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Here are a few sto­ries of Arme­ni­ans whose lives were shat­tered because of the war in Syr­ia and Iraq. Some of them are sad and oth­ers not. Through these por­traits, I tried to explain what is hap­pen­ing in the region.

Why Armen­ian sto­ries? First of all because of my pas­sion for Arme­ni­ans: I’ve got five of them at home! And also because, to my mind, the his­to­ry of Arme­ni­ans helps you bet­ter under­stand the his­to­ry of the region, if not – in all mod­esty – the his­to­ry of humanity.

As ancient Chris­tians often liv­ing in close prox­im­i­ty with Mus­lims, Arme­ni­ans are famil­iar with the dialec­tics between reli­gions. They also know what the words “geno­cide”, “exile”, “inte­gra­tion” and some­times “pros­per­i­ty” mean – those key con­cepts to grasp today’s world. Accord­ing to which coun­try they chose or was forced upon them as refugees, Arme­ni­ans may have lived in democ­ra­cies or dic­ta­tor­ships, tak­en part or not in pol­i­tics, may have known war or peace, but near­ly all of them have held on to a very strong sense of iden­ti­ty. Their sto­ries tell us about that. In short, an Armen­ian key to open the door to under­stand­ing of reli­gions, wars, geno­cides, Chris­tian­i­ty, the ques­tions of iden­ti­ty, of tol­er­ance, of peace – why not?


Sossi 1

Sos­si is in charge of the res­cue com­mit­tee for refugees and dis­placed Arme­ni­ansin the town of Kamish­li. The accounts, writ­ten by hand, are kept down to the dol­lar in a very, very thick lined note­book, in which there are…lots of blank pages. She knows each of the 540 Armen­ian fam­i­lies in Kamish­li per­son­al­ly. And their needs, down to the dollar.

She tells us that more than half of the Arme­ni­ans in Kamish­li have left the region.But they have been joined by Arme­ni­ans from towns over­tak­en by the Islam­ic State – such as Raqqa – or which are in the front line against Daesh – such as Alep or Al-Hasakah –, where the sit­u­a­tion is too per­ilous. Kamish­li itself is too dan­ger­ous now. There have already been sui­cide attempts, and since Decem­ber 2015, these have become increas­ing­ly preva­lent and dead­ly. Sui­cide attempts with a car or a rigged lor­ry, that’s how Daesh oper­ates – blow­ing up civil­ians and push­ing back the front­line. “It’s a strange sort of ene­my, a Pesh­mer­ga1 told me, who doesn’t need to head home after a fight.” Anoth­er Pesh­mer­ga told us that it’s not just the fight­ers who blow them­selves up in towns, but some­times also des­per­ate civil­ians, to whose fam­i­lies Daesh has promised 10,000 dollars.

Sossi 2Arme­ni­ans remain­ing in Kamish­li do so either because they have no choice or because they see it as their duty to stay their ground, not to aban­don any­thing. But life goes on; you cry and you laugh. There are still deli­cious restau­rants, where fam­i­ly reunions are host­ed – very loud affairs, with numer­ous toasts, where there’s always a cousin Armen or Bedo who’s had a lit­tle too much to drink – and very long masses.

Sos­si doesn’t need to be a fem­i­nist to be effi­cient. She keeps qui­et dur­ing com­mu­ni­ty coun­cil meet­ings attend­ed almost exclu­sive­ly by men; she serves cof­fee, but it’s to her they address their ques­tions if they are after an exact answer.

She won’t tell us, but Sos­si is a moth­er. Who has lost her son. In the most sense­less and sad­dest of ways. He was, like many young men, in the com­mu­ni­ty defence group. It’s a kind of unpaid Armen­ian mili­tia which does the rounds each night to pro­tect the quar­ter. It’s more a coura­geous band of armed scouts than a group of war­riors. He was 19. He was clean­ing his gun, and it went off.

An acci­den­tal gun­shot, a café, a very thick lined note­book, kept down to the dol­lar. And 540 Armen­ian fam­i­lies who strug­gle on in Kamish­li, thanks to Sossi.

About Kamishli

Kamish­li is a town in the North-East of Syr­ia, at the Turk­ish bor­der, the “cap­i­tal” of Roja­va, or “Syr­i­an Kur­dis­tan”. This autonomous region of Syr­i­an Kur­dis­tan (Roja­va) does not offi­cial­ly exist. But in effect, Syr­ia is cur­rent­ly divid­ed into three parts:

1. A West­ern part, on the Lebanon side, more or less con­trolled by the Bashar al-Assad gov­ern­ment (who are fight­ing Daesh with the help of Rus­sia, Iran and Hezbol­lah, the Shi­ite and Lebanese militia).

2. To the East, one part ruled by Daesh.

3. One part to the North-East, Syr­i­an Kur­dis­tan, which is con­trolled by Kur­dish forces (and, to a less­er extent, Syr­i­ac forces) of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union Par­ty (PYD), a par­ty close to the PKK (the Kur­dish inde­pen­dents of Turkey).

Per­son­al­ly, my fem­i­nist ten­den­cies have me sid­ing with the PYD, the par­ty of Syr­i­ac Kurds: inspired by Marx­ism, they advo­cate com­plete male-female equal­i­ty – which, in the region, is an incred­i­ble excep­tion. 40 per­cent of their army, the YPG, is made of women. This, accord­ing to some fight­ers, gives them an advan­tage over Jihadists, who are said to “believe they will be deprived of par­adise if they are killed by a woman”. When I met the women of the Syr­i­ac mil­i­tary coun­cil (the Syr­i­ac mili­tia), one of them told me that Daesh won’t even col­lect the weapons of female fight­ers because they are con­sid­ered impure.

One last piece of infor­ma­tion on Kamish­li: there is a high ratio of Chris­tians among the townspeople.

arméniennes Sossi 3

Raqqa was a very beau­ti­ful riv­er town – found­ed by Alexan­der the Great – on the Euphrates.


Georges.1Georges is 20 years old, with a con­ta­gious smile and a footballer’s hair­cut — hard­ly dif­fer­ent from thou­sands of oth­er 20-year-old Georgess in the world, then. But this Georges was born and grew up in Raqqa, the cap­i­tal of the Islam­ic State since June 2013. Since his fam­i­ly had always lived in Raqqa and didn’t want to lose every­thing they owned, they stayed there. For a year and a half. Then they final­ly left.

Georges, his tone unchanged, tells us that in Raqqa, he saw a mar­ket where Yazi­di women were being sold. They were chained togeth­er by their ankles and wrists. One of his neigh­bours, new to the area, a mem­ber of Daesh, bought one. They went to choose her, he and his wife. After­wards, Georges saw her: she would hang out the wash­ing on the bal­cony every day.

Georges explains that in Raqqa, he didn’t go to an Armen­ian school but to a gov­ern­ment one. There, they were all mixed togeth­er. “No-one said, you the Armen­ian or, you the Shi­ite. No-one cared about that.”

He recalls that when Daesh men arrived, they round­ed up all the Chris­tians, telling them, “Either you leave, or you con­vert, or you pay the Jizyah (Chris­t­ian tax). My father chose to pay the Jizyah2.”

First, they destroyed the Shi­ite mosques. The Shi­ites fled, or were killed. The Chris­tians weren’t killed, except, of course, those enlist­ed in the fed­er­al army: they were decapitated.

Georges loves Raqqa. It’s his dream to return some day. To start life there again. When Daesh has gone.

Georges insists: “It’s not the peo­ple of Raqqa who are Daesh. It’s strangers, who came and forced them­selves on the town. The cit­i­zens of Raqqa didn’t want any of it.” As a girl from Brus­sels, I’d always thought that the ter­ror­ism we feared came from Raqqa, that every­thing was Raqqa’s fault. And there, before me, was a guy from Raqqa who was telling me that those mad­men in Raqqa had in fact come from my homeland.

Final­ly, I asked Georges, “And where are your par­ents?” He replied, “My moth­er and father are in Raqqa. They went to pay their Jizyah. They’ll be back tomorrow”.

Before that, Raqqa had been syn­ony­mous for me with decap­i­ta­tions, with Yazi­di slaves and women beat­en because under their burqas, they were wear­ing socks that weren’t com­plete­ly black. Now, when I hear the name ‘Raqqa’, I think of Alexan­der the Great, of Georges’s smile, and I fear for his moth­er, who could well be out there, in town, to pay her month­ly Jizyah.

A little background information:

Between 2011 and 2013, in the con­text of the Syr­i­an civ­il war, the town expe­ri­enced many skir­mish­es between the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment (lead by Bashar al-Assad) and the rebels of Jab­hat al-Nus­ra (which claims to be Aa-Qae­da). In March 2013, Raqqa was the first large city to fall into the hands of the Al Nos­tra rebels. In June of the same year, the city passed under the rule of the Daesh Islamists, who made it their capital.

ISIS were actu­al­ly very proud when they took Mosul (a large Iraqi city) and de fac­to abol­ished the bor­der between Syr­ia and Iraq. That bor­der had been arti­fi­cial­ly cre­at­ed by the Eng­lish and the French– out of West­ern oppor­tunism and no care for local demo­graph­ics – through the Sykes-Picot Agree­ment at the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1916.

Why high­light the dif­fer­ence between al-Nus­ra and Daesh? Because they are no longer aligned. Although found­ed by al-Qae­da, Daesh is car­ry­ing out a frat­ri­ci­dal war against al-Nus­ra. This is per­haps because both come from Salafist ide­ol­o­gy. Al-Qae­da preach a glob­al jihad so as to restore the Caliphate, and Daesh want to estab­lish the Caliphate before export­ing glob­al jihad. Or maybe because they’re both mad. Mad about God, mad about pow­er, mad full stop, and they make war against every­one because they are mad.


arméniennesYeva keeps the books for the three Armen­ian schools in Kamish­li. She is young and pret­ty, sport­ing a leop­ard-print jumper that is right on trend (what­ev­er my friend Bar­bara might say) and is typ­ing on an uniden­ti­fi­able machine on her desk, dat­ing from before Steve Jobs took over as CEO of Apple.

This year, when stu­dents went back to school in Sep­tem­ber, the fam­i­lies of 120 of the 500 school­child­ren weren’t able to pay their fees. “But we can’t leave the chil­dren with­out a school, so we took them in all the same”, Yeva tells us. With a bit of luck, the school will receive fund­ing from Armen­ian com­mu­ni­ties world­wide to bal­ance the books. “If not, we’ll find anoth­er solu­tion; we still have a few months left…”

Fund­ed or not, there is a lot of joy in the pri­ma­ry school. Isn’t that always the case? Even though we’re talk­ing about a Chris­t­ian school locat­ed just a few dozen kilo­me­tres away from the Islam­ic State.Fundamentally, she doesn’t seem to be over­ly con­cerned about it. The main wor­ry of the school admin­is­tra­tion is to keep enough stu­dents. With the Armen­ian com­mu­ni­ty in Kamish­li being reduced by half since 2013, there are ever few­er chil­dren in the schools. And if num­bers keep on decreas­ing, the gov­ern­ment will req­ui­si­tion the school. Then there will no longer be an Armen­ian pri­ma­ry school in Kamishli.

The atmos­phere is less care­free in the sec­ondary school: they have exams on their mind.

We ask Yeva if she’ll leave Syr­ia. She tells us, “Yes, why not. I’ll maybe head to Ger­many”. But the response lacks con­vic­tion; she’d have replied in the same tone to the ques­tion, “Care for a cof­fee?” Yeva gets on with her account­ing job. And life go on.


Michael 1Michaël is as hand­some as a Greek god or a New York hip­ster. If he had grown up in Glen­dale – this town in the sub­urbs of Los Ange­les which is home to one of the largest Armen­ian com­mu­ni­ties in the US – he might have gone to Hol­ly­wood. But Michaël was born in Al-Hasakah, and what’s more, he is very shy.

Michaël speaks Armen­ian poor­ly – he speaks Ara­bic, a result of Bashar al-Assad’s school sys­tem, and Kur­dish, being from the Rojo­va, a region of Syr­ia with a major­i­ty of Kurds – but he is an Armen­ian patri­ot. No doubt about it. He has a red-blue-orange flag as his mobile phone home­screen (which doesn’t mean much, as it’s com­mon for an Armen­ian to dis­play his colours every­where), but he is ready to give his life for the Armen­ian people.

So, because he wasn’t born in Glen­dale, because he is shy and because he is a patri­ot, Michaël enrolled in the Sutoro mili­tia in order to defend Arme­ni­ans and, more gen­er­al­ly, Christians.

That enables me to explain to you who the Sutoros are, as well as the Syr­i­acs of the Al-Hasakah province:

Michael 3- The Sutoro is a mil­i­tary police group among oth­ers. There are sev­er­al mil­i­tary groups: those who fight against Daesh, who are on the front­line, and those like the Sutoro who pro­tect civil­ians against Daesh and its noto­ri­ous attacks).

- Syr­i­acs speak Ara­ma­ic lan­guages (like Jesus of Nazareth). They are Mesopotami­ans, and the orig­i­nal Chris­tians. There are many dif­fer­ent types: Maronites, Syr­i­ac Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Ortho­dox Syr­i­acs, etc. I could go on and on with­out sat­is­fy­ing every­one, since no-one agrees on what ‘Syr­i­ac’ actu­al­ly means. The­o­ret­i­cal­ly (and truth­ful­ly), Arme­ni­ans aren’t Syr­i­acs at all, because their lan­guage isn’t an Ara­ma­ic dialect and they have a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent his­to­ry. But since they also are “Mid­dle East­ern Chris­tians”, and par­tic­u­lar­ly because they share the same fate, cer­tain Arme­ni­ans have joined the Syr­i­ac forces3.

1. Peshmerga means “someone who looks death in the face” in Kurdish. The Peshmergas are the Kurdish militants in Iraq. In Syria, Kurdish fighters are called the YPG – People’s Protection Unit – (journalists sometimes also call them Peshmerga, which makes everything more confusing). The Peshmergas (in Iraq) and the YPG (in Syria) are fighting against Daesh in the North and the East. Daesh forces straddle Syria and Iraq.
2. The Jizyah is the tax ‘per head’ that non-Muslim adult males have to pay. In exchange for this tax, non-Muslims can demand the protection of the Muslim sovereign against exterior aggressions, are exempted from military service and from the Muslim duty to pay the Islamic tax. This is supposedly based on Surah 9:29 of the Quran: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the Jizyah willingly while they are humbled.”
3. In the context of the civil war (in 2011) which broke out in Syria between the Bashar al-Assad government and the rebellion/terrorist movements which brought forth Daesh, the Kurds, who are the majority people group in the Rojova region, formed an army to defend themselves and fight against the Islamic State: the YPG (People’s Protection Unit). Beside the Kurdish majority is a significant Christian minority who also formed a militia called the Syriac Military Council,which works hand in hand with the YPG.

Marie Thibaut de Maisières is a Belgian publisher and author of children’s books. In December 2015, together with a Belgian federal MP, journalists and humanitarian workers of the Belgian Middle East Christian Committee, she set out on a journey to Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojova (Syrian Kurdistan), under the protection of Peshmergas, YPJ (People’s Protection Units) and Syriac forces. During the trip, she could collect a series of portraits of Armenians whose lives were disrupted by the war in Syria and Iraq. This article was originally published in blog form as Hay Stories.
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