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Genocide over and over again: From the Armenians to the Syrians

REUTERS/Aboud Hamam
The Syrian government, under dictator Bashar al-Assad, is waging a brutal war against its own citizens.

Innocent civilians were rounded up, put onto trains, and deported to a network of 25 concentration camps where they suffered torture, medical experimentation, starvation, disease, and death. Those who didn’t perish in the concentration camps were sent on a death march, a forced march during which the prisoners were left to die along the way from hunger, thirst, disease, abuse, or outright murder.

author photo

Ellen J. Kennedy

An estimated 1.5 million men, women, and children perished.

This was a systematic slaughter aimed at eliminating a minority religious group that the majority had labeled ‘vermin.’

This was not the Holocaust. This was the genocide of the Armenians, 1915-1923, what Winston Churchill described as an “administrative holocaust,” and he noted, “This crime was planned and executed for political reasons … for clearing Turkish soil of a Christian race.”

Who speaks today of the Armenians?

Adolf Hitler used the catastrophe to justify the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews, saying in 1939, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

When we don’t know or don’t remember, we are prone to repeat the same cycles of violence, destruction, and displacement. Today there is a link between two atrocities that happened in the very same place yet are separated across a century of time.

Deir-zor. Aleppo. Tall Abyad. Ras al-Ayn. Shaddadi. Kessab. These cities were once part of the Ottoman Empire, and in these cities a little more than a century ago, on April 24, 1915, the Turkish government arrested and executed several hundred Armenian intellectuals. After that, ordinary Armenians were rounded up and sent on death marches through the Mesopotamian desert without food or water, forced to walk naked in the blazing sun, shot if they stopped to rest.

At the same time, Ottoman rulers organized killing squads to carry out, as one officer put it, “the liquidation of the Christian elements.” They drowned people in rivers, threw them off cliffs, crucified them, and burned them alive. Bones litter the countryside yet today. Armenian children were stolen and given to Turkish families. Women were raped, marked with tattoos showing “ownership,” and forced into Turkish harems and households. Local Turks seized Armenians’ homes and property.

By the time the genocide ended, there were only about 200,000 Armenians remaining in the Ottoman Empire – some of them saved by Turkish “upstanders.”

A century later

These cities of Armenian tragedy are located in today’s country of Syria. And today there is war, devastation, hunger, torture, displacement, forced disappearance, and death – in these very same places once again.

The Syrian government, under dictator Bashar al-Assad, is waging a brutal war against its own citizens. By the numbers: 500,000 people killed by poison gas, barrel bombs, starvation, disease, and torture; 6.6 million displaced within their own country; and 5 million refugees who have fled from Syria. Assad’s war is a politicide, an effort to eliminate people who began protesting against their dictator in March 2011.

What connects these two tragedies, besides the terrible coincidence of brutalities in the same places? The underlying cause of the violence: climate disruptions.

Drought and genocide

Droughts and floods devastate agriculture, and when people’s bellies are empty, they do what’s necessary to survive. They can easily be motivated to blame others for their despair and to take out their anger and frustration against a scapegoat, typically a religious or ethnic minority group. That was the tragedy of the Armenian genocide.

In 1873-75 the Ottoman Empire was stricken with record droughts. Edgar Whitaker, British editor of an Istanbul newspaper, wrote, “A struggle against death from starvation has been going on [in the Ottoman Empire] for the last twenty months, and the whole population has been decimated, enfeebled by disease, and so scattered and dispersed, that the whole of its social system had been utterly disorganized.”

The climate events combined with regional political and economic vulnerability to turn drought into catastrophe. In a war with Russia a few years later, the Ottoman Empire lost a great deal of its European territory. Turkish citizens from those regions came streaming back into the Empire needing food, housing, and work, but they came back to a country devastated by drought. This crisis magnified already-existing ethnic and religious divisions: Muslim against Christian; Turk against Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek.

For the next several years, the drought conditions intensified, worsening in 1879-1881 when there were urban bread riots. The “Armenian Question” depicted the Armenians as Christian infidels allied to the enemy Russia and responsible for the collapsing Ottoman Muslim economy and political empire.

It was a small step to go from scapegoating the Armenians to exterminating them.

A hundred years later, Syria’s tragedy also started with a drought. From 2006-2011 up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.

In 2009, the UN reported that more than 800,000 Syrians had lost their entire livelihood because of the droughts. By 2011, about 1 million Syrians were food-insecure and as many as 3 million, about 14 percent of the entire population, were driven into extreme poverty.

Rural families fled to the cities. Crop failures in the farming villages around Aleppo alone led 200,000 rural villagers to leave. Syrian cities were already struggling to cope with Iraqi refugees from the U.S. invasion in 2003, and this current crisis added insurmountable burdens.

Hunger and desperation, water shortages and crop failures, continued population growth and massive internal displacement all resulted in Syria’s originally peaceful opposition movement. The contestation with the Assad government quickly devolved into one of the worst crises on the planet.

A path to peace?

In the short term, the thousands of starving and ill Syrians, both inside of Syria and in refugee camps in neighboring countries, must have access to food, water, medical treatment, and shelter. In the long term, any peace will be unsustainable unless the fundamental needs of food and water can be assured.

During the Armenian genocide, Syria was a refuge for families who survived the forced marches and mass violence in the desert. Today, Armenia has welcomed more than 30,000 Armenian refugees from Syria.

***

World Without Genocide is honoring Dr. Taner Akcam, Turkish scholar of the Armenian genocide and global human rights leader, with the “Outstanding Upstander” award. Akcam will speak at an event on Monday, May 14, at 7 p.m. For tickets and information, go here

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide.

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