Blood Shed Between Two Rivers | Opinion

The memorial of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocide of the 20th century on April 24 is always a solemn day of mourning.

On my maternal line, I am a descendent of genocide survivors. Pre-1915, my family inhabited their indigenous land of Upper Tyari in the Hakkari region of modern day southeastern Turkey. Up until 1915, the Upper Tyari valley alone contained 20 Assyrian settlements, two of which I can trace back my ancestry to: Koh and Rumta.

At the time, the Upper Tyari settlements contained up to 450 Assyrian families and many churches. In a way, my ancestors would have never anticipated the lifestyle that they had always been accustomed to would suddenly cease to exist. The land they spent centuries cultivating, now without its custodians, would be left overgrown and neglected. And centuries-old traditions such as raweh, the ancient melodic chanting of the Assyrian people, would no longer echo through the valleys of the mountain.

Although it wasn't always obvious to me, growing up with two ethnic backgrounds—born to an Assyrian mother and Greek father—provided me with a unique insight into the impact of the genocide which claimed the lives of many Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks under the Ottoman regime.

I wasn't always aware of the genocide's tragedy. I wasn't aware of my family's true origins, why my great-grandfather was an Assyrian Levy, nor why my Assyrian grandmother seldom spoke of any family history prior to 1935. For all I knew, my family was from Khabour (Al-Hasakah, Syria) and had always been from Khabour. It was only recently that it dawned on me why these questions were left unanswered.

A member of the Khabour Guards Assyrian Syrian militia, affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, sits in the ruins of the Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary, which was previously destroyed by Islamic State group fighters, in the village of Tal Nasri south of the town of Tal Tamr in Syria's northeast on November 15, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Being raised in Melbourne, Australia, I was always able to partake in my two, vibrant cultures. I was immersed in family environments where both languages were spoken. However, it wasn't until the modern genocide Assyrians faced at the hands of ISIS where I began to pay closer attention to what was happening. I remember hearing about the invasion of northern Iraq in 2014 and feeling enraged. Why was the world silent when my people were being uprooted and forced to flee their homeland? Why is it that when the Middle East bleeds, no one seems to care?

Then I heard about the invasion of the 35 Assyrian villages in the Khabour region, northern Syria. This time my extended family members were impacted. And that was when I, along with many other diaspora-born Assyrians, truly had a wake-up call. I started to ask more questions, conduct more research, make a more conscious effort to speak the Assyrian language, a modern dialect of what Jesus Christ spoke, and felt an insatiable desire to contribute to the Assyrian community and advocate for my people. And that was when I first stumbled upon it: The term seyfo meaning sword in the western Assyrian dialect is how Assyrians refer to the events of the 1915 genocide. The sword is what was used to kill the innocent.

I educated myself on the genocide of the indigenous Christian inhabitants of Turkey that my own ancestors managed to escape and survive. Suddenly, every question I had ever asked myself was answered and I finally understood why my grandmother was reluctant to talk about the past.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The wise words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana could not be more fitting. How could I have expected the world to truly care and pay attention to the modern genocide of the Assyrian people when many were uninformed of the 20th century genocide?

This 20th century genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks and Kurds was not limited to immediate massacres, torture, enslavement, deportation, impoverishment and cultural and ethnic destruction. In actual fact, the true impact of the genocide continues to be felt today, with generational trauma being passed down to descendants such as myself.

Lack of international recognition, along with Turkey's avid denial, prevents communal healing. The detrimental effect of the genocide becomes more apparent through my experience as a person of dual heritage examining my family history.

The genocide's impact is clear through the contrasting patterns of migration and knowledge of my family lineage. My origins as far as I know on my maternal grandmother's side of the family begin with my great-great-grandparents in the settlements of Koh in Upper Tyari, Hakkari. In the midst of the genocide, my great-grandparents were then forced to flee from Hakkari to Iraq with only their clothes on their back. My great-grandfather Soro, betrayed by the very same British forces he served in as an Assyrian Levy, and my pregnant great-grandmother Mariam, would then not long after be driven out of Iraq into Khabour, Syria, due to the Simele Massacre of 1933 by Iraqi forces.

Consequently, many of the same Assyrians originally driven out of their ancestral homeland in Hakkari were once again left with no choice but to flee. Here, along the banks of the Khabour River, they began to establish villages in 1935. It was in this region that shortly after, my grandmother was born in Tel Tamer, the largest of the 35 Assyrian villages.

Conversely, my paternal grandfather purely from a standpoint of better economic prospects was the first in his line to migrate out of Pelion, a mountain in the southeastern part of northern Greece where my Greek family lived for hundreds of years. On this side of my family, I am able to trace back my lineage in Pelion to the 1700s and even further back to my first ancestor who arrived from Epirus (another region in northern Greece) to Pelion, Asterios Basdekis.

Many historical documents and records were deliberately destroyed by the Ottomans in an attempt to not only eradicate us, but cut any ties to our ancestral lands.

Why does genocidal recognition matter?

For the descendants of those who survived the genocide like myself, it means finally giving not only us but the memory of our ancestors dignity. Restoring this dignity is the only way that we will be able to begin to heal generational trauma. Commemorating means keeping the memory of our ancestors alive—to realize that their sacrifice and perseverance despite all odds against them, was not in vain.

Recognition of the genocide serves to ensure that such a horrific event in human history does not happen again. World silence, as these atrocities unfold and in the wake of them, is what inspires similar subsequent events to occur.

In reference to this very genocide, Adolf Hitler, at the conclusion of his Obersalzberg speech in 1939 said, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Today, international recognition should pressure Turkey to overcome its denial and admit that the establishment of the modern state was built upon the slaughtering of millions of indigenous Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. Holding Turkey accountable means that circumstances such as the recent unjustified sentencing of ethnic Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox monk Father Aho to 25 months in jail would not go unnoticed. If Turkey has never been held accountable for the atrocities of yesteryear committed by their predecessors, then can we really expect any security for the very same ethnic minorities living in Turkey today?

Just this month, on April 5, as part of my Melbourne-based Pontian Greek dance group Akrites tou Pontou, I engaged in a collaborative performance with the Assyrian Ashur Folkloric Dance Group as part of the festivities to celebrate the Assyrian New Year 6771.

Assyrian New Year celebration 6771 in Melbourne, Australia showing Ashur Folkloric Dance Group (Assyrian) and Akrites Tou Pontou (Pontian Greek) members on April 5, 2021. Georgia Rafaletou

During this performance, as is the case every time, I couldn't help but instantly feel an immense and indescribable sense of pride as the loud echoing of the dawola and whistling of the zorna commenced. An array of intense emotions instantly hit me, because for Assyrians, Armenians and Pontian Greeks something as seemingly small as the rhythm of the Assyrian dawola and zorna, or a melody arising from the Pontian lyra, or the soft meditations of the Armenians duduk isn't just music for us anymore. These traditional instruments, our song and dance, continuing to exist today is an act of defiance.

We survived, we remained and we prevailed.

Turkey tried to break our morale, ensure we cease to exist and wipe out our name, but we rose above.

It is time the world gives our people the dignity we deserve. It is time President Joe Biden recognize the genocide of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek people. It is time for him to uphold his 2020 pledge to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide.

"If we do not fully acknowledge, commemorate, and teach our children about genocide, the words 'never again' lose their meaning," President Biden said.

Stephanie Basdekis is a third year student at the University of Melbourne studying biomedicine.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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