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 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.
Armenians 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.
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.
Raqqa was a very beautiful river town – founded by Alexander the Great – on the Euphrates.
Georges 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.
Yeva 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.
Michaël 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:
– 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.