The Xabûr region, which stretches from Serêkaniyê along the Xabûr River southwards via Til Temir to Haseke, has been under fire again since 9 October 2019.
The occupation war of the Turkish army against the areas of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is accompanied by a genocide against peoples who have lived in this area for thousands of years. In this situation of a Third World War, dynamics and events recalling the preparation of the genocides and crimes against humanity during the World Wars in the 20th century are repeated: On 24 April 1915, the Ottoman Empire started the genocide against the Armenian people with the execution of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and leaders. Also currently, the Turkish state is still pursuing the goal of breaking the resistance and cohesion of the population by extra-legal execution of social and political leaders. These include attacks and assassinations coordinated by the Turkish secret service on members of the Autonomous Administration councils, the torture and execution of the secretary general of the Future Party of Syria Hevrîn Xelef or of the Armenian priest Henan Bido and his father. During the First World War, two million Armenians and Syriacs were murdered on death marches and in concentration camps in the Derazor desert. Now, Trump cynically allowed the attempts of the Turkish state to “cleanse” the border region of Rojava of Kurds, by saying that a “suitable living space for Kurds” would be in regions close to the oil wells in the desert of Derazor!
Now as then, international powers, in the interest of their own power and profit, have remained silent on the breach of international law and supported the preparation of genocides. Just as the attitudes of Western powers, Soviet Russia and the League of Nations once encouraged Hitler to occupy Austria and Czechoslovakia, there is a similar consensus of international powers today with respect to Turkey’s occupation of North and East Syria. On the basis of economic and geostrategic profit calculations, they are all – including the UN – contributing to Turkey’s genocide plans. In this article, the historical dimensions and aim of the Turkish occupation war will be examined in more detail using the example of the attacks on the Xabûr region.
Resistance against New Genocides and Feminicides in the Xabûr Region
The first bombings by the Turkish army were on Serêkaniyê. This town was previously divided in two by the demarcation of the border in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The northern part of the city was renamed “Ceylanpinar” by the Turkish authorities, the southern part of the city was renamed “Rasalayn” by Syrian authorities. As a border town and the most western town of the canton of Cizire on the way to Girêsipî and Kobanê, it has strategic importance.
The small town of Til Temir, located 40 km south of Serêkaniyê, is an important junction on the M4 highway. Here the highway that connects Aleppo and the border crossing to Iraq crosses with the roads leading to Hasseke, Serekaniye and Dirbesiye. Til Temir is located at the foot of the Kezuwan Mountains, which watch over the plains of Canton Cizire.
In the years 2012 to 2015 fierce battles had already raged here. First, mercenaries of the FSA-affiliated El-Nusra Front tried to conquer and depopulate this region. Tens of thousands of families – mainly Assyrian and Kurdish – fled from the threats of massacres. Others stayed and organised the resistance together with units of the YPJ and YPG. The Assyrian Xabûr Defence Council was founded with the aim of preventing the complete exodus of the Christian population from the region. Further massacres and attacks by the Islamic State (IS) on the region followed in 2014. 350 Christians were kidnapped by IS to extort ransom money; their villages were destroyed, occupied and plundered. Through a determined resistance, the Women’s and People’s Defence Forces managed to defend the towns of Til Temir and Serêkaniyê. By the summer of 2015, YPJ and YPG units, together with the Assyrian Defence Council, were able to liberate all IS-occupied territories and villages in the Xabûr region. Internationalist fighters like Ivana Hoffman also took part in this struggle. She and hundreds of her comrades-in-arms – Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs and Turks – gave their lives to defend and liberate the Xabûr region. They laid the foundation for the phase of reconstruction that followed afterwards.
The rebuilding process did not only concern houses and infrastructure that were destroyed by the war, but also the development of a system of democratic self-administration. From now on, all population and faith groups had the opportunity to articulate their needs and interests and participate in decision-making processes. In this process of building communes and people’s councils, schools, cooperatives, social and cultural institutions, the people of the different communities got to know each other better and grew together in community life.
It is not only because of their geostrategic position that Serekaniye and the Xabûr region have once again become a target of current attacks. Like El Nusra and IS, the Turkish occupying army today is also attempting to expell the Christian, Ezidi and Kurdish population of Northern Syria. We are witnessing a continuation of the colonial genocide practices and imperialist domination policies of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The current campaign against the areas and the population living in the regions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is being conducted with the aim of destroying the cultures and communal life of the various population groups that are rooted in thousands of years of history. Because a life of solidarity, community ethics, communal economy and organization make power structures of the state superfluous. The social fabric contradicts the capitalist logic of exploitation as well as the ethnic division and homogenization under the umbrella of nation states. Communal values and the culture of resistance against injustice have deep historical roots. They are the collective memory of the various population groups in the region of the Fertile Crescent. This is why none of the countless invading and occupying powers has so far succeeded in completely eradicating the social, cultural structures and ways of life that date back to the Neolithic age. From the hegemonic aspirations of Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Persian rulers, through the campaigns of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, to the crusaders, Mongols, Ottomans and European colonial powers, all powers left traces of destruction. They fragmented the country, enslaved women, murdered and displaced the population, tore families and communities apart. Over the last 150 years in particular, various colonial powers and regimes have tried to stir up prejudices and mistrust among the population groups in order to assert their supremacy. However, they did not succeed in destroying the Mother Goddess culture and the matrix of egalitarian forms of society as a whole, which to this day form the basis of social resistance.
Under the more than ten thousand hills in northern Syria, known as “Til” or “Gir”, are hidden traces of 10,000 years of human settlement history. Areas such as Kobane, Efrin, Minbic, Jerablus, Giresipiyê, Serekaniye and the Xabûr region, which are now under attack by the occupying army and jihadist mercenary groups of the Turkish state, are the places of origin of the Neolithic revolution, in which women played a central role. Over the past 5000 years up to the present day, these places and societies have been the target of expansionist wars and raids in order to plunder the material and non-material wealth of this region. With physical occupation, genocides and femicides, new truths were to be created. The history, knowledge, culture and languages of the peoples of Mesopotamia were to be buried in the mass graves. For only in this way could colonial and patriarchal explanations of human history be made credible. These, in turn, were then used to foment new wars and legitimize tyranny. These are the narratives that imperialist states, Turkey and IS have been using until today.
In contrast, we want to listen to the voices of women who, as children and grandchildren of the survivors of the genocides of the 20th century, live in the Xabûr region today. Two years ago we spoke with some of the women who played an important role in organizing their communities: Ator Ishaq founded a communal house for old people – mainly women – from the Assyrian community in Til Temir who decided not to leave their homeland. Madlein from the village of Helmond on the Xabûr River joined the Assyrian Defence Council of the “Xabûr Guardians” in 2012 and participated in the defence and development of the communal economic and self-governing structures in her region. We met Elenor after a women’s prayer in the Chaldean church of Serêkaniye. With her wisdom of life and her knowledge she has supported the young generation of Christians in practising and consciously defending their culture.
Ator Ishaq, who is also affectionately called “Mother of Assyria” in her community, introduces herself as “a daughter of Til Temir and a granddaughter of Xabûr”. She speaks with pride about the 7000 year history of her ancestors, whose origins lie in the civilizations of the Sumerians, the Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians. She describes the relations between Aramaeans, Assyrians and Chaldeans, also called “Syriac” in English, as follows: “There are no differences between the cultures and traditions of the Aramaeans, Assyrians and Chaldeans. The Chaldeans are descendants of Akkad; the Arameans descend from Sargon and the Assyrians from Ashur. Sargon, Akkad and Ashur were brothers. Each of them ruled a city-state.’1 They sought to expand their sphere of influence. Therefore, historical relations and disputes arose between them. For example, the Assyrian Empire conquered Aramaic principalities in the Euphrates region in the 9th century BC. This included the Principality of Guzana, which was built on the foundations of the Neolithic settlement of Til Halaf near Serekaniye. However, Ator Ishaq emphasizes that the real problem was colonialist power politics, which hindered the unity of the Aramaic-speaking population as well as the Christian communities in Mesopotamia: “We were called Chaldeans, Assyrians and Arameans. Christianity was divided into different denominations. Some of us belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, others turned to the Western Church or Catholicism. But the earth of this country speaks of the Assyrians. The homeland of the Assyrians cannot be destroyed. They could not break us, they could not destroy this earth. They cannot silence history and change it. We are a nation of civilisation 7000 years old. They can’t deny that much now!”
Also the about 70 years-old Elenor from Serêkaniyê speaks about the 7000 year old culture of her ancestors, which could be preserved despite natural disasters, occupations and genocides: “I am Chaldean. The Chaldeans are the grandchildren of Nebuchadnezzar and the great Babylonian rulers. There are several millennia-old Chaldean, Aramean and Assyrian communities.”
The Armenians in northern Syria go back to the Hayasa-Azzi tribes who lived in the mountains of the region called “Tushpa” around the Wan lake. Together with other indigenous tribes, they founded the Nairi Confederation in the Ararat mountains in the first millennium BC. This was followed by the foundation of the Armenian Empire, which spread to northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia under the rule of King Tigran II in the first century BC. Thus the first Armenian settlements were established here.
The Aramaic speaking Syriacs formed the first Christian communities in Mesopotamia, which were persecuted by the Roman occupying forces. Early Christianity also spread rapidly among the Armenians and became the state religion in 301. Cities that today are situated on the Turkish-Syrian border such as Antioch (Antakia), Edessa (Urfa), Midyat and Nisebin (Nussaybin) became not only centres of early Christian faith but also of culture, philosophy and science. Women, too – like Saint Febronia of Nisbis – played an important role in building up the early Christian communities. Febronia was brutally tortured to death by Roman soldiers because she refused to renounce her faith and become the wife of a Roman general. It is said that a tree grew from the drops of Febronia’s blood. This tree is said to be the one that stands today in the courtyard of the Febronia Monastery of Himo, a suburb of Qamishlo. Until today this tree is honoured as a holy place.
Although all rulers wanted to benefit from the work and knowledge of the Assyrian and Armenian academies, scientists and intellectuals, the Christian communities were persecuted also after the Roman occupation, as under Arab, Mongolian and Ottoman rule. In order to defend their existence and their faith, a large part of the Assyrian population withdrew in the 15th century to the high mountain region of “Tur Abdin”, located between Merdin, Amed, Hakkari and Wan. However, even here they were not safe from persecution by the Ottoman Empire. Under the command of Sultan Abdulhamid, the Ottoman army committed targeted mass murders of all non-Muslim faith peoples in this region in the years 1840-96. Syriacs, Armenians and Ezidi Kurds were affected by cruel massacres, deportations and forced assimilations. In this way, the ancestors of many Christian families living in Rojava today came to the areas of Serêkaniye, Dirbesi, Amude, Qamishlo, Tirbesipiye, Derik and Haseke.
At that time they did not know that the first genocide of the 20th century was about to take place here. Elenor reports on the events that her parents’ generation underwent: “As Orthodox and Catholic Christians we came to Serêkaniyê in 19142. After the massacres of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the Minister of the Interior of the Ottoman Empire had given Talaat Pasha the order to destroy all Christians and to eradicate the roots of the Armenians. As an ally of the Ottoman Empire, the German state played a major role in the implementation of this plan. The genocide of 1915 affected all Christians – without distinction whether Armenians, Assyrians, Arameans or Chaldeans. The death marches also reached Serêkaniye. 70,000 people were murdered in the vicinity. Hundreds of thousands were executed on the road and in the desert of Deir-ez Zor, in Shedade and Margada. The Arameans call this genocide “Seyfo” which means “sword”. The sword was the symbol of the Ottomans. They murdered and raped women, girls; committed crimes against priests, old people and children. Some of the young women were taken by the Ottomans as slaves.”3
The wounds of this genocide could never heal. For there were never conditions under which the criminals were convicted and the survivors could tell the truth and feel safe. The deep trauma continued to affect subsequent generations. There are many people in Rojava who say “our grandmother was Armenian”. But the number of those who identify themselves as Armenians is very small. This may have been due to the fear that shaped the generation of their mothers and grandmothers and the survival strategies they developed. A woman from Amûde tells me in a low voice: “My mother was very quiet and had no self-confidence. She came from the Mardin region in North Kurdistan. Her mother had disappeared when the Armenian genocide took place. My paternal grandfather’s family took her in and married her. But everyone who saw her said: ‘She is an infidel. She is an Armenian. She only became a Muslim later.’ This pain had a deep impact on my mother and us as her children. My mother could never see her own family again. She was silent and withdrawn. In my childhood I had to see my mother crying all the time.”
The effects of the genocide perpetrated against the Christian population by the Ottoman Empire in 1914-23 which continued in the following decades were not only mental and social. Places where they had sought refuge became the sites of new massacres. Some of the Assyrians from the Hakkari region had fled during the genocide to the regions of Duhok and Ninova / Mosul, which were under British rule. On 7 August 1933 another massacre took place in the province of Duhok in the village of Sêmêle. An estimated 9000 Assyrians were murdered during the following mass executions and village destructions in the Mosul plain. These pogroms prompted Assyrians to flee again from the provinces of Dohuk and Mosul. Many emigrated to Northern Syria, which was under French mandate. Ator Ishaq describes the suffering of the Assyrians that led to the Xabûr region as follows: “The Ottomans drove us out of Hakkari; the English drove us out of Iraq. Some now say that it was Kurds who killed us in the massacre at Sêmêle. If Kurds were involved in it, they did not kill because they were Kurds, but because the British and the Turks incited them to do so. There were some Kurds with a weak morale that the colonialists could make use of. However, the money and weapons used in this massacre were all from the Ottoman state and from England.
Rebuilding Life Again in the Xabûr Region
The Assyrians who survived the renewed massacre were mainly settled by the French mandate in the Til Temir region and in camps along the Xabûr river. Only later did they build their own houses, churches and villages. Ator Ishaq tells us how her grandparents experienced their arrival in the Xabûr region: “My grandfather and grandmother told us that they had only come for a short time, to return to their place in Iraq after a short time. But as time passed, they settled down here and built their lives. They built mud houses and began to cultivate the land. In the course of time they forgot their intention to return and became “Syrian Christians”. The Assyrians were distributed over the district of Til Temir. Each tribe named its place according to its place of origin. For example, those who had come from a high place in Iraq called their village “Ser Sibiko” or “Til Tawil”. This means “high place”. We have a tribe called Tiyarê which comes from the Tiyarê area. Therefore the Assyrian name of Til Temer is “Tiyarê”. So the name of each of the 34 Assyrian villages along the Xabûr river has its own meaning’.
Madlein is from the village of Helmond. This village, which is run by the Syrian state under the name Til Cuma, got its Assyrian name from the home village of her parents in Iraq. She and her mother-in-law told us in June 2017 about the conditions under which her family made a new start in Helmond. Madlein’s 70-year-old mother-in-law remembers the early days and the coexistence of the peoples in the Xabûr region: “We had no electricity and no water. We went to the Xabûr river to fetch water in tin cans. I had eight children. I never saw the father of my children (my husband) except for two months of the year. Because he worked as a tractor driver in different places. I had a cow and a flock of sheep. I worked in the cotton fields. We went out by foot to cut grass for feeding our animals. We did all the work ourselves. My children were still small. In spring we took our sheep to the high pastures of the Kezuwan Mountains to milk them. The Arab shepherd families had tents made of black wool. They took our sheep with their flocks to graze. We stayed with them and worked together. The women took care of the milk and other products of the sheep. We heated and processed the milk. We produced handmade yogurt, cheese, butter and tore4.”
Madlein continues: “When the Assyrians arrived here, this place was an uninhabited forest area. After they had brought it to life and built villages and towns, the state changed the demographic composition of the area. Everything was Arabised. The Ba’ath regime put up Arab place-name signs and settled Arab population. In the beginning there were no problems between people of different nationalities. All lived together and were equal. Life was simple, but beautiful and peaceful. This shows that in the past people lived together without problems. We had a happy life. But the Ba’ath regime divided the people; some were favoured, others were discriminated.“
As a religious minority, the Syriacs were able to found churches, community centres and schools in Syria. However, this was only tolerated as long as they defined themselves as “Syrian Christians” and not as a nation. Particularly from the 1980s onwards, pressure was exerted on the Syriac communities from various sides in order to persuade them to emigrate from the Xabûr region and from Syria as a whole: On the one hand, the state of Syria pursued an Arab assimilation policy. On the other hand, the Turkish state’s dam projects reduced the volume of water in the Xabûr region to such an extent that entire harvests dried up. From then on, the people in the Xabûr region could no longer secure their livelihood with agricultural production. At the same time, European countries opened their doors to immigrants because they needed cheap labour. As a result, even before the attacks by El Nusra and IS began, many Assyrian families or family members were moving abroad. A similar situation applies to many Ezidi families in northern Syria.
Madlein calls the targeted depopulation and uprooting policy a cultural genocide. She stresses that the peoples of Mesopotamia confronted with genocide must organise their own defence forces: “Above all, the Assyrian and Ezidi people must be able to defend themselves. This is particularly necessary from a military point of view, because they have both made great sacrifices and suffered genocides; 37 genocides were committed against the Assyrian and 73 against the Ezidi people. No other peoples have experienced a history of massacres on such a scale. That is why we have been scattered throughout the world. Fathers and sons, mothers, daughters and sisters were torn apart. Everyone lives alone in a different place, in a different country. How can this be called anything else than genocide?! When we live so far apart, isolated; when our language, culture and traditions disappear and are assimilated, then it is genocide! We can only talk to each other by telephone, but we can no longer live together. It is harder to live alienated from each other than to die.“5
In 2017, when we met with Assyrian women in the city of Til Temir and the surrounding villages, drank tea and talked with them, the Assyrian flag hung in their living rooms and institutions in such a way that a red and a blue stripe on the inside of each of the tricoloured ribbons was visible on the upper side of the flag. Ator Ishaq explained to us that the symbols and colours of their flag reveal the Assyrian history, nature and situation of her country: “The four ribbons, each consisting of wavy red, white and blue stripes, emerge from the sun and a four-pointed star in the centre of the flag. The four ribbons and the four star rays represent the four seasons and the four cardinal points. The red stripes symbolize blood, the white ones peace and the blue ones the water of the rivers Xabûr, Euphrates and Tigris. In total, the three colours of the four ribbons make 12 stripes representing the 12 months of the year. The arrangement of the three colours is different in each of the four ribbons. According to the state of the country, there are three possibilities to hang up our flag: If the red stripes of both ribbons on the top of the flag are inside, it indicates that we are in a state of war. If the blue stripes of both ribbons are on the inside visible in the upper part of the flag, it means that we are at peace. On the other hand, if – as it is the case now – one red and one blue stripe on the inside of the flag are pointing upwards, it means that we are in a “normal state”, it means there is neither war nor peace.”
These two colours, which Ator Ishaq defined as “a normal state”, were clearly visible in the summer of 2017 in Til Temir: The traces of the war left by the attacks of IS were still partially visible in the cityscape. At the same time, the traces of war could be felt in the encounters with people who reported on murdered, abducted or fled relatives, neighbours and acquaintances. But at the same moment, the women, who organized themselves with the people in their villages and neighbourhoods, who repaired their bomb-damaged houses and schools, who guarded access roads for the safety of the population, cultivated their fields and gardens, called on their relatives to return to the Xabûr region and made new plans for the future for themselves and their children, spread the hope that peace would surely come soon.
Karima Betha, an Armenian delegate to Derik District Council, also said in a conversation in August 2019: “We have turned a new page with this revolution. Sometimes, some people from the older generation still approach it with suspicion and fear. But the new generation is different. Especially women in our community have gained a great deal of self-confidence. We all belong together. We have learned that it is no longer necessary to follow the will of the man, to serve and listen only to him. Women have changed and have their own opinions. Now we can talk and do politics. We can stand on our own feet and defend ourselves. Our social relations with the Kurdish and Arab families are much more intense now. We all live together and know that we can create a happy future together. If we become one, we will reach our goal, then no power in the world can control and oppress us. If a tree is alone and weak, it can easily be uprooted by a storm. But when many strong trees stand side by side, they remain firmly rooted.”
It is this self-confidence that gives the women from the Christian communities and Kurdish and Arab women the strength to organize together today the resistance against new genocide plans of Turkey in the Xabûr area and other areas of northern and eastern Syria.
Since October 9, 2019, two red stripes of the ribbons on the Assyrian flag are pointing upwards again. More than 500 Christians fled from Til Temir to Haseke in the first weeks of the war due to the ongoing drone and ground attacks. Madlein, who said of herself that she had been only a “simple housewife and mother” until 2012 when she joined the Assyrian Defence Council, is now actively participating again in the defence of the Xabûr region. She sees this as her responsibility, because “as Assyrian people, especially as women, we have been subjected to many massacres and atrocities over and over again. Since the black day when the terrorist groups of the IS attacked our peaceful villages in the Xabûr region on 23 February 2015, the hearts of the peaceful people here have been set in fear and pain. We still remember the massacres, destruction and looting, the kidnappings and imprisonment and the desecration of our sacred places. These are images that we will never forget. Now, the occupation and the attacks of the Turkish state under Erdogan and his allied groups are a great danger.
In particular among the Assyrian, Aramaean, Chaldean and Armenian peoples in the region, massacred by the Ottomans as during the Seyfo and in Sêmêle, these attacks arouse great fear. The danger today is more serious and greater. If the Turkish state and its terrorist groups continue their attacks and crimes, we will witness a genocide against the indigenous peoples and the destruction of civilisations that are thousands of years old.”
Madlein emphasizes that the danger of renewed genocide and femicide affects all peoples and women in the region and can only be stopped by a common resistance: “Our fears and concerns are not only for the Assyrian people but for the entire population and all communities in the region, whether Assyrians, Syriac, Armenians, Chaldeans, Kurds or Arabs. There is no difference between Muslims and Christians. Because when the enemy attacks an area, it ultimately no longer distinguishes between Assyrians, Kurds or Arabs. It plunders, destroys, burns and destroys everything. The enemy knows no mercy, neither with people nor with stones. He does not distinguish between the destruction of a church or a mosque. (…)
As Assyrian women, we call on all women’s and women’s rights organisations to stand against this occupation. We demand that the Turkish state leaves our homeland Syria. For we see it as an occupying power that threatens our existence and our remaining in our homeland.“6
If we want to prevent the crimes of genocide in the 20th century from being repeated in the 21st century, we must listen to this call and act. If we do not want to share one day the blame for historical crimes against humanity, as our grandparents’ generation did, we cannot remain indifferent. Until the end of Erdogan fascism and the Turkish occupation in North and East Syria, our resistance must continue and become even broader and louder!
29 November 2019
First publication of article in German in Kurdistan Report Nr. 207 [link]
1Talk with Ator Ishaq in Til Temir on 21-06-2017.
2On 26 October 1914 Talât Pasha had ordered the deportation of the Chaldeans from the Tur Abdin / Hakkari region.
3Interview with Elenor on 19-06-2017 in Serêkaniye
4A traditional type of cream cheese
5Talk in the village of Helmond, Til Temir region on 22-06-2019
6Interview with Madlein in Til Temir, November 2019