Special for the Armenian Weekly April 2014 magazine
It began in Yerevan, while I was photographing the National Geographic story on Armenia that was published in 2005.
“Sandra, there are a lotta bones still out there in the desert in Syria. You have to see it, jan!” When Hirair Hovnanian told me this in 2004, I could not stop thinking about it.
I knew about the Armenian Genocide, of course, but as a third generation Armenian American (on my father’s side), my grandparents didn’t want us to think about these terrible things.
They wanted us to be truly American, free of the sorrows of the old country, like many Americans who have fled starvation, war, genocide, dictatorship, and economic insecurity from all over the world.
I decided to go to Syria on the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and find those bones. I secured a grant from the Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation, which specializes in furthering education and culture, and that was enough for me to pull off my mission.
I was hoping the photos I brought back would—besides being evidence—encourage the Armenian church in Syria to try and buy the Armenian mass grave land of Ras al-Ain from the Syrian Waqf (Islamic Trust), in order to protect it from total destruction. The erasure and/or denial of physical remains and documented history is a continuation and final act in genocide.
I had to plan with the utmost care. In 2005, it was dangerous to go poking around the subject of the Armenian Genocide in Bashar al Assad’s Syria. Turkish investment in the country was roaring along. I was warned by a high-level Armenian church official and a Syrian diplomat: Do not tell anybody what you are doing.
The cleric said, “Be careful. You are too late—under Hafez al Assad it would have been ok.”
The high-ranking Syrian diplomat who gave me my visa said, “Go, go and do your job. My family always spoke of what happened to the Armenians. But you must never tell anyone what you are doing. Simply say you are there to photograph Armenian culture. Do not check in with the authorities.”
Syria has a proud record of having helped the Armenian refugees during and after the genocide. Syrian Armenians have thrived and their culture was embraced in Syria. Syrians know well what happened to the Armenians in 1915, on their land, a part of the Ottoman Empire back then.
But the genocide sites at the time of my 2005 trip were being compromised: A waterworks project complete with bulldozers was atop the Marghedah grave; Shadadeh was closed off as it is in an oil field. The mass grave at Ras al-Ain was being demolished by farmers.
So it was a distinguished Armenian-American couple, a top Syrian diplomat, two Armenian Genocide scholars (one in Washington, one in Syria), an Armenian driver, and a local church member who helped to make these pictures happen. (Names withheld to protect sources.)
Unlike forensic archaeologist Dr. Roxana Fellini’s experience in 2007 (read her article here), which was a crucial part of an official archaeological dig approved by the Syrian authorities in Ras al-Ain/Tell Fakhariyah, in 2005 mine was not—and it got spooky. And the last thing I wanted was to put anyone in danger.
In Aleppo, Der Zor, and Margadeh, there were a lot of other people around. How could a woman in a church with a camera be a threat?
But as we took off in a battered old car north along Rt. 7, where there are mass gravesites along the old path of the Khaibur River, we took even greater care.
In Ras al-Ain, we stayed in the back room of an Armenian home as people started coming by to see who I was. “She is a Canadian Armenian looking for family roots,” the head of the family told them.
I photographed the mass graves at Tell Fakhariyah at the edge of Ras al-Ain when the coast was clear. I had to work quickly.
Government agents began to question anybody I visited after we left, even an old Kurdish grandmother who had an Armenian Genocide survivor father. One of her grandsons carried an Armenian first name.
At the time I photographed the Ras al-Ain site, the mass grave area was rented to local farmers by the Syrian Wakf (Islamic Trust), adjacent to a Muslim graveyard.
The people in this region of Syria would not eat the produce grown on the mass grave and had to sell it far afield.
The farmers crushed skulls and tossed bones aside every time they worked the land. There was no protection for this neglected and holy place. An Armenian church member tried his best to keep track of the goings-on at the mass grave. He had been beaten there several times.
The sight of so many bones in Syria going unprotected: so sad. There were little children’s molars. The bones there were mostly of women and children, as most healthy males were already killed.
After we returned to Aleppo, we shopped in the souk and photographed a genocide memorial, but I made plans to fly immediately to Paris from Aleppo—and not through Damascus, as originally planned. I got my pictures out and they remain an important document of the Armenian Genocide, especially the under-documented sight of Ras al-Ain/Tell Fakhariyah.
In 2010, I was in Syria again for an unrelated cultural story.
At that time I heard from a trusted source that Syria had given its original official, contemporaneous documents on the genocide to Turkey. The Turks maintained that since Syria was under Ottoman control in 1915, that the documents belonged to Turkey.
Syria and Turkey are on bad terms at the moment due to their respective positions on the civil war.
During this war, the town of Shaddadeh and its oil field containing an Armenian mass grave have been taken over by Al Nusra Front, Islamic rebels.
The Memorial Church in Der Zor has been blasted and nearly destroyed, and the Armenian Syrians have suffered along with their Syrian countrymen, in Aleppo and elsewhere in the country.
Ras al-Ain and the area around it has changed hands numerous times—in fierce battles between the Syrian-Kurdish rebels, the radical Islamist forces, the split Free Syrian Army. It’s a traditionally Kurdish region, and Kurdish forces are reportedly in control of Ras al-Ain now.
Dr. Fellini received good news that Tell Fakhariyah is being safely guarded, and that there is no damage to the dig site. I hope she will be able to finish her amazing work there in the future.
But what of the future for the human beings in Syria who cannot get out, when one force dislodges another on a regular basis?
It happened again in March: in the historically Armenian town of Kessab, when Al-Nusra Front forced Armenians to flee.
What of the other Armenian Genocide sites that are in regions like Der Zor and Margadeh? Is this key physical evidence of the Armenian Genocide—the Syrian mass graves—further eroding now?
Here are some of the photos I took on that short journey, on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
For more information, please visit: www.alexandraavakian.com.