Comment Opinion & Features

Has the West even begun to understand persecution?

I was in Simele, northern Iraq, last month, where the forerunners of ISIS cut the throats of up to 3,000 men, women and children in 1933. No memorial has ever been erected to these Assyrian Christians and the site of their bloody

end is shamefully littered with rubbish. Historians are uncertain whether their corpses were taken away to a mass grave, but you can still see fragments of bone protruding from the broken walls of what was once a police station.

At the time, the British authorities rejected calls for an international inquiry into the killings, arguing cravenly that it might lead to further massacres of Christians. They did not support calls to punish the offenders as they had become national heroes.

The Simele genocide of 1933 was preceded by demonstrations in Mosul, where frenzied mobs decorated the city with melons pierced with daggers, symbolising the heads of murdered Assyrians. Even Iraq’s Crown Prince came to encourage the blood letting.

Fast forward to Mosul 2014. This is when ISIS took Mosul, daubing the homes of Christians with the letter N (for Nazarene) in red. Refusal to convert or yield to extortion led to confiscation, forced conversion, exile or worse.

I met two men whose families fled from Mosul and another whose home was burnt down in Sinjar. No one from the international community or the governments in Baghdad or Erbil has ever asked to meet them or take their statements. Yet we in the West are endlessly being told that we are “collecting evidence” and that perpetrators will be brought to justice.

Our generation has done little better than the British authorities of 1933. No wonder it happened all over again.

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But, even in this context, there are people trying to heal the scars of history. Thanks to the great uncle of Athra Kado, a Christian from the Iraqi town of Alqosh, the tomb of the Jewish prophet Nahum was preserved during the long years following the expulsion of the country’s Jews.

Between 1948 and 1951, 121,633 Jews left Iraq. The Alqosh synagogue, enclosing Nahum’s tomb, collapsed, but Athra’s family kept its promise to to keep alive the memory of Nahum and to guard the ruins in which their Jewish neighbours had once worshipped, waiting for better times.

Today Athra is one of Nineveh’s most passionate advocates, knowing how the past shapes the future and how heritage, language and identity can help to mould a more respectful and diverse society. He continues to fulfil the promise made by his great uncle and watches an international team breathe new life into the broken stones.

Although Nahum is revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians, if ISIS had entered Alqosh it would have demolished Nahum’s tomb – as it destroyed the tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul in 2014.

Happily, Alqosh did not fall to ISIS, and today, under the direction of conservationist Miroslav Houska, Nahum’s tomb and synagogue are being lovingly restored by Czech and Assyrian craftsmen. The project is due to be completed in May 2020.

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But rebuilding heritage may prove easier than rebuilding lives if we don’t do stop yet another wave of refugees – made homeless by Turkey’s recent bombing campaign. In Iraqi Kurdistan, I visited the Bardarash refugee camp. It was established less than two months ago for refugees fleeing Turkey’s bombardment and invasion of northeast Syria.

In a desolate location, it is home – if that is a word that can accurately be used – to 2,520 families (roughly 10,000 people), with more arrivals expected. Tents and makeshift shelters have replaced homes bombed by Turkish planes.

As always there are handfuls of dedicated volunteers and aid workers trying to apply poultices and bandages to keep people going. But the camp’s inhabitants should never have had to become refugees in the first place. Until we address the fundamental causes, and get angry with those responsible, the numbers (and attendant suffering and heartbreak) will increase exponentially.

I asked Kurdish refugees what message they would send to those who forced them from their homes in Hassaka, Qamishli, Kobane and Rass Alein. A mother of four told me: “The warplanes came at 4pm. As they dropped their bombs and chemicals many children were burnt. Some were killed. We all started to run. One of my children fell and concussed his skull. We kept running and were eventually offered places in a car. We had to give them $250 to bring us here to safety. I just want to go home with my children. But everything was destroyed and we would be slaughtered.”

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On leaving Bardarash, I pondered what outrage a NATO country would have to commit before we declared it unfit for membership. When did it become acceptable to break the Geneva Conventions – and potentially the Chemical Weapons Convention – and illegally occupy territory and ethnically cleanse a population, and face no investigation, little censure, no Security Council Resolution, and no consequences?

And as world powers add to the global refugee crisis, can’t they understand that, far from offering a solution, refugee camps are perfect recruiting grounds for extremist organisations seeking to exploit despair and hopelessness?

Bardarash is a symbol of the breakdown of global leadership. It is also a consequence of our betrayal of the Kurds and other minorities in northeast Syria. And for the failures and betrayals, the occupants of Bardarash are the ones paying the price.