Christian minority squeezed in south-eastern Anatolia
Midyat, Turkey - Dressed in a black coat and hat despite the heat, a priest strolled through the Syriac village of Arkah in south-eastern Turkey on a recent afternoon, on his way to the village church to ring the bell for evening prayers. Children emerged from houses shuttered against the heat to play in the lengthening shadows, while neighbours leaned on fences to gossip.
In one home, preparations were under way for a house-warming party with aunts and nieces clanging pots in the kitchen while uncles and nephews arranged tables on the terrace overlooking the slopes of Mount Bagok.
“We have been looking forward to this day for years,” said Indravos Turgay, one of five brothers who live across Germany and have all pitched in to rebuild the family home in their ancestral village.
A shadow fell over the celebrations when the village leader was summoned by the Turkish military and informed that Arkah and the surrounding Syriac villages on Mount Bagok had been declared a special security zone. The people on the terrace of the Turgay home cast anxious glances at the oak scrub covering the mountain slope where Kurdish rebel fighters are ensconced.
“If only we could have some peace around here,” sighed one of the nieces, a beautician from the German town of Giessen spending the summer in Arkah.
It is the eternal sigh of the Syriacs, an ancient Christian minority that is on the brink of extinction in its homeland of Tur Abdin. A Mesopotamian people, the Syriacs are thought to be one of the world’s first civilisations to adopt Christianity and still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
They were largely pushed out of the region in the 20th century but recently began returning from European exile to reclaim their heritage. Now, they once again face losing everything, this time to fighting between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces. The battleground is the Syriacs’ ancestral land, straddling the modern Turkish provinces of Mardin and Sirnak.
In Sederi, a Syriac village not far from Arkah, an elderly farmer stood with tears in his eyes as he surveyed the charred remains of his crops and vineyards. A fire set off by an attack by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels on a nearby telecommunications mast had swept through fields near the half dozen Syriac villages on Mount Bagok that make up the last contiguous tract of Syriac land in Turkey.
“Our fields, our fruit orchards, even the hay to feed our livestock — everything is gone,” said the farmer, Hanne Akbaba. “And now we’ve been notified by the military that we may not leave our village anymore… Are we to starve to death here?”
Akbaba is one of many Syriacs who returned to Turkey from a safe and comfortable exile in Europe in recent years to rebuild homes in Tur Abdin. “Did they not ask us to come back?” he asked, his head in his hands.
This is not the first time Sederi has been consumed by fire: Battered by war between the PKK and Turkey, the village was evacuated in the 1990s. Akbaba fled to Germany, where he worked in a factory for 15 years. Thousands of Syriacs took the same route. Today, about 100,000 Syriacs from Turkey live in Germany, 80,000 in Sweden and 20,000 in Switzerland. Only 2,000 to 3,000 remain in Tur Abdin.
But after 2000, Turkey began to call on Syriacs to return home and many responded. Turkish officials promised safety and support for reconstruction of Syriac villages and the Kurdish movement offered similar assurances. Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called on Syriacs to return. The Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) championed Syriac parliamentary candidates.
Akbaba was among the first to return, investing his savings as well as those of his brothers in rebuilding the family farm. Hundreds followed and returned from Europe to resettle their villages, while thousands more, like the Turgay family, travelled to spend the summer months in their old homeland. Returning Syriacs have founded factories producing wine, published the first Aramaic newspaper in the history of the Turkish Republic and brought new hope and vibrancy to an ancient culture.
But it has all come to nothing within a few short weeks, as the breakdown of the peace process between Turkey and the PKK fuels an explosion of violence in the region. For Turkey, the risk of losing this ancient culture and people from its ethnic mosaic forever is imminent, as the return movement of Syriacs from Germany, Sweden and Switzerland comes to a screeching halt and local Syriacs renew their European visas in order to leave.
“This is a catastrophe for us,” Akbaba’s son Malke said about the rapid escalation of violence between Kurdish rebels and Turkish armed forces. “Most people have already left our village. If this continues, the military will evacuate Sederi again because we are right in the mountainous combat area.”
Bombings, shootings and landmine blasts are almost daily occurrences again in Tur Abdin where dozens of soldiers, policemen, rebels and civilians have been killed in recent weeks. The Syriacs are caught between PKK fighters and Turkish security forces once again.
A military checkpoint between Kafro, a Syriac village rebuilt by re-settlers from Germany and Switzerland, and Arkah marks the boundary to the special security zone on Mount Bagok, where the inhabitants fear an imminent operation against the PKK. Far from keeping the Syriacs out of harm’s way as pledged, the PKK has established a “martyr’s cemetery” on Mount Bagok, thus taking its war against Turkey onto the last intact piece of Syriac land and drawing fire down onto the distraught Christians there.
“We are being pulverised between the fronts again just like in the ’90s,” said Bedros Demir, a Syriac from Kafro, who returned to the village from Switzerland nine years ago after having fled it in the 1990s.
Anxiety among the Syriacs of Tur Abdin is compounded by the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) just across the border in Syria and Iraq. From some Syriac monasteries in Tur Abdin, it is possible on a clear day to see Mount Sinjar in Iraq where the Christian population was slaughtered by the extremists in 2014.
In Tur Abdin, most of the newly restored houses in the Syriac villages now stand empty and shuttered, their inhabitants having fled back to Europe. In the market town of Midyat, the heart of Tur Abdin, the Christian quarter is eerily quiet, though it should be flooded by visiting Syriacs at this time of year.
If the violence in south-eastern Anatolia continues, other Syriacs will have no choice but to follow suit, said Yuhanna Aktas, president of the Syriac Unity Association in Midyat. Their lovingly restored houses will fall into disrepair and decay, their villages will be looted, and their renovated churches used for stables once again by Kurdish shepherds.
In Kafro, Aziz Demir expressed similar fears. “The way things are going, no Syriacs will return here anymore,” he said. “But if the Syriacs have to relinquish their homeland, it will be a shame not only for Turkey, but for the whole world.”