The remains of the remains

As Armenia celebrated the anniversary of its independence last week, Islamic State militants attacked the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in the Syrian city of Deir Al-Zor, writes Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian
When I was a child I used to hear about Deir Al-Zor and the connection this Syrian city had with the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. As the years passed and I was taught my nation’s history at school, I started to discover more about the city in my readings, especially the poems written to commemorate the genocide. One day I recited a poem entitled Der Zor by heart and was able to live and feel the kind of brutality the city witnessed a century ago.

Some years later in 2010 I had the chance to visit Deir Al-Zor when the Armenian Red Cross in Egypt organised a pilgrimage to commemorate the genocide’s 95th anniversary. We were a small group of friends who believed the trip would be a memorable one – and we were right. It was. At the time of the genocide when millions of Armenians were slaughtered, some were able to escape the tragedy to various countries. Some chose to settle in Egypt, while others went to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, the United States, Europe and Australia.

Our Armenian heritage never allowed us to forget that Egypt was one of the countries that opened its arms out wide to receive our grandparents. As a result, whenever Egyptian Armenians leave Egypt, even to look for their roots in Armenia or elsewhere, they are impatient to come back home to Egypt, the country in which they were born, raised and educated.

We knew the trip to Deir Al-Zor would be a tough one, as we had heard about what we might find in that city. Historically, Deir Al-Zor was the final destination of the Armenian refugees who were deported from their land and forced onto a long march in the Syrian Desert. The city bore witness to the death marches organised by the Ottoman Turks. However, this didn’t really come home to us until we saw the city with our own eyes. This was the desert our ancestors were forced to march to, with thousands dying of hunger on the way and others killed with their bodies sometimes being left to rot in the open air.

The bus transferring us to various destinations in the city stopped at the village of Margadeh some 80 km from Deir Al-Zor. A few of us went into the desert and started to dig to find the remains of our ancestors. At first we couldn’t differentiate between the small white stones mixed with the sand and the remains of human bodies, but eventually we found fragments of human bone. This piece of land was once an epicentre of death where thousands of bodies were buried and human bones now lay close to the surface.

Whose bones could these be, we asked ourselves. My great-grandfather’s? Whose teeth could these be? Could they belong to the great-grandmother of the friend standing right next to me? Each one of us took turns to excavate. It was like a one-sided conversation with a skull, a skeleton, a tooth from a dead, unbreathing mouth that would never reply to our many questions. Some of us collected human remains to take away and keep close to our hearts. “Please let these people rest, let them rest in peace…” we heard, as we stood in silence and tears.

On our way back to Deir Al-Zor city we passed by the Euphrates River where a suspension bridge crosses the river. The bridge was built by the French government in 1927 and was destroyed by the Free Syrian Army in May 2013. That river brought back many sad stories we read in history. We, Armenians call it the Red Run River, where during the deportation process Armenians were thrown into the water and watched: if they did not drown they were shot as they struggled to swim to safety. The corpses are said to have floated down the river for months. We stopped at its banks and approached to feel the water with our hands. It smelled bloody, unclear. In fact, everything was sad around us as it tells the story of a suffered nation.

Armenians worldwide commemorate the genocide on 24 April, and on this day the city is crowded with Armenian pilgrims from all over the world. On the eve of the day, a candle-lit march takes place in the streets to the St Martyr’s Armenian Genocide Memorial Church dedicated to the memory of the victims. Whilst next morning is the Mass service dedicated to their souls. The construction of the church started in December 1989 and was completed one year later. It was consecrated in May 1991 as a memorial to the genocide, and it includes a museum telling the stories of the victims of the massacres carried out a century ago by the Ottoman Turks.

The complex also serves as an archive and exhibition centre, and it is under the direct administration of the Armenian Prelacy in the Diocese of Aleppo. The land on which the complex was built was also a death-march site where thousands of Armenians were killed and buried, and thus it stands on another mass grave of human remains. Thanks to the efforts of the Armenian community in Deir Al-Zor a small chapel named after St Hripsimé was built on the land, which later was replaced by the genocide church-complex.

The St Martyrs complex was bombed last week by militants belonging to the Islamic State (IS) movement in Iraq and Syria. When I visited in 2010, the complex consisted of a main entrance leading to a higher courtyard containing evidence of the terrible suffering of the Armenian nation. The façade of the main entrance was decorated with pigeons and crosses, and on the right there was the Wall of Friendship decorated with Arabesque and Armenian motifs as symbolic expressions of the close ties between the two nations.

Opposite the main entrance stood a huge monument constructed in memory of the martyrs. On the monument there was a cross-stone (khatchkar), a gift the church had received from Armenia on its opening. There was also an eternal flame in front of the monument in memory of the martyrs. The main structures of the complex, the church and museum, were on the left-hand side of the courtyard. In the church itself there was a circular glass case in which victims’ remains were displayed, many of them found in the Syrian Desert. A huge column referred to the struggle and revival of the Armenian nation, coming out of the glass case, in the middle of the church and passed up through two storeys.

The hall, now a small museum, contained genocide documents, photographs, personal belongings, maps and books about the Armenian nation. The photographs displayed in the museum were taken by the German soldier, author and human rights activist Armin Wegner (1886-1978). Wegner was a witness to the death marches of the Armenians during their deportation, and the photographs he took documenting their plight today make up important sources for the genocide. At the time, the photographer gathered information on the massacres, collected documents, notes and letters, and took hundreds of photographs of the Armenian deportation camps in Deir Al-Zor which later served as evidence of the extent of the atrocities to which the Ottoman Armenians were subjected.

At the Ottoman military command’s request, Wegner was eventually arrested by the Germans and recalled to Germany. While some of his photographs were destroyed, he succeeded in smuggling out many images of the genocide by hiding the negatives in his belt.

The Deir Al-Zor Church Memorial is the work of Syrian architects Sarkis Balmanougian and Garbis Tovmassian, and it was bombed by IS militants the day before the US and its Arab allies expanded their strikes on IS targets into eastern and northern Syria. Deir Al-Zor was among the IS-controlled parts of the country targeted by the US-led coalition.

Childhood memories: “When I was a child I used to help the workers constructing the church complex by moving stones and wood,” said Berj Kassabian, 31, a physician who left the city to go to Aleppo at the start of the uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

“The old chapel that was replaced by the St Martyr’s Church also had a school I used to go to for Armenian language lessons and lessons in history and religion. When the new church was built, I was the only boy who regularly went to Sunday prayers along with six women. I also used to take part in the choir service. The church used to receive many visitors, and every April Armenians from around the world would come to commemorate the genocide,” recalled Kassabian.

Deir Al-Zor today, once a city of 700,000 with 30-40 families of Armenian origin, is now deserted. “We were respected by the Syrian Arabs, because at the time of the massacres Syrian men married Armenian women to save them from the barbarism of the Ottoman Turks, fully integrating the Armenian population among them,” Kassabian told Al-Ahram Weekly. At the time of the annual pilgrimage, when hotels in the city were fully booked, Muslim families who lived around the St Martyr’s Church would also receive Armenian pilgrims in their own homes, he remembers. His own grandfather had escaped from Urfa to Deir Al-Zor after the genocide and his father had served on the committee in charge of the church for more than 15 years.

When he grew up, Kassabian was keen to invite his Syrian friends to visit the St Martyr’s Church and tell them the story of a nation that had suffered throughout the century. He studied medicine at Cairo University and later went back to Deir Al-Zor. “My father wanted me to come back to serve my country. During the Syrian uprising I served in the Euphrates Hospital. One day, when the city was surrounded by the Armed Forces I was all alone in the hospital with the patients as the rest of the staff had fled the bombardments. Later, when I was able to arrange the evacuation of the patients and locked the doors for the last time I left the building with tears in my eyes,” Kassabian said.

“I walked along the Euphrates River watching the sunrise and remembered the way my ancestors had been deported from their land and marched through the desert to Deir Al-Zor.” Kassabian’s family moved to Aleppo in 2012 due to the unstable situation in the city. “We were forced to leave Deir Al-Zor, but we believe one day we will go back to where we were born,” he added.

International condemnation: Following the attacks on the church by IS militants, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian condemned the destruction and described it as “horrific barbarity”. The remains of the victims of the Armenian Genocide were resting there, he said, and he called on the international community to act against a “disease that threatens all mankind,” referring to IS.

The Catholicos of the House of Cilicia, Aram I, also condemned the destruction. “Those who are behind this crime should be aware that they cannot erase the memories of our martyrs and that Deir Al-Zor symbolises the struggle of our people for justice, being a shrine for the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide,” he said. Aris Nalc?, an Armenian journalist working for IMC TV in Turkey, described the destruction as “terrible. There’s no peace for the human bones, no respect for these people’s deaths.”

US congressman Adam Schiff condemned the destruction of the church. “The fact that the church was dedicated to those lost in the genocide is both especially poignant and a chilling foreshadowing of how IS would treat Syria’s Christians if it were to further expand its territorial gains. We need to support the international coalition that is currently engaging in strikes to help the people of Syria and Iraq rid themselves of this cancer,” he said.

The US embassy in Armenia also condemned the bombing of the Armenian Church and Genocide Memorial in Deir Al-Zor, “strongly condemning the destruction of the church,” according to an embassy statement. “This senseless act of destruction demonstrates yet again the utter disregard the terrorist organisation IS has for the rich religious and cultural heritage of the Middle East.”

Nevertheless, the Executive Director of the Armenian National Congress of America (ANCA), Aram Hamparian, has stated that the embassy “very conspicuously, and clearly under instruction from the White House, failed to mention the very reason for this holy site’s existence, the Armenian Genocide, or to challenge the deadly threat that those who destroyed it (and their allies in Ankara) are sending to the Armenian nation.”

Turkish involvement: Ever since the Syrian civil war erupted three years ago, Armenians have been targeted by the Al-Nusra Front and the Ansar Al-Sham, militant organisations fighting against the Al-Assad regime. The mostly Armenian town of Kessab was brutally attacked in March for three days, and an estimated 2,000 Armenians fled to Latakia, their homes and stores being occupied and looted. Many Armenian churches and establishments in Syria have also been attacked elsewhere over the past three years.

Turkey has not condemned the IS’s attack on the Deir Al-Zor Genocide Memorial, and it is believed that similar attacks were sponsored by Turks tied to IS. “This toxic act of intolerance has Turkey’s fingerprints all over it,” Hamparian said after the Deir Al-Zor attacks. “Turkey clearly has the motive, the opportunity and the means to obliterate the Deir Al-Zor memorial, a global site of remembrance for its still unpunished crime against the Armenian nation,” he told the Weekly.

The media in both Turkey and the United States has revealed that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, formerly Turkish prime minister and now the country’s president, has sent aid to radical Islamist groups active in Syria and radical jihadis affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Turkey by channelling this aid has thus made a conscious choice to strengthen the most extreme of the groups, contributing to IS’s emergence. The release on 20 September of 49 Turkish hostages held by IS since the group’s capture of Mosul in June may also reflect this unstated relationship.

“The connection between IS and Turkey is obvious. Of course there will be no concrete proof, but remembering what happened in Kessab and how Turkey was keeping its borders open to IS groups destroying the town, one can think that there’s a strong link also to the bombing of the Deir Al-Zor Armenian church,” Aris Nalc? told the Weekly.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly last Wednesday, the President of Armenia Serj Sarkissian hinted that his country was considering cancelling the Turkey-Armenia protocols signed between the two countries since Turkey was continuing to insist on the resolution of the Karabakh conflict in favour of Azerbaijan as a precondition for ratifying the documents. “In Armenia and Artsakh, ordinary people often just retort to such preconditions by saying ‘to hell with your ratification’. This phrase concentrates the age-old struggle of the entire nation, and it unequivocally explains to those who attempt to bargain with the homeland that it is sacrosanct and that bargaining cannot be countenanced,” Sarkissian said.

In his speech, Sarkissian explained the significance that the year 2015 will bear for Armenians around the globe as they commemorate the centennial of the genocide. He went on to thank the 20 countries that had recognised the Armenian Genocide and had officially condemned it. Of the terrorist attacks by IS, Sarkissian said that “the tragic events in Syria and Iraq that we are currently witnessing demonstrate how groups whose creed is hatred are targeting religious and national minorities. Two days ago, on the Independence Day of the Republic of Armenia, the Church of All Saint Martyrs in Deir Al-Zor, Syria, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide and where their remains were housed was mined and blown up by terrorists. Such barbarity is criminal godlessness and is in no shape or form related to any faith.”

Egypt has accused the Turkish president of supporting terrorists and seeking to provoke mayhem in the Middle East after Erdogan questioned the legitimacy of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in a speech at the UN General Assembly. “There is no doubt that the fabrication of such lies is not something new from the Turkish president, who has been keen to provoke chaos and to sow divisions in the Middle East through his country’s support for terrorist organisations,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry stated.

“The statements delivered by a country president like Turkey are irresponsible and shocking. It’s a great violation of all diplomatic customs, principles and norms,” professor of International Law Ayman Salama told the Weekly.

“If I were an Egyptian official, I would make use of this opportunity of political disagreement and remind Turkey of the most heinous genocide that occurred against the Armenians in 1915, and on several other incidents. Erdogan shouldn’t forget that he is a grandson of the Ottoman sultans who committed such a crime against humanity, not only the Armenian nation.”

“The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have reminded Erdogan that he is the last person who could talk about democracy and God’s governance,” commented Salama. “The European Union is still refusing the admission of Turkey to such a coalition, the same reasons that made the European Kingdoms and Principalities two centuries ago refuse to join the Ottoman Empire to their union, describing the Ottomans as barbarians.”

Erdogan has damaged relations between Turkey and other countries in the Middle East. Last year, Egypt’s interim president Adli Mansour pledged to recognise the Armenian Genocide in response to statements made by Erdogan condemning the “coup d’état” in Egypt that had removed former president Mohamed Morsi. “The document will be formally submitted to the UN on Monday, August 19,” Mansour tweeted. “Our representative in the UN will sign an international document recognising the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey which led to the deaths of millions,” he said.

Asked if Egypt should take more concrete action against Turkey especially after Erdogan’s continuous attacks on Egypt, Wahid Abdel-Meguid, editor-in-chief of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya quarterly magazine published by Al-Ahram, said that “Egypt should not engage itself in a meaningless verbal war, our country has a lot of fronts to deal with at the time being, dealing with them is more important.” Abdel-Meguid told the Weekly that Turkey has better economic conditions than Egypt and has to fight its own battles.”

Over recent months, and with the increasing dissatisfaction of the international community with Erdogan’s autocratic policies and belligerent statements, it has become increasingly obvious that no one knows the true face of Turkey better than the Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and Kurds who have suffered countless brutalities and even genocide under Turkish rule. Yet, Turkey is a country that is both economically successful and increasingly important on the international scene. It has every reason to be confident about facing its past and acknowledging some uncomfortable truths.

Its apparent refusal to do so is rooted in the history of which the Armenian Genocide is a part. “I don’t believe that the world is going to take action regarding Turkey. The only armed power on the ground that is still fighting against IS are the Kurds although there is no religious or sectarian problem between the Kurds and IS. The latter wants to destroy every minority, whether Armenians, Yazidis, or Kurds, who represent a danger to it,” commented Nalc?.