By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
Towards the end of the 19th century, with the appearance of the concept of the nation state, the Ottomans sought to homogenize the population of their empire to construct a new geographic, historic, and demographic reality. This necessitated the extermination of indigenous peoples such as the Greeks in Asia Minor, the Assyro-Chaldeans in Upper Mesopotamia, the Armenians and Syriac Arameans in the eastern provinces and Cilicia, and the Mount Lebanese in the Levant.
Several massacres took place throughout the second half of the 19th century, including in 1860 in Mount Lebanon. It was with the division of Europe during the First World War that the plan of total extermination could be put into execution, the Germans having sided with Turkey. Massacres and deportations nearly ended the Christian presence in all the provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
But for Mount Lebanon, things were more complicated. There, sword and blood has typically provoked Western diplomatic and military interventions, as in 1860, and strengthened the resolve of the population and the Church, as happened later in 1975. Demographic transformations in Mount Lebanon are difficult to achieve by massacres and require a more underhanded approach, replacing the sword with famine and mass emigration.
No longer able to carry out the bloody deportations as in Armenia and Upper Mesopotamia, the Ottomans opted for the fomentation of an economic crisis crowned by famine and lightning emigration in Lebanon to obtain the desired demographic change. As early as 1914, foreign currency was banned, and Ottoman currency became compulsory for any food transaction.
As soon as the Lebanese had finished exchanging all their foreign currencies into Ottoman Liras, the government proceeded to depreciate the currency by 20 times its value. Being completely dispossessed of all their savings, people turned to the diaspora for help. However, Ottoman soldiers intercepted the couriers and stole the money meant to assist the Mount Lebanese. Elsewhere, the confiscation of aid was done officially, with anyone caught carrying gold or silver arrested and executed. For nothing, people were court-martialed on the pretext of contacts with the enemy (France).
All reserves of kerosene were transported to Syria and trees felled and transported away, leaving no fuel for the Lebanese to heat themselves. Wheat reserves that could not be shipped were burned on the spot or thrown into the sea. Pharmacies were confiscated and medicines were sent to Syria — for the needs of the soldiers on the front, they said. According to this same argument, doctors were also taken to the front. The Lebanese people had to die, by hunger or by epidemic, to stifle any embryo of uprising or separatist isolationist inclination, as had happened in Armenia.
Faced with these genocidal intentions, the Maronite Church was forced to establish a resistance which it immediately linked up with France. To this end, the patriarch had delegated Bishop Paul Akl to lead a network of resistant priests assisted by a militia. The bishop was also in charge of secret contacts with Commander Albert Trabaud, governor of the French military base on the island of Arwad.
Many continue today to claim that the famine was due to the Franco-British maritime blockade, yet the archives of the Jesuits, Quai d’Orsay, and elsewhere are full of details describing the process of channeling aid to Bkerké through the Franco-Lebanese network of Bishop Akl and Commander Trabaud.
Aid in the form of gold was transported at night in French boats off Bouar, north of Jounié Bay, to be relayed by Lebanese swimmers. Upon reaching the coast, the swimmers handed the gold over to a second group which transported it to Bkerké. It was first taken to Beirut where it was exchanged for Ottoman currency. Every member of this network ran the risk of the death penalty at all times.
Parents and children dragged to mass graves.
Between Two Wars
After the First World War which caused millions of deaths, the various peoples liberated from the Ottoman yoke proceeded to construct their identities based on the revival of language, literature, history, culture, the arts, and mythology. Their future and the nations they envisioned could only be built on cultural awareness, the lessons of history, and reverence for the sacrifices of heroes and martyrs. Monuments have been erected in public squares in Serbia, Armenia, and Greece. They created the modern versions of Serbian, Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and made them official national languages. Only a few decades earlier, they were moribund.
The genocide became Tseghaspanoutioun for the Christians of Armenia and Sayfo (the sword) for those of Upper Mesopotamia. In Lebanon, the genocide which cost the life of half the population was not done by the sword but by famine, hence its name Kafno, or hunger, in the Syriac language of Mount- Lebanon.
24 April, or Denial
But who has heard of Kafno? While the descendants of the survivors of Tseghaspanoutioun and Sayfo commemorate their martyrs on 24 April each year, while they fight for this recognition in all the capitals of the world, in Lebanon, we learn that the massacres of 1860 were due to a game of marbles and that the Great Famine of 1914–18 was the fault of grasshoppers.
“When a people no longer dares to defend its language, it is ripe for slavery,” said Rémy de Gourmont. And when a people no longer dares to write its history and honor its martyrs, it is ripe for its suppression. Not commemorating Kafno — not teaching its underhandedness and premeditation — is to be condemned to relive the confiscation of savings, the devaluation of the national currency, expropriation, exploitation, the theft of fuel, medicines, and food, the voluntary or involuntary departure of doctors and youth, assassinations and violence, huge explosions, demographic upheavals, the confiscation of the country, lands, children, and life. The descent into Hell begins when you no longer dare to confess your identity and your history and practice your language and your culture.
Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon. Amine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2
For the article in French see Ici Beyrouth. For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org.
Also read from the same author: