Today Raqqa, on the banks of the Euphrates in northeastern Syria, not far from modern-day Turkey, is infamous as the onetime capital of the ISIS caliphate, its name synonymous with the horrors suffered under the caliphate’s barbaric Salafi rule. But the city’s history of trauma is not new. In 1915, Arab bedouins living there began reporting a chilling sight: disheveled and emaciated people, dressed in rags, walking aimlessly through the desert. Most of these poor souls were Armenians, sent on a death march through the Syrian desert by the genocidal Ottoman regime.
The woman who raised my grandmother was one of the victims of the Armenian genocide. She made it further than Raqqa, beginning in Ottoman Turkey and ending in a village in Homs, where my great-great grandfather, an Orthodox priest, took her in as a refugee. Her name was Yester, but my mother and her siblings would call her by the Arabized “Yakhsa,” or, more simply, “Sittay,” the Arabic word for “my grandmother.”
My uncle was ten years old when she told him why she’d fled to Syria. She lived in a village in Turkey heavily populated by Armenians, and her life changed in October 1915, when the Ottoman military raided the village while she was in her garden with her two children, aged two and four. She managed to hide herself and the kids, but from hiding she witnessed her husband get struck over the head by the soldiers as they gathered all of the men ages 13 and over in the town square to be publicly beheaded. She fled Turkey, aimlessly running and eventually finding herself in Syria. Her relief was fleeting; the Ottomans captured her and her children in the Syrian desert, and ordered her to renounce Christ and convert to Islam. When she refused, they killed her two children and threw them into the Euphrates. Her only request before she died in 1971 was that the cloth diaper she had held onto as the Ottoman soldier ripped her child from her arms be buried with her.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs shared a similar fate, forced to march through Raqqa and Deir Zor, many of them sold as slaves by Kurds and Bedouin Arabs or forced to seek safety with local strangers, both Muslim and Christian. The Euphrates River became a dumping site for the bodies of those who didn’t make it through, and there were a lot of them: Between 1914 and 1923, the Ottomans killed 1.5 million Armenians and 1 million Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs in an ethnic-cleansing campaign motivated by their desire to de-Christianize and Turkify the empire.
It is considered the first genocide of the modern age, the one that inspired the coining of the term, and yet its recognition remains a thorny subject today. The copious historical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, Turkey continues to deny that it was a genocide at all, and to threaten diplomatic and economic sanctions against countries that would otherwise recognize it as such.
In March 2019, Alabama became the 49th state to recognize the Armenian genocide (which is often an umbrella term for the massacre of the other Christian minorities included in the pogroms). But U.S. presidents since Ronald Reagan have been reluctant to follow suit at the national level, despite the U.S.’s critical role in assisting the Ottomans’ victims at the time. (In 1918, through the Near East Relief Act, Congress provided millions in aid to orphanages and food-distribution centers, which helped millions of Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac refugees throughout the region.)
Reagan considered it of extreme importance to keep the memory of the genocide alive in American discourse, saying that “like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it — and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples — the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.” The presidents following him, however, have tiptoed gingerly around the word “genocide” so as not to upset our sometime ally Turkey, preferring the terms “massacre” or “mass tragedy.” Former Obama aides Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power even apologized after his presidency ended for not recognizing the genocide.
In April 2019, resolutions were introduced in the House and Senate, both co-sponsored by members of both parties, that would give official American recognition to the genocide. Whether they will die, like other such resolutions before them, or succeed where their predecessors failed remains unclear. Either way, more must be done to ensure that the genocide is a feature of popular western discourse; a nationwide survey revealed in 2015 that only 35 percent of Americans were aware it ever happened.
As of 2016, only ten U.S. states are required to teach students about the Armenian genocide. I went to public school in Pennsylvania and only learned of the genocide through my mother, who’d learned of it from Yester as a child. The lack of education on the subject doesn’t only preclude discussion about it in classrooms; it also further alienates the minorities who suffered alongside the Armenians and who continue to suffer from transgenerational trauma. Reine Hanna, the director of the Assyrian Policy Institute, tells me that the lasting consequences of the genocide continue to be widespread to this day.
“The horrific events of 1915 caused transgenerational trauma among Assyrians, the signs of which are still evident today, and the community was never afforded the opportunity to heal, much less seek justice for the atrocities committed against them,” Hanna says. “There has not been a generation of Assyrians since 1915 that has not been exposed to immense suffering and loss simply because of who they are.”
Today, there are large populations of Assyrians near the Turkish border in Syria, even as the diaspora is always shifting. Armenians found space in Armenia following the genocide, Greeks fled to Greece, and Iraqi Jews fled to Israel after the terrible pogroms they faced in the 1940s. But Assyrians never found a permanent home after the genocide and are virtually unheard of in the West today; they increasingly rely on Westerners to learn about their people’s history of suffering through education. And they remain uniquely vulnerable even in a region as volatile as the Middle East.
“The suffering of the Assyrians is unique in the sense that they have been trapped in a cycle of genocide, rendering them unable to move beyond genocide in order to rebuild or make advancements as a community,” Hanna says. “This is the reason why many Assyrians often say that the genocide targeting Assyrians never really ended.”
It is laudable that Congress is making a bipartisan effort to recognize the genocides of 1915, as America’s ideals dictate it should. But the only way to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself in the Middle East, as the fate of Christians in the region once again hangs in the balance, is to make it a feature of history curriculums everywhere, so that future generations can preserve the memory of those lost and prevent the atrocities they suffered from ever being repeated.