The Curse of Abandoned Places: Lasting Memory of the Sayfo Genocide in Turkey

“I called my older brother, my father, and yet I was not able to imagine his face.”

“They were putting a big stone on the back of the Christian soldier and breaking it.”

“One of them stabbed me with a dagger and stepped on my head and fingers.”

“He found an abandoned church with traces of smoke on its windows, remnants from the fire that burned our family and brothers.”

Such stories and tales have come down to us from the survivors of the 1915 Sayfo Genocide, describing its horrors to their children and grandchildren.

When you talk to a Syriac (Aramean–Assyrian–Chaldean) about the year 1915, you will see signs of distress on their face. They envision the most horrific stories of pain, and even if they did not witness the massacres, they hear the screams and moans if they visit the sites of the massacres in over 346 villages in Turkey, or look at a picture or a memory inherited from their relatives.

If you research these massacres, during which the Syriac (Aramean–Assyrian–Chaldean) people lost about a million lives and all their property and wealth, the ugliness of the images will bring tears to your eyes. You will see men hanging in the air, mass graves, naked children, women with open stomachs and entrails spilling out, and many other horrors.

Resisting a Fist of Blood

Selim Girgis, born in 1928 in Mardin, Turkey, recounted, “We fled our village when I was 15 years old. I was a student at the Saffron Monastery, and within an hour and a half of walking, we passed the Church of Mor Gorgis.”

Although he was not born during the Sayfo, Selim shared the stories he heard: “The soldiers would take men, women, children, and infants from their mothers’ arms to kill them. During those massacres, my father died before I was born. They broke down doors and robbed Christian shops.”

He described how his mother was taken on horseback with other women to be executed, but “one of the Muslims, named Majeed Haj Kalo, saved her. However, he captured two young Christian women to give them to his eldest sister’s son. My mother escaped through the Mar Assia Church in Mansouriya, which has now been transformed into the Mosque of Muhammad al-Hakim.”

Selim continued, “They killed my grandmother and my brother because they could not escape. We came to Amuda [in Syria], where I worked as a porter to survive. They loaded heavy bags on my back, and I carried them, swaying right and left. Perhaps if my father had been alive, he would not have let us suffer so.”

He also recalled, “Father Melki rang the church bell to gather some Christians and alert their comrades of the approaching danger. Outside Mardin, there was a group from Jabal al-Tur who tried to resist, and the house of Kulu Shabu, known for their strength. A monk from the house of Qurbasi continued to marry young men and women in the church despite the severe restrictions.”

Red Snow

In an interview on Suroyo TV several years ago, Grandfather Korkis Shabo Avram, an Assyrian from Syria, recounted his harrowing experience: “My mother was carrying my little sister, and I was with her. A man tried to kidnap my sister, and when my mother resisted, they threatened to kill me. One of them stabbed me with a dagger, kicked me in the back, broke one of my ribs, and stomped on my head and fingers. I lay on the ground from morning until evening, too weak to cry, with blood on my back.”

He continued, “Another person came and was about to smash my head with a stone, but a woman standing under a tree, holding water and bread, intervened. She asked him to kill her instead. She saved me, pulled me under the tree, gave me water, and took care of me. Later, someone passed by, and she asked him to take me with him. He agreed.”

“He put me in a bag on the back of a donkey and took me to Strato. After three days, he left me alone on the road, and the dogs came to eat me. I shouted at them, and they moved away.”

The massacres of the Sayfo are often referred to as “red snow” because the whiteness of the snow was stained with the red blood of its victims.

Stones Kneaded with Humiliation

One evening, an old woman named Melki Karat sat on a bench in a park filled with beautiful Syriac songs, deeply absorbed in the music and unaware of her surroundings. Melki was a survivor of the Sayfo massacres along with her family. She recounted to Suroyo, “I was very young. My family told me that they tore the fetus from my mother’s womb with a sword. We left Turkey when I was 14 or 15 years old.”

Karat continued, “My father was in the army at the time, and they used to force the Christian soldiers in the Turkish army to lie on their stomachs while placing large rocks on their backs. They would either break the rocks on their backs or order them to carry the rocks and walk.”

Although she struggles to remember the events clearly due to her young age at the time, she emphasized that her family’s survival “does not negate the injustice Christians faced in general, as they would kill a Christian if he was unable to walk and complete the journey.”

Skeletal Remains

In a quiet village in Armenia, an elderly woman, Arifika Minas, sits wearing a traditional costume, her face etched with wrinkles and adorned with patterns that women used to wear in the past. She shares with Suroyo TV what she heard from her grandparents: “My grandfather’s village was called Ali Qur, and his family lived in a large palace in Urfa.”

Minas continues, “The head of the village was a Kurd named Saleh Bakr. When the massacres started, he advised my grandfather to move their sheep to his village and to take shelter there with his family. My father was 7 years old at the time, my uncle was 3, and my aunt was 2. We fled to Syria, specifically to Al-Shaddadi, but my family later headed towards Armenia. On one of Al-Shaddadi’s roads, there is a pit that bears witness to the burial of 400 Armenians who were killed during the Sayfo massacres.”

“One day, Governor Hussein Hassoun and his family passed by the site and discovered it during a traffic accident. When they dug it up, they found the bones and skulls of the Armenians who were killed and buried there. The Armenian notables were informed, and they came to take these remains, building churches in Deir ez-Zor to serve as a testament to what the Armenians endured.”

Arifika also shared a story her grandfather told her 100 years ago: “There was a church in Turkey with a basement beneath it. During the massacres, they filled the basement with the corpses of Christians and set it on fire. My grandfather’s brother and cousin went to the military before the massacres began, and their fate remains unknown.”

She added, “My brother once visited Turkey and wanted to see our grandfather’s house. He found an abandoned church with traces of smoke on its windows, remnants from the fire that burned our family and brothers. It is still there.”


With a sad look, Ziana Rahawi, born in 1908, said she survived the massacres after heading to Ain Ward, “I had a younger sister. My father told us to run away, me and my sister. We started looking for my mother, but no one answered me. I saw her injured in the chest, and she was lying in the valley filled with corpses, my father tore his clothes and gave them to my grandmother to cover her body. My aunt was killed when she lost her way, and they kidnapped her daughters. As for my sister, they threw her after they killed her into the well of Saleh village, and my second sister they put her under the stones.”

Legalized Theft

Returning to the present, Tuma Çelik, a former member of the Turkish Parliament and a representative of the Bethnahrin National Council (Mawtbo Umthoyo D’Bethnahrin, MUB), highlighted issues related to the land and real estate survey process.

The Turkish state set a deadline for property owners to register their ownership. Those who did not complete the registration in time had their property seized by the state.

The Toki Company, affiliated with the Ministry of Construction and Environment, emerged as Turkey’s construction arm, handling construction and reconstruction projects and subsequently selling the buildings.

Çelik explains that the majority of the lands belonging to those forcibly displaced from Turkey due to the massacres were seized by the Turkish government and transferred to Toki Company, particularly in the historic Tur Abdin region populated by Syriacs (Arameans–Assyrians–Chaldeans) and the villages of Arbo, Harbathu, and Beth Qustan.

“The Turkish government handed over the lands registered in its name to Toki Company. These properties do not belong solely to our people; anyone who did not prove their ownership during the survey period had their property taken by the state.”

The Present

Sanharib Barsom, Co-Chair of the Syriac Union Party (SUP) in Syria, told SyriacPress, “When we talk about the Sayfo, during the period of strong Ottoman authority, we find that these regimes tried to exploit the different peoples and communities to maintain their rule. They described these massacres as ‘sedition,’ inciting communities against each other.”

Barsom continued, “Many of the violations following the Sayfo massacres were aimed at intimidating and displacing the people to steal their property and lands. These policies continue to this day, with the goal of ending the Syriac and Christian presence in Turkish lands. Therefore, the massacres must be acknowledged to end the pressures on this community, allowing it to live in peace on its lands.”

“This genocide affected us in many demographic, social, and psychological ways,” he said. “For 20 years, Erdogan has denied this genocide, but our case is now before the Turkish state. The Syriacs are striving to gain recognition of this issue through the Bethnahrin National Council [Mawtbo Umthoyo d’Bethnahrin, MUB], which has secured acknowledgments from several countries that Turkey committed these massacres. They continue to work until full recognition is achieved.”

Barsom hopes that authorities will recognize the rights of minority groups and acknowledge the historical injustices committed against them. He notes that Turkey has yet to implement a truly democratic system that respects these rights. However, he believes that international pressure, including through United Nations institutions and human rights organizations, can compel Turkey to acknowledge these wrongs, whether under Erdogan’s rule or that of future leaders.

According to SUP official in Europe Joseph Lahdo, the Sayfo occurred in three stages. The first stage began from 1890 to 1909, when the Ottomans sent militias to steal the property of Christians, resulting in the deaths of 300 people who perished in the mountains. The second stage, from 1915 to 1970, led to the displacement of the remaining people towards European countries. The third stage is still ongoing.