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November 14, 2012, Wednesday

‘We are alive; we survived’

This is a call from a woman who survived the massacres of Christians in 1915 in Derik, Mardin.

The letter she wrote in search of relatives from which it comes was quoted in a paper presented at the history workshop sponsored by the Hrant Dink Foundation in Mardin earlier this month. They are the words of a person who is still surprised to find herself alive. Like those who survived the Nazi death camps.

This strange expression perfectly demonstrates how much this soil is associated with loss. The Syriacs, that ancient community of Anatolia who hardly survived catastrophic events in their homeland, are a good example of this. The Tur Abdin region (Mountain of the servants of God) is today united with Antioch, the last remaining Christian area in the region.

In the recent past, Syriacs have had to face a series of catastrophes. Their existence was first threatened by the arrival and settlement of Kurdish tribes from the north in the mid-19th century; then the turmoil of the collapse of the Ottoman state and subsequent attempts at nation-building proved too powerful for the Christians of the region to deal with.

Operations led by Bedirhan Bey to seize the fertile lands of northern Mesopotamia were tacitly approved by the Sublime Porte. Well before the discriminatory policies of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), Christians were alienated and discriminated against in the Ottoman lands. Their properties were transferred to Muslims back then. The 1915 massacres, in which 60 percent of the Christian population was annihilated, constitute the peak of this process. There was no room or place for Christians in the new definition of “nation.” Contrary to what is commonly argued, this trend persisted with the Republic. The first brutally repressed riot of the new regime was the Hakkari Nestorian uprising of 1924. Today, there are no Christians left in Hakkari. Likewise, the Syriac Patriarchate had to move to Homs in 1932 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s rule.

Thus at the Mardin workshop we learned why the order and harmony were disrupted, which tragedies were experienced during disruption and what is happening now.

A perfect example of harmony is the urban fabric of Mardin, a medieval city trying to survive in today’s construction frenzy. There are no walls between the neighborhoods where followers of different faiths once coexisted. It is not easy to distinguish different temples, apart from through their discreet bell towers and low minarets.

Today the Tur Abdin region tries to survive in a restricted area. “Tolerance,” frequently invoked by politicians as it is thought to be positive to the country’s image promotion, is the watchword of that restricted area. It means, “We tolerate your existence, despite all the negativity it carries.” It is about law, not tolerance. It is enough to glance at the headlines of the monthly Sabro (“Hope” in the Syriac language) to get a sense of the severity of the situation: “We are being rendered homeless; we exist; we want to be defined.”

Meetings like the history workshop on these themes were not held in Turkey until recently. The first took place in Diyarbakır last year. It turns out that the “territorial integrity of the country” is not harmed when taboo subjects are discussed in a calm and scholarly way. I hope that official academia gets on board soon, as there is a long road ahead of us in learning our real history. At the final session of the Mardin workshop, one of the top Syriac specialists, David Gaunt, meant exactly this when he stated that dozens of topics for doctoral research could be extracted from the presentations. I draw this to the attention of young researchers.

Let me conclude with the wise words of Mustafa Yeşil, president of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, in his opening speech at this year’s Coexistence Awards, which largely honored the country’s minority groups: “We cannot eliminate the carelessness that we inherited from unfortunate times or of the fatigue of hatred by alienating the other. We cannot learn about ourselves without attending to the suffering of humanity.”

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