Their story will soon drown: A Christian family of Middle East survivors

By Nuri Kino

As far as I know, Sabri Masoud, of Hasankeyf in southeastern Turkey, is the only living Christian born in one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world.

He might also be the only living survivor of the genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire that took place there between 1915 and 1923.

The first time I heard about him, I had no idea that he and I were related. Archbishop George Saliba of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who has his residence in Beirut, had told me about Masoud, describing the man who was about to celebrate his birthday as one of the most elegant, bravest, and smartest men he knew. He is, it turns out, my grandmother’s cousin.

Sabri Masoud. Image: Nuri Kino

In 1924, when he was four years old, Sabri, along with his family (his mother and his father, Yusuf), fled to the Sinjar Mountains in Iraq, where the majority of the inhabitants were Yazidis. His parents had by then lost hope that Christians could live in Turkey.

His brother Suleyman (my grandmother’s father) had stayed in Turkey and fled to Kerburan, a place still populated by Syriac and Armenian Christians. Sabri’s other uncle, Isa, had fled to Qamishli in Syria.

So, the three brothers and their young families were now separated and living in three different countries.

In Sinjar, Sabri became an apprentice to an Armenian tailor. But in 1933, after the Seventh of August Massacre of Assyrians of the city of Simeli, his family had to flee again. This time, they joined his uncle Isa in a part of French-controlled Syria that had been set aside for Christians fleeing Turkey — as a sort of consolation after the genocide of 1915. Here, they built a new life.

Holo (“Uncle”) Sabri loves to talk about his life, but he has had a stroke and has difficulty talking. “I worked as a tailor in Qamishli,” he said. “It was good. I wanted more, I was feeling adventurous and wanted to see the world. The French were recruiting for a new legion. I was a pretty well-built man and could also speak several languages, so I was recruited on the spot. My parents weren’t happy — I was their only son. But I had my way.”

He was deployed to Lebanon. He used his abilities as a tailor, even in the army. He soon became known for his handiwork even outside the army. He met the love of his life and stayed in Beirut. He has lived there since 1943.

His life in Lebanon has been filled with love, success, and wealth, but also with drama and grief. His eldest son was killed at the beginning of Lebanon’s civil war. Four of his seven children were traumatized for life. His life story in the 1970s and 1980s could fill volumes.

But it is his childhood and youth that are most closely tied to today’s events.

Sabri and his family had been the last Christians to leave Hasankeyf. That city, believed to be continuously inhabited for 10,000 years, is about to be submerged underwater by a Turkish dam. As the news discusses this travesty, there will be little mention of the genocide of 1915 or the town’s Christian inhabitants, the memories of which are being literally covered up.

In 2003, I visited Hasankeyf along with Lisbeth Brattberg, then one of the editors at the Swedish morning paper Dagens Nyheter. I pointed out the house that had belonged to my relatives and asked our guide if she knew who had lived there. The guide was surprised when I corrected her and told her that it was my relatives’ and that other houses also had been inhabited by Christians.

Hasankeyf. Image: Washington Examiner

My grandmother’s aunt Nure (also Sabri’s aunt, after whom I am named) was murdered on the same bridge that the Turkish government is about to destroy, in the genocide that it will not acknowledge took place. Her stomach was slashed with a sword, the fetus inside torn out. Nure had tried to save another one of her sons by throwing him into the Tigris River. To this day, we do not know if he survived after he came up out of the water.

This was when Sabri’s family fled to the Sinjar Mountains — the very same place that became the site of another genocide a century later. In 2014, the Islamic State invaded this part of Iraq and massacred non-Muslims who refused to convert. The majority of these were Yazidis, but there were also Christians among the martyrs and also Muslims who did not obey to ISIS’s interpretation of their religion. It will be the most spoken-of massacre in modern times.

Today, Qamishli has also gained unwelcome prominence in the international press for all of the acts of terror that ISIS executed in the city during its reign there. The children and grandchildren of Sabri’s uncle Isa had to flee after the persecution of Christians began in connection with the war in Syria. They ended up in Sweden and Germany. As for the uncle who refused to leave Turkey, all of his descendants were forced to flee during the 1960s and 1970s.

The rest of us, the children and grandchildren of Sabri’s uncle Suleyman, all live in Sweden now. Today, we are restaurateurs, hairdressers, doctors, researchers, journalists, poets — but most importantly, survivors.