Current crisis is costing Turkey an ancient civilization

Current crisis is costing Turkey an ancient civilization

Susanne Güsten
In a remote village on the slopes of Mount Bagok in the Nusaybin district of southeastern Mardin province, an elderly farmer stood with tears in his eyes as he surveyed the charred remains of his crops and vineyards. A forest fire ignited by an outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attack on a nearby Turkish telecommunications mast had just raged among the half dozen Syriac villages on Mount Bagok that make up the last contingent tract of Syriac land in Turkey. “Our fields, our fruit orchards, even the hay for our livestock – everything is gone,” said the farmer, Hanne Akbaba.

Hanne Akbaba is one of many Syriacs who had returned to Turkey from a safe and comfortable exile in Europe in recent years to rebuild their existence in their ancient homeland of Tur Abdin in southeastern Anatolia – and who now risk losing everything once again to the war between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces being fought on their land, which straddles the provinces of Mardin and Sirnak.

For Turkey, the risk of losing this ancient culture and people from its ethnic mosaic forever is now imminent, as the return movement of Syriacs from Europe comes to a screeching halt and local Syriacs renew their European visas. With violence engulfing the region once again, many returned Syriacs are already making a hasty retreat back to Europe, while the remaining community teeters on the brink of extinction.

“Did they not ask us to come back?” Hanne Akbaba implored. It is not the first time his village has been consumed by fire: Battered by war, it was evacuated by the army in the mid-1990s, the few remaining inhabitants ordered to clear out. Akbaba had already fled to Germany by then, where he worked in a factory for 15 years. Thousands of Syriacs took the same route. Today, some 100,000 Syriacs from Turkey are at home in Germany and 80,000 in Sweden, while only 2,000 to 3,000 remained in Tur Abdin.

But after the year 2000, Turkey began to call on Syriacs to return home, and Syriacs responded. The Turkish government promised safety and support for reconstruction of Syriac villages, and the Kurdish movement offered similar assurances. Akbaba was among the first Syriacs to return, investing his German savings as well as those of his five brothers into rebuilding the family farm. Hundreds of Syriacs have followed suit and returned from Europe to resettle their villages, while thousands more now regularly come to spend the summer months in their old homeland. Returning Syriacs have founded factories producing wine in the biblical tradition, published the first Aramaic newspaper in the history of the Turkish Republic and brought new hope and vibrancy to an ancient culture.

But now, it has all come to nothing within a few short weeks. Bombings, shootings, armed attacks and road mines are almost daily occurrences again in the region. Last week, PKK fighters attacked a military post outside Kafro, a Syriac village recently rebuilt by resettlers from Germany and Switzerland, frightening the villagers and setting fire to the land with their grenades. “We are being pulverized between the fronts again just like in the 90s,” said Bedros Demir, a Kafro villager who returned from Switzerland nine years ago after having fled in the 90s.

Beyond Kafro, the Syriac villages on Mount Bagok have been designated a special security zone by the Turkish military, raising fears among the inhabitants of an imminent operation against PKK fighters ensconced on the mountain. Far from keeping the Syriacs out of harm’s way as pledged, the PKK has chosen to establish a “martyr’s cemetery” on their land 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. 

In the Syriac villages dotting the region, most of the restored houses now stand empty and shuttered, their owners having locked them up and fled back to the safety of Europe. If the violence in southeastern Anatolia continues, other Syriacs will have no choice but to follow. Their lovingly restored houses will fall into disrepair and decay, their villages will be looted and their renovated churches used for stables once again. An ancient civilization will come to an end in its homeland and this time it will be irrevocable. Even if the violence were to stop tomorrow, said Yakup Gabriel, a Swiss citizen and pioneer of the return movement, his efforts of 15 years have already come to nothing - for how could Syriacs ever believe another promise of peace and safety here?

*Susanne Güsten is a freelance journalist and 2014/15 Mercator-IPC Fellow, Istanbul Policy Center.