Hasakah Christians’ choice: Migrate or face ISIS
Hasakah, Syria - Driven by fear of persecution, thousands of Christians have sold their houses and the land where their ancestors lived in peace and harmony for centuries with other communities.
The Christian families of Hasakah faced only two choices after the Islamic State (ISIS) invaded the province in north-eastern Syria — migrate or stay on and risk their lives.
According to sources in Hasakah city, as many as 8,000 families left and will not be returning after selling all their belongings. After witnessing the gruesome fate of coreligionists and Yazidis in Iraq, many Christians preferred to flee from ISIS.
Still, some are determined to stay on their land despite attempts to force their displacement.
“Not much is left of our lifetime that is worth enduring the hardships of migration. My sick wife and I have decided to stay under any circumstances,” said Gabriel Atallah, 65, from the city of Hasakah.
“I have smuggled my sons out of the country, one to Sweden and the other to Germany. They are safe now and I hope they will have better days than what we have here,” Atallah said.
Speaking of the “tragedy” of Christians in the province inhabited by a mix of Kurds, Arabs and Syriac Christians, Atallah complained that Christians were being persecuted and massacred by ISIS “in front of the whole world, which did not move a finger” to stop it.
“ISIS terrorists have assaulted several Christian villages, slaughtering 20 young Christians in Tal Shamiram and Tal Maghas alone, taking our women as war bounties and kidnapping our children,” he said.
He warned that the ISIS threat is hanging over the heads of all in Hasakah, especially Christians. “They are just 10 kilometres away from the city and when we talk about migrating, we are reprimanded by the church. What else can we do?”
The civil war in Syria, now in its fifth year, has had horrendous and bloody effects on ethnic and religious minorities in Hasakah.
“The social and ethnic mosaics in Hasakah, which constituted a cultural wealth before the crisis, turned out to be a malediction for Christians, though they are present in a considerable number here,” Atallah said. “But their attachment to peaceful coexistence and refusal to take up arms made them the weakest ring and an easy target in the relentless bloodbath, forcing them to quit the land that hosted them for thousands years.”
In February, ISIS overran at least 33 Syriac villages straddling the banks of Khabur river. Dozens of Christian youth were killed and 280 people kidnapped and driven to Al- Shadadi, an ISIS bastion, 60 kilometres south of Hasakah. Only 25 women have since been released.
The Syriac Church has refrained from making public statements in that regard, fearing for the lives of the remaining captives. But clergy actively encouraged young Christians to stay and protect their property, either by enlisting in the Syrian Army or joining the Christian armed group, Sutoro, which is allied with the rebel Kurdish People’s Protection Units, YPG.
A rare example of a Christian militia in Syria, Sutoro was founded by the Syriac Union Party (SUP) as a response to increased targeting of Christians by criminal and radical Islamist groups.
Migration of Christians from Hasakah started in 1990s, according to Rita Gerges from Hasakah.
“Before the conflict it was mainly the migration of brains towards the US and Europe, in very small numbers,” she said. “But with the beginning of the crisis, problems started to chase our men, especially the youth.”
Gerges said Christian doctors, engineers, contractors and jewellers were increasingly targeted in 2012 and 2013. “They were kidnapped for ransom in broad daylight and nobody knew which parties were behind the kidnappings. In some cases, the hostages were killed because ransom was not paid or because they resisted their attackers,” she said.
The number of illegal Syrian migrants increased tremendously in the past year, largely due to the drop in the cost of travel through Turkey and lower commissions demanded by people traffickers, according to a Syrian smuggler identified as Mohamad.
He said: “In the first years of the conflict, the cost to get to Germany was [$11,500] per person,” a staggering sum for the average Syrian whose salary does not exceed $100 per month. Many had to sell all their belongings to raise the money.
“Today, smuggling a person by land route or by sea through Turkey and Greece does not cost more than $4,000,” Mohamad added.
The specter of death and persecution is inevitably emptying Syria of its Christian community, in yet another setback to Christian presence in the Levant, following their recent persecution in northern Iraq.