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Remembering the Assyrian Genocide: An Interview with Sabri Atman

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BOSTON, Mass. (A.W.)Exploiting an opportune moment during World War I, the Ottoman government carried out its intent to eliminate the empire’s Christian elements. Although a vast amount of scholarship has been conducted on the annihilation of the Armenians, one aspect of the genocide remains obscure—the extermination of the Assyrians. In the interview below, Sabri Atman, the founder and director of the Assyrian Genocide and Research Center (Seyfo Center), brings to light some of the various characteristics of the Assyrian Genocide (or Seyfo).

Sabri Atman

Sabri Atman

Atman is one of the most well-known lecturers on the Assyrian Genocide. He was born in Nsibin (Tur Abdin) in southeast Turkey, moved to Austria due to political reasons, and to Sweden five years later. He has studied economics at the University of Gothenburg and has a master’s degree on human rights and genocide studies from Kingston University in London, Siena University in Italy, and Warsaw University in Poland. Atman continues to contribute immensely to worldwide awareness of the Assyrian Genocide. He is currently a doctoral student in genocide studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. His dissertation is on the Assyrian Genocide and the involvement of the Kurds.

 

Varak Kestsemanian—What is the primary sequence of events that constitute the Assyrian Genocide?

Sabri Atman—We Assyrians call the genocide of 1915 Seyfo, meaning “the sword.” The reason we called it the sword was that the perpetrators were using Seyfo as a weapon for the killings. Seyfo is a term that seeks to highlight the Assyrian share of the genocide, perpetrated against the Armenians and Greeks as well, during the First World War. The genocide that wiped out more than half the population of the Assyrians took place mainly in southeastern Turkey, but also in the northwestern town of Urmiya in Iran.

The Assyrians initially put the number of their victims at 250,000 people in both the Turkish territories and Urmiya, Iran. But, the Assyrian delegation to the Lausanne peace talks of 1923 presented the number of victims as 275,000, since they had collected more information on the numbers of those who perished. But, according to some scholars, up to 400,000 civilian Assyrians perished in the systematic killings, which were ordered and carried out by the Ottoman state, with the collaboration of its Kurdish subjects and with troops and divisions of the regular Ottoman military and police forces combined.

The 1915 genocide did not target only the Armenians but also the Greeks, Assyrians, and the Ezidis. The strategy that the perpetrators had in mind was ethnically annihilating all non-Muslim citizens living under the Ottoman occupation, with the objective of homogenizing Turkey in accordance with their goal to create a nation of “One Religion.” Indeed, their motto was “One Nation, One Religion.” To achieve their goal, jihad (or holy war) was declared on Nov. 14, 1914 in all of the Ottoman mosques. Jihad was declared against all Christian subjects living within the Ottoman territories without having a particular victim. The main plot was to get rid of all the Christian minorities of Turkey.

The execution of their primary plan to create one Muslim-Turkish nation started with attempts to assimilate the non-Turkish Muslim populations like the Kurds and other immigrants from the Balkans. These Muslim groups were relocated to such cities as Ankara, Adana, and Konya, and spread among the Turkish majority. The next step was the removal of the non-Muslim groups from Turkey. Two million Christian (mainly Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks) were massacred, starved to death and deported as a result of that policy.

 

V.K.—How does the Assyrian Genocide differ from the massacres perpetrated against the Greeks and Armenians?

S.A.—The witnesses I’ve interviewed all have wanted to clarify that neither the architects nor the perpetuators [of the genocide] made any distinction between any ethnic Christians. They were claiming that “An onion is an onion, whether it’s red or white. All must be chopped!” This was a direct reference to the planned and calculated slaughter of the Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek Christians.

While a large number of Armenians died during the deportation, many Assyrians were killed in their villages and towns.

 

V.K.—What are the primary sources that make up the research material for your dissertation?

S.A.—The primary sources for my research are the oral testimonies of the events, which I’ve collected over the past decade. These sources include unpublished interviews—that I and many other people conducted with survivors of the genocide—which we will transcribe, translate, and put into both historical and socio-political context.

Most of the sources addressing and documenting the Assyrian Genocide are scattered and written in languages that are not easily accessible to genocide scholars. These sources are either written in Assyrian, Arabic, or Turkish.

Furthermore, oral history and testimonies are entirely ignored by academia since most scholars concerned with the 1915 genocide have little knowledge of the Assyrian language. However, these oral testimonies of genocide survivors are central and immensely important, as they can shed light on many opaque aspects of the Assyrian Genocide. These oral testimonies represent an extensive pool of information ready to be subjected to academic scrutiny.

Although the written sources are of paramount importance, they have not yet been translated to modern European languages, rendering them inaccessible to most genocide studies scholars. To mention a few, they include Isaac Armalto’s eye-witness account that he published in Arabic in 1919 in Lebanon; and Mar Israel Audo’s documentation of the tragedies, which is available in an unpublished manuscript in Assyrian.

Many of our oral history documentations gathered at the Seyfo Center are first-hand testimonies of eye-witness accounts. I had the opportunity to interview and record many survivors, and they not only provided me with valuable information then, but their testimonies continue to provide me with an endless moral boost in what I do.

Today, we have been able to extract much information regarding the 1915 massacres from eye-witness accounts who reported back to their respective embassies. The following are some examples:

–American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Jr. in Constantinople gave reports about his contacts with the government of the Young Turks.

–A document was published already in 1916 entitled “The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916” by James Bryce, a British expert in political science, and Arnold Toynbee, a historian. Over 100 pages of this document are about the Assyrians.

–Johannes Lepsius, a German missionary who lived in Anatolia, informed the authorities in Berlin about what was happening at the time. The documentation was published in 1919 in Potsdam.

–Prof. David Gaunt together with Dr. Racho Donef published the book Massacres, Resistance, Protectors in 2006 and covers the fate of all the Christian groups of eastern Anatolia during World War I.

 

V.K.—What is the primary function of the Seyfo Center? How does it contribute to genocide scholarship?

S.A.—The Seyfo Center has a big pool of sources and provides research assistance to scholars, writers, journalists, filmmakers, and government agencies. We also document the Assyrian Genocide by collecting oral histories and publishing written evidence; presenting the Assyrian Genocide in parliaments and government bodies; educating non-Assyrians in political and academic forums; participating in activism on behalf of [recognition of] the Assyrian Genocide; and publishing books, reports, brochures, and other media. We lobby [for recognition].

I am very glad to say that we have made great strides in the last ten years regarding the Assyrian Genocide. First of all, the word Seyfo now is more known on both the national and international levels. For example:

–On May 13, 2009, a press conference took place in the Swedish Parliament. A Kurdish intellectual called Berzan Boti apologized for the genocide of 1915 and, as an act of restitution, handed back his property to its rightful owners, Assyrians. The deeds of his property were then transferred to the Seyfo Center.

–On March 10, 2010, the Swedish Parliament recognized the Assyrian Genocide.

–Thanks to the Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA) and the efforts by the Assyrians in Australia, a monument was erected on Aug. 7, 2010, for the Assyrian victims during World War I and the Simele Massacre.

–On May 1, 2013, the Australian Parliament of New South Wales (NSW) recognized the Assyrian and the Greek Genocide.

–On April 25, 2012, the Assyrian Genocide Monument was unveiled in capital city of Armenia, in Yerevan.

–On April 27, 2013, the third Assyrian genocide monument was unveiled in France.

I am sure that in the very near future, we will have more monuments erected around the world, and the number of countries who recognize the Assyrian Genocide will have increased dramatically.

 

V.K.—What are the primary demands of the Assyrian people from the Turkish government?

S.A.—First of all, we want the Republic of Turkey to stop the lies they have been practicing now for 98 years and recognize the Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek genocides.

Denial is a form of continuation of the genocide. It is to be killed twice. Failure to recognize the genocide has led to even more genocides against Assyrians in their homeland.

We Assyrians also don’t understand the fact that the Republic of Armenia has not recognized the Assyrian Genocide yet. Today, I am very happy that so far about 26 countries have officially recognized the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

March 10, 2010 and May 1, 2013 are historical days especially for us as Assyrians and Greeks. The Swedish and Australian Parliaments passed a resolution and recognized the Assyrian and Greek Genocides in addition to the Armenian Genocide. I hope other countries will follow suit.

Our Armenian friends living in Armenia and around the world have to help us and add the Assyrian and Greek Genocides on the international agenda.

Remember: Assyrians and Greeks were subjected to the genocide in Turkey, too. We also demand that today the whole world officially recognize this fact. Of course, the Republic of Armenia, for many reasons should be one of the first countries in the world to recognize the Assyrian Genocide!

We would very much like to have a strategy based on friendship between Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks. We, who were subjected to the same genocide, should finds ways and means of an internal dialogue and then speak with one voice.

31 Comments on Remembering the Assyrian Genocide: An Interview with Sabri Atman

  1. Great Interview Sabro. I love the last sentence!

  2. How little things have changed. The phrase “One Nation, One Religion” sounds very similar to the phrase “One Nation with Two States” which Heydar Aliev used to describe the relationship between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Clearly, Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks must find a common voice as “One Genocide of Three Nations.” We have much work to do.

  3. “Denial is a form of continuation of the genocide.”

    Right on. All scholarly research affirms that the effects of Genocide continues on down through many generations. The denial by present-day Turkey of the genocide perpetrated on its Christian population by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-1922 is a continuation of that Genocide. It is an open expression of ongoing ethnic hatred toward Christians.

  4. Great interview! I was shocked to hear that the government of Armenian has not recognized the Assyrian Genocide. How on earth is this possible? Can anyone comment on why Armenia has not yet recognized the Assyrian Genocide?

    As an Armenian I want to say loudly that Armenia must recognize the Assyrian Genocide ASAP. After all, how can we Armenians expect recognition of the Armenian Genocide when Armenia has not recognized the Assyrian Genocide?

  5. avatar Katie Vanadzin // January 8, 2014 at 2:14 pm // Reply

    I second what Robert says above! Though it was encouraging to discover that the Assyrian genocide is very much recognized by BDP politicians in Diyarbakir, Turkey.

  6. Union between Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks makes them strong.

  7. Armenian government should recognize Assyrian Genocide ASAP.

  8. avatar Movses Hovsepian // January 8, 2014 at 3:42 pm // Reply

    @ Boyajian, I totally agree. It was one genocide against three nations: the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks.

    Excellent job, Sabri! Continue your amazing work! I have a few Assyrian friends whose great-grandparents were survivors of the Genocide and the stories they tell are so sad and real. From 1914-1918, around 300,000 of the 600,000 Assyrians were massacred during the genocide by the Ottoman Army. It wiped out half of their population — and they speak modern dialects of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Along with 1.5 million Armenians, 300,000 Assyrians were also exterminated.

    The Assyrians don’t even have a country and they are still subject to massacres by Islamists in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey; in Iraqi Kurdistan, they are targeted by Kurdish nationalists, too.

    Why the Assyrian Genocide has not been recognized by Armenia is beyond me. Ridiculous.

  9. I’m sorry but on this one we need to be a little harder on ourselves. Armenia has not recognized the Assyrian Genocide? A monument was built in 2012? How many years for some public acknowledgement. I’m sure there is some astute political analyst who will point out why Armenia has not recognized this event. But isn’t this the same argument we use in our criticism of Israel not recognizing the genocide. Political vs. Moral.
    The point is that we must consider alliances is we have our eye on the goal. How can we consider working with the Assyrians when we haven’t even the decency to respect their pain. And it’s not just Armenia. What have we done in our vast efforts since 1965 to acknowledge the Assyrian or Pontic Greek genocides? Would our cause not have a greater presence if the events of 1915-23 was a One with Three as Boyajian points out. We must expand our thinking and keep our eye on the goal.

  10. Theo Halo’s Book entitled “Not Even My Name” about her mother, who I believe is Assyrian-Pontic Greek details a typical death march. Unfortunately, she has had to confront Vahakn Dadrian in public, as he denies that the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians were the victims of Genocide.

    • Armenia should not be compared with Israel, Armenia is a weak country and a new Democracy, he should calculate every move he makes, while Israel is almost a SUPERPOWER, even the US doesn’t dare meddling with them. they can afford to recognize the Armenian Genocide, it is question of principals and values.

  11. Excellent article indeed. The failure of the Armenian government to recognize the Assyrian genocide is a stinging reality to me as an Assyrian. But, I believe sooner or later the Armenian government will recognize the Assyrian genocide.

  12. It was Hitler who said “Afterall, who remembers the Armenians?” when justifying the holocaust in Europe. So, indeed, holocaust denial anywhere only encourages genocide everywhere. With two years before the 100th anniversary, there is still time to organize as One Christian Nation, and there is no reason to limit our number to three victim nations. Rather, it is when the whole world unites on this issue that the battle for recognition will be one. In that sense, there is no limit to the number of allies and the Republic of Armenia’s official position on the matter is indeed disgraceful, especially since it does not reflect the opinions of millions of Armenians around the world. It is especially shameful when you consider that Armenians who were able to survive took refuge in the Syrian/Assyrian/Syriac homeland of Mesopotamia (both Syria and Iraq) and treated with dignity to preserve their language, culture and history by building their own institutions. Even orphans were cared for as their own.

  13. avatar Hurant Karibian // January 8, 2014 at 10:30 pm // Reply

    My father lost his first family while escaping with an uncle, who didn’t make it. He never talked about it to his children but would never leave the US to go on vacations to Europe with my mother.
    I don’t know what the present day Turkish population know or feels about the genocide but working in Iran during their revolution, I witnessed the locals change in attitude toward, we, expatriates once the Shah left.

  14. avatar Helen Talia, MBA, CPA // January 8, 2014 at 11:37 pm // Reply

    #RESPECT#

    Many thanks to Mr. Varak Ketsemanian of The Armenian Weekly for considering to take on this much starved topic about the Assyrian Genocide, which, in my opinion, deserves as much attention and respect as those who have endured similar massacres, genocides and holocausts at astronomous levels, mainly those who shared the region of Asia Minor at the turn of the last century – the Armenians and the Anatolian-Pontian Greeks.

    As for the Assyrians, when it comes to the almanac of genocide, look first to Mr. Sabri Atman, who has made his presence known, worldwide, by igniting the campaign for “Seyfo,” and what would have otherwise remained an “almost” forgotten genocide.

    Thank you, Sabri… many thanks to the benevolent Armenian community for their support.

    Helen Talia, MBA, CPA
    Chicago/Phoenix

  15. We cannot overlook what the genocides of the Assyrians and Pontic Greeks. In fact the Christian Genocide began in WWI around Lake Urmia in 1914. Turkish forces with Kurds and Azeri militias wiped out Assyrian and Armenia villages in the region.

  16. Dear Mr. Atman,
    Happy & health New Year to you and your family! Bravo! I applaud you on your research and establishing a Genocide Center, regarding the Assyrian Genocide of 1914-1923 by the Ottoman and Young Turks Governments!
    My parents and grandmother were only suvivors of the 1915-1923 Armenian Genocide. Hundred’s of our family members from Sivas, (Historic Western Armenia), were slaughtered, murdered and driven into the Syrian Desert of Der Zor; to die by the unmerciful Turks & Kurds!
    I hope around the world, in the near future, the Assyrians, Greeks and Armenians can finally unite, protest and expose the past horrors and barbaric actions perpertrated by the Turkish and Kurdish soldiers and people towards the Christian population of Turkey.
    This is our chance to fully unite, especially, with the 100th year Genocide Anniversary and its Commeration just a year away!
    99 years of denial by the various Turkish Governments is enough!

    I wish you many successes in your Genocide work and research.

    Please visit our website and go to U-Tube: Californian State University, Fresno Armenian concert, filmed by Fresno PBS, Channel 18 TV and brocasted several times to over 2 million people in Central California.

    Best wishes for good health.

    John Chookasezian, Artistic Director
    Chookasian Armenian Concert Ensemble
    http://www.chookasian.com
    chook3@qnis.net
    + 1 (559) 213-1909

  17. Thanks to all those who asked for Armenia to recognize the Assyrian Genocide. As for the comment which mentioned kurds in Iraq. Assyrian nationalists do not recognize the term kur … as it means (land of kurds) which is not true at all. North of Iraq is the heartland of Ashur (Assyria) and therefore, it is Occupied Ashur, because the kurds are occupying Assyrian Lands and these are not their lands to call (land of kurds) .

    • Ahhh yes, the classic “we were here first” argument. I’m not so sure about that. Sure, the Assyrian continuity thing and the long recorded history seems to suggest this may be possible. But to think that this region, at any time in history was homogeneous in its ethnic makeup is simply not believable. Kurds, an Iranian people, were not nomads were they. Iranian and Semitic peoples historically and in modern times seem to live AWFULLY close to one another wouldn’t you say. Your homeland is basically coterminous with the Kurdish homeland. Tough luck, deal with it. Btw, not capitalizing the “K” in Kurds? Really?

  18. My maternal family members are survivors of the Assyrian Genocide, from Urmia. Excellent article. More news stories similar need to be published. Genocide, unfortunately, is universal.

  19. The Republic of Armenia hasn’t recognized the Assyrian Genocide, yet they’ve erected a monument in remembrance of the Assyrian victims??? Doesn’t make any sense

  20. avatar Karl Doghramji // January 11, 2014 at 3:56 pm // Reply

    An excellent interview with a well known scholar of the Assyrian Genocide. I am both Armenian and Assyrian by ancestry, and feel that, in order to optimize our efforts to gain recognition of these heinous acts by the Turks, we need to unify the efforts of the Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, and other Christians whose ancestors suffered.

  21. It’s always important to put out these articles, so people become aware that in addition to the Armenian Genocide, there also happened to be the Greek and Assyrian Genocides. It’s also important to be aware of the fact that these three genocides were committed simultaneously by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. A joint Armenian/Greek/Assyrian lawsuit against Turkey for its role in committing these three genocides, is definitely an idea to pursue. It would be stronger in force, as opposed to filing three separate lawsuits. We Armenians, combined with the Greeks and Assyrians, should work together and employ all our resources in bringing the criminal terrorist nation of Turkey to justice. We must never permit the Turkish nation to escape from the terrible crimes it committed against these three peoples. Turkey must be punished to the fullest extent, whether in court or out of court.

  22. avatar John the turk // January 13, 2014 at 8:29 am // Reply

    Yerevanian
    So you do not trust your own power and claim and try to find a few partners?

  23. John the turk,
    Why is it that every time the subject of the Armenian, Greek, or Assyrian Genocides is brought up, the Turks suddenly become disturbed and threatened?

  24. Those saying that “the Armenian government does not recognize the Assyrian Genocide” – it is simply not true. I don’t think there are any Armenians who deny the genocides of Anatolian Assyrians and Greeks. If I remember the Armenian government stated that the Assyrian Genocide happened within the context of the Armenian Genocide or that the Armenian Genocide needs to be recognized before proceeding or something to that effect. In any case the reasons are technical, and I am pretty sure that in time it will all be worked out.

    On another front the reality of the Assyrian Genocide and Greek Genocide in Asia Minor can serve as a devastating blow to Turkey’s denial of committing Genocide. The typical excuses for the Armenian Genocide: “both sides suffered”, “the Armenians were plotting with the Russians”, etc. So then in the two other genocides, were the Greeks and Assyrians plotting with the Russians too? Of course they next claim Assyrians did too… then what about Greeks? It does not look good for Turkey’s ridiculous claims and desperate excuses. In hindsight, the Armenian Revolutionaries definitely did the right thing, albeit a little late, but at least their actions bought Armenians crucial time thereby saving the remaining Armenians and ultimately Armenia itself.

  25. This resounding call for victims of Turk genocide to unite is doubly important for the U.S.A.
    Instead of constantly voting for candidates who deny our genocides the minute they reach the White House we should vote for candidates of Greek, Assyrian or Armenian descent who have a STAKE in genocide recognition! VOTE FOR NOBODY ELSE! They all betray true Americanism.

  26. Cevdet Bey the brother in law of Enver, the governor and butcher of Vanin 1915, exterminated all the Assyrians and Armenians of Hakkari aera on the border with Persia before concentrating his extermination to the villages around the city of Van. We are the same victims fhe same Genocide we do not need to recognize it among us we need others to do it, we must unite our forces also with the greeks in occasion of he 100 of the Genocide!

  27. Good history lesson.

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