NORTH & EAST SYRIA: Living Descendants and Witnesses of Sayfo Genocide of 1915

ZALIN (Qamishli), Syria – 15th June is the annual remembrance day for Syriacs of the Sayfo Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by the Ottomans and allied Kurds against the Syriac people. “Sayfo” is the Syriac word for “Sword” and is used by Syriacs for the genocide against the Christian Syriacs, Armenians and Pontic Greeks.

Many towns and villages in North and East Syria, became refuges and new homes for many Syriacs and Armenians who were forcefully deported or fled south escaping the atrocities. Many more from especially Diyarbakir and Mardin and their surrounding villages settled in Aleppo and Homs.

Writer and scholar Amy Austin Holmes visited North and East Syria and talked to Syriac descendants of Sayfo survivors of this “hidden genocide” which has received little scholarly attention. In an article in the National Interest she writes:

“This community—including Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Armenian Christians—has not forgotten the persecution they suffered at the hands of the Ottomans a century ago. And it is precisely this experience that informs their current opposition to Ankara’s plan to deploy Turkish troops East of the Euphrates. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to frame the plan as a “buffer zone” or “safe zone.” For Syrians, it’s another intervention by a foreign power. Instead of inducing a sense of safety, the idea of deploying Turkish troops in their homeland rekindles memories of the trauma their community has suffered before.”

Witnesses to the Genocide of 1915 embody the open wound and the ongoing trans-generational trauma of the massacres perpetrated against the Syriac people – Arameans-Assyrians-Chaldeans – by the Ottomans and allied Kurds, often the long-time next-door neighbors of the Syriacs and Armenians. For the occasion of 15th June Syriac Sayfo Remembrance Day, Syriac TV Channel Suroyo TV, interviewed and documented the story of a 103 years-old survivor of the Sayfo massacre during which she spoke about the killings, slaughter, and deportation of the Syriac people in the year 1915.

The 103-year-old woman during Sayfo lived in a village of about 100 Syriac households. Some were massacred, children and women were taken as possession and others were deported or fled:

“It was the Turkish Ottomans who carried out the “ferman” (ed. decree), and my family fled Turkey to Tel Lilon, and some other families fled to Dukuk. When one of my relatives returned to retrieve his family, he saw that the Ottomans had surrounded their village, and they did not allow anyone to enter it. He returned to Tel Lilon forced to leave his children to die at the hands of Turks.”

The Sayfo survivor went on to say that her uncle’s wife was slaughtered in front of her children, and the Ottomans kidnapped the children. Among the most heinous crimes committed were those against Syriac women. Some women were killed in the most horrible way by cutting pregnant women’s womb, taking out the fetus and killing the fetus by sword or smashing them against rock.

She added that the villagers of Qosor- Qasrothe went to the village of Beit Jabouri to hide, hoping to escape the Ottoman soldiers, but their hopes were smashed. And they were all massacred. And afterwards they rounded up the Syriacs and Armenians, drove them into a cave in the mountain and burned them alive. That is why a church was established at that site. We called it “Marghada”.

“What is happening now is a repetition of these massacres, and the criminal is the same, the Ottoman State,” she said.

A descendant of Sayfo survivors is Zaitoun Lahdo from Qabre Hewore (al-Qahtaniyah) in North and East Syria. He and his family survived the Sayfo but they left their village in southeast Turkey in 1944, a year of famine in the Syriac homeland of Tur Abdin in southeast Turkey. They settled a couple of kilometres south in Syria:

“We settled south of the border in 1944. At that time, the Turks made life for Syriacs difficult and pressured us to convert to Islam. They killed 3 or 4 Syriacs from the Syriac villages Arbo and Harabale. After that many Syriacs left. 1944 was a year of hunger.”

Zaitoun Lahdo recalls stories he heard about Sayfo.

“I heard a story where eight Syriacs were hiding in a horse stable. The owner of the house warned them to flee, “they will slaughter you”. They fled to the Syriac village of Ayn Wardo where many Syriacs fled to for protection. Another story I heard was of forty Syriacs who where beheaded and thrown into a water well.”

“Yes… All these village here on this side of the border were Syriac. All fled from slaughter and settled here… Now many Kurds we live with here, are sorry for what happened in those days… but what can they do… it happened. And this is true, but I also say to the Syriacs be careful and vigilant. We are Syriacs. He who doesn’t like Syriacs…”