Assyrians are one of the oldest communities in the Middle East, where they have lived for millennia. In the last hundred years, successive wars have forced many to leave the region. But now, some are starting to return to their historic villages.
KAFRO, Midyat — “We want to come back here [to Turkey] so that we don’t fade away,” says Aziz Demir, the mukhtar of the Assyrian village of Kafro. Kafro is located in Midyat, a district in Turkey’s southeastern province of Mardin. Demir, a 50-year-old Assyrian who has lived in Switzerland since the 1990s, has played a key role in encouraging Assyrians to return to Kafro.
All of the village population left Kafro, known in Turkish as Elbegendi, for mostly European countries in 1994. The PKK was waging a full-blown armed campaign against the Turkish state in the country’s mostly Kurdish-populated eastern and southeastern provinces at the time. Mardin, which lies on the Turkish-Syrian border, was heavily affected.
Finding their land surrounded by mines and in the middle of constant clashes between the Turkish security forces and the PKK, Assyrian peasants like Demir and others headed for Switzerland, Germany, and other Western European countries in the 1990s. The PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and NATO.
“Our future lies in this region [Asia Minor]. Assyrians who emigrated to Latin America or to Western countries in the late 1800s and in the early 1900s lost their cultural identities,” Demir said. He established an association in Switzerland in the early 2000s to organise his fellow Assyrians to settle back in their old village in Turkey.
The process began when Bulent Ecevit, the leftist Turkish prime minister in the early 2000s, called on the Assyrians to come back to Turkey. This led Demir and his friends to begin preparing to return to the village in 2002, collecting enough funds to build houses that respect traditional Assyrian architectural styles.
In September 2006, after construction of the houses was finished, Demir and around 30 other Assyrian peasants originally from Kafro came back to the village, marking their return with a ceremony.
If the Turkish state assures them of peace and stability for their community, Demir argues, many more Assyrians will return. Approximately 10,000 to 15,000 Assyrians currently live in Turkey, and the total population around the world is approximately five million.
“We have not regretted coming back here,” said Aziz Ozdemir, a 61-year-old, whose house is located behind Demir’s house. Ozdemir and his wife returned to their village in 2012, after making a decision to build a house there in 2008.
In the 1990s, after they left Turkey, Ozdemir and his family lived in Augsburg, Germany. He worked in a German factory there for years, but felt unhappy in his adopted country.
“The idea of returning to our village made me feel excited and happy. When I used to work here for twelve hours per day, I didn’t get tired. But back in Germany, even if I worked only six hours a day, I felt like I was in hell.”
Keeping their culture alive
Ozdemir cultivates his garden in the village, eating his homegrown grapes — the same types from which famous Assyrian wines have long been made. Kafro and other Assyrian villages were once famous for their vineyards. But fighting and emigration in recent decades have reduced most of the vineyards into brush.
Despite his own homecoming, he still thinks that it would be difficult for most people who moved abroad to come back to Turkey. When TRT World visited him in his home on August 22, he was celebrating the sixth anniversary of his family’s return to the village. He vividly recalls that day with a smile on his face, with the expression of somebody who has achieved something that long seemed almost impossible.
Ozdemir’s sister, Sonya, thinks it’s easier for men to come back than women because she believes mothers are typically more connected to their children than fathers tend to be. And Atiye, Ozdemir’s wife, agrees with Sonya that Assyrian youth are usually less interested in returning to Turkey than their parents might be. Having grown up abroad, younger Assyrians are more accustomed to European life and customs.
Demir, the village mukhtar (head), is wary of what this assimilation means for the future of Assyrian culture.
But Turkey had also imposed assimilation policies, to varying degrees, on Assyrians, Kurds and other minorities in the past. In the past 15 years under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party, Turkey has worked on reforming the state structure by improving the conditions of non-Muslim communities, as well as initiating a peace process to address issues relating to the expression of Kurdish culture and grievances.
“Rejection, denial and assimilation policies [of the Turkish state] have come to an end with the AK Party government,” Erdogan said in mid-2011, when he was prime minister of the country.
The new policies appear to be encouraging some Assyrians to return to Turkey. However, others are still sceptical about coming back to southeast Turkey. In July 2015, the PKK decided to relaunch its armed campaign in the region following the collapse of Turkey’s peace process. The ongoing fighting has cost more than 40,000 lives in the last three decades.
Across the border in Syria, close to Turkey’s old Assyrian settlements, a hilly region which they call Tur Abdin, a brutal civil war with religious, sectarian, and ethnic lines is still raging, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing millions.
In northern Syria, a PKK affiliate, the YPG, has managed to establish a region called Rojava, meaning 'Western Kurdistan', with strong American support. The US says it supports the YPG because the group is the only reliable armed group fighting against Daesh. Turkey, however, believes that this support is ultimately aimed at the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.
“The political situation is uncertain in the Middle East. There has been constant warfare in the region. If a radical change and social cohesion do not take place, no problems will be resolved in a concrete manner,” Demir says.
Assyrians are one of the oldest Middle Eastern peoples, tracing their roots from the ancient Assyrians who dominated Mesopotamia, the “Cradle of Civilisation” of the Middle East which was located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in ancient times. They are the oldest surviving Christian community in the world. Their language, Aramaic, is also one of the oldest languages, and the scriptures have long been written in the letters of its ancient alphabet.
“We need a democratic resolution [in Iraq, Syria and other Middle East countries]. If democracy and prosperity had existed side by side, we wouldn’t fight at all.”
A sixteen-hundred-year-old village
In another Assyrian village, Beth Kustan, an hour drive away from Kafro, a priest still writes the Christian prayer books in the ancient Assyrian alphabet. Gabriel Aktas, a white-bearded 74-year-old Orthodox monk, is a strong advocate of his people’s heritage, despite going through a difficult life. His father Shado was the mukhtar of the ancient village in the 1960s, until he was killed by armed men under suspicious circumstances following a Turkish military coup which hanged the country’s elected prime minister and two of its ministers at the time.
The town’s name was changed from Alagoz in Turkish back to the original Assyrian, Beth Kustan, earlier this year, a first for Turkey.
Every morning, Aktas gives lessons to Assyrian children, aged from six to ten, in the Assyrian alphabet, Christianity and other topics in his newly restored church, the Mor Eliyo Church, which was first built in 343 AD.
“We teach kids the Assyrian language to sustain our people’s culture,” Aktas told TRT World.
Aktas, like Demir, also worries that Assyrians living abroad risk losing their identities, adding that assimilation happens to Eastern Christians and Muslims alike when they move to Western countries.
In the church courtyard, under the hot Mesopotamian sun — which was central to several of the ancient faiths that predated the monotheist religions; the Zoroastrian religion is another example — the Assyrian priest continues to teach the children his faith.
“We collected enough funds to rebuild the church and everything else here,” said Melki Agirmann, a 54-year-old Assyrian peasant originally from Beth Custan, who migrated to Germany in the 1990s and currently lives in Heilbronn, Stuttgart.
Melki and his 51-year-old wife, Ferhan, came back to their village every summer to see their relatives and the village itself. Melki too wants to come back to his village in Turkey permanently, but his wife is less convinced about the idea of returning.
When he’s in Germany, he dreams of being back in the village, he said.
“Well that’s good enough. You’re able to live in the two countries at the same time!” Ferhan shouted back at him.
“I used to go out to the rocky hills here to sing when I was a child. I went to that hill again this summer. I wanted to sing a song again,” said Melki, with a childish look on his aged face that conceals the haunting past experiences he has suffered. “My wife said it would be a shameful thing for an old guy like me to do.”
He still wonders why he misses the village so much, a small settlement with arid hills and tall Turkish oaks. It was almost impossible to walk the narrow streets of the village for more than half an hour during the daytime under the glaring August sun.
Yet Melki hikes about seven kilometres every morning around his village’s surrounding hills and remembers his childhood spots under temperatures hitting around 45 degrees Celsius.
“Back in Germany, me and my friends walk around [as if we are] drunk ... In Germany, everybody [else] is like robots.”
“You cannot forget the village you were born in. You cannot forget your hometown,” Melki murmured, and his wife nods her agreement.