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The Assyrian Genocide – then and now (Nineveh, Volume 35, Number 2)

By: Svante Lundgren, Dr. of Theology,author of a book about the Ottoman genocide of Christians (in Swedish)
Publish Date: 9/3/2011

With the exception of the Assyrian community and the small flock of genocide scholars, the Assyrian genocide is almost completely unknown. The fact, that hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Assyrians were slaughtered during the First World War, has not, unlike the Holocaust and to a certain degree the Armenian genocide, entered our collective memory. In this article I am going to write about what happened, why it happened, and why it is so little known.

The Assyrians call the genocide Seyfo, which means sword. The year 1915 was the year of the sword in Assyrian history. The genocide was not restricted to, but had its peak, that year. The main Assyrian communities in the Ottoman Empire were all hit by destruction. The region of Urmia, which was in Persia outside the Ottoman Empire, was under occupation by Ottoman forces in spring 1915. The Christian population, both Armenians and Assyrians, were massacred in the thousands. Those who survived did so by founding shelter in the American or French missionary compound in the town of Urmia. The “mountain Nestorians” in the Hakkari mountains had a long tradition of de facto autonomy. They were also armed and able to resist when they in the autumn of 1914 were attacked by Ottoman forces. Despite a brave resistance they could not withstand the military superiority, and they were forced to withdraw to Urmia in the autumn of 1915. Their villages were destroyed, thousands of their people were killed, and those who had survived were now refugees.

The Assyrians in Tur Abdin had lived in the region for ages and were peaceful with no revolutionary or subversive tendencies. It did not help them. They were massacred and deported in huge numbers. In a few places – most famous is the case of Aynwardo – they were able to defend themselves with some success.

How many Assyrians were killed in the genocide? Nobody knows the exact number, but we can reach a reliable estimate. The Chaldo-Assyrian delegation to the peace negotiations after the war stated that 250,000 Assyrians were killed. Professor David Gaunt, the most distinguished Seyfo-scholar, thinks that this number is too low. He calculates with a little more than 300,000 victims. Higher numbers are often given, a result of the unhappy tendency to exaggerate the dimension of a tragedy, which is so enormous in itself that there is no need for exaggerations.

Why genocide?
The murderers were Ottoman forces, armed Kurdish tribes and ordinary Muslims. Responsible for the tragedy was the Ottoman government, which was lead by the Young Turk party. Why did it decide to eliminate the Christian population in the Empire? And why was this decision carried out by so many people on the local level?

There are three reasons for the genocide:
i) The Young Turk party was motivated by Turkish nationalism. In their opinion the Empire was threatened and the best, maybe the only, way to save it was to make it religiously and ethnically homogenous. The non-Muslim minorities had to be eliminated – either by killing them or expelling them (both methods were used). The Muslim minorities had to be assimilated. ii) To be able to win acceptance and cooperation for the elimination of the Christians among the Muslims in the regions with Christian population, the government used the old suspicion which existed between Muslims and Christians. When the World War broke out it was declared a jihad against the unbelievers. This was the reason why so many Muslims – Turks and Kurds – accepted and participated in the massacres of Christians. iii) Every genocide leads to a massive transmission of wealth from victims to perpetrators. Many Turks and Kurds enriched themselves by usurping the fields, homes or businesses of their Christian neighbors. Thousands of Christian girls and young women ended up as wives, concubines or servants of rich Muslims. Greed is a common motive for crime, sometimes even for massive crimes.

Why the silence?
In the beginning of the 20th century, the world was not as interested in genocides and mass killings as it is today. The Great War had been terrible and what happened to the Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire was considered a mere detail. The mentality among those Christians in the Ottoman genocide who survived was to forget the horrific past and look to the future. Even among the Armenians – a Christian minority which was bigger and better educated than the Assyrians – it took fifty years before a systematic documentation, teaching and lobbying about the genocide started.

It took even longer among the Assyrians. They were smaller, less educated and more divided. They lived in different countries and belonged to different churches. Only with the emergence of a modern Assyrian movement did the work for more knowledge about and recognition of the genocide start. The Assyrian Universal Alliance decided Assyrian martyrs. The day that was chosen, the 7th of August, was not connected to Seyfo, but to the Simele massacre of 1933.

It is also a fact – a sad although not surprising fact – that there has been resistance among the Armenians to include the other victim groups, Assyrians and Greeks, in the story about the Ottoman genocide. The phenomenon, wellknown from the history of genocides, is called the don’tsteal- our-genocide-syndrome.

The Armenians have again a state of their own. The Greeks who were driven out of the Ottoman Empire settled in Greece. There is, however, no independent Assyria today. Of the victims of the Ottoman genocide of Christians, it is therefore the Assyrians who are in the most difficult situation. You can even argue that in a certain sense the genocide has not yet ended. The Assyrians still suffer the consequences. There has been no recognition from Turkey, no restitution, and the people still suffer to a certain extent of post-genocide trauma.

To this comes the fact that the Assyrians in Iraq are experiencing a tragedy, which is different from but not completely unlike, Seyfo. They are not killed and driven from the country by their government. They are, however, experiencing this and the fact that the perpetrators this time don’t have the support of their government is a poor comfort. What we need is a strong lobbying for recognition of the genocide and in support of the Assyrians in their homelands, especially Iraq. But the Assyrians are still divided – to a high degree as a result of the genocide. They live in different countries, belong to different churches, are split between those who call themselves Assyrians and those who call themselves something else, between those who opt for assimilation and those who still harbor a dream of returning to Bethnahrin. The Young Turks are long dead, but tragically enough it seems like they were successful in their project.
Dr. Svante Lundgren