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The Sunday Times: Armenians in Syria flee for their lives

The Sunday Times, UK
April 5 2014

Armenians in Syria flee for their lives

Turkey is suspected of aiding the hardline rebels who have driven out
Christians from their Syrian enclave

Hala Jaber Latakia, Syria

IT WAS just before 6am when Huvinar Khacherian was woken by the sound
of shells raining down on the sleepy hilltop village of Kassab, close
to Syria’s border with Turkey.

Until a fortnight ago the village, which lies in Latakia province, the
homeland of President Bashar al-Assad, had been a peaceful enclave,
sheltered from the brutal three-year conflict that has swept the rest
of Syria.

For years its peace and quiet have made it a safe haven for ethnic
Armenians, a Christian community who have faced oppression and
genocide at the hands of the Ottomans who once ruled them.

From the balcony of her home, Khacherian looked out and saw armed
rebels descending on the village from the direction of the border.
“They were like a colony of ants; tiny figures moving down from the
mountains,” she said.

Mortar fire and rockets hit the customs post and it began to burn. The
lightly armed Syrian guards could offer no resistance and were

The rebels, from hardline Islamist groups, are thought to be acting
under the protection of Turkish forces – an impression strengthened
last month by the shooting down by the Turks of a Syrian jet while it
was strafing rebels. Villagers say the Turks also allow rebels to fire
across the border.

Khacherian, 50, her husband and three daughters had no choice but to
flee with their neighbours. Some were still in their nightclothes,
forced to leave everything behind.

A neighbour bundled Khacherian’s family into the back of his Suzuki
truck. “I couldn’t take any of our belongings as we had to make room
for others,” she sobbed. “We were told we’d only be away for a few
hours but it’s been two weeks.”

It was the third time in little more than a year that Khacherian had
been forced from her home. She was married to an Armenian and had
lived in Raqqa, 250 miles to the east, for 22 years when rebel
fighters threatened her husband’s life unless he paid them a £2,500

They fled westwards to Aleppo, but within eight months that city fell
under the control of the militant Islamist faction Isis, known for its
cruelty and hostility to Christians. It was too dangerous to stay and
they packed again, this time heading for Kassab, where Khacherian had
a house and thought they would be safe.

Last month the family’s nightmares returned. Rebel fighters swept
south from the Turkish border to capture Observatory 45, a former
regime stronghold of strategic importance because it controls a swathe
of territory stretching towards the coast.

Although it was retaken by government forces earlier last week, its
fall had given the rebels a foothold from which they advanced into the
rest of the province. This is the heartland of Assad’s Alawites,
followers of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, who make up only 12% of
Syria’s people but control its regime and military.

The mass exodus of Armenians from Kassab carries a heavy burden of
emotion for the Armenians because of their history of persecution.

Garo Manjikian, a farmer who acts as a spokesman for Kassab’s Armenian
community, said they had been forced to flee three times after
massacres in 1909, 1915 and 1937. Historians believe about 1.5m
Armenians were massacred during the First World War – a claim disputed
by Turkey.

“We’ve been persecuted since birth and we do not understand why the
Turks have it in for us,” he said.

Manjikian, 55, was working in his peach orchard when he heard the
mortar fire. He rushed home, packed his family into his pickup truck
and drove them out of the village. “My father began to cry, saying
that he did not want to leave,” he recalled.

“Now the rebels are living in our homes. What makes my blood boil is
not only that the Turks persecuted us three times in our history, but
now they’re backing Islamist rebels to do it again.”

Rebel sources say their offensive is the result of months of planning
and co-operation between various opposition factions, with Ansar
al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra fighting together on the
front lines, alongside smaller Free Syrian Army groups.

The incursion is largely of symbolic value, following a series of
heavy defeats at the hands of Assad’s forces.

However, it was enough of a breakthrough to persuade Ahmad al-Jarba,
the opposition leader who was on a rare visit to Syria last week, to
congratulate the rebels.

“Whoever thinks there is pressure on us to stop this battle is
delusional and wrong,” he told them.

The Syrian army is sending in reinforcements, but the threat of rebel
advances has galvanised residents of the port city of Latakia and
other towns and cities into action.

Volunteers are manning field kitchens for government soldiers. “This
is about boosting them in their battle and keeping their morale up,”
explained a female volunteer.

Among the Armenians I sensed a feeling of foreboding about the rebel advance.

Hgob Pentezin, 84, who had been forced to flee Kassab in his pyjamas,
said it reminded him of stories he had been told by his parents and
grandparents about past Turkish persecution. This time, he said, the
Armenian people would stand up to their oppressors.

Manjikian said that when his son was born, instead of buying him the
traditional present of gold coins he had bought him a gun.

“Knowing what we have been through in our history, I gave him a gun so
he’ll never have to endure that again and always be prepared,” he

“Sadly it’s as if history is repeating itself.”


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