Special Issue 5, Winter 2011
The author is Director of the Assyrian Genocide Research Center in Europe, housed in Sweden. The following is an amalgam of the talk Sabri Atman gave at the conference in Athens, “Three Genocides, One Strategy” in September 2010 as well as talks on some other occasions. Submitted by the author for GPN.
Ed. Note: The following poignant lecture-article has been edited with correction of basic English syntax and spelling, but not to polish or remove its heartfelt cry and only partially to remove its repetitiveness — which also conveys the heartfelt cry. Thus too we have not edited the text when it concentrates so legitimately on the murders of Assyrians and locates them alongside other fellow Christian victims – the Armenians and Greeks, but errs in not recognizing still other victims – such as the Yezidi people – about whom we also report in this issue of GPN. What is becoming clear is that almost all genocide scholars have erred for years in not identifying the full array of victims in the Armenian Genocide. In my own talk in Athens on the psychology of denying co-victims as a shared genocide (where I also spoke about Jewish denials of co-victims in the Holocaust), I apologized to the audience for my own years-long failure to identify all the co-victims, regrettably including the failure to do so in our award winning Encyclopedia of Genocide in 1999 (USA)/2000 (UK). — Israel Charny
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I belong to the Seyfo Center. 95 years after the genocide, Seyfo or Sepa has become a topical issue in the international arena and it is making headlines. It is now becoming a salient point in international political agendas. Until recently only the Armenian aspect of the genocide was known and most people were not aware that the entire Christian population of the then Ottoman Empire was subjected and suffered under the same genocidal policies of the Young Turks. This is a recognisable difference that I am talking about: it is the recognition and inclusion of the Assyrian and Greek genocide as part of the earlier known Armenian genocide. However, this genocide is yet to be called by its proper name, “Seyfo,” in which Western Assyrian dialect it means “the sword.”
Seyfo was carried out in a true jihadist strategy, ethnically annihilating all the non-Muslim citizens living under the Ottoman occupation, with the objective of homogenizing Turkey with a notion of creating ‘one-Nation’ and ‘one-Religion.’ Most of the victims were killed by swords and it is precisely due to this fact that this genocide is known among our people as “Seyfo.” This is how it was known by its victims, and this is how they passed it on to us with their eye-witness accounts which have become part and parcel of our collective memory.
I would also like to iterate certain beliefs of mine to avoid any confusion. My knowledge on the subject, which is the Assyrian Genocide, is after all not unlimited, but I was born in Turkey, Turkish language is one of the ten languages I speak, and I know the Turkish policy very well and the reality of the Turkish state. The Assyrian Genocide was organized by the Ottoman Turks, and this is the reason I speak mostly about Assyrians and Turkey. This is not because my people from Urmi, Iraq and the rest of the world are less important to me. This is absolutely not the case. What is happening to our people in today’s Iraq is terrible. I am very grateful for the efforts of the Assyrian Aid Society and similar organizations in providing aid to our people in Iraq and making their voices heard in America and the rest of the civilized world.
On September 11th 2001, the world witnessed a severe tragedy in their own backyard. In a very short time all our lives where changed when we saw the monumental World Trade Center buildings destroyed. Nearly three thousand people lost their lives. The scenes of September 11th are still vivid in our memory. The engulfing flames were hellish, the clouds of the buildings collapsing were Hiroshima-like. The images of people jumping out of the 33rd floor are forever disturbing. The idea that people who went to work that day on a normal morning were never going to return to their husbands, wives, and children touched all our hearts. This was a severe and a painful tragedy, which should never be forgotten. As life goes on and close to ten years will have passed, the active memory is still going on. However, there is one consolation for those who lost their relatives and loved ones. They have a resting place for those lost loved ones, which now has been transformed to a memorial of flowers, candles, and pictures, never letting the world forget the tragedy that occurred there. Furthermore, some of those who were responsible for the call of jihad (which means the holy war for Islam) have been punished. Click here for PDF version of “A Jihad Appeal to Muslims.”
We Assyrians as a people have been punished more. Our perfect little world has been changed forever. Our children’s history books have been rewritten. We are not in them. The world tragedy that took place ninety-five years ago is not in our history books! Across the globe, in another part of the world, this tragedy’s painful consequences are still being felt. The word jihad is a familiar word that is not new to Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks. On November 14, 1914 there was a decision to call for jihad, not different from the decision which was called for on the American public and the people of New York. This decision of jihad was preached and read in all of the mosques, while the world stood still watching. As a result, in 1915 the crime of Genocide was committed in Turkey, against the Christians, namely, the Assyrians, the Armenians, and the Greeks. This was the first large genocide of the 20th century, in which not 3 thousand people perished but more than 2 million young-old, men and women, boys and girls were killed. If you divide the number 2 million by 3 thousand, which is the number of those who lost their lives in New York, you will get the number 666. In other words the tragedy that was suffered by our people in 1915 was 666 times bigger numerically than the tragedy that was experienced in New York. No loss of life large or small should be taken for granted, and all losses should always be remembered. Unfortunately, those who watched our people being massacred 95 years ago continue to stand still. Not enough action has been taken, and Turkey, continues to deny that the crime of genocide was ever committed.
The Assyrian Genocide is the unknown genocide of the 20th century. The tragedy of systematic cleansing by the Ottoman Empire of the Christian minorities living under their occupation included the Assyrians, the Armenians, and the Greeks.
Why do I persist in the task of recognition of the Assyrian Genocide? Many non-Assyrians ask me, “Why do you persist on this cause? The past is the past. Let the dead rest.” I say to them, “The Assyrians were killed and displaced during the Genocide; I will never rest until they have received their due justice.” Assyrians, like me, are forever tied to our bitter past and the genocide committed upon our people by the Young Turks during the First World War. As Assyrians, it is our responsibility that the descendants of the old Ottoman Empire represented today by modern and “secular” Turkey recognize the atrocities of its past, and ensure that such crimes will never happen again.
In addition, my response to them is, that the past shapes our future and to progress you must learn from the past.
[image submitted by Sabri Atman]
The Assyrian genocide is not at all known globally. An unknown and denied genocide inflicts great emotional pain on us children of a people victimized by genocide. Many of our contemporary society’s problems can be deduced from the genocide. Even though the democratic world has failed to prevent the genocide committed against our people, it now has to cooperate to alleviate the problems we are facing today. As part of the first genocide of the twentieth century, Assyrian Genocide studies should be taught in all universities as a topic in the introduction of crimes of genocide and against humanity. Committed wherever and by whomever, genocide remains genocide. It survives the traces of time.
History provides us not only with pure facts about when or where specific events have occurred, but also with a mean to cope with the past. Past genocides have to be known and condemned in order to prevent future genocides. It is a big mistake to think that a genocide lies in the past and should be forgotten. History is not about oblivion. It is about knowledge. It is about education. It is about the future. And this is precisely why the Assyrian Genocide should be known and considered.
We Assyrians lost two thirds of our population in 1915. We were uprooted from our motherland. The remnants of the genocide were cast into distant parts of the world. Today we are struggling with our sheer existence. Finally, many contemporary problems are a product of the genocide. How can we forget about all this?
What is the Seyfo Center?
I am one of the founders and currently the director of the Assyrian Genocide Research Center, called Seyfo Center in Europe. Many have asked me what is the significance of the term “Seyfo”?
The Jews were burned and killed alive in the concentration camps today we called those un-thinkable events the “Holocaust,” which means to burn to death.
The genocide in Rwanda has become known as the Panga Genocide, because of the use of the weapon resembling a big knife known as a “panga.”
Likewise, in the Assyrian Genocide, our people were killed with the sword, in which we call it “Seyfo” or “Saypa” in eastern dialect.
Current Activities of the Seyfo Center
Some of the activities of the Seyfo Center include:
Seyfo Center makes its collections available and provides research assistance to scholars, writers, journalists, filmmakers, government agencies, and other responsible organizations with special arrangement.
Documentation of the Assyrian Genocide by documenting oral history and authenticating written physical evidence.
Representation of the Assyrian Genocide among parliaments and government bodies.
Education of non-Assyrians in political and academic forums.
Political activism on behalf of the Assyrian Genocide
Publication of books, reports, brochures, and other means of media.
I am very glad to tell you that we have made great achievements in the last ten years regarding the Assyrian Genocide. First of all the word Seyfo is now more known on both national and international levels.
19th December 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars adopted a resolution to recognize the Assyrian Genocide.
April 30th 2009, the South Australian state parliament officially recognised and condemned the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian Genocide between 1915-1923 by the Ottoman Empire.
May 13th 2009, a press conference took place in the Swedish Parliament. A Kurdish intellectual called Berzan Boti apologized for the Genocide of 1915 and as an act of restitution handed back his property to its rightful owners – the Assyrians. The deeds of his property were then transferred to the Seyfo Centre.
On March 11th 2010, the Swedish Parliament recognized the Assyrian Genocide.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Assyrians in Australia, a monument was erected and unveiled in August 2010 as a memorial for the Assyrian victims of First World War and the Simele Massacre. I am sure, that in the very near future we will have more monuments erected around the world and the number of countries who recognize the Assyrian Genocide will increase dramatically.
By joining World War I (October 30th 1914) the Ottoman Empire saw itself also gaining a great opportunity for Turkification. Motivated by the desire and instructions of Germany, Sultan Mehmet the 5th declared jihad or holy Islamic war against all the Christians living within its territories on October 11.
This holy war was declared again on November 14, 1914 by Sheikh al-Islam, the Highest Cleric of the Islamic Faith, and it was preached and read in the mosques all around the Ottoman Empire. It is important to know this. The declaration of the holy war (jihad), without favoritism, was pertinent against all of the Christians. As a result, over two million young and old men, women and children of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek descent lost their lives. It can be clearly stated that the modern Turkish Republic state was founded on the “Genocide of the Christians” and its foundations were laid upon the bloody soil, and lifeless bones of our ancestors.
What we have learned from Ottoman documents is that Armenian deportations and massacres were not isolated acts directed only against Armenians. The proclamation of jihad was propagated as a Holy War against the Christian infidels who were most commonly known amongst the Ottomans as gawurs (a term which means infidels). November 14, 1914 was not a proclamation just specifically directed towards the Armenians but also against Assyrians and Greeks as well.
The general plan was to homogenize Turkey. This plan had two primary methods of execution: One was directed against the Muslim population of non-Turkish origin, such as Kurds and migrants from the Balkans were relocated and dispersed among the Turkish majority with the purpose of assimilation. The other was the removal and annihilating the non-Muslim people from Turkey, as a result of which over 2 million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks were massacred, starved to death and deported.
Three major forces were utilized to implement this plan and massacre the Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks (mainly the Christian population):
The Kurdish tribes
The Muslim migrants from Balkan and Caucus
Special Organization (Teskilat-i Mahsusa)
Prior to the First World War, the population of Turkey was fourteen million; 4.5 million of those were Christians. In other words, 33% of the population were Christians. Today in Turkey, the total number of Christians only amounts to 0.1 percent of the population.
Specific Examples of Oral History Used in Capturing our History
Many of our oral history documentations gathered at the Seyfo Center are firsthand testimonies of eyewitness accounts. I had the opportunity to interview and record many survivors, they didn’t only provide me with valuable information but their testimonies continue to provide me with an endless moral boost in what I do.
All the witnesses I have interviewed wanted to clarify that neither the architects nor the perpetuators made any distinction between any ethnic Christians. They were claiming that: “An onion is an onion whether it’s red or white, all must be chopped!” This was a direct reference to the planned and calculated slaughter of the Assyrian, Armenian and Greek Christians.
We have also been able to extract much information regarding the 1915 massacres from eyewitness accounts who reported back to their respective embassies. The following are some examples:
American Ambassador Morgenthau in Constantinople who gave reports about his contacts with the government of the Young Turks which included reports about other peoples in addition to his well known reports about the Armenians.
A document was published already in 1916 entitled The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916 by James Bryce, British expert in political science, and Arnold Toynbee, who was to become one of the world’s great historians. Over 100 pages of this document are about the Assyrians.
Johannes Lepsius, a German missionary who lived in Anatolia, reported to the authorities in Berlin about what happened at the time. The documentation of Lepsius was published in 1919 in Potsdam.
Dr Gabriele Yonan published a book originally in German then it was translated in English in 1996 titled LEST WE PERISH, A FORGOTTEN HOLOCAUST, The Extermination of the Christian Assyrians in Turkey and Persia.
Prof. David Gaunt published a book Massacres, Resistance, Protectors in 2006. It covers the fate of all the Christian groups of eastern Anatolia during WWI.
The International Association of the Genocide Scholars has declared in 2007 that the programmatic killings committed by the Ottomans against the Assyrians during the World War I were genocide along with the genocides of the Armenians and the Greeks.
The new generations of the Assyrians who are growing up in USA, Australia and in various European countries will have higher positions in the future, among the societies in which they are living, hence they will publish more books and other publications about the 1915 era which is one of the dirtiest pages in the history of the Turkish state.
Turks Vandalize Assyrian Genocide Monument in Australia
The monument commemorating victims of Assyrian Genocide was vandalized in Australia. It was painted with a Turkish crescent and star. The vandals also sprayed curses on a pedestal. The plaque at the front of the monument was removed as well. The memorial is dedicated to 750,000 Assyrians killed by Turks in World War I. In a second attack,a war memorial in Fairfield Park, dedicated to Australian and Assyrian soldiers who fought together in WWI and WWII, was also vandalized, the Fairfield City Champion newspaper reported.
Source: California Courier (September 16, 2010).
Turkification of All Ethnicities Continues Today
However, this dirty page doesn’t only comprise the 1915 chapter. Today, the one language, one nation, one flag policy of the Turkish Republican state is still going on. The oppression of the Assyrians and the other minorities continues to this day. I would like to continue by briefly referring to these policies.
The Name Change Law
Following the Seyfo, a Genocide in 1915, in 1934 the Surname Act (The Name Change Law) came into force. Upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the Progress and Unionists (Ittihihat ve Terakkiciler) strongly adhered to the Turkism. In this process, by means of deportations, massacres, replacements of the citizens, they were trying to homogenize the population. The minorities were banned from participation in politics. Further, a Turks-only policy was practiced in the economical life. By changing the names of the towns and villages into fabricated Turkish names, they tried to rub out the marks that were left from the ethnic minorities. This was their ambition. Even if the Surname Act came into force in 1934, I have to say that these policies had started and had been planned before. For example, with a regulation that was issued by Enver Pasha, who was the leader of the Progress and Union Party, on January 5, 1916, it was decided to change all names of provinces, towns, villages, mountains and rivers within the Ottoman Empire, which were in Armenian, Greek or any other language of the non-Muslim nations into their counterparts into the Turkish language. The motive was to turn those who escaped the genocide into Turks and totally destroy their memories of the past. All surnames of the Assyrians born in Turkey are Turkish. However, after the Assyrians fled to the Diaspora in the European countries, they have started to change back their surnames into their original Assyrian. In today’s Turkey all Assyrian villages and towns have Turkish names. However, when Assyrians are talking to each other, no Assyrian will say his village’s name in Turkish.
The Wealth Tax Act 1942 (the Poll Tax Law)
The Wealth Tax Act by itself would make a subject for a seminar. I would like to only briefly tell you about it. The Wealth Tax Act (the Poll Tax Law) is not a simple act. This code was part of the policy of changing Turkey into a pure Turkish state. The state determined what language should be spoken in the streets, the history to be taught in the schools and who would have control over the business life. In those days, there were strong waves of Nazism in Europe. These waves had great influence over Turkey as well. At the same time a new discriminatory law came into effect; if a Muslim paid 10 Turkish Lira tax, a non-Muslim had to pay 100 times more. The motive here was very clear. The economy was going to change hands. The then Prime Minister, Shukru Sarajoghlu, before passing the Wealth Tax bill openly made this statement in a secret CHP party conference: “We will take the domination of the economical life from the hands of the non-Muslims. We will allocate the trade and the industry to the Turks,” he said.
As a result of this and other similar policies, the political and economical influence of the Christian minorities was ruined. In a sense, the Wealth Tax was another part of the genocide against the minorities. With the Wealth Tax, the way was paved for the Turkish bourgeoisie to take control. Minorities were forced to sell their properties and the non-Muslims who could not afford to pay their tax obligations were forcefully driven to Ashkale in order to make them work in stone-smashing labour.
The 6-7 September 1955 Incidents
In Turkey, the Christian minorities who survived the 1915 Genocide could not find a respite. In order to destroy them altogether, once in every ten years some new policies and provocations were used against them. The 6/7 September 1955 disaster was one of these tragedies. It was very well planned and organized a few weeks before it was put into effect. The newspapers were publishing the news in their headlines and the radios were announcing it as the main news. They were crying, “The house of Ataturk in Thessalonica has been bombed!” in order to provoke the masses. Within a short time, tens of thousands of people were gathered in the most active parts of Istanbul. Some of them had been given special duties well before then. They were given the home and work addresses of Christians. Soon these homes and work places were looted. The toll of the two-day rampage was over five thousand work places destroyed and the goods inside them looted; many Greek, Armenian and other Christian minorities’ girls and women raped; 15 people killed and hundreds injured. The number of burnt down churches was 72. [Ed. Note: A younger colleague of mine who emigrated to Israel from Turkey years ago told me she remembered the terror of the night as a little girl, and how her Jewish family had taken in Christian neighbors to hide and shelter them.]
All these plans and provocations were planned and put in place by the Democrat Party that was leading the government at the time, the fascist student and youth associations, the labour unions and the Cypriot Turkish association. Today, 51 years on, this dirty provocation is revealed transparently. The Chief General, Sabri Yirmibeshoghlu, in an interview with journalist, Fatih Gullapoghlu, said: “The September 6-7 incidents were also the work of the special war and it was an amazingly organised effort. It accomplished its goals too…” (Tempo, 9-15 June 1991).
In 1964 new racist and discriminatory campaigns were introduced. The “Citizen, Speak Turkish!” campaign and the “Citizen, Use Your Native Goods!” campaigns are examples of some of the campaign from that time. Because of the crisis with Greece and Cyprus at the time, there were tensions inside the country as well. Turkish vengeance was once again directed towards the Christian minorities in the country.
The Occupation of Cyprus
In 1974 Cyprus was occupied and the oppression of the Christian minorities in Turkey doubled.
In 1980 the military seized power. It put tens of thousands of people in prisons because of their political beliefs. Thousands of people were subjected to severe torture and some of them were even hanged. The ruling military junta made the Islamic religion a mandatory lesson in schools. At the same time, thousands of Koran courses and new mosques were opened. All Christian children including our own Assyrian children were forced to attend the Islamic religion classes. The junta’s motives were mainly to drive out what was left of the Christians from the country.
The PKK and the Turkish Army
In 1984 a fierce war started between the Turkish army and the Kurdish PKK militia. Tens of thousands of people, on both sides, lost their lives. Thousands of villagers were forced out of their homes. One of the most affected groups was the Assyrians. At the end of the war many Assyrian were driven out and many of them lost their lives. This is the time when tens of thousands of Assyrians fled their ancestral homeland.
2010: 10,000 Left Behind
By the year 2010 there are only 60 thousand Armenians, 10 thousand Assyrians, and 2 thousand Greeks left in Turkey. Nowadays, we Assyrians are often the subjects of the Turkish media. Our photos are being published in magazines which say, “Our girls have beautiful eyes”; or that “We have contributed so much to world civilization for over six thousand years,”We speak the language of Jesus Christ,” or “We have an affluent culture,” but they also say, “Once upon a time the owners of a great culture, the Assyrians used to live here, however, they are gone now.”
Cooperation of Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks as Co-Victims
I am very much in favor of having a strategy based on friendship between Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks. We, all three nation-peoples who were subjected to the same genocide, should find ways to agree on a united strategy and then speak with one voice. I hope that in the immediate future many of the Armenian historians that until this date almost never mention the Assyrians as victims of the same genocide, despite their use of the same primary sources which include the book “Assyrian Suffering” (Bryce, Lepsius) – will begin to acknowledge the suffering of the Assyrian and Greeks as well.
I would also like to mention that the Armenian activists should not be blamed completely for not including the Assyrian and Greek victims in their pursuit of world recognition of the Genocide, but our indifference and lack of activism in the past in making our voices heard and demanding that Turkey admits the horrible acts of genocide it committed against its Christian citizens is a significant reason that our Armenian brothers and sisters don’t mention us.
Personally I have encountered many difficulties in my life. A long time ago, I fled Turkey for political reasons, and it took nine years of my life to obtain residency, and permission to remain in one of the European Countries. You have now heard my English and are aware with what difficulty I struggle to express myself. I know that most of you don’t have this difficulty and speak the English language fluently. Many of your children are well educated or have the opportunity for a good education. Take this opportunity! Encourage them to be our voice, to be our scholars, to be our future! Politics is not only a mere instrument to reach a certain objective. It is all about having a will. I hope you have this will in you and you will work towards demonstrating it for the good of our Assyrian nation.
Turkey must confess and accept the Genocide it carried out against the Assyrians and the other ethnic minorities in 1915 and must apologize to them. Turkey must discontinue its policies of denial.
For those of you who know me personally, you know that material wealth is not important to me. My most prized possession in this entire world is a piece of stone I managed to take from my homeland, some years ago. This stone is my past, present, and future. It is my strength and my reason for existence. It holds for me the promise for my people who were murdered and displaced that never give up the fight for the Recognition of the Genocide endured upon them. Upon this stone it is my promise to rebuild Assyria and tell the world of its story…stone by stone…. This stone is my everlasting commitment that we will not be silent! LEST WE FORGET!
Thank you. Ha weetun basimeh Raba!
Sabri Atman is the founder and director of the Assyrian Genocide and Research Center, Seyfo Center. He is one of the most known Assyrian figures and lectures of Seyfo (Assyrian Genocide) worldwide www.seyfocenter.com). Sabri Atman was born in Nsibin (Tur Abdin) southeast Turkey. He moved to Austria due to political reasons and five years later he moved to Sweden. He has studied economics at the University of Gothenburg. He has published two books in both Swedish and Turkish. Atman has also published many articles in Assyrian magazines such as: Hujada, Nuhro, Babylon, Sawbo, Furkono and Shemsho. He continues to contribute immensely to the creation of worldwide awareness toward the recognition of the Assyrian Genocide.