Amid Escalating Fear of Massacres, Assyrians Commemorate Martyr Day

Assyrian International News Agency, Iraq
Aug 8 2004

Amid Escalating Fear of Massacres, Assyrians Commemorate Martyr’s Day

(AINA) — Less than one week after the deadly Assyrian Church
bombings in Baghdad and Mosul (photo gallery), Iraq, Assyrians once
again will gather to commemorate Assyrian Martyr’s Day. August 7
marks the memorial day for legions of Assyrian (also known as
Chaldeans and Syriacs) victims of massacres, pogroms, and genocide in
general, but in particular commemorates the fateful day in 1933 when
the newly established Iraqi army massacred upwards of 3000 Assyrian
civilians in and around Simmele, Northern Iraq (account of the
massacre). This year’s Church bombings coinciding with the 71st
anniversary of the massacre have rekindled the same Assyrian concerns
about security in Iraq and reignited calls for a “Safe Haven” in an
Assyrian administered area.

In the early stages of the last century, Great Britain enlisted the
support of the Assyrians as an ally in World War One. The autonomous
Assyrians were drawn into the conflict following successive massacres
against the civilian population by forces of the Ottoman Empire
consisting of Turks and Kurds. Although many geopolitical and
economic factors were involved in provoking the attacks against the
Assyrians, a jihad or “holy war” was declared and served as the
rallying cry and vehicle for marauding Turks, Kurds, and Persians.
Although the Muslim holy war against the Armenians is perhaps better
known, over three-fourths, or 750,000 Assyrian Christians died by
outright murder, starvation, disease and the all too familiar
consequences of genocide, between 1914-1923 during the Assyrian
Holocaust along with a significant number of Pontic Greeks.

The conflict and subsequent Assyrian Holocaust, commemorated on April
24 of every year as Sayfo (“The Sword”), led to the decimation and
dispersal of the Assyrians. Those Assyrians who survived Sayfo were
driven out of their ancestral homeland in Turkish Mesopotamia
primarily toward the area of Mosul Vilayet in Iraq, Jazira in Syria,
and the Urmi plains of Iran where large Assyrian populations already
lived. The massacres of 1915 followed the Assyrians to these areas as
well, prompting an exodus of many more Assyrians to other countries
and continents. The Assyrian Holocaust of 1915 is the turning point
in the modern history of the Assyrian Christians precisely because it
is the single event that led to the dispersal of the surviving
community into small, weak, and destitute pockets.

On account of the Assyrians siding with the victorious Allies during
World War One, Great Britain had promised the Assyrians autonomy,
independence, and a homeland in order to ensure their security and
survival. The Assyrian question was addressed during postwar
deliberations at the League of Nations. However, with the termination
of the British Mandate in Iraq, the unresolved status of the
Assyrians was relinquished to the Iraqi government with certain
minority guarantees specifically concerning freedom of religious,
cultural, and linguistic expression.

Many of the Assyrians surviving Sayfo had been gathered in refugee
camps in Iraq pending final resettlement in an autonomous Assyrian
homeland. In 1933, however, the Iraqi government declared an
ultimatum giving the Assyrians one of two choices: either to be
resettled in small populations dispersed amongst larger Muslim
populations that had recently been violently antagonistic or to leave
Iraq entirely. Some Assyrians chose to leave to neighboring Syria and
so notified the Iraqi government of their intention. In response, the
Iraqi government dispatched the Iraqi army to attack the Assyrians
fleeing into Syria. In their subsequent defeat, the retreating Iraqi
army massacred over 3,000 Assyrian civilians in Simmele and other
surrounding towns in northern Iraq in August of 1933. Eyewitness
accounts recorded babies hurled into the air and bayoneted and women
and elderly being run over by vehicles repeatedly. Upon his return to
Baghdad, the commanding officer, a Kurd named Bekir Sidqi, who
executed the massacre was hailed as a conquering hero. Thus, the
first official military campaign of the Iraqi army served as the
newly independent government’s final solution to the Assyrian
question. The demoralized Assyrian refugee population in Iraq was
thereby resettled in dispersed villages while the other surviving
isolated communities languished in the areas of Tur Abdin, Turkey;
Jazira, Syria; and Urmi, Iran.

The lessons of World War I and 1933 remain fresh in the Assyrian
psyche. On the one hand, deep apprehension about the peaceful
intentions of their neighbors is coupled with profound suspicion
about the reliability and commitment of Western powers. These same
lessons were re-inscribed into the Assyrian psyche on August 1, 2004
as old wounds were once again torn open.

For Assyrians, today’s circumstances in Iraq mark striking
similarities to those of 1933. Again today, Assyrians find themselves
in a period of flux, insecurity, threat, and uncertainty. The
official Assyrian political aspiration of an administered or
semi-autonomous area in the Plains of Nineveh hark back to the
appeals made to the League of Nations. The negligible commitment of
the West to protect Assyrian Christians mirrors the neglect of the
past as well. And now rising attacks against Assyrians1 climaxing in
the bloody Church bombings rekindle the same Assyrian suspicions and
apprehensions felt in August 1933 when Bekir Sidqi schemed to cleanse
yet another region of Assyrians.

However, some welcome differences are not deniable either. Whereas in
1933, the government of Iraq marked the bayoneting of babies by
Sidqi’s henchmen with parades and medals, today’s Iraqi government
and leading Islamic leaders were quick to condemn the attacks. The
rapidity of blaming the attacks on Jordanian born Zirqawi — a
non-Iraqi Al-Qaeda operative — attempted to send a quick signal that
this could not have been an inside Iraqi attack on fellow Iraqi
Christians. One Assyrian analyst who welcomed the condemnations from
across the Iraqi political and religious spectrum as a refreshing sea
change, never the less viewed the quick declaration by the government
that Zirqawi had orchestrated the attack as at least premature if not
wholly disingenuous. “Clearly a non-Iraqi Al-Qaeda may have committed
these attacks, but so too could have others such as Kurds, former
Baathists or anyone else fighting US forces who may in their own
twisted way link Assyrian Christian Churches to the American
‘Christian’ forces. For the government to quickly blame Zirqawi
without an investigation or a claim of responsibility smacks of a
political decision to absolve or whitewash — as it were — any Iraqi
or Iraqi society itself for that matter of such a heinous crime.
August 7, 1933 and the subsequent decades of persecution by
successive regimes remind us that Iraq has been and indeed is capable
of such acts. Sweeping such attacks under the rug will not serve the
progress of Iraqi society due justice. The history of abuse and
massacre of Assyrians by the Iraqi state must be recognized. Only
when we come to terms with the historical facts and realities and
accept the Assyrian people’s aspiration to live in security in their
ancestral towns and villages in the Nineveh Plain can we begin to lay
Assyrian concerns to rest.” On a hopeful note, the analyst noted “The
early signs from Iraq with nearly universal condemnation of the
attacks is indeed encouraging, however.”

This year, less than one week after five Christian Churches were
bombed, Assyrians will gather on August 7 in their Churches, social
halls, and cemeteries for poems, prayers, and recollections (story).
This year, armed with haunting images of smoke billowing from their
churches, Assyrians will again become determined to rebuild and
refortify. This year, Assyrians will couple the memories of the
Simmele massacre with fresh images of bloodied and dead worshipers as
they redouble their efforts to transform the historical dream of a
self administered area into a safe, secure, and lasting reality.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress