2015 marks 100 years since the genocide began against the Armenians and the other Christian minorities in modern Turkey. About 2 million Armenians, Assyrians/Syriacs/Chaldeans*, and Greeks were murdered in the then Ottoman Empire. Swedish-Syriac comedian Ümit Dag exclusively portrays the fate of his relatives for Your Middle East.
Your whole family is gathered. Your father, your mother, your brothers and sisters, uncles and their children. Your grandfather and your grandmother. You are afraid, so afraid that you have peed yourself. No hand to hold, the children have been separated from the parents. Your mother looks at you from across the room, and you at her. She shows with her facial expressions that you need to be quiet.
In the same room, are strange men with guns. Rifles, swords and large knives. They slap your grandmother and the other elderly across their faces. You hear something about denying Jesus, but you do not really understand what it is they want.
One of the men comes up to the children, looking at you long and carefully. Eventually, he takes your hand, and leads you out. You have been selected. You look at your siblings on the way out, you look your mother in the eye. You look at your father, and his eyes say: “I’m sorry”. Forgive me for not being able to defend you. You look in your mother’s eyes again. They say goodbye. You understand that something bad is going to happen, but do not know what. That was the last time you saw her. What have we done? Who are these men?
AFTER YOU LEAVE, the strange men soon follow. They light a black column of smoke and point it to the sky. You hear your siblings screaming. Those who try to escape are shot on the spot. Soon the whole house is in flames and the screams are silenced. You are alone with a strange man who speaks a foreign language. You get slapped because you have peed yourself, and then he drags you along.
The smell. The smell of burned bodies is getting into your nose. Everywhere you see black columns of smoke pointing to the sky. The whole village is burning. What did the villagers do to deserve this?
The answer is that they were Syriacs and therefore Christians. That was the crime. The village that was called Kerburan was now empty of its population. But this did not only happen to Kerburan, it happened to thousands of Christian villages throughout the Ottoman Empire.
The year is 1915 and and a decree to annihilate the Armenians was announced. An onion is an onion; that was the way of thinking, which directly meant eradication of all Christians.
The march feels very long for you. You are paralyzed with fear and you hold on tightly. You want to let go and run away, far away, but you choose to hold on tight, to the hand that wiped out your family. The hand that just slapped you, you choose to hold on tight. There is no logic in it, but all logic is gone.
Everywhere you see houses and churches on fire. You hear screams that are slowly silenced. You see corpses along the roadside. Pregnant women with their stomachs slit open, you cannot watch. You don’t want to see it. But you see it, and you are forced to walk over the corpses. You recognize them all, because that is how it was, everyone in the village knew each other even though there were over 500 Syriac families in Kerburan. You see your teacher among a pile of dead bodies, and you see uncle Melke, who owned the village’s small shop, and who used to give children candy every Christmas and Easter.
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YOU CLOSE your eyes, you don’t want to see. Large caravans of people being lead out into the desert. Without food, water, shoes or clothes. Thousands of people sent to a sure death in the hot desert. You and many other selected children end up in families as maids. You will help out with the household, cleaning and looking after the family. Your reward is that you get to live another day – if you worked hard. Your beautiful name, no one calls anymore, you have a new name, a foreign name. But at night you hear someone calling your name. It’s your mother. You remember her voice, the way she used to call on you to gather your siblings to come in for dinner. You don’t want to wake up, you want to stay in the dream with your family. You miss your siblings, the way you played with each other. The nights become your comfort, your security, when you get to be with them. You are awakened by the smell. The smell refuses to leave you.
Years pass but nothing gets better. Those of you who were selected and survived have had to abandon your faith, but are still not allowed to wear shoes, walk on the sidewalk, carry a knife or ride on animals. You are living as third-class citizens. Some animals are even ranked higher than you. Thousands of churches and monasteries are completely destroyed, holy books and literature burned. Your language, your culture and traditions, they have banned. They do everything in their power to destroy and erase every trace of Christian existence. The selected children will be assimilated.
Armenians, Syriacs and Pontic-Greeks had thousands of years of history in the region and could not be assimilated, therefore they had to be physically eliminated. They used religion as a tool to bring along the Muslim Kurds, although the Ottoman Empire was allied with Christian countries such as Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria during the First World War.
The year is 1923 and the Republic of Turkey has been proclaimed. All survivors can return to their home villages without the fear of being killed. The survivors of Kerburan do everything in their power to find all the selected children. You are found by your best friend’s dad. He takes you back to Kerburan. You ask for her but she was never among the selected. A new era has begun. You are not allowed to be Syriac. In the new Turkey all shall be Turks, and a turkifying process began. Everything and everyone would have Turkish names. Villages, towns, rivers, mountains, streets and squares.
“Those of you who were selected and survived have had to abandon your faith”
You and everyone else are assigned a Turkish name. Once again, you are assigned a strange name. The Syriac language was forbidden, and was not allowed to be taught or spoken in the homes. In the new Turkey, no new churches were allowed to be built, and only the Turkish language would be taught in school. Time passes, and the survivors of Kerburan recover and rebuild the city. Kerburan is now called Dargecit.
EVENTUALLY, you start your own family and have children of your own. The village grows and recovers. No one speaks of the massacre. It is forbidden and ears are everywhere. You look at your children, out in the field playing. You call on your daughter to gather her siblings to come in for dinner, and you remember your mother. It was so long ago now, that it almost feels like a dream, so unreal. But you can feel the smell, it never leaves you.
The year is 1974. The Cyprus conflict has started and Turkey are at war with Greece. The Christian Syriacs are seen as allies of Greece and Kerburan is attacked at night. You don’t even know where Cyprus is. The women are abducted, the cattle is stolen and the fields are set on fire. Everyone is paralyzed with horror. Is 1915 going to be repeated?
You decide to leave the village. It’s hard. You are a part of the indigenous people and the rightful owner of this land. You and your people were the first ones here. Twice you built up Kerburan and now you must leave it. It is with tears, and a broken heart.
You are reminded of 1915. The village is yet again being emptied of its population. No one really knows to where, the only thing you know is that it is time. In 1978 Kerburan is emptied of Syriacs with the exception of one great man by the name of Indravos Demir. He refuses to leave. The same year he is murdered, and becomes the last Syriac of Kerburan.
You end up in Västerås, in Sweden. The little country in the north with a cross on the flag. That was all that mattered. The cross on the flag, it must be a Christian country. Most of the people from Kerburan end up in Västerås and Norrköping. Immediately churched are being built in both cities, like the one in Kerburan. They are both named after the church in Kerburan, St. Koriakos. In your new home, churches may be built and for the first time in your life you are free, and a full citizen of a country.
YOU ARE ETERNALLY grateful to this country. Here you are allowed to be Syriac, you are allowed to speak your own language and you may call on your children by their true, Syriac names. You are still carrying the name you were assigned. You hate it, but you do not change it because the fear is still so deeply rooted in you. Your name also reminds you of what you have been through. You want to forget everything you have been through. Erase everything and start from when you landed in Sweden but you feel that you are betraying those who were not selected if you do. Your name bares witness to them. It cannot be forgotten. In Turkey it is forbidden to speak about the massacre but not here. You tell your grandchildren about Seyfo, the year of the sword, 1915. That is what it came to be called, the year of the sword. It feels so unreal, like a horrible dream, but you can still feel the smell, the smell that never left you.
The year is 2015. It has now been exactly 100 years since the genocide took place. The perpetrators and most of the victims are gone. The Turks and Kurds of today are not the ones guilty of genocide but a process of reconciliation has not occurred.
Some Kurdish leaders and organizations have recognized Kurdish clans’ involvement in the massacre but from the Turkish side there is only silence. It hurts in your heart. But not only the cruel massacres and the holocaust on the Christians; not only did you see your entire family and your relatives killed, thousands of villages being emptied of its indigenous people and your entire history annihilated, but today they say that it never happened. It hurts within you. You can still feel the smell. The process of extermination against you is continued today, 100 years later.
Far from all Turks and Kurds were responsible for the massacre. There are examples of Turkish, Kurdish and Arab families who adopted children or protected persecuted, to save them from a sure death. There are documented cases where governors refused to follow government orders of the massacres. There are also examples of Kurds who protected Christian villages against other Kurds.
The night of April 24, 1915, the first phase of the genocide began when 250 Armenian doctors, lawyers, politicians, government officials, teachers, writers, poets and other intellectuals who could become the core of a future resistance, were arrested overnight and executed within 72 hours. Therefore April 24 is counted as the start of the genocide.
The genocide that destroyed over two million Christians and that emptied the Syriac village of Kerburan, twice. The night is still your friend. For the night is when you still hear your mother’s voice, calling your beautiful name.
The year is 2015, but a part of me died in 1915.
Translated by Babylonia Barhanna.
* Assyrians/Syriacs/Chaldeans are the same ethnicity. The author of this text choses to call himself Syriac.