarist regime in Russia, and in the flight of the Assyrian remnant to British-controlled territory in Mesopotamia. We know that up to 20,000 Assyrians perished or went missing during the massacres in Persia in late 1914 and early 1915.

We know the location of other large losses of life due to violence against Assyrian civilians in 1915, including the Qudshanis region of the Hakkari mountains, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Seert, Mardin, Midyat, Jezire, Faysh Khabour, Nisibis, Edessa or Urfa, Adana, Brahimie, Harput, Urmia, Salamas, and Gulpashan. German officials used terms like “exterminated” and “massacred” for the anti-Assyrian campaigns of Turkish troops and allied militia.

Recent events have reminded us that the smaller Assyrian genocides also deserve careful study. Court rulings in Brazil, Ethiopia, Iraq, and other places have confirmed that the crime of genocide as defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of 1948 is not limited to a complete extermination of a people. These courts have convicted defendants for smaller massacres, including of bands of indigenous Brazilians, political opponents of the Ethiopian communist regime of the 1980s, and the Barzani tribe in rebellion to Ba’athist Iraq. The improved access to old newspapers and diplomatic records that we enjoy due to the World Wide Web helps confirm that Turkey has admitted repeatedly that genocide may occur by killing a group’s political leaders, or engaging in local atrocities that do not kill a substantial percentage of the group, but that cause many refugees to flee. During several key historical moments, Turkey has reiterated this understanding of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of 1948. For example, it condemned genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, when a small percentage of the Bosnian Muslim population had been killed by the Yugoslav government because some of its political and military leaders were engaging in terrorism and committing crimes against Serbs.

The U.N. General Assembly agreed with this condemnation in resolutions issued in 1992 through 1996. Turkey also excoriated Greece and Greek Cypriots on numerous occasions in the 1960s and 1970s for committing genocide against the Turkish minority in Cyprus, even though the death toll was relatively modest. More recently, Turkey accused several large non-Muslim countries of practicing genocide in suppressing a rebellion by Muslim political and military leaders, including Yugoslavia in Kosovo, and China in East Turkestan.

My book Genocide in the Middle East: The Ottoman Empire, Iraq, and Sudan (Carolina Academic Press, 2010), is the first to include an academically-grounded account of the genocides of the Assyrians in the 1840s and 1980s along with the one more generally written about, which occurred in the 1910s and 1920s. The British press reported that the Assyrian tribes of the Hakkari mountains were hunted down and exterminated. American missionaries sent a dispatch to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions stating that Kurds had gone from village to village killing the Assyrians and burning down the churches and homes. Other missionaries reported that from upper Mesopotamia east to northern Persia, the Assyrians were put to the sword and villages plundered. In fact, the lawyer and adviser to the United Nations who became known as the “father” of the genocide treaty, Raphael Lemkin, used the Assyrian massacres of the 1840s as an example of genocide. In a narrative of the Armenian genocide published in 2008, he wrote that 10,000 Nestorian and Armenian Christians were massacred, and about as many women and children enslaved by the Kurds under Bedr Khan Bey. He quotes the British press as reporting that by the 1870s, villages were desolated and deserted throughout “Kurdistan,” with the Ottoman Empire’s “most peaceable inhabitants” murdered, including their children. He wrote of the genocide in 1915, that the richest Assyrian village in the Urmia region was destroyed, the men killed and the women violated. He noted that “the commanding officer had put a price on every Christian head.” He quoted another report of an “awful holocaust” of Christians at the hands of the Kurds, a report actually written by an Assyrian, Jean [or Joseph] Naayem.

In 1925, another series of deportations affected the Assyrians, this time near the frontier between Iraq and Turkey. The official report of the League of Nations estimated that the number of Assyrians killed was “very high,” due to massacres, mass rapes, starvation, fatigue, and torture. During the deportations, children and elderly were massacred because they could not keep up with the columns of deportees led by Turkish soldiers. A total of 8,000 Assyro- Chaldeans were affected, although not all of those died, many arriving in Zakho across the border. Dr. Racho Donef has published a very helpful anthology of documentation of these events, with a Swedish press.

Then, of course, there is the Simele massacre of Assyrians in Iraq. The Assyrians of Iraq were frequently used in the official promotional flyers for the Genocide Convention as an example of an event that would be covered by it. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Professor Lemkin was preparing a book on genocide which he never published, but which he planned to describe the Simele massacre in under the title “Genocide in Simmel 1933.” His draft of the chapter on Simele described how 320 Assyrians were killed, including six priests and the chief of the Baz tribe. He also noted that the Assyrians themselves estimated that 2,000 perished, and that 60 villages were looted. It is amazing that in light of these events, some scholars have argued that Iraq had been unfairly criticized over the events of 1933.

Scholars who are ethnically Kurdish or who are close politically to the Kurdish leadership often describe the Kurdish genocide of the 1980s in Iraq as if there were no other victims and Kurds suffered the most proportionately. They often fail to point out that the Kurdish population in Iraq doubled from two million in 1970 to four million in 2002, and that Kurds claim today that there are five to six million of them in Iraq, which is why they have claimed an entire region of the country as their own and even refuse to fly the flag of Arab Iraq there. Of course, many Kurds lost their lives in Iraq during the 1980s and 1990s due to genocide and torture, no one would dispute that. But the Kurdish people were rarely at risk of being removed completely from Iraq’s mosaic of peoples. The Anfal campaign resulted in genocide convictions for several Iraqi officials in 2007. There was a Kurdish governor of Dohuk under Saddam Hussein. There was an article published in the international press where that governor defended village destructions. There was even a governor of Suleimaniyah named Barzani. There was also a pro-government Kurdish militia known officially as the National Defense Battalions, but known by its enemies as the jahsh. The main report on the Anfal campaign documented that in Dohuk governorate, where most Assyrians lived, “they were in fact dealt with by the regime even more severely than their Kurdish neighbors.” At each stage of the Anfal campaign, " ground troops and jahsh enveloped the target area from all sides, destroying all human habitation in their path, looting household possessions and farm animals and setting fire to homes, before calling in demolition crews to finish the job.” As the army took villagers away to be killed or deported, the jahsh “combed the hillsides to track down anyone who had escaped.” Just like in the 1840s or 1910s, the jahsh were responsible for “burning and looting villages,” and the “demolition of security-prohibited villages.” In that way, they resemble the janjaweed of Sudan, or the Ottoman Special Organization.

Finally, there are the many massacres of Assyrians in Iraq since 2003. Iraq's Christian population has been cut by about half since 2003, from over a million down to 600,000 or even 300,000. The organization Genocide Watch, the U.N. Secretary-General’s special adviser on genocide prevention, and Samantha Power of Harvard, who is now a key national security adviser to President Obama, confirmed in 2006-2007 that religious targeting by Iraqi terrorists and militias constituted genocide. The massacres of Assyrians in churches, buses, and in their homes have each been part of a widespread and systematic attack on the Assyrian Christian community in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk in particular since 2003. Entire neighborhoods of Assyrians in Baghdad and Basra have been evacuated. Similar campaigns have affected the Yezidis of the Mosul region, a hotbed of al Qaeda activity, and the Mandaeans of the Basra region. The prime minister and president of Iraq have each confirmed that the religious and sectarian massacres by al Qaeda in Iraq amount to the crime of genocide. But the financiers of these bombers in Saudi Arabia and other countries in Iraq’s neighborhood have eluded justice.

Assyrian organizations need to do a better job of organizing events focused on the history of the Assyrians and their relations with other populations. On many occasions in past years, I have heard Assyrian-Americans complain about the quality of the academic and cultural programming at Assyrian-American events such as conferences. Some have argued that the Assyrian Youth Federation in Sweden and the Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Student Union of Canada put on workshops and talks of a consistently higher quality than Assyrian-American organizations. Assyrians should also be careful not to exaggerate the impact of real events. For example, it has become common to claim on Web sites that 750,000 Assyrians died in 1915, or in World War I, or some similar time frame. Yet no sources are provided for this figure, and it appears to contradict most of what is known about the relative size of Assyrian populations in Persia and the Ottoman Empire in the first part of the twentieth century.

It makes Assyrian genocide recognition look ridiculous to say that 750,000 Assyrians died when it is well-known and easy to find sources stating that the number of Nestorians in the 19th century Ottoman Empire was 70,000 to 100,000, Joseph Tfinkjdi estimated that there were 100,000 Chaldeans, and the Assyro-Chaldean delegation to Paris Peace conference put the entire Assyro-Chaldean population in 1914 at less than 600,000. Regardless of what some ambassador or even dozens of Turkish books say they do less damage than totally implausible statistics. Perhaps if one includes all the children that would have been born to those who died during this period, the number might reach 750,000, but that needs to be clarified so readers do not dismiss wild claims as the result of biased analysis.

Assyrians must also contend with the power of large populations. Larger populations contribute more scholars to universities, and also exercise more influence on scholars of other nationalities or ethnicities. It is no accident that people with Assyrian names include Assyrians in the Ottoman Christian genocide, while those of Greek origin include Greeks, but Armenians just include Armenians, and Turks and Kurds often deny the entire event. Kurdish scholars and scholars with close ties to Kurdish politicians have an obvious incentive to downplay the extent to which Kurdistan’s ethnic makeup is based on genocide. Larger populations also have more money to spend on scholarship. Until recently, Assyrian organizations offered less funding for scholarship and travel than did Armenian, Kurdish, or Turkish organizations. Notably, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, and Turks control governments with large cultural budgets, not to mention United Nations agencies. Turks have a lot of money to spend to discredit even those who write about "consensus" Armenian genocide, let alone other Christian groups. Scholars at some of the best universities get funded by Armenians or Turks to write.

Even as Assyrians begin to make up these gaps by entering academia and funding research, the phenomenon of path-dependence guarantees some inertia in the field of genocide studies. Scholars tend to rely on traditional terminology and narratives of Armenian Genocide, because they can find many sources and feel comfortable. There is a fear of going out on a limb and being embarrassed. For example, some genocide scholars expressed unease at being proven wrong if they voted for the IAGS resolution on the Assyrian and Greek genocides. Other scholars doubt that there ever were Assyrians or place the word “Assyrian” in quotation marks, because John Joseph and others poisoned the well for Assyrian identity leaving confusion about whether these are Aramean or Turkish Christians. Part of the task of Assyrian scholars is, therefore, establishing their people’s existence to the ignorant. In this respect, efforts like Nineveh Magazine and the Modern Assyrian Research Archive play an essential role.

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Dr. Hannibal Travis