A Century After Turkey’s Genocide of Our People, Armenians Are Still Under Threat
by Hagop Artim Kashejian
24 April 2019
My family experienced enormous hardship during the Armenian genocide of 1915. My grandfather’s brothers, his sisters, his mother and father were all slaughtered openly, in their village near to Amed (Diyarbakir) in eastern Turkey. He was about 7 years old at the time.
Because of the genocide my grandfather was forced to flee to Syria, to abandon his homeland. He was taken in by an elderly Kurdish couple, the only Kurdish family in an Arab village.
Along with my grandfather, thousands of Armenian families fled to Syria to escape the systematic genocide carried out by the radical Turkish-nationalist government against a minority it scapegoated for humiliating military defeats during the First World War. Up to 1.5 million members of the Christian Armenian minority lost their lives in a series of massacres and forced marches from Turkish-occupied Armenia to death camps in the Syrian desert.
Today, on the 104th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, we have announced the creation of the first Armenian battalion in the Syrian Democratic Forces, the coalition which led the fight against Isis in Syria. Burdened by the knowledge that the genocide that happened 104 years ago continues today in different guises, we have formed a self-defence force to resist against all oppression.
In 1915 the Turks said, “the Armenians are heathens. Why don’t they accept Islam?” Just like Isis, they carried out a genocide. Russia didn’t stop them, Germany didn’t stop them, France didn’t stop them.
One century later, Isis did exactly the same thing as Turkey. When they reached a Syriac Christian village, they killed Syriac people. When they reached Sinjar, they killed Yazidis, simply because they are not Muslims.
In 1915, many of the Armenians who fled to Syria entered into Arab society and adopted the thinking of the Baath regime, which focused on the establishment of a strong Arab state, backed by violent repression of political opposition and religious or cultural minorities. Syrian people lived without rights, while the regime was one of the richest governments in the Middle East.
Armenians believed there was no alternative but to collaborate with the dominant system. To this day, we Syrian Armenians struggle to free our thinking from this oppression. People say “we are Armenians”, but they don’t know anything about what it is to be Armenian.
In 2011, the Syrian revolution began on the basis of freedom, but it lost its way. It started as a movement opposing authoritarianism and the bloodthirsty regime, but terrorist factions soon began massacring people and destroying freedom. The freedom to steal, to plunder people’s homes: this was the idea of “freedom” which spread among the opposition.
When the revolution descended into a civil war in 2012, we Armenians joined the fight against Isis, against the Al-Nusra Front, against Jaysh al-Hurr. We fought against all the terrorist factions in Syria. As members of the SDF, we fought shoulder to shoulder with Kurdish and Arab comrades, and we will continue this fight.
But until now there have been Kurdish, Arab and Syriac Christian units in the SDF, but no Armenian units. The idea was there, but it was difficult with the low numbers of Armenians remaining in Syria and the crisis happening around us. It took us a year to gather together. Now, we have begun to build up the first Armenian battalion in the SDF, both to protect ourselves and to remember who we are. We began with a single member, but we will reach thousands.
We have a specific education programme; we study Armenian history and the genocides carried out against our people, as well as the Armenian language.
After 1915, many Armenian children were separated from their families and taken in by Kurds and Arabs. Because of this, they have forgotten their language and culture. If we don’t speak our own language, we cannot understand our history. If we don’t understand our history, then we cannot understand our position in the Syrian Civil War or opposition to Isis. Our goal now is to stand against terrorism in all its forms and to truly understand what that means.
Together, we are re-learning our history. By understanding our ideological, cultural and social base we can better understand this genocide, and tend to the wounds of our massacred people. Why did this genocide happen to us, when we hadn’t done anything? We were not terrorists. We weren’t occupiers, taking somebody’s land. We were not heretics. We were peaceful people.
Now, we want to prove our historical existence and regain our own way of thinking. If a person’s thinking is liberated, they can be freed from all other bonds. This is the real war, one fought on the level of culture and mentality.
It is important we do not grow complacent. Though Isis has been defeated as a military force, this war isn’t over yet. It is now necessary to carry out long-term education for Isis members. Although it may not be possible to change the mentality of everybody, simply throwing them in prison will not solve the problem in the long term.
Nor can Isis’ crimes be tried solely in European courts. These crimes were committed on Syrian land. We have to gather both regional and international officials to carry out a fair trial. It is not possible to realise a fair trial for Isis prisoners far from the place where they committed their crimes and without the participation of the local population.
In the name of our massacred people, we Armenians want to hold the perpetrators to account.
We also encourage Armenian women to join us and take a stand, to fight alongside us. We created the Armenian battalion for the defence of our freedom, for the defence of our faith, for the defence of our nation, because of states we consider terrorist like Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, which is still against the Armenian people, against the Armenian language and against Armenian faith.
All we Armenians want is to live in freedom and peace. In our battalion, we treat one another as an Armenian family. But terrorists forced us to take up arms, and we will do so to defend ourselves against whoever threatens our existence – whether it’s Isis, or Turkey once again.
We have taken a step to make 24 April not just a memorial for the genocide, but a day of resistance against the current representatives of those who carried out the genocide.
The children of genocide are starting to defend themselves.