Garo Manjikian is a strongly built farmer with a degree in chemistry and a flourishing moustache like those in sepia photographs of Armenian gentlemen from the late Ottoman era. On the evening of 20 March last year, he was having dinner at George’s Restaurant in the woods where Syria’s Mediterranean shore adjoins Turkey’s. At his restaurant table, he told me, were five of his friends and their families. Their discussion turned to the conflict, entering its fourth year, to unseat Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. ‘The mayor of Kessab was with us. We asked him about the situation,’ Manjikian recalled. ‘He was very quiet.’
Kessab is the only Armenian town in Syria, although other Syrian villages and cities have Armenian minorities. Perched on a hillside within sight of the Turkish frontier, its 2,000-plus inhabitants also include about five hundred Alawite Muslims and Arab Christians. In the summer, tens of thousands of tourists used to fill its hotels and guest houses to bursting. The beaches, pine forests and fruit orchards hosted camps for Armenian Boy Scouts, as well as hikers, picnickers and Saudis seeking respite from stifling desert heat. In addition to the three churches for the Armenian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant congregations, a large, modern mosque occupies a prominent position.
The conflict was killing tourism in Kessab. Incomes were down, hotels empty. Family visits to Aleppo, with its large Armenian population, became impossible after rebels occupied parts of the city in July 2012. Yet until now the conflict had left the region relatively unscathed. The greatest calamity to hit the town in 2013, apart from the decline in tourism, was not the war between al-Assad’s supporters and opponents but unseasonal hailstorms that destroyed the peach and apple crops.
However, events elsewhere in Syria were conspiring to engulf Kessab. On 16 March 2014, the Syrian Army with its Hezbollah allies expelled opposition forces from the town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border. This cut the opposition’s supply line from Lebanon and left the government dominant in most of western Syria. When the rebel leadership organised a response to threaten the regime’s coastal bastion of Latakia, their line of march led directly through Kessab.
Throughout March, one portent after another had made the Armenians of north-west Syria apprehensive. First, smugglers tipped off inhabitants that militant jihadists were gathering nearby in parts of south-west Turkey that had not seen them before. Then, Syrian farmers living beside the international frontier noticed gunmen mustering on the Turkish side.
By 18 March, regular Turkish Army units were disappearing from the forts guarding the twenty-five-mile border between Turkish Hatay and Syrian Kessab. Bearded paramilitaries in assorted non-Turkish uniforms were replacing them. A United Nations source confirmed what Manjikian told me. ‘Large numbers of fighters in minivans were going up the mountain. A Turkish Army convoy was coming down.’ The UN and the Syrian military received reports on 19 March that guerrillas in Turkey were moving dangerously close to Kessab. It seemed that the Turkish Army was relinquishing control of the border to ragged units of the Syrian opposition, although no one in Syria knew why.
On 20 March, while Garo Manjikian and Kessab’s Mayor Vazgen Chaparyan discussed politics over spicy sujuk sausages and Syrian wine, a fellow Armenian from Kessab telephoned the Syrian Army’s central command thirty miles to the south in Latakia. He relayed widespread fears of imminent rebel infiltration from Turkey. The commander dismissed the man’s worries on the grounds that an old agreement making the Turkish Army responsible for security north and east of Kessab was still in force. The Armenians were not reassured.
At four o’clock the next morning, 21 March, residents of the village of Gözlekçiler in Turkey observed paramilitary units driving through border checkpoints towards Kessab. They later told the Economist’s veteran Turkey correspondent, Amberin Zaman, that the Turkish military had evacuated civilians from Gözlekçiler and prohibited journalists from entering the area.
A half-hour later in Kessab, an artillery bombardment woke the Catholic pastor of St Michael the Archangel Church, Father Nareg Louisian. ‘The sounds became louder. The Turkish Army attacked our village,’ the 43-year-old priest told me. ‘Everybody felt it was a dangerous situation. We ran away. At the beginning, we thought it would be for some hours and it will finish.’
Residents of Sakhra, one of a dozen scattered hamlets and villages near Kessab, watched guerrilla fighters massing over the border in Turkey. They summoned Syrian border police. ‘The rebels shot at them at 5.30,’ a United Nations official said. ‘The Syrian border police shot back.’ Minutes later, assisted by mortar fire from Turkey, other rebels assaulted the Syrian police post at Qommeh. The battle for Kessab had begun.
Garo Manjikian woke as usual at 5.30 a.m. to start work in his family’s apple orchards between Kessab and Sakhra. ‘I heard voices from the Syrian police station,’ he told me when we met in Kessab six months later. ‘Then I heard guns. Then, after half an hour, explosions. Missiles. At 6.30, I saw with my eyes the Sakhra police station.’ By then, he recalled, it had become ‘a column of fire’. He woke his father and mother. As he struggled to move his mother, who was dying of cancer, the telephone rang. An Arab Christian woman from Sakhra begged Manjikian for help. She worked at Latakia’s university, where his children had studied. He drove to her house beside the border to rescue her, with her mother and son. Two mortars barely missed them, and he made it back home. Both families, including Manjikian’s three children, crammed into his light pickup truck. ‘There was not time to take my documents or my diploma,’ he said. A barrage of mortar fire hastened their departure. It was nine o’clock when they reached the village of Nab’ain, about five miles south. ‘When we saw the mortars hit Nab’ain, I knew this was going to be longer than we imagined.’ They fled again, this time all the way down to Latakia.
That evening, Syrian television broadcast the arrival of most of Kessab’s inhabitants at St Mary’s Armenian Orthodox Church in Latakia. Many of the two thousand men, women and children who fled Kessab crowded into the nave, the adjoining school and the church hall. Some had not had time to put on their day clothes, and most lacked basic provisions.
In Damascus, Armenian scholar Dr Nora Arissian watched her compatriots on television. ‘I saw them in their pyjamas,’ she said, ‘and it was 1915 again.’
No Armenian can forget 1915. From 24 April 1915, which Armenians commemorate as the beginning of a slaughter that in fact started earlier, the Ottoman Empire killed between 650,000 and 1.5 million Armenians in their homes, on death marches and in concentration camps. Some were murdered outright, while others died from starvation, disease, frost in the mountains or dehydration on the plain.
The genocide had historical roots. In the late nineteenth century, rebels in Bulgaria and Serbia, with Russian, British and French encouragement, massacred Muslims and caused the flight of hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees to Turkish Anatolia. Turkish rulers, who had lost almost all their European lands in the Balkans, feared that leaving Christian, non-Turkish majorities in their eastern provinces would lead to further partition. That belief lay behind the removal of Armenians from areas where they predominated, while leaving small Armenian minorities elsewhere. Removal, however, meant murder. Talat Pasha, one of the triumvirate of Young Turks who ruled the empire from behind the sultan’s
throne during the First World War, told a German consul in June 1915: ‘What we are dealing with here . . . is the annihilation of the Armenians.’
When Turkey joined the German war against the Allies, in 1914, its leaders had dreams of expanding the empire through Russian territory to include the Turkish-speaking regions of Central Asia. Their attempt to invade the Russian Empire collapsed in January 1915, when the Russians smashed the advancing Turkish Third Army at Sarikamish in the mountains of eastern Turkey. Between 60,000 and 90,000 Ottoman soldiers died in battle or froze to death. Turkey’s leaders blamed Armenians as the ostensible ‘enemy within’, although Armenian soldiers lay among the Ottoman dead. From then on, the Armenians were doomed. Armenian men between the ages of twenty and forty-five, all of whom had been conscripted into the army, were disarmed. Commanders forced them into labour battalions, digging trenches, paving roads and cutting trees. Those who did not die of overwork, disease and starvation were taken out in small groups and executed. Armenian women, children and elderly men were left without protectors. The Turks gave some of them a few days to sell their property, at a fraction of its value, and to pack their clothes. Others were driven from their houses in their pyjamas with no time to gather any possessions. Turkish police and troops deported the defenceless civilians on what were in effect death marches to the desert in Syria. En route to Deir Ezzor, more than two hundred miles through the desert from Aleppo, they were robbed, raped, kidnapped, starved and tortured.