“KAFNO”: The Genocide on the Christians of Mount Lebanon during the First World War
By Amine Jules Iskandar / Translated by Mabelle Kreidi
During WWI, between 1914 and 1915, Lebanon witnessed a genocide, rarely ever spoken of.
Unfortunately, our schools always taught that the famine that decimated about half of the Lebanese population, was due to an “unfortunate coincidence of disparate factors”. According to official history, it’s about the maritime blockade of the allies, the land blockade of the Ottomans and the locusts’ invasion.
The French have rejected any responsibility by claiming that the majority of cereals and other food usually came from the Bekaa side and Hauran, and that imports on the maritime side were very secondary. However, the land blockade on Lebanon remains strategically inexplicable and with no convincing reason.
All data proves that the famine of Mount Lebanon was planned, organized, instigated and well-desired by the Ottomans. It all began in 1914, with the abolition of the signed agreements between the Christian powers and the Ottoman Porte which guaranteed the security of Christians in the Ottoman empire. Followed by the elimination of Mount Lebanon’s autonomy, a series of excessively harsh measures began to take place.
Enver Pasha delegated Jamal Pasha with the task of exterminating the Ottoman Empire’s Christians. Since then he had the nickname of “Jamal Pasha Al-Safah” (Safah, an Arabic word, meaning butcher). It was no question for Jamal Pasha to recommit the error of 1860. The “sword” used in the Armenian, Syriac/Assyro-Chaldean regions, could not be used in Lebanon without risking a new French landing. Lesson was learned in 1860, Lebanon was too close to Europe, the massacres of 1860 led to the military intervention of Napoleon III and the recovery of the Lebanese autonomy. Getting to Mount Lebanon’s population now necessitated ways differing from those used against other Christian areas of the empire.
Jamal Pasha began by preparing the frame of his mission. Contrary to Armenia and Upper-Mesopotamia, Lebanon was very connected to Europe. It was necessary to isolate it from the media and also diplomatically, before imposing any physical isolation, like the food blockade. For this reason, Jamal Pasha established general censorship on the press. However, “a window always open to Europe” was a character of Lebanon. That window was formed by the Church and especially by the Catholic Missionaries, their monasteries and their schools. Many of these places were transformed into barracks or military deposits. The missionaries could no longer serve as witness after getting exiled. There were some Maronite Bishops left, as well as some Greek Orthodox and Melkite ones, the most active ones would get exiled. Some Maronite bishops were even taken to court, and hanged to death.
Now that all communications with the outside world were eliminated, the genocide could successfully take its course.
Despite the Locusts’ invasion in 1916, a considerable amount of wheat was still available but it was burned by order of Jamal Pasha. Jamal seized all the wheat, kerosene, workhorses, poultry and livestock claiming it was for military needs, yet, every time the Ottomans couldn’t take away all the available quantities, they would set it on fire. German soldiers also threw the wheat in the sea before escaping. Pharmacies and medicine of any kind were confiscated, *always for the needs of the Ottoman troops*. In 1916, Ottomans even attacked plantations, orchards and forests, while even seizing construction material and wood. The Hills of Lebanon were fully stripped under the excuse of “refueling for coal trains”. The old Sepia photos of Lebanon still show these once desolate regions, that are covered with forests today.
How can we still teach in Lebanese schools that the Mount Lebanon famine was due to an exceptional invasion of Locusts?
Mount Lebanon’s dominantly Christian inhabitants were dying of hunger, they sold their furniture, their clothes, the families found themselves in the streets without even anything on their body. Skeletons roamed here and there in the mud and in the snow. We were barely able to distinguish the living from the dead. From all the dead bodies around, and from the cold, malnutrition and lack of hygiene, devastating diseases came to add to the disastrous situation of the Lebanese, such as Typhus, Cholera, plague and others.
Do we need more evidence to recognize that this famine was not accidental?
There are Diplomatic mails between western chancelleries. The atrocities are described in all these mails. All have reached the same conclusion: a military intervention in the Levant would be fatal for the Christians of Lebanon. It could push the Ottomans to speed up their work and, might also, push them to move on to use “the sword”. As for food aid, it was systematically confiscated by the ottomans.
It was then agreed to send financial aid, especially in gold. The Syrian island of Arwad was in the hands of the French, under the command of Albert Trabaud. The aid of the Lebanese diaspora was then channeled to the island and transported by night to the Lebanese coast. The first part of the course was made by boat, while the second ended in swimming. The Gold was handed over to the envoys of the Maronite patriarch, Elias Peter Hoayek. The sums gathered in Bkerké were then used to buy quantities of food to distribute to the people in order to limit the carnage as much as possible.
On a Lebanese population of 450,000 people, about 220 000 died, and half of the survivors took the path of exile. We are the descendants of the little quarter remaining. What have we transmitted to the following generations of the heroism of their ancestors? More than 200 000 harmless, disarmed victims, and whose only crime was to be Christian. What did we keep from the memory of Albert Trabaud who contributed to the survival of our ancestors? A street in Achrafieh? What did we do for our 200.000 martyrs? A Museum, a monument, a public place, a national day, any mention in the history books?
Dr. Antoine Boustany, author of the history of the great famine in Mount-Lebanon, is wondering what happened to the Christians of Mount-Lebanon and why are they adopting this weird behavior. He wonders where this cowardice could come from, because for him, not asking for account is a crime itself. He then quotes Marshal Foch when he said “a people without memory is a people without future”, he then resumed by quoting Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz, who wrote: “Genocides kill twice, the second time by silence.”
Today we have a duty, it’s cultural resistance, as respect for our ancestors who poured their blood. We are the descendants of the quarter who survived and stayed in Lebanon. And from this group also three quarters emigrated so we only represent the quarter of the quarter. Let us be aware of all this legacy that we now bear responsibility for.
The genocide of the Christians of the orient, “tseghaspanutyun” for Armenians, “Seyfo” (the sword) for the Syriac/Assyro-Chaldeans of Upper-Mesopotamia, and “Kafno” (famine) for the Christians of Lebanon. You can’t assassinate a people twice; first by death, then by silence and oblivion. It is a national duty to take this into account at the state, religious and cultural institutions’ level.
Amine Jules Iskandar is President of the Syriac Maronite Union: Tur Levnon. The author is grateful to Mabelle Kreidi for the English translation from French. See Mabelle Kreidi’s blog here.
The original French article can be found here.