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Only 6% of members of the community have returned to the north Syrian valley · New report denounces “cultural genocide” undergone in 2015 at the hands of the extremist organisation

Mar Gewargis Church in Tel Baz village, Khabour, before and after its destruction.
Mar Gewargis Church in Tel Baz village, Khabour, before and after its destruction. Author: Assyrian Policy Institute
They arrived there as refugees from a genocide almost one century ago, and they are about to disappear now from there, again in a violent way. The Assyrian community in the Khabour Valley, in Kurdish-controlled Rojava in northern Syria, is currently unable to recover from the forced flight of most of its members in 2015, when ISIS occupied their territory. A new report warns of the destruction of its tangible and intangible heritage, and says it will be difficult to rebuild the community if conditions are not created for people to be able to return.

The report Erasing the Legacy of Khabour: Destruction of Assyrian Cultural Heritage in the Khabour Region of Syria has been published by the Assyrian Policy Institute, a US-based Assyrian rights organisation.

Before the occupation of the Khabour Valley by ISIS for 4 months in 2015, the Assyrian enclave consisted of 35 villages. Its origin in the 1930s was the arrival of Assyrian families who had fled first from the Hakkari region (North Kurdistan, in present-day Turkey) during the Assyrian genocide or Sayfo, and then from Iraq during the 1933 Simele massacre.

The study documents the destruction of a dozen Khabour churches —Assyrians are a Christian people— at the hands of ISIS, a third of all those existing in the valley. But the report also mentions the flight of the nearly 20,000 people who formed the Assyrian community in Khabour before 2015, of whom barely 1,200 remain —just 6% of the population. “Few Assyrians returned with the intent to rebuild” life as it was before ISIS occupation, the report reads.

To the collective trauma and destruction of houses and infrastructure it must be added the fact, the report argues, that ISIS razed agricultural lands, irrigation wells, and farming equipment. Livestock was stolen as well.

People fleeing took with them the language, traditions, religion and, in short, the culture of the community. And although attempts are made to preserve Assyrian life there —such as the celebration of the Assyrian New Year, or Akitu— “the lack of return to Khabour is discouraging and hope for a future for Assyrians in the region has all but vanished,” the report reads. It is clear in its conclusion: the Assyrian people of Khabour have undergone “cultural genocide.”

The report calls on UNESCO to investigate the facts, and on the governments of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran to recognise the Assyrian people as indigenous and to protect its cultural heritage. The documents also calls on the United Nations and “donor nations” to provide resources to rebuild destroyed buildings and to preserve the culture of the peoples under ISIS’s attack.

More Assyrians live as refugees or in diaspora than in homeland

Organisations such as the Assyrian Universal Alliance or the Assyrian Confederation of Europe estimate that some 3.5 million people throughout the world have an Assyrian identity. Most of them are currently living in the diaspora, as a result of economic migration or escaping from persecution and massacres in their historical homeland of northern Mesopotamia, which roughly coincides with the Kurdish-populated lands. Some Assyrian organisations work together with Kurdish ones, but others are opposed to them, denouncing that Kurdish nationalist movements seek to assimilate Assyrians, as do all four states in which the Assyrian lands are divided: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Although no exact data are available, it is estimated that currently less than 1 million Assyrians still live in their home regions. Some communities there have kept their Neo-Aramaic languages alive, but others have lost them completely.

Several hundred thousand more must be added, who are still living in the four countries aforementioned, as well as in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan, but as IDPs or refugees.

The rest of Assyrians —more than 1 million— live outside the Middle East, in the diaspora. The countries with the largest Assyrian populations are the United States, Sweden, Australia, and Germany.

The Assyrian Policy Institute’s report admits that resettlement is “the immediate solution for individual Assyrian families seeking conditions of security, stability, and equality,” but warns that it is also “detrimental to the collective identity and survivability of the Assyrian people.” “Ethnic enclaves have been built and sustained by Assyrian immigration in various countries,” the document goes on, but “they are increasingly prone to cultural assimilation. Ultimately, mass migration only further separates the Assyrians from their homeland, and in the process, destroys their social cohesion and results in considerable risk that Assyrian cultural identity will be permanently lost.”

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