Armenians fleeing Syria say it is like another genocide
The Armenian community in Syria is largely made up of the descendants of people who managed to escape the genocide in present day Turkey a century ago, or those who survived the forced death marches into the Syrian desert carried out by Ottoman troops.
As civil war grips Syria, once again Armenians have been are forced to leave their homes, with many heading to Armenia, Lebanon, or countries in the West. Turkish journalist Serdar Korucu interviewed Armenians who left the Syrian city of Aleppo to settle in Armenia and collected their stories in newly published book, Halepsizler (The Aleppo-less).
The Armenians who left Aleppo describe it as a second genocide. “This has been quite traumatic for them,” said Korucu. “In 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Islamic State destroyed the genocide memorial built at the (Ottoman) concentration camps in Deir ez-Zor. Armenians took this as an open threat.”
During the war, Armenian neighbourhoods in Aleppo became isolated. “Some of these neighbourhoods lie between areas held by opposition groups and (President Bashar) Assad’s forces, so every bomb lands in an Armenian neighbourhood,” Korucu told Ahval. “Buildings and churches were destroyed, and so many people were killed or wounded.”
He said almost none of the Armenians he spoke to felt they truly belonged to the city.
“These are Armenians who escaped the genocide and resettled. Luck and the will to live are what saved them. The families are interesting in that they’re children and grandchildren who grew up in the shadow of that tragedy, and now it’s happening to them,” he said.
Before the war began in 2001, there were an estimated 50,000 Armenians living in Aleppo. This has fallen to less than 12,000.
While Aleppo Armenians have migrated to Armenia and Lebanon, almost none have gone to nearby Turkey. “It’s because the memory and the history of the genocide are so close to Turkey. It’s not easy for them to go there,” Korucu said. “Even in a life-or-death situation, their avoidance of Turkey shows that those wounds haven’t healed.”
He said he was surprised even, that the Armenians he interviewed were willing to talk to a Turkish person. “I still don’t understand that. Perhaps it’s something to do with Middle Eastern hospitality. I had two friends with me, so maybe that helped them to feel safe. If I were an Aleppo Armenian and a non-Armenian Turk wanted to interview me, I wouldn’t do it. I totally understood that, but they gave the interviews nonetheless.”
Korucu said the Armenian community in Aleppo had been discrete from the rest of society. “They keep to themselves far more than Armenians in Istanbul. In business, education, and the military, they may interact with Alevis, Sunnis, or Arab Christians, but, for example, mixed marriages are rare. They aren’t active in politics. They do their military service because they feel they owe it to their country, but they don’t stay in the military to rise up in the ranks. Instead, they continue in their families’ traditional businesses making crafts, repairing cars, or running restaurants and taverns,” he said.
Korucu said the Assad government had not treated Armenians badly, unlike other minorities, such as the Kurds. Thus Armenians, he said, did not start to feel uneasy until the early days of the Arab spring in 2011 when radical Islamist elements began to gain traction among the public and people began to boycott Armenian businesses.
But support for the Syrian government among Armenians was not universal, Korucu said.
“As the war continued and many Armenians appeared to stay close to the state, opposition groups accused them of being pro-Assad. But in fact, they weren’t exactly Assad supporters, they were just relying on a regime that had always protected them,” he said.
Some Armenians may return to Aleppo, but living again amongst the people who turned against them during the war is likely to be an issue.
“Most who want to return have homes and shops in Aleppo. The ones who went to America, Canada, or Australia won’t come back, but those who went to Beirut or other parts of Syria probably will because it’s so hard to live in those places,” Korucu said. “For the ones who went to Armenia, some will stay and some will return, depending on whether or not they can build lives there.”
“Considering the war they’ve been through, many of them want to see the old regime return. They want to see the city rebuilt, and they want to live in peace. If the city had fallen in 2016, we’d be discussing a completely different history now. But currently, Aleppo is not a comfortable place for Armenians. Syria is carrying on, but no one can see the future until the building stones are back in place,” Korucu said.