The Ottoman policy of slaughter and deportations in 1915, associated mainly with its Armenian victims, was actually much broader in its scope. Along with more than 1 million Armenians killed, it crushed also the Christian Syriac community, which counts its dead in the hundreds of thousands.
Armenians call the slaughter “the Great Calamity,” while Syriacs remember it as the “Seyfo Massacre” with “seyfo” meaning “sword.” On the 100th anniversary this year, the Syriacs are for the first time holding protests urging Turkey to recognize the Seyfo Massacre and to apologize. On April 21, Syriacs launched a hunger strike in the southeastern province of Mardin, where most of their ancestors perished. The protest, scheduled to end April 24, will last 100 hours, symbolizing the 100 years that have passed since the bloodshed. The Syriacs are also planning to hold a big march in June.
Leading the events is the Mardin Syriac Unity Association, which a Turkish court ordered closed earlier this month over several provisions in its charter. According to its chairman, Yuhanna Aktas, 490,000 Syriacs perished in 1914-15 in Mardin and its environs, where the community was concentrated, with local Kurdish tribes and the state-founded Hamidiye Corps leading the massacres.
Those who survived include people who fled to Syria as well as teenage girls and children who were Islamized, Aktas told Al-Monitor, adding that many people in the Mardin region today are the grandchildren of those Islamized Syriac women. “They would call Syriacs ‘uncles.’ Hundreds are calling us ‘uncles’ today,” Aktas, himself a Mardin resident, said.
Aktas’ ancestors survived the massacres by hiding in a citadel along with others from their native village of Alagoz, while Syriacs in neighboring settlements were executed in village squares or in the churches where they took shelter.
In one remarkable episode of resistance, Aktas recounted how Syriacs in the village of Ivardo near the town of Midyat shut themselves inside a high-walled church and held out against the soldiers for a week. As the clashes continued, a group of Syriacs took the local district governor and mayor hostage in the Midyat government office, in a bid to stop the assault. A Muslim Kurdish elder by the name of Sheikh Fetullah was called in to help. The man gave his son and nephew as hostages to the Syriacs inside the government building and started negotiations to stop the massacre. As a result, the people of Ivardo were saved, but Syriacs in neighboring villages could not escape death. Today, Fetullah’s grandsons are Muslim clerics in Mardin and his grave is frequently visited by Syriacs, Aktas said. “Sheikh Fetullah’s name is written with golden letters in our history,” he added.
Tragic stories from the Seyfo Massacre are engraved deep in the memory of many Syriacs in Mardin. One of them, Simon Poli, left Turkey for Europe in the 1970s and is now back after 43 years to tell his family’s story and demand an apology.
The story he recounted to Al-Monitor is about Sara Poli, or “Mama Sara” as he calls her, the wife of his grandfather’s brother. Sara, then in her 20s, witnessed the killing of her husband and other relatives before she managed a short-lived escape with her three children.
Here is what happened afterward, in Poli’s words: “Mama Sara had three children, two of them twins. When their village was raided, the children ran toward the granary. The eldest child collapsed, hit by a bullet. Sara left the child there and took refuge in the Virgin Mary Church [with the twins], hiding in the vineyard. Soon the soldiers came to the church, yelling and shooting whomever they came across. Then there was silence. Mama came out, thinking the soldiers were gone, but they were waiting in ambush behind the walls. There were seven of them — two soldiers and five Kurds. They told Mama she must convert to Islam. She refused and they killed one of the twins before her eyes. Still, she refused to give in. Then they raped her and broke one of her arms with a rifle butt before stabbing her with a dagger. She lost consciousness and they left, believing she was dead. When she came round, she found the other twin at her side. She had no idea how the child survived. Sara had very long hair, which she used to bind her [broken] arm. She took the child and ran into the mountains, planning to reach the village of Ayvert, which was known to be holding out. The Syriacs were helping the people who fled to the mountains and that’s how they found Mama. Her only surviving child died later of sickness.”
According to the Mardin Syriac Unity Association, the Syriacs number 18,000 in Turkey and about 4 million around the world today. Some 80% of the Syriac population abroad is estimated to have their roots in Turkey, being the descendants of Syriacs who fled the Ottoman-era killings.
Yet, unlike the Armenian tragedy, the Seyfo Massacre is little known to the international community. Asked why, Aktas said Syriacs lacked the diplomatic might of Armenians, with the remaining community in Turkey intimidated into silence.
The recent court ruling to shut down the association is “a continuation of Turkey’s 100-year mentality,” Aktas said. Though he believes nothing has changed over the years, Syriacs now appear determined to speak out to bring about a change.
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