Syria and the Mass Graves of the Genocide
With a popular revolution raging and protesters facing extreme violence in Syria now, coupled with the beginning of civil war between Syria and the Free Syrian Army, I have deep concern for all Syrians subjected to brutality.
As an American-Armenian I also find myself thinking about the future of Syrian-Armenians — mostly descendents of the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide — if the regime of Bashar al-Assad falls and a new government comes to power. I’ve heard Armenians are staying on the sidelines and out of the fighting. No doubt they fear an unknown future.
I also think about the loss of Armenian and Syrian history as the physical evidence of the Armenian Genocide vanishes now and in the future.
Syria has a proud record of having helped the Armenian refugees during and after the Genocide. Syrian-Armenians have thrived and their culture has been embraced in Syria. Syrians know well what happened to the Armenians in 1915, on their land, a part of the Ottoman Empire back then.
I hope that Syria will continue to protect its Armenian population, regardless of the outcome of the current revolution, and will take steps to protect Armenian and Syrian history. Recently I learned of an unconfirmed report that Syria gave its original contemporaneous official documents on the Genocide to Turkey. If true, this is most unfortunate.
I’ve been to Syria many times, and on one of those trips, in 2005, I photographed some of the mass gravesites of the Armenian Genocide along Route 7, mostly along the old bed of the river Khabur, a tributary of the Euphrates, and a favorite massacre site of the Ottoman Turks. The graves hold the bones of women and children, as they were marched without their men — already massacred — from Turkey into the Syrian Desert.
Armenians outside Syria often forget that these mass graves still exist.
Under the current regime of President Bashar al-Assad at the time of my visit, the sites were being compromised:
Margada had a waterworks project complete with bulldozers atop it.
Shadadeh is closed because it’s an oil field.
The Ras ul Ain site on the Turkish border is occupied by farmers who crush skulls and toss bones aside every time they work the land. That land is owned by the Syrian Wakf (Islamic Trust) and is adjacent to a Muslim graveyard. Part of the site was under construction when I was there.
Another mass grave site is long thought to be under Hafez al-Assad Reservoir.
And what of the mass graves now? Is the situation the same or worse during the turmoil of this revolution?
What will become of the gravesites in the future? If Turkey makes good on a threat to create a buffer zone between Syria and Turkey, will the Ras ul Ain mass grave be under Turkish control? What then of the future of that mass grave?
Ideally the mass grave sites should be under the protection of the Armenian Church, with chapels nearby, just as the Bosnians have Potocari-Srebrenica Memorial Museum and Cemetery, even as more mass graves are discovered, and as the Jews have at Auschwitz.
Something Armenian diplomats and the Church must pursue, whoever wins the current struggle for Syria.
Here are some of the photos I took on that short journey on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
Text and photographs © Alexandra Avakian/Contact Press Images 2011.