“Shato du Seyfo” — the Year of the Sword — is the name that the Suryoyo people (the Assyrian/Syriac people) call a genocide against Suryoye, Armenians and Pontic Greeks that took place in the Ottoman empire during World War I (mainly in 1915). This biography is about the girl Hana and her experiences during Seyfo.
The story is based on Hana’s own testimony recorded on cassette tape and is by no means unique. On the contrary, today every surviving relative of the survivors of the Year of the Sword have similar and even more heartbreaking stories to tell.
Rumors of massacres of Christians had also reached to the village of Zaz, which is located northeast of and about a four-hour walk from the provincial city of Midyat in the southeast of Turkey. Surrounded by ruins and remnants of pillars the Church of Mor Dimet stands with its defense towers like a fortress on the hill’s highest point. Further down, next to the pond in the middle of the village, ruins of the churches of Yoldath Aloho (the Mother of God), Mort Shmuni and Mor Gabriel are visible.
The old and noble Church of Mor Dimet rose mightily, like an impregnable fortress, perched on the hill on which it is built. The church, dating from the mid-1400s, is surrounded by fifteen meter (~50 feet) high and majestically built walls and looks more like a fortress than a church. At these church walls the men gathered every day after their long day out in the fields. Here they summed up the day’s work, the weather, the rain, the drought and its impact on the harvest and vineyards. Here is where the jokes, rumors, news, and the endless tales were told. The stories of the ancient fathers, the saints and the martyrs. It was here, at the walls of Mor Dimet, that the conflicts were resolved, the affairs were settled and the games were played.
The village of Zaz is known from church history and often mentioned. Nearby lies the monastery of Dayro du Slibo (the Monastery of the Cross). Basil Masoud Anton, patriarch and author of several mystical writings, was born in 1430 in “the mansion Zaz”. The 1500s brought a significant rise for the Christians in Zaz and the population increased between 1526 and 1570 from 85 to 219 families. Over three hundred years later, the number of Christian families was barely two hundred, a testimony of recurrent massacres of Christians in the area. The German orientalist Socin could on the hill in Zaz examine “the impressive ruins of an ancient citadel and an archaic, surrounded by pillars, church”. He found some, not very old, inscriptions. Nightly cries for help, caused by the rampaging of Kurdish thieves, made the Christian population’s vulnerability plain to the researcher as well.
Almost all villages are, for defensive purposes, constructed as fortresses. The walls of the houses and courtyards form a protective wall outwards. Houses and fields are strictly separated. Many houses can at all be reached only over the roof of the building below. For an outsider, various openings, stairs and terraces are often totally incalculable. Intruders have difficulty finding and residents are thus able to reach a hiding place or an escape route. All structures, houses and church buildings show the constant defensive preparedness of the Christian population.
Today’s gathering around Mor Dimet’s walls, however, was different from previous ones. No jokes were heard, no laughter, nor were any children seen running or playing as they otherwise so gladly did. The men sat in silence, squatting and leaning their backs against Mor Dimet’s wall. Only the sound of the beads of their strings of pearls could be heard as they were slowly rolled between their fingers.
The silence was broken by Yusuf Hanno who said: “You’ve all heard about what’s going on, the Muslim has decided to once again put us to death. We’ve all heard testimonies about what’s happened to our brothers in other Christian villages, right? Now I’m afraid the turn has come to us and we have to decide what to do. Well, what do you say?”
No one answered, it was as if their mouths were sealed. Everyone looked apathetically down on the red earth while their fingers brought forth the next bead.
Kleer, kleer, kleerr…
Oh yes, they had heard. They had heard about what happened to the Christian village of Salah. They had heard how the village’s Muslim village sheriff Hasso, at the urging of the great city of Midyat’s governor, had called on the Kurdish clans, incited them against the village’s Christian population, and along with soldiers wiped out the entire Christian population of the village. They had also heard that Midyat’s Christian population had begun to acquire weapons and make preparations to defend against the enemy. They had heard, they knew, they were hoping…
Yusuf Hanno was the village spokesman, he was short of stature and had a sharp, aquiline nose and black eyes. He would not say much but when he spoke he did so with confidence and assertiveness.
“I have, along with Asmar Sewalla, kept our eyes open and listened around a bit,” Yusuf continued, “and Kurds from the village of Derhab have begun to gather in the village of Estrako. We’ve heard gunfire and screams. God help our brothers and sisters in Estrako. Something has happened, they’re planning something, I’m sure.”
“They will strike at any time,” Asmar squeezed in and continued, “the Estrako residents have no desire to feed the Derhab residents forever. They’re there by the hundreds, we’ve seen them with our own eyes.”
The priest Davud of the Shaherkan family was considered to be very learned and sharp-witted. The fame of his talent was widely known among the clergy of Tur Abdin.
He got up and walked over to the two men Yusuf and Asmar, stood between them, and laid his hands on their shoulders and said:
“It concerns our lives, my children, as well as our faith and honor. And they will be defended as best they can. With God’s help, we will succeed as well.”
The priest Davud let his hands fall from the two men’s shoulders and took a few steps toward the seated men, turned around, lifted his right hand pointing to the sky and then toward the two men and shouted so loudly that he could be heard all over the village:
“We put our lives in God’s and your hands, Yusuf dbe Hanno and Asmar dbe Sewalla!”
The gathered men nodded in agreement, and one or two “Amen” were heard.
The Kurdish men from the surrounding villages around Zaz had now surrounded the village. They waited more men before they would strike. The Christians had taken refuge in the Church of Mor Dimet and the two mansions in the village. Osmane Sille and the other Kurdish beys (chiefs) each had leadership over their men. Osmane Sille and his men committed themselves to storm the church while Latif Bey, son of Chimo and Hitto of the Haydari family, would capture the mansions. Osmane Sille, who held counsel with the other beys, was furious that they had not organized themselves quickly enough.
“The village lies deserted, there’s not a dog in sight!” he shouted again and again.
Osmane Sille was a heavily built man, with a long, pear-shaped nose, black eyes and black, long beard. He was bey of the village of Estrako, which lies a couple of kilometers (~1.2 miles) from Zaz, and so far they had always had good relations with each other. Whenever there was a wedding or celebration in Zaz, Osmane Sille was invited. But greed had taken over.
In the village of Estrako there lived twenty Christian families at this time, while the remaining part of the village consisted mainly of Kurds, numbering over two hundred families. The Kurds in the village had, under the leadership of Latif and Osmane Sille, gathered on July 3rd, the feast day of the apostle Mor Thomas, a holiday for Christians in Tur Abdin. They gathered all the poor, terrified Christians around the village square. They had been taken there by barbaric violence. The battered and helpless poor creatures were then subjected to an indescribable and merciless slaughter. The slaughter was going on the whole time during the Kurdish women’s cries of joy. Those who just a while ago were their neighbors and friends. It was rumored that there were only about a dozen or so youths who managed to survive.
By wiping out the Christians, Osmane Sille could take over their estates and arable land. That was why he called the other Kurdish beys to him, all of which were his friends and all of which thirsted for the blood and estates of the “infidels”.
“Calm down, Osmane,” Latif said, “it’s better this way, they’re all gathered in one place. We wait them out, they can’t stay in there forever.”
Osmane Sille insisted that it would be easier to storm the village before the Christians had time to prepare themselves in the church and the two mansions. The strategy worked so well in the Estrako.
“Latif is right, Osmane,” Hitto continued, “let’s go to the village and guard all entrances and exits from the church and mansions, and as soon as someone comes out…bang!”
Osmane Sille felt slightly more at ease. Both Latif and Hitto had a reputation for being good robbers. Moreover, his strategy would not work in Zaz as good as in Estrako, he thought, the Christians in Zaz were many more, indeed, almost over two hundred families.
“Let it be so,” Osmane said and continued, “let’s go down to the village and exterminate the infidel. Spare no one, neither small nor big, young and old alike!”
And the Kurdish men began to pour down from all directions shouting “Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar!” They came from the mountains, plains and slopes and had soon filled the entire village.
It was not long before the young, elderly and women from the Kurdish villages around Zaz followed their men’s footsteps. They came by the hundreds with their carts, donkeys, mules and horses. Now that their armed men were inside the village and the Christians in their fortresses, they could roam freely in the village and loot the houses. They entered house after house and took everything they came across: pans, lamps, oils, beds, pots, chickens, cows, goats, sheep, cabins and everything else. The crosses, bibles and other books of saints they came across in the houses were gathered in a separate pile that they formed within sight of the church.
Later, when they had calmed their hunger and emptied the Christians’ homes of anything that could be used, they tore down and destroyed as much as they could. Afterward, they all gathered around the formed pile with cries of joy, dancing and singing. They knew that they were observed by the Christians from the fortresses, for which reason they mocked the sacred collection. Some women let their children urinate on it. This and much more they did to insult the Christians before they set fire to everything. And while all this was going on, they rejoiced with their songs and their defamatory words against the Christian Zaz residents.
Inside the church, where the majority of the two hundred Suryoye families had taken refuge, the priest Davud had command. From inside the church the wall was the height of a man, while it was about fifteen meters (~50 feet) high from outside the church. They stood there by the inner wall and watched and heard everything that happened. Many wept, others prayed. The young men in the church asked the priest for permission to leave the church so that they could fight for their faith. The younger boys spat and made faces against the gathered Muslims. Everyone stood around the priest Davud as if they expected him, with his office and knowledge, to bring about a miracle.
The priest Davud went back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back, blood-red in the face. The lips that protruded through the white beard mumbled something inaudible. He stood in front of the entrance to the church and a deeply pained groan was heard from him.
“Take heed, my children, take heed. God is great! Nothing bypasses our Lord.”
The crowd waited impatiently and with excitement at what father Davud had to say. For three days they had been in the church and waited for the enemy. During those days nothing happened other than father Davud sending word to Yusuf Hanno and Asmar Sewalla in the evening that they should reunite with him in the church instead of staying in the mansions, on the grounds that the church had access to water via an underground passage that led to a well in the village. But both leaders declined, they thought it was strategically better to split up. And besides, all women, children and elderly with some youths were placed in the church while the men and other operational men were divided between the two mansions. They did not believe in any prolonged siege either so what they had brought would suffice. Now the enemy had arrived. What would happen to them from now on? Would all hell break loose?
The priest Davud saw the questions in the eyes of the gathered, the youths’ readiness to fight, the women’s concern for their husbands, the children’s crying, the elder’s prayers and the younger boys’ loud games. He looked long at them, sighed, and said:
“Let us pray!”
Sara sat in the corner of the church’s inner wall and watched her playing daughter Hana closely without blinking. Sara was a beautiful woman in her prime.
She was of medium height, sturdy and with a honey-colored skin. Her long, henna-colored hair was braided like the vast majority of women. She was quick-witted and always had a smile on her face. But now she sat in her little corner, looking indifferently at her playing daughter who was so cute that she barely had time to put her little feet on the ground before someone would come and lift her up to hug, kiss or pat her.
Sara had been crying all night, her eyes were swollen and you could never believe that this woman could shape a smile on her now so melancholy face. She mourned her husband, like everyone else in the church mourned their husbands, fathers and relatives who had all fell victim to the Kurds’ slyness. Did they live, were they dead or injured?
The siege of the Christians had been going on for nearly twenty days, the battles succeeded one another with varying strength and the men who were in the mansions had, since a few days back, no water left. Some youths had tried to smuggle water to them from the church but had been caught and killed by the guarding Muslims. The shootings, screams and cries that used to be triggered as soon as darkness settled over the village had silenced since several days back. Without food and water the men had weakened under the scorching sun and the dry heat had sucked all the strength out of them.
For several days, they had been promised safe conduct from the village by the Kurdish leader Osmane Sille if they surrendered. He had sworn an oath on the Qur’an, the Prophet, his children and his marriages that he did not intend to hurt them, if only they left. Of course, it was their estates he wanted to get hold of.
“Leave the village and you will get to live!” he said again and again.
The Suryoye did not think much of these promises, the battles in the evenings and nights had already claimed its victims on both sides. Blood had flowed and blood feud was more the rule than the exception. But did they have any choice? The scorching summer heat was unbearable and the women and children who were in the mansions had also become a burden. Many of the men made their way to the shadowy places and lay there, seemingly lifeless.
Necessity forced the Suryoye out of the mansions where they were quickly surrounded by Muslims. They were taken to the waterholes of the village to let them drink water first. In accommodating them they wanted to show that they were serious about their promises and thus avoid chaos, while at the same time hoping that this trick would attract out the others from the church as well. Then began the march out of the village. When they had come to a place outside the village called Pergume, hell began to break loose. At a given signal from Osmane Sille, armed men began to emerge from all sides. The Christian Suryoye were rounded up, surrounded by the armed men, and the slaughter began.
Soon they lay there, the dead, side by side and on one another, in their own blood. An old woman who tried to get up collapsed on the ground, pale and emaciated. Some of the more beautiful women were gathered together and guarded by a few chosen men. Two men escaped death, Hanna Meryam and Yusuf Asmar. Hanna Meryam escaped and managed to miraculously get to the church in Zaz where he informed the Suryoye of the events, and Yusuf Asmar fled to the village of Hah’s mansion. The number of murdered Suryoye was reported to be 366 people during this dark day. Later it turned out, after a couple of days when the Muslim villagers went there between the corpses, that Hazme and her son Isa had also survived. They took them to the village and in that way they survived. Strangely enough, they had not been killed.
The situation in Mor Dimet became increasingly miserable. The Suryoye fetched their water from a well that they reached through an underground passage, but when the Muslims found out about this they obstructed the well with grass and twigs and set a guard there, which prevented the Suryoye from getting any water. A man was injured by a gunshot while trying to fetch water from the well. The underground passage was exposed when Nurike dbe Bahdo went through the underground passage to fetch water for his mule in a steel bucket. The splash from the bucket in its meeting with the water in the well was heard by the surrounding Muslims and the underground passage was exposed. No one dared to fetch water from the well anymore and the water became unusable as well after Muslims set fire to all the twigs, soil, leaves and grass that they had thrown in there.
The condition of the Suryoye became increasingly difficult and unbearable because of the lack of water and the scorching summer sun. The Church of Mor Dimet was suddenly stormed by the Kurds who managed to get into the courtyard and immediately began to, with sparkling teeth, annihilate the Suryoye completely. A man who had taken a nap at the entrance to the courtyard was surprised by the attack and woke up to the Kurd Musek’s gleaming dagger at his throat. With an appealing look he asked his former neighbor and “godfather” Musek to spare his life, only to receive the answer:
“I searched for you each night and found you in broad daylight, how could I then spare you?”
And with those words he completed the murder of his former neighbor.
The trapped Suryoye retreated into the church and closed the door while the brave fighters continued the battle against their enemies. They fought man to man with daggers until the Muslims began to escape and retreat to their positions. These battles were fought for three days and all ended with the Muslims retreating.
Being a child and at the same time a prisoner is not easy. Hana, like others her age, began to become increasingly demanding. The adults’ concern, the dead victims, the wounded’s groaning, the hunger, the thirst, the heat and especially the mothers’ mental absence did not make the situation any better. Hana clung to her mother’s arms and refused to let go, day or night, while at the same time constantly asking for water and food. When this request was difficult to satisfy, she could cry seemingly tirelessly in perpetuity.
Sara looked long at her daughter while her fingers played with the daughter’s previously so smooth and beautiful hair. The thoughts went round and round in her head. What will the outcome of this be? As she interpreted it from the current situation it was really what kind of death you preferred — to die of thirst and hunger, of dehydration in the heat or by the savages’ daggers. Actually, the choice was not so difficult for her, she had learned and she knew that to die for her faith was not to die but to choose life, eternal life. Sara was convinced of that. She fixed her eyes on her daughter Hana, kissed her gently on the forehead and fell back in her own thoughts. For a moment she had shut out everything that was going on around her, such as her daughter’s and the other children’s crying, the mothers’ mourning songs, the older people’s prayers, the threats from outside, the smells, the hunger and thirst, well, everything. For a moment, Sara had grown numb in her own thoughts, thoughts that revolved around her daughter and her fate.
Suddenly, Sara got up with her daughter still clinging to her arms and walked with heavy steps toward the edge of Mor Dimet’s wall. She stood on the wall and looked out toward the seated Muslims who used to gather on the bare rocks around Mor Dimet to follow the development of the state of things.
She took as deep a breath as she could muster and shouted out the question if there was anyone from the Bahhmo family there. The gathered looked up at Sara, surprised and puzzled. A middle-aged man suddenly stood up from the crowd and came closer to the high wall.
“He is from the Bahhmo family,” someone called out and pointed at the man who had stood up.
She recognized the man. The reason why she asked specifically for the Bahhmo family was due to them having been neighbors with Sara and her family for many years, wall to wall.
She asked him to approach so that she could toss her daughter Hana down to him.
“We may die,” Sara shouted, “but let this child live. Promise me that! Promise!” she screamed to the somewhat surprised man who irresolutely nodded in the affirmative.
She took a tight grip of her barely two year old daughter, pressed her against herself, kissed her crying again and again so as to, in a hurry, let go of her daughter who fell like a stone into the arms of the receiving man.
“Someone has to live to tell,” Sara murmured to herself, she might be too young to remember this, but she will get to know and one day she will tell. She was convinced of that.
The Zaz residents were left in the church with their painful sufferings, they fought against a superior enemy, in spite of the fact that they were thirsty, exhausted and hungry. Latif and Osmane Sille’s patience was over and their men were impatient. Days had passed and likewise weeks without them managing to capture the Church of Mor Dimet. The thirst for the blood of the “infidels” must be extinguished and their strategy had failed. They discussed the problem with each other and their closest men for a long while and came to the conclusion to send some of their men to the great city of Midyat in order to report the Zaz residents for fraud and collaboration with foreign powers to the mayor there.
“Note also that there are a great deal of warriors and large quantities of weapons arsenal in the church, making it impregnable,” Osmane Sille added.
Shortly thereafter, a select delegation of Kurds went to the city of Midyat with their accusations.
The city of Midyat, main city in Tur Abdin, lies on a high plateau at an average altitude of one thousand meters (~3,280 feet) in central Tur Abdin. All around, fields, vineyards and fruit and vegetable farms extend. In all directions, bare or with oak shrubbery covered mountains form a natural protective wall. The French inscription researcher Pognon visited Midyat in both 1891 and 1905, but both times found the city abandoned, since a violent war raged against the Kurds at that time. Apparently, the city recovered during the short time before World War I. Midyat was described by the English art historian Gertrude Bell as a nice little city with well-built and richly decorated houses, where prosperity flourished.
Just like everywhere in Tur Abdin, severe disturbances arose in Midyat as well in conjunction with the Kurdish tribes’ aspirations for independence during the 1830s and in the late 1800s. The city was sacked several times and set on fire, and some priests met a violent death. After a short period of calm, World War I came with extensive destruction. About a third of the population was killed.
To investigate the Kurds’ report and its truthfulness, the Ottoman authorities in Midyat sent a major with large, heavily armed troops, artillery with cannons and an observer to the village of Zaz.
The Ottoman forces arrived in the village of Zaz, set up their artillery with cannons and started shooting at the church. But despite many shootings, no counterfire came from the church. Thus the major understood that everything that the Kurds had said was a lie. He came to the church door and asked for permission to enter the church. The Suryoye opened the door for him without resistance, and when he came in, he got their permission to search everywhere in the church. He was met by a horrible sight. He saw the poor people’s suffering, the hunger and thirst appeared in everyone’s eyes, as well as sickness and death. When he was finished with his examination, he turned to the Suryoye and said:
“Everything you were accused and blamed for by the Kurds is a lie. You don’t need to be anxious and afraid, from now on, you are under my protection. Submit yourselves to my honor and my conscience and I’ll take you to safety.”
“We leave ourselves in your hands, your honor and your conscience,” the priest Davud replied.
He brought out the terrified and emaciated Suryoye from the church, surrounded by soldiers who protected them against the murderers, and brought them to the water holes in the village to let them drink.
When the Ottoman soldiers had come to the rescue of the Suryoye and they came out of their fortresses, many Kurds had gathered outside. Many Suryoye did not yet know what fate they would meet. The concern was great.
Despite the rescue, few dared to believe or hope that they would keep their life. Well gathered by the water holes and guarded by the Ottoman army, they were surrounded by curious Kurds who had come there from the surrounding villages for reasons unknown. Many faces among them were familiar to the Zaz residents. Many said that they came to the rescue of the Christians when they heard what was going on in Zaz. Others warned of the Ottoman soldier and said that this “rescue” was a ruse to get the Christians out from the church.
An old Kurd from the village of Pirqani came up to Khatune and talked to her in a low voice.
“We’ve known each other since a long time ago, we’ve been doing business together with your men. We have long bonds of friendship. This is the least we can do for you. I’ll take you to our village and there you can live and raise your children,” he said and continued, “don’t trust the soldiers, I’ve heard that they were involved in the killings of the Christians in Salah, and if they wanted to save you — where will they take you? Why can’t you stay in your village? Come with me. I can’t save you all, but pick out four, five women and bring your children, and I’ll talk to the major.”
Khatune thought for a moment, she had known the older Kurd since a long time back. What should she believe, who should she trust, or what did it matter — what did she have to lose? Khatune looked around herself among the emaciated women, children and elderly who remained and a moment later, she and four other women and their children, Sara among them, started walking towards the village of Pirqani.
After a few hours, when they were near Kharabe Qasre in the immediate vicinity of the village of Pirqane, the company suddenly stopped by order of the older Kurd.
“Stop,” he said, “we’ll rest a bit here before we walk the last bit into the village.”
The women had sat down on the dry earth for a deserved rest when the older Kurd came up to them and urged them, completely without warning, to admit Islam. The women looked at each other, surprised.
“Admit Islam as your religion before we go into the village,” he urged them, it would make things better, he said. “Otherwise we’ll kill you!”
“How can you ask this of us,” Khatune said, “as much as we endured, with thirst, hunger, death and suffering. Do you think we would just abandon our faith like that? Never, never that we would change to a different religion,” she said.
Khatune barely had time to finish the words before all five women were murdered in cold blood. What happened to the children is unknown, but the stories about the fate of children during this time are many and heartbreaking. In the village of Mzizah, it is testified about how the children, when they asked for water to quench their thirst, were taken to the well in the village and thrown into it one by one with the words:
“Drink until you drown!”
Which of course the poor little things did.
Other testimonies confirm that neither big nor small were spared. Countless are the testimonies that tell of how small babies were taken by both feet and hurled against rocks and walls where their little heads were crushed like watermelons. And countless are the testimonies that tell of how pregnant women had their abdomen cut open, the fetuses taken out and placed lifeless on their mothers’ dead bodies.
But there are also testimonies of those who were lucky and spared from these inhuman and barbaric acts.
VI. The Musicians
Hana had been taken care of by the Bahhmo couple. They already had five children of various ages of their own and mrs. Bahhmo was not happy with her husband’s action.
“What are we supposed to do with a girl? Do we not have enough of our own?” she reasoned. “We can barely feed our own children, should I now feed infidels’ children as well? Get rid of her, kill her,” she scolded.
“Then what should I do?” mr. Bahhmo asked, “I’ve made a promise that the girl will not be killed,” he defended himself against his wife. “Do you have any suggestions?” he wondered.
“Take her to the musicians,” she replied. “They have no children of their own. They may want her.”
The musicians were special individuals. They were poor people who lived as vagrants and walked around in the area and lived on begging and doing odd jobs. They were called musicians because they were also called to various festivities to entertain with dance, song and music.
Mr. Bahhmo threw Hana up on his shoulders and went immediately to the outskirts of the village where the village musicians lived. The musicians would perform at weddings and other festive occasions and entertained not only the village of Zaz but also other surrounding villages.
Mr. Bahhmo took a businesslike approach with the cautious musicians.
“You can’t have children of your own,” he said. “Take this child, a healthy little girl, for you and I promise that she will spread joy in your house. I took her from the Christians in the church,” he continued, “I was going to keep her but my wife reminded me of you. ‘Take her to the musicians’ she said. Allah has already given us several children and so I’m here with this child. I don’t ask for very much for her, a few coins for the trouble is all I ask,” he finished.
The musicians did not mind taking care of Hana but they did not have any money, so after many ifs and buts Hana was sold by the Bahhmo family for a hen.
The musicians were often traveling around the surrounding villages. There were long days of travel and many late nights and Hana became, as time went on, a burden for the itinerants.
It happened one day in the village of Kfarze, when the musicians were there to perform at an engagement party, that Hana, when she saw a woman who was standing along the roadside, suddenly threw herself against her.
“Mom, mom,” she cried to the woman, clinging to her dress. Presumably, this woman resembled her mother Sara very much.
The woman was very moved by the event after finding out that it was not the musicians’ biological daughter.
“I want the girl,” she said. “You can’t raise her, this isn’t a life for a child her age,” she scolded.
The musicians were not difficult to persuade and for a few coins Hana was handed over to her.
The surviving Zaz residents lived in misery around the Tur Abdin region. Of the entire village’s Christian population of just over two hundred families, about a hundred people had survived the genocide. Many had died by the Kurd’s dagger, some by the many hardships such as fever and other painful circumstances. The scattered Zaz residents had survived during these years in the diaspora following the genocide by staying hidden in the mountains, others worked as slaves of Muslims for their livelihood. They lived outside their village for five years under very difficult circumstances.
Many of the Tur Abdin residents had left their villages and sought refuge in various fortified areas to survive. Villages like Shehirkan, Estrako, Tilhatun, Gerdahul, Tel-Eryavon, Bayaza, Laylan, Hizna, Seruc and about thirty other villages never recovered and were forever emptied of their Christian Suryoyo population. The names of those Suryoye villages are long forgotten and the traces of their indigenous people swept away when the churches, which testified about the villages’ Christian population, were converted into mosques.
After these years in diaspora, when calm had once again come to the area, the survivors began to slowly but surely come back to their villages. They were destitute, there was a lack of food and hunger and poverty was increasing. They fought stubbornly and had to endure scorn, contempt and all manner of insults. They were ridiculed in every possible way and beaten on their way back to their villages. There was nothing left and nothing to eat. The fields had been burnt down, the vineyards had been destroyed, the homes were pillaged and the villages laid waste. Their diet consisted of acorns, roots and other edible plants. The bread was baked either with millet, barley, acorns or with cottonseed. The poet and contemporary Suryoyo leader Gallo Shabo, from the village of Iwardo, writes the following in his poem:
The skin is dry and dark, fixed to the skeleton, they are weak and emaciated, they can neither walk nor stand, they shout, cry and scream of hunger. Oh, Almighty God! Help us!
For the surviving villagers from Bote, Arnas, Mzizah, Kfarze, Zaz, Kfarbe, Kafro and the other hundreds of villages, the hunger, famine, death and devastation of the massacre now became even more pronounced. It was now that most of them realized the extent of this purge, and the questions were piling up in the survivors’ heads. Who had survived? Who was dead? Who was captive and where? Who was a slave? Who had been taken care of?
One of the survivors was Hana’s uncle. He had heard about Sara and the other women’s fate, but he and most others knew one thing, everyone remembered when Sara got up on the wall of Mor Dimet and shouted for someone from the Bahhmo family so as to, in the next moment, throw over her daughter to them. He approached the Bahhmo family’s house in the village and saw some kids carrying water from the well. He wondered if one of the girls could be Hana.
“Children,” he called, “stop! Is your father home?” he asked.
“Yes, he is,” they answered and called in concert for their father who came out.
“What’s it about?” Bahhmo asked.
“It’s about my niece,” Hana’s uncle said. “You took her when Sara threw her from Mor Dimet. I have come to get her,” the uncle replied clearly.
“Oh,” Bahhmo replied reflectively and smiled. “We don’t have that girl. I gave her to the village musicians, and they in turn sold her to a woman in Kfarze,” he finished and went back into the house.
The uncle thought long about how he would go about it. He was obliged to find his niece if she was alive. Her mother was murdered, as was her father. It was his duty to find her, but at the same time there was much to do. The houses would be built up, the earth cultivated, livestock would be obtained and the wounds would heal best they could. He had to help the other survivors immediately so as to then receive help himself. Society would be rebuilt and a great responsibility lay on the grown men who had survived. He knew that, he was needed in the village.
The uncle decided to send someone else for that undertaking. The widow Besse in the village, with her four young children, was very badly off. The uncle offered her all the help she needed to build up her house and take care of the vineyards, as well as providing for her and her children, if she undertook this mission: to get to Kfarze and find his niece Hana.
Besse did not hesitate for a moment, the man’s offer came as a gift from above. To be a lone widow with several young children at these times was very trying. She accepted the offer and a few days later she made for the village of Kfarze.
The village of Kfarze lies fifteen kilometers (~9 miles) north-east of Midyat. Over 160 Christian families and more than 70 Kurdish families were living in the village during this time.
Kfarze had also suffered greatly during these terrible years, but the Suryoye in the village had managed the feat to capture four people, one being the sister of one of the leaders of the Kurds in the village, and thus forced a prisoner swap that saved the lives of many Suryoye. Most Kfarze residents had taken refuge in the village of Iwardo and stayed there throughout the war, and returned only when the Kurdish clan leader Chelebi Agha helped to bring an end to the massacres.
Besse sought out Iskender of the Havaca family, who was one of the leading figures in the village. Iskender had a great and decisive role in the survival of the villagers. He had, together with Danho Chobano, been watchful and in good time requested assistance from their brothers in the village of Iwardo, who came to their rescue.
“I’m looking for a girl,” Besse said, “one of our girls, and how old could she be…well, she must be about seven years old by now.”
She began telling the crowd who had now gathered around her everything she knew about Hana, how her mother Sara had thrown her from the church wall into the arms of the Bahhmo family who had sold her for a hen to the musicians and who in turn sold her on to a woman from Kfarze. Although Besse’s story was very common at this time, it happened everywhere and a long time after the genocide that people were trying to track down family and other relatives who were lost, the gathered Kfarze residents replied almost in chorus:
Of course, everyone knew everyone in the small village. They knew everything about everyone; every chicken, hen, rooster, sheep, lamb or goat who went there among the houses, they knew whose it was and when it had hatched or been born into the world, it was known indeed. So if the village got a new inhabitant, it could not possibly go by unnoticed. Zeyneb had a son, everyone knew that, and now she had a daughter as well, who everyone knew could not possibly be her own, and many realized that she must be one of the thousands of Christian children who were adopted, kidnapped or even rescued by Muslim families. But what the Kfarze residents did not know was whose daughter she was and from where she had her origin, now they knew and they were sure of their ground. Besse was relieved, it is true that she was sure that the Kfarze residents would let her know if Hana was in the village, but she still felt how relieved she got because of it, it was like a yoke had been lifted from her shoulders. Now, however, remained getting Hana home.
Now all the Christians in the village knew that Zeyneb’s daughter Rihane was in fact Sara’s daughter Hana from the village of Zaz. The Christian children in the village now understood that Hana was one of them, a Christian girl, and they were not slow to, when they had the opportunity, mention this to her.
“You’re not Zeyneb’s daughter, you’re a Christian and your name is Hana,” they told her each time they bumped into her.
“Never,” Hana could answer, “Zeyneb is my mother and I have always been called Rihane. What are you saying, unfaithful children!”
But as the days went by the Christians’ children came with increasingly more detailed information about who Hana really was, who her mother was, what she was called, which village she came from, who her uncles were and how she ended up in the village and with Zeyneb.
Hana could eventually not keep herself, she became uncertain—could it be true? A sting of pain went through her body so that she shook all over, and her eyes were filled with tears. It’s impossible, she thought to herself, I love my mother Zeyneb and she loves me as well as my brother, my father, my grandmother — everyone in my family — so why are these unfaithful children saying such things? She could not hold it any longer, she had to ask her mother Zeyneb about these allegations so that she would be able to be in peace and quiet, not least in her soul. She ran home with quick steps and cried: “Mother, mother, mother.”
Zeyneb, who was hanging up the laundry in the yard, heard her daughter’s cries.
“What is it, girl? What’s happened?”
She dropped what she was doing and ran out to meet her daughter.
“Mother,” Hana said, panting. “Are you my real mother?”
“What kind of question is that?” Zeyneb wondered, “of course I’m your mother, why do you ask?”
“Well, because the unfaithfuls’ children say that I’m a Christian and that my name is Hana and not Rihane and that I actually come from the village of Zaz and that you bought me from some people when I was little. Is it true, mother, is it true?”
“What sort of behavior is that?” Zeyneb, who now became red with anger, thundered.
She raised her fists in the sky and ran inwards towards the village. Zeyneb was known in the village for her violent temper and there were few who dared to defy her when she was really angry.
“What kind of falsehoods are you telling, come and say it to me and not to a poor little girl, come out if you dare. Leave my daughter alone, or else you’ll get a taste of my anger,” she chanted so that the whole village heard.
She understood now that the village knew who her daughter really was and that it all started when that strange woman came to the village. She must be a relative of Hana, she thought. Since that day, Zeyneb kept an extra close eye on her daughter.
Hana was relieved by the answer she had received from her mother and with strong self-esteem, she often gave the Christian children tit for tat when the issue came up in the surrounding mountains where they often met when they herded their sheep, goats and cows. She had also rejected that woman Besse’s proposal to accompany her to Zaz where she would meet her real family.
“Never,” Hana answered, “you’re lying. I have no other family. And besides, even if I did, I don’t want to know of them, I feel comfortable with the ones I have here,” she replied in her girlish, cheeky manner.
Hana’s uncle in Zaz did not give up, he continued to send Besse to the village of Kfarze with the hope of persuading Hana to follow her. Besse continued her secret persuasion attempts with Hana again and again without success. Hana was adamant. She knew nothing else, she remembered nothing of her mother Sara or her other relatives. All she remembered was growing up with her mother Zeyneb and her family in the village of Kfarze. How would she abandon it, a poor little girl, and why, she was not even convinced, yet.
But the Christian children continued to tease Hana. Not a day went by without them taunting her by pointing out that Zeyneb was not her mother. They called her an apostate because she would rather be a Muslim than a Christian. But she continued to tirelessly stand up for herself:
“Zeyneb is my mother, and that’s that! And one day I will marry my brother Ali, my mother has said so,” she shouted to the stiff-necked Christian children.
It was then, when she had said this, that one of the children answered:
“You see, if you had been her real daughter, she would have never been able to come up with such a sinful suggestion. Have you ever heard that a brother marries his own sister?”
At that moment everything went black for Hana, it was as if the mountain had opened its mouth and swallowed her way into the dark depth.
“It’s true, so true,” she thought, remembering how often her mother Zeyneb had expressed that Hana would one day stand as a bride at Ali’s side.
“A few more years, Rihane, a few more years, then it’s time, then you’ll be ready for Ali.”
Just think of how many times these words had been said to her by her own mother without her thinking about it. Everyone ought to know that a sister can’t marry her own brother, the shame, a mortal sin. That I never thought about it, Hana pondered.
So it’s true, Zeyneb can’t be my mother, impossible.
A void had been created in Hana, an empty space where the questions echoed inside of her.
Who am I? Who are my mother and father? Who are my siblings and what are they like? What’s it like to be a Christian?
The questions went round and round in her head and she was mostly spiritually absent somewhere, warring with her questions that received no answers. Everything felt so melancholy, to suddenly realize that everything you were suddenly you were not. However, one thing was clear to her, Zeyneb was not her mother and thus not her real family. Zeyneb had certainly been a good mother to her, but realizing that you have your roots elsewhere, that you have a real family somewhere else of the same flesh and blood, created a feeling of emptiness that was indescribable. I need to know, or else I will die of curiosity, Hana thought, who at that moment also decided to go with Besse.
Zeyneb, however, suspected mischief. Hana had not been herself lately. She had been quiet and absorbed in her own thoughts in recent times, which was unlike the girl who loved to be on the go and keep everyone else going.
“What is it, my child?” Zeyneb had asked several times.
Hana had then absentmindedly replied: “Nothing.”
Besse and Hana had one day decided to escape when Hana was herding the cows. Besse would wait for her at the vineyards along the road leading away from the village. Hana was noticeably nervous and gloomy this morning. She felt very ambivalent for a moment and without thinking twice she filled her packed lunch to the limit as well as the large water pot with fresh water. You used to bring that pot with you only when you would be away for some time in the mountains.
“Are you going away somewhere, girl?” she heard Zeyneb ask.
Hana sort of woke up from a dream and saw to her amazement what she was unconsciously doing. She turned completely pale and for the first time she was afraid of Zeyneb. She could not utter a word. She bowed her head and looked at the red earth without saying anything.
“In with you, you’re going nowhere today, the cows will do all right,” Zeyneb ordered suspiciously. And the first escape attempt of Hana failed and from that day she was not allowed to herd again, neither the cows nor the sheep.
Zeyneb kept Hana under tight surveillance. She was no longer allowed to accompany the other children of the same age to the mountains, nor play or be with the other children in the village where Zeyneb could not keep her in sight. She was no longer allowed to talk to the Christian villagers either.
Besse and the other Christians in the village realized that Zeyneb had begun to suspect something, which in itself meant that any further escape attempts for Hana could be long.
“I have to go back to Zaz,” Besse said to Iskender of the Havaca family. “I can’t stay here forever and we don’t know when Zeyneb will let go of Hana, but in the name of God, you have to help the girl,” she appealed.
“Go home to your children,” Iskender replied. “We’ll take care of the girl. We’ll bring her to her father’s house, don’t worry, Besse. When the opportunity arises, we’ll take the girl to the village of Iwardo, then you’ll have to handle the rest,” Iskender finished.
Iskender had instructed some children to watch Hana and when the opportunity arose, they would leave a message for her. The message read that when Hana felt ready and was able to escape from Zeyneb, she would get to Touma’s house. Then Touma would be responsible for the rest.
It was a long time before the message could be conveyed to Hana, but it finally arrived and for the first time in a long time a hope once again lit inside of her. She suddenly felt happy and hopeful and thought to herself that because she felt that way, it must mean that she was thinking right when she wanted to leave Zeyneb.
One evening, when Zeyneb was busy milking the livestock, Hana took the opportunity to sneak away. When she had sneaked a good distance from the house, she turned around one last time to see if anyone had noticed her absence and followed her. When she saw that no one had done so, she paused and felt that something inside told her that this was the last time she saw this house. With tears streaming from her eyes, she turned around again and started running towards Touma’s house that was located in the outskirts of the village.
When darkness had settled over the village, Touma could hear the street crier shouting Hana’s Muslim name Rihane time and time again. The street criers were turned to at the time when someone had lost any pets or children who had strayed. At that time they went street by street and to neighboring villages and called out if anyone had seen what had been lost. They also informed about a possible reward.
When the street crier’s voice approached Touma, he could hear what was additionally cried out.
“Zeyneb misses her daughter Rihane and the one who hides her will meet death!” the street crier cried street by street in the entire village.
Touma understood that Zeyneb was serious about her threat. This was about more than Zeyneb and her daughter Rihane, it was about the Christians’ behavior towards the Muslims. There was prestige in the matter. He understood that Zeyneb was not alone in her threat, but that it was all Muslims in the village. How dare the infidels set about a Muslim, they surely thought at this moment.
Touma was obviously frightened at this moment. Of course, he had children of his own to think about, but he had given his promise to Iskender to take care of the girl if she showed up and then bring her to the village of Iwardo.
When a crowd of men with torches in their hands approached Touma’s house, he went to meet them in the yard.
“Who goes there in the night,” he called out, “and what do you want at this hour?”
“Be calm, Touma, it’s us, your fellow villagers. Zeyneb’s daughter Rihane is missing and we’re wondering if you have seen or heard anything.”
“No, I haven’t,” Touma asserted, “there’s never anyone who comes here. I heard the street crier before but I couldn’t hear what he was shouting, I was sleeping and I’m so remote, as you know. So this is about Zeyneb’s daughter? Poor Zeyneb. But come in, by all means. We’ll put on some tea.”
“No, no, we must continue,” one of the men replied, after which they turned and went further towards the village.
That night there was not much sleep had by either Hana, Touma or his family. Everyone understood the risk they had taken. Before the sun unfurled its dawn’s rays, Touma and Hana had already gone off towards Iwardo. Touma had to take care of this quickly. Everyone would keep an eye on everyone in the village and he had to be back to the village and take care of the everyday chores as usual, so that no one would become suspicious of him.
So when the village of Iwardo was in sight, he stopped and said: “I’ll leave you here now, Hana. The village is there and everyone are Christians there so don’t be afraid, they will take care of you. We’ll send a message to your relatives in Zaz about you being in Iwardo, so that they’ll come and get you. Don’t say that it was me who brought you here, say that you got lost and ended up here. If it gets out that it was me who brought you, I’m going to die. Promise me. I must return now, Hana. May God be with you!”
And with those words Touma left her and returned home quickly.
The village of Iwardo is one of the most famous villages in Tur Abdin. It is situated on a high hill east of and on foot two hours from the city of Midyat. It is known for its opposition to the Muslims during the 1915 genocide. The Church of Mor Had Bshabo, which is located in the village, is surrounded by high walls and resembles a fortress.
During the past bitter years a large Christian gathering of people who had fled to the village gathered in Iwardo. They came from all of the villages of Tur Abdin, from Habsus, Midyat, Bote, Kfarze, Kafro Elayto, Mzizah and Arnas. Some other Christians who managed to survive in areas which are far away from Tur Abdin, from the villages around the surroundings of the Tigris river, Bsheriye, Gziro, Hesno d-Kifo and Mafarkin, also came here. The number of people who gathered in Iwardo reached up to seven thousand.
The war in Iwardo lasted several months and in spite of the fact that peace was brought at last, many Christians nevertheless stayed in the village and did not dare to return to their villages because of Kurdish neighbors surrounding the village. Many of the Suryoye from the villages of Arnas, Salah, Mzizah and other villages were murdered on their way back to their respective villages. The number of murdered Suryoye who lost their lives on the road back was greater than those killed during the long siege.
Hana got to the village sneaking and feeling ill at ease. She stood by a wall and waited. She did not know for what, she just waited there. It was chilly and she froze.
She sat there a long time, huddled up, scared, hungry and frozen, when a sturdy and bearded man in black clothes discovered her.
“But, my dear, why are you sitting here freezing? I have not seen you before, whose child are you?”
Hana did not understand a word of what the man said, and she herself said nothing either, she just sat there huddled up and looked at the ground.
The man took a few steps forward to a wooden door along the street and knocked hard on the door with a stick in his hand.
“Open! Open up! It’s me, the priest,” he called with a clear, firm voice.
The door opened and a middle-aged woman appeared. She kissed the priest on his hand while he pointed at Hana with the other.
“Bring in the poor girl so we may hear what she has to tell,” he ordered.
The woman was surprised when she saw Hana and immediately ran up to her and helped her to her feet. She was taken into the welcoming warmth of the house. The priest had seated himself in the corner of the room where he leaned against the pillow that had been prepared for him.
“Give her something to eat,” he urged the woman of the house. At the same time, he took out his strings of pearls and let the beads run between his fingers.
They took out bread and syrup for Hana who was very hungry. At the same time, the house was filled with curious neighbors and other villagers. All of them wondered who she could be and where she came from. But they let her finish eating first. When Hana had brought the last piece of bread, which she dipped in syrup, to her mouth, the priest began with his questions.
“Where are you from? What are you doing here? Who are you?”
Hana understood nothing of what he said, she did not understand the language of the Christians. However, she realized that they probably wondered who she was and what she was doing in their village. That’s what she would have wondered.
“Can I have a glass of water?” she asked in Kurdish.
The priest lit up.
“Ah, then you aren’t mute after all. You can talk,” he said in Kurdish.
Then he asked the same questions in Kurdish to Hana and she replied that she had gone astray and ended up in the village, just as she had been asked by Touma.
“I’m a Christian,” she added quickly. “I’m a Christian!”
“Yes, yes, my child,” the priest said soothingly. He understood what it was about. She was not the first who managed to get to Iwardo. This was a common sight during the past years, but not with children as young as this poor girl.
“Do you know anything about your family, your village or any relatives?” he asked further.
“A woman named Besse from the village of Zaz has told me that my mother is named Sara, my father Shabo and that I have a brother named Lahdo. I haven’t seen them, but that’s what she told me. I lived with a woman named Zeyneb in the village of Kfarze,” Hana said and further told about everything she had been through and how it all began.
Hana was well taken care of by the Iwardo residents. Everyone was friendly to her and reassured her by saying that she would soon be home with her family. She had been in Iwardo for four days when Zeyneb found out that she was there. At first, she sent for her, but the Iwardo residents rejected them quickly, all the while comforting Hana that they would never give her up. She ought not be afraid. But she was scared when Zeyneb herself came to Iwardo, accompanied by Muslim men.
“Come home, Rihane, come home to your mother. I have been to the big city of Midyat and bought pretty clothes for you,” she called out to Hana from the courtyard.
Hana hid behind the Christian women who stood at a distance and watched Zeyneb and her company who had the Christian men of Iwardo between them.
“I’m your mother, you know, I have raised you, come, my Rihane, come,” Zeyneb pleaded again and again.
Suddenly, without her thinking about it, Hana could hear herself screaming back to Zeyneb.
“No, you’re not my mother! I’m a Christian and I have a real family. Go away!”
But Zeyneb had not brought a whole crew with her to return empty-handed. The Muslim men suddenly became threatening and began to take to blows. A wild fight broke out between the two camps for the entire village to see. To the Iwardo residents, who had managed to hold out against armies in an entire war, these men, who soon fled head over heels, never to return, were no problem.
A pair of Christian men who happened to be visiting Iwardo wondered what this fuss was really about. It was then said about the girl from Kfarze who in reality belonged in Zaz.
“Zaz?” one of the men wondered. “Whose girl in Zaz?”
He walked up to the women and asked if they could answer whose daughter in Zaz she was.
“Ask yourself,” one of the women said and pushed Hana forward.
“Whose daughter are you?” he repeated.
Hana answered like she had done so many times before that her mother was Sara, her father Shabo and that she had a brother named Lahdo.
“I haven’t seen them but that’s what I’ve been told,” she added.
The unknown man’s eyes suddenly filled with tears and he cried like a little child in front of the surprised women and children.
“Then you’re Hana, you’re Hana,” he cried out loud so that it echoed in the sky. “You’re my niece.”
He went down on his knees, stretched his arms and said: “Come here, Hana, I’m your uncle.”
Hana ran and embraced her uncle, the first real relative she met. They embraced each other for a long, long time and she felt in her heart that this was right. It felt honest and safe. It felt home.
A few days later the uncle from Zaz appeared and took Hana home. Hana has since grown up, married and given birth and taken part of what life has to offer, both good and bad. She has experienced war, hunger and flight, foreign countries, cultures and languages, but most of all she remembers the day when she found home. And this was her story…
…which she has told.
The Swedish Parliament (March 2010)
The National Assembly of Armenia (March 2015)
The States General of the Netherlands (April 2015)
The Austrian Parliament (April 2015)
Authored by Behcet Barsom and produced by SOUF—The Syriac Orthodox Youth Association of the Archdiocese of Sweden and Scandinavia (www.souf.nu)