A century after the massacres, Syriac diaspora head home to Turkey

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by Olivia Dehez
Some 30 people live year-round in Tur Abdin, a village set in the Wild West landscapes of rocks and dry grass, in southern Turkey – less than 100 kilometres from Syria.
In Arbo, a small village near Kafro, Syriacs attend the funeral ceremony of a fellow Syriac whose body was repatriated to lie to rest in his ancestral homeland.

In Arbo, a small village near Kafro, Syriacs attend the funeral ceremony of a fellow Syriac whose body was repatriated to lie to rest in his ancestral homeland.
(Kerem Uzel)

It is the ancestral homeland of the Syriacs (also called Arameans or Assyrians) of Mesopotamia, otherwise known as Christians of the East, who fled alongside the Armenian victims of massacres launched 100 years ago.

[Editor’s note: many countries and historians have qualified the killings of the Armenians as “genocide” but Turkey rejects this term.]

At the end of the century they were confronted with violence once again, during clashes between the Turkish state and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the Kurdish political organisation.

“As of the 1980s, we were caught in the crossfire between the two sides, even though many of us wanted to remain neutral. That was the main reason for us having to emigrate.”

Aziz Demir, wearing a navy blue gilet and small glasses, is the mayor of Kafro and the pioneer of the Syriac community’s return in 2006. Having fled the violence in the region as a teenager, he spent much of his life in exile in Switzerland, where he worked in the hotel trade.

In 1994, his father was the last inhabitant to leave the family village, with its 6th century church. Twenty years later, in 2015, Demir receives visitors in a new, three-story detached house, similar to 20 or so others lined up along a solitary road.

It was following the calls made to Syriacs by several Turkish prime ministers, including Bulent Ecevit, in 2000, that the diaspora embraced the idea of returning.

“We met to discuss the strategy we should adopt,” continues Demir. “Fifteen families living in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden decided they were ready to leave for Turkey and we started building houses here in Kafro in 2002.

“We officially inaugurated the village on 1 September 2006,” he said. “We now want to serve as a bridge between the state and the diaspora.”

“We no longer need to flee”

Every summer, the village is filled with friends and relatives from Europe. But only one young person has found the courage to stay all year-round, despite the solitude and the absence of local businesses.

“My parents have said to me on numerous occasions, if you don’t like it here, you don’t have to stay, you can go back to Europe. But I love this place,” says 25-year-old Ishok Demir, who was born in Switzerland and speaks to his father in Syriac.

“In 1915, the people of Kafro were massacred, more than 50 families,” continues the young man. “For me, being here again and envisaging a future is a very positive thing.”

The village recently saw the arrival of a newborn baby. The mother, Sonia, who was living in exile in Stuttgart, Germany, until 2006, seems wary of visitors.

Her husband’s father was killed in Kafro in 1972, like her great grandfather, who was executed during the 1915 massacres.

“We no longer need to flee, that’s why we are back here. I wanted my children to know our home country,” says the 46-year-old woman who works as an English teacher in a nearby town.

Last year, a candidate from the pro-minority party BDP became the first woman of Syriac origin to be elected as mayor of a large Turkish city, Mardin, less than 100 kilometres south of Kafro, near the Syrian border.

The community has gained visibility. “Our concern now, however, is the Islamic State and its genocidal practices,” says the 26-year-old co-mayor, Februniye Akyol.

In February, over 100 Syriacs were the targets of murders and kidnappings in Syria.

Just days later, IS militants were destroying Syriac cultural heritage in Iraq.

“It’s difficult, given the current situation in the Middle East,” admits Aziz Demir, mayor of Kafro. “It is up to everyone to assume their responsibilities. The Turkish state must make the conditions for our return possible.

“And if Europe sits in on the talks, more Syriacs will come back.”

This article has been translated from French.