The Last Stronghold of the Christian Assyrians

Members of the Assyrian Military Council (MFS), the most important Christian militia in Northeast Syria, grieve at the funeral of one of their fighters in Hassakeh. End of November. Image: Vincent Haiges

SyriacPress is thankful to de Volkskrant for allowing re-publishing. Originally published on 27 December 2019 in Dutch at www.volkskrant.nl.

By Ana van Es

Behind the church of his native village lies the front. At the place where he as a young man was consecrated into priesthood — just like his father before him — Christian militia fighters point to a white spot on a hill up north: it’s the most advanced Turkish army outpost.

As a priest in present-day Syria, it is not for Bachus Ishaya (66) to speak freely about war and politics. He can only speak of the Bible, the book that contains everything. “We can’t cross the line here and talk about politics. It can’t come from yourself. It’s too dangerous.’

The church gate is locked. Almost all residents have fled. Turkish vehicles can be seen on the road connecting the villages on the north bank of the river, the lifeline for the Christian community. The village can only be reached via an improvised cart track. Despite the shaky cease fire with Turkey, it’s a dangerous path to tread. The militia fighters are certain: a drone attack is lurking in those barren fields.

With a view of the front line, a militia commander explains in secular terms how things work. This village was founded by Assyrians, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. They have their own language, a variant of Neo-Aramaic, which, according to tradition, has its roots in the time of Jesus. Around 1915 these Christians had to flee from the Ottoman genocide. Now, more than a century later, the Turks are back. “They have come to finish the job.”

“The Assyrian community on the banks of the Khabur River only recently came back on its feet after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raided the area in 2015. Is the Turkish offensive in Syria then the final blow for Christians in the river valley?

Priest Bachus Ishaya leads Sunday’s church mass in Tel Tamr. Image: Vincent Haiges

Church of Our Blessed Lady

The tragedy of the Assyrians can be found in the life story of priest Bachus Ishaya himself. He was born in Tel Tawil, the village looking out on the most advanced Turkish observation post. Today, he is the priest of the Church of Our Blessed Lady in Tel Tamr, the largest settlement in the Christian enclave, which at its peak consisted of dozens of villages. When he started in Tel Tamr in 1982 there were 500 families. Today only 35 remain. The rest has fled. “I’m ashamed to tell you this.”

Young militia fighters with silver crosses around their necks are stationed at a base near the church. They grew up with the stories of their family and elders about the horrors of the Turkish genocide. “Both my great-grandfathers have been killed in the 1915 Genocide. Those stories are so sad. And now everything seems to be repeating itself,” says Aram Hanno, an educated English teacher.

He never made it to teaching English classes though. At the time he graduated, ISIS started killing Christians and he joined a Christian militia fighting under Kurdish command. He fought “in the interest of the whole world” against ISIS. Just when the war seemed to be over, the Americans dumped the Kurds, and with it the Christians who fought with them. Now Hanno is at the front with the Turks. “Our enemy of the past.”

In the latter days of the Ottoman Empire, more than two hundred seventy-five thousand Assyrians were murdered on the territory of what is now Turkey. Survivors fled to Iraq. An appeal for international protection proved to be in vain. In 1933 a second massacre took place, this time by the Iraqi army. As with most refugees, the remaining Assyrians were nowhere welcome. The League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, even considered shipping them off to a plantation in Brazil.

The Assyrians eventually settled in Syria. Not in a swamp, as the League of Nations wanted, but on the banks of the Khabur River.

A bullet-pierced house in the deserted village of Tel Tawil, where fighting takes place between Christian militias and Turkish troops. Image: Vincent Haiges

Prosperous Hub

In the days Bachus Ishaya grew up here, the future was promising, and the sun would again be shining soon. Mud huts and churches made way for stone houses. The Assyrian villages grouped around Tel Tamr (“Hill of Dates”), are strategically located between Turkey and the Syrian hinterland. With the construction of the M4 motorway, which connects Syrian Aleppo with Iraqi Mosul, Tel Tamr became a prosperous trading hub.

The M4 motorway is the biggest military trophy in the current conflict. This road is the only one in Northeast Syria that can be used for heavy army transports. Tel Tamr, located right at the highway, is therefore the scene of a dangerous endgame in the Syrian war. While French President Macron recently warned that NATO is “brain dead” because of the Turkish invasion, all international and local actors present in Syria are moving in a chaotic procession over the M4. Nobody wants to give up control over this crucial route.

The Americans, back in Syria to “protect the oil”, drive the M4. The Russians, self-proclaimed mediators in the conflict with Turkey, too. Turkish militias, they want to take the M4 motorway. The Kurds, who in recent years called the shots in Northeast Syria, but who now see their power crumble. Finally, the M4 motorway also sees the presence of the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad, who is back in the border region thanks to a deal with the Kurdish Administration.

At the bakery opposite the Church of Our Blessed Lady, customers jump up at the rumor that “the Russians” will patrol that morning and pass the bakery. But the Russians are not coming. The bakery closes early at eleven o’clock in the morning. A teenage girl with a headscarf who wants to buy bread is surprised when she is sent off.

“We want to go home quickly and drink raki and beer,” says a customer who describes himself as “the sheik.” He does not want to give his name out of fear of reprisals by the next ruler – whoever that may be. “I drink to forget everything.”

A member of the Christian militia Assyrian Military Council (MFS or ‘Mawtbo Fulhoyo Suryoyo’ in Aramaic) in the virtually deserted village of Tel Jumaa. Image: Vincent Haiges

Plunder and Killings

What is it that he wants to forget? It’s the ISIS-invasion of the villages of the Khabur river valley in February 2015. The terrorist organization took hostage hundreds of residents: men, women and children. “We even knew these ISIS fighters.” He believes you can expect something similar from the Turks. The videos that the fighters supported by Turkey put on social media do not reassure him. “They would plunder and kill.”

“I keep drinking until midnight,” the sheik says.

“The problems make us drink,” says the owner of the bakery. He calls himself Abu George (“Father of George”). Abu George’s wife has left for Sweden. He himself cannot get accustomed to Swedish life. “You have no sun and no freedom there. No freedom to visit people whenever you want. In Sweden you need to make an appointment. That is not freedom! “

Priest Ishaya has his hands full with families who want to leave the Khabur river valley and need the right papers. Birth certificate, christening certificate. All need his stamps. And yes, he must let them go, to Europe, the United States or even to Australia. “It’s like a father losing his sons. It is difficult. But I can’t stop them.”

Ishaya himself has the ultimate ticket to the free West: an American green card, obtained through family in Chicago, where the Assyrian community since many decades is larger than the one in the valley of the Khabur River. But he doesn’t use it. Not even when ISIS stood on the verge of invading Tel Tamr and not even when ISIS attacked the Church of Our Blessed Lady: you can still see the damage to the roof. “A shepherd cannot leave his sheep.”

He is silent for a moment. “Someone must stay to bury the dead.”

Zeiyye Isaac reads from the Bible during Sunday’s mass in Tel Jumaa. Image: Vincent Haiges

Arab Twin Village

The river valley is full of ethnic tensions. As a child, Ishaya only knew the Arabs “as shepherds.” Only as a teenager did he meet Kurds for the first time. “We regarded those people so special!” Tel Tamr nowadays has much more Muslims — Kurds and Arabs — than Christians. There is a mosque not far from the Church of Our Blessed Lady. Many Christian villages have been abandoned. Others for decades now have the company of an Arab twin village.

In Tel Tamr’s field hospital a doctor – after elaborating extensively on victims of Turkish drone attacks: the limbs, cut off heads, torsos “like grilled chicken, brown and swollen” – points out the window. Over there, on the other side of the river, lies such an Arabic twin village. “My patients from the past. I follow them on social media. First, they allied themselves with the Free Syrian Army. Later with ISIS. And now one of them is fighting with the Turks. “

It may all be very true. The war in Syria is very incomprehensible: the Turks on the other side of the front are often even not Turks at all. They are Syrians, mostly Sunni Arabs.

Under Turkish command they fight on their own soil. Some were opposing President Bashar al-Assad back in 2011. Now they are robbed of their houses and ideals. Some are marked by their time with ISIS. The Turkish president Erdogan promises them a future again: to build a new life in Syria, on self-conquered land. In that case, it is unclear where the Kurdish and Christian residents will go.

“They are not Turks, they are biting dogs,” says 60-year-old Zeiyye Isaac, one of the last six residents of Tel Jumaa village, a stop on the Russian patrol route. Like every afternoon, he goes to church with the other five residents. The church bell is rusted. The ringing of the clock, in the early twilight on the riverbank, gives a false, terrifying sound. The village watchdog starts to howl.

The dog is said to have a trauma, a leftover from the many Turkish mortar shelling’s.

As a Christian woman, can you marry an Arab? “No, no” says Hanna Khana Warda (69) and giggles after she attended church service. “If you marry an Arab, he marries a second, and then a third wife. We don’t want that. The Kurds are better. They only marry one woman, and they are loyal. But they want us to convert to Islam. And we don’t want that either.”

Four Christian women determined to stay in Tel Jumaa. Image: Vincent Haiges

The Kurdish Administration, which has run Northeast Syria for the last seven years, seems to have left Tel Jumaa. President Assad’s army has taken over the village. The Syrian government flag waves on top of the water tower and various houses. A government soldier holds a view of the little statue of St. Mary in the village center. The Church has traditionally maintained close ties with the Assad regime. The regimes’ divide and rule policy does not have an unfavorable effect on the Christian minority. With the Turks in front of them, the government army is warmly welcomed. “Anyone who wants to protect us is welcome,” says Zeiyye Isaac.

Political differences disappear under pressure from the common enemy. “We are all brothers here,” says Addai Rabo, a militia fighter with a silver cross around his neck. “We are united.” His militia, the Assyrian Military Council, was against Assad in recent years, working with the Kurds and Americans. Now Syrian government forces are their neighbors. The Syrian army occupies a neighboring house and walks in and out the Christian fighters’ compound.

Priest Ishaya will never talk about politics, because that comes from yourself and that is dangerous. But he likes to paraphrase psalm 127 to his community, “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”