Dissecting Kessab: What is (and Isn’t) Happening in the Historical Armenian Town
The heartbreaking news came quickly – the ethnic Armenian town of Kessab in Syria, one of immense historic significance to Armenians had been taken over by hardline Islamists as residents were forced to flee. Rebels advanced to Bashar Al Assad’s hometown province, but there was more disturbing news – the Turkish air force shot down a regime war plane trying to bombard the rebel advancement by al Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria, reported the Wall Street Journal.
The civil war that had plagued the Middle Eastern country for three years had finally caught up to the border. Since it began, over 140,000 civilians have lost their lives, an estimated 9 million refugees have left the country now enveloped by rubble and death.
The mayors of various villages in the area told CivilNet that the town had been destroyed and was now “gone.”
But the tragedy of Kessab has also fallen to another tragedy of sorts – one of the digital world, where misinformation, unverified sources and fake photos have been used to create hysteria and have unfortunately gone viral, under the hashtag “SaveKessab.”
Eager to participate and help spread the word, the worldwide Armenian Diaspora has employed the hashtag, furiously tweeting, changing their FB profile photos and urging others to sign petitions to help stop “history repeating itself,” referencing the 1.5 million Armenians who perished in the Ottoman-era slaughter known as the Armenian Genocide. Kim Kardashian, Cher and even random celebrities like Blink 182’s Travis Barker got involved in the “SaveKessab” movement, too, which elevated the hashtag to their large worldwide audiences.
But in the process, the hashtag became a tool for spreading misinformation, as Armenia-based journalist Gegham Vardanyan summarized in his post on the topic, both in English and Armenian:
Those disseminating this type of false information are often ordinary users who simply want to use social media to show their patriotism or to help resolve the Kessab Armenians’ problem however way they can. The problem is that information from Kessab, as such, is very scarce. There is practically no first-hand information. And when there’s no information, it’s quite easy to replace it with misinformation.
Here is a primer on what is happening in Kessab, why it’s so important and how to separate fact from fiction.
An important note: Clarifying these facts does not undermine the story: The Syrian Civil War has reached an important, historical Armenian populated town. Kessab has been left in ruins. The entire population has had to flee as refugees in their own country. But along the way, issues have arisen that need to be addressed. Journalism is based in facts and verified information from first-hand sources. There is a reason why news stations independently verify reports, and fact-checkers are employed at magazines. Things need to check out, and check out again before being disseminated to the public. Not doing so is irresponsible, harmful and frankly, not journalism.
Clarification makes stories stronger. Here is an attempt to do just that:
What is Kessab?
Kessab is an Armenian populated town that sits near the border of Turkey, in the province of Latakia. There are several Armenian churches in the town, and according to various reports about 2,000 residents live in the town. In the 19th century, Kessab’s population numbered around 6,000 with more than 20 schools.
A report on meeting Millennium Development goals sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency mentions an innovative soap factory in Kessab, with products made using local laurel oil. The factory provided income for 20 families, “with a further 150 benefiting from the market for the berries they collect and process.”
Diasporan descendants often visit the town, many of whom had relatives still living there. One diasporan writes eloquently about going to Kessab to celebrate her grandmother’s 100th birthday.
Why is it so important?
Kessab is only one of two last surviving towns in the historical Armenian kingdom of Cilicia (the other being Vakifli in Turkey) which was formed during the Middle Ages by Armenian refugees who were fleeing the Seljuk invasion of Armenia. It extended from what is now southeastern modern day Turkey to Cyprus and Syria. According to Kessabtsiner.com, “The region of Antioch was emptied of its Armenian, Greek and Syriac inhabitants, due to intense persecution. In an attempt to avoid persecution, the Armenians of the flat lands of Antioch took refuge in more mountainous regions, such as Kessab and Mousa Dag.”
In “The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars,” Razmik Panossian highlights the importance of Kessab:
Even the Armenian born generation felt very strongly about Kessab- without ever seeing it. There was much pride in the (most uneventful) history of the village. It was a strange type of longing for a diasporan community – albeit a very old one – as a ‘homeland,’ while living in the real ‘fatherland.’ The important dimensions of this regional identity is how it is connected to nationalism.
What is happening in Kessab?
On Saturday, March 22, the Syrian war advanced to Kessab, and the town was thrown under siege. One of the village mayors of Kessab told CivilNet in a telephone conversation that “rockets from the Turkish border were launched at the village and that the leaders made a decision to evacuate the Armenian population to avoid human losses.”
The residents were evacuated to Latakia, with no time to take anything with them. They are being sheltered and fed as Kessab has been overrun by rebels and they cannot return. They also cite the town being destroyed. They report no casualties, although Armenian member of parliament Tevan Poghosyan, who visited the residents on a personal trip reports that there were initially 20 people who remained unaccounted for, seven of which returned back to to the refugee camp in Latakia.
The U.S. State Department announced that it was “deeply troubled” by the violence in Kessab, but as the Armenian National Committee of America points out, “stopped short of criticizing Turkey’s role.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Armenian-Syrians are blaming Turkey for the advances in Kessab as “Ankara has long turned a blind eye to rebels crossing their borers and weapons flow.”
Why are Armenians so upset about it?
In the last 100 years, this is the third time that the Armenian community has been forced to flee their homes in Kessab. In 1909, Turkish armed forces entered and pillaged the town. Almost 200 deaths were reported. In 1915, during the Ottoman-era slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians known as the Armenian Genocide, the entire population of Kessab was deported, thousands were killed and only a fraction survived to make their way back to the historical town again.
The events that have recently taken place have rattled the Armenian Diaspora, who has long fought for recognition of a genocide which Turkey denies. It has opened unhealed wounds and brought memories back of dark and defining times in Armenian history, which is made all the more shocking and emotional with reports of Turkish involvement. What is happening in Syria cannot be categorically referred to as “genocide,” but because of the emotional toll and trauma, what is happening now is easily being associated with the events of 1915.
The Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East has distributed a letter which describes the residents of Kessab as being “caught between two fighting forces,” though it also stresses that the land is being held by rebels “backed by Turkey and helped by its military forces.”
Since the start of the Syrian war, minorities like Armenians have been caught in the crossfires. Over 6,000 Syrian-Armenian have escaped along with the millions of ethnic Syrians that have fled out of the country, many of them forced into an unexpected repatriation back to Armenia.
The Wall Street Journal reports that many Syrian-Armenians support President Bashar al Assad’s forces – an alliance which is a “safer bet to protect their interests” because Assad’s Alawite roots also make him a religious minority.
“Islam, he declared proudly, teaches respect for all religions, including Christianity. “The jihadist brothers do not harm anyone. This is our religion and this is our Islam.”
The BBC has the only first-hand published interview with a Syrian-Armenian farmer who is actually a resident of Kessab. He relayed in a radio interview that trucks carrying armed militants began coming from the Turkish side and attacking Syrian government police posts. “We heard lots of explosions near the villages close to the Turkish border.” He mentions no civilian deaths but does say about 50 elderly people stayed behind and when he tried to contact neighbors, the phones were answered by people who did not speak local Arabic. Epress has the transcript if you can’t listen to the audio.
Tevan Poghosyan, an Armenian Member of Parliament who visited Latakia last week on a personal trip reports no civilian casualties after speaking to the mayor and residents.
• The Spread of False Photos
1. A Save Kessab Facebook page disseminated photos of Christian church in ruins on their page. “Hate Crimes, and the world is silent,” they wrote, insinuating that the desecration took place in Kessab. The photos actually turned out to be from St. Mary’s Greek Catholic Church in Yabrud, Syria.
2. This article from a “former Muslim Brotherhood Member Now Peace Activist” references the “brutal massacre” in Kessab and was using a gruesome image of armed gunmen standing over the severed heads of several men in a grassy field. The image was actually from a 2012 video, showing armed Taliban militants standing over the heads of Pakistani ‘soldiers.’
3. This layered image was widely spread on Twitter and Instagram. The graphic photo of the woman with a crucifix down her throat is a still shot from the horror film “Inner Depravity,” the child behind held up is an image of Fatima Meghlaj, 2, decapitated when a bomb fell on her house in Idlib in Sept. 2012. The other image of a decapitated man is from Syria and completely unrelated to Kessab.
• The Misuse of the Word “Genocide” and more.
Here is the textbook definition of what genocide means: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.
The country of Syria is caught in a bloody, ongoing war that has unfortunately advanced to an Armenian stronghold. Tragically, Kessab has been caught in the middle of it, too. This is not a systematic attempt to wipe out Armenians. This is the byproduct of a war that has killed over 140,000 victims.
Furthermore, as Sako Arian on Hetq, Armenia’s investigative journalism outlet, points out, Turkey’s involvement in aiding rebels is not new:
The fact that Turkey is assisting the rebels in Syria isn’t a recent development. The Turkish Air Force has not only shot down Syrian planes but has installed Patriot type missile systems on its southern border.
These are the facts.
What is sad is that we Armenians have again fallen in the old trap of enemy hating creating by Turkey itself. Statements and posts of pain, sorrow and lament appear everywhere. In the midst of all these emotional outbursts, no one is thinking of real exit strategies.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the following: Kessab is not related toy Franz Werfel’s novel, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” as previously stated. Kessab is one of two remaining towns of the ancient Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, Vakifli in Turkey is the other.