Al Jazeera has published an article by Ben Gilbert about the attack on Armenian-populated Kessab.
On Friday, March 21, 32-year-old Syrian-Armenian Savan woke up to the sound of machine gun fire and explosions. It was 5:30 a.m.
She and her family sought refuge in the first-floor hallway of their home, where they hoped the lack of windows would protect them from the bombs falling outside.
At first, she thought the fighting would last only a few minutes; perhaps it was a short exchange of fire between Syrian rebels and the Syrian army positioned near the Syria-Turkey border, which lies just a few hundred yards from her home.
But as the fighting continued for an hour and then two, she realized her worst fears had come true: Syrian rebels were attacking their mostly Armenian Christian village of Kassab (population 2,200) from what seemed to be Turkish territory. And the rebels intended to take it.
For Armenians like Savan, the fact that the attack happened to an Armenian village just beyond Turkey’s borders awakens old wounds, animosities and anger. It’s the third time her family has been driven from their home in Kassab in just over 100 years. The Ottomans deported her great-grandfather in 1909 and again in 1915, when Kassab, with the rest of Syria, was part of the Ottoman Empire.
“I feel they’re trying to do the Armenian genocide again,” she said, referring to the 1915 massacre and deportation of Armenian Christians — an event Armenians call genocide but some Turkish historians dispute. “I feel like Armenians [are] under attack.”
By 7 a.m., Savan and her family feared the rebels would cut off the highway leading out of Kassab, so they fled the village. They ran outside to their silver Volkswagen Golf, and six people piled into the compact hatchback.
“I only had enough time to grab my passport and my university degree,” Savan said.
They picked up her father, 64-year-old Harout, who had been sleeping at the restaurant he owns.He didn’t want to leave.
“It’s like history repeating itself,” Harout said later at his sister’s house in Anjar, a Lebanese town founded by Armenian refugees who fled their villages in 1915.
Several witnesses to the attack on Kassab said that the rebels attacked from Turkish territory and that the offensive couldn’t have happened without the Turkish government’s consent.
Harout said a senior member of the village received guarantees from the Turks that Kassab was secure and that no Syrian rebel attacks would be permitted from Turkish territory.
“Kassab was the quietest place in Syria,” said another Kassab resident, 44-year-old Rafi, who works as a construction contractor and farmer. “The Turkish army usually did patrols along the border every three hours. But the day before the attack, there were no patrols.”
Kassab is in a mountainous area, and the Turkish military has the high ground. Residents say a small contingent of Syrian soldiers was based there along with Syrian police who manned the border crossings — but the better-armed and -positioned rebels overran them.
“The attacks were launched from Turkish territory. I saw them,” Rafi said. “For us, Turkey is the same Turkey as before. They are acting the same way they did 100 years ago. We’ve been exiled in 1909, 1915 and now 2014.”
Rafi and other Kassab natives say Kassab is one of the last remaining Armenian-inhabited towns that date from the medieval Kingdom of Cilicia, which was a semi-autonomous Armenian kingdom along the Mediterranean coast in what is now southern Turkey in the 12th to 14th centuries.
The collective memories of Cilicia, along with the events of the early 20th century, are experiences that unify the large Armenian diaspora. Survivors of the deportations and massacres during World War I built strong Armenian communities that exist to this day in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon; some of the largest Armenian communities outside the Republic of Armenia are in the United States and Russia.
In Kassab, the Armenians lived side by side with ethnic Turkmen, also Syrian citizens, who often worked for the Armenian farmers and business owners. But when the attack began, Rafi said, some of the Turkmen picked up weapons and joined the rebels in their attack on the village. He said he called his apartment, and a former employee picked up the phone.
“He told me, ‘Boss, we’re going to spend the night in your place,’ and I said, ‘You’re welcome to sleep, but please don’t destroy the place,’” he said. “He made fun of me and mocked me to his friends. And he was my employee!”
Another farmer from Kassab, Simon, said only Turkmen who joined the rebels were allowed into the village. He said a Turkmen employee who made it into Kassab helped him try to find out the condition of his home and property. (He doesn’t know the condition of his home, but his tractor, worth $18,000, is missing.)
For now, a friend is lending Simon, his wife and two sons an apartment in Anjar. His 11- and 14-year-old sons attend the Armenian Orthodox School here. He said they’ll stay “as long as the situation dictates.”
“If today we hear that we can return to Kassab, we will return,” he said.
But Simon worries about returning to Kassab, now that the Turks broke their promise to not allow Syrian rebels to operate from their territory.
“What kind of guarantees can they offer? Even if we return, even if we clean up the town, can we trust Turks not to repeat this?” he asked.
Residents say three civilians — none of them Armenian — were killed in the attack on Kassab. Compared with the rest of Syria, the town has been spared much of the violence devastating the country.
But Harout fears that if the Syrian army tries to take back Kassab by force, the town will be destroyed. If the rebels choose to leave, they’ll help themselves to anything they can carry.
“If the army takes it, they’ll destroy the buildings. If the rebels leave on their own, we’ll have only the buildings,” he said.
“They’re not rebels. They’re terrorists,” said Savan. “The opposition in Syria kicked us out of our houses.”
A couple visiting family in Anjar for Easter said they fled Kassab with everyone else. But they fear they have lost more than buildings or furniture: Their son is a soldier in the Syrian army. They haven’t heard from him since August 2012.
“We can always rebuild our house,” said Maral as tears welled up in her eyes and her niece picked a pink Easter egg from a bowl on the kitchen counter. “But we cannot get our son back.”