My last trip through the Middle East didn’t seem that long ago: A road trip on the south eastern coast of Turkey, what was once majestic Giligia. Across the border into Kessab, exploring the surrounding tiny Armenian villages that still housed a few Armenians, mostly octogenarians you can count on one hand. Across Syria with a pit stop in Aleppo for a trip through the souk and a sampling of their great cuisine, directly to Der Zor to visit the Genocide Cathedral and Museum, then into the dessert to the memorial chapel and finding remnants of my ancestor’s bones that are just below the surface. Back through Palmyra, the ancient Roman city still intact after two thousand years and the only one ruled by a woman in that patriarchal world, where a few Armenian families still live in the adjoining town. Then back through Homs where memories of childhood trips to visit family bubbled to the surface, and down across the border to Beirut, my birthplace.
In a perfect world I would not be reminiscing but recounting my reality, a life of relaxed contentment. In an even more perfect world, I may still be in my ancestral village now lost in Turkey. Alas, that is not the case. All I have are cobbled together childhood impressions of a place now lost, overlaid by memories of adult experiences which are now smothered by images of current events.
It seems so far away, both the land and the current events. “It can’t possibly affect me here,” I tell myself as I watch CNN. But it most definitely does. Aleppo is the crossroads of history where Armenians have left their deepest impressions. I close my eyes and see the stately boulevards, the jumble of souks, its stately mansions owned by Armenians and now converted into five star restaurants serving Armenian cuisine. But images of its current state of crumbled buildings, overturned buses, crying children and the stories of kidnapped Armenians overshadow everything else.
And what of Der Zor? The desert of mythical proportions in every Armenian’s mind is a very real, very flat, very hot and very large place. I arrived there late at night. Because of the extreme heat even in September, the city comes alive after dark, when the sun has been safely tucked into bed. My hotel was across the street from the Genocide Cathedral and Museum. I watched its silent walls from my window and tried to imagine what I would find inside the next day. A few pictures, maps, some crosses perhaps. I laugh at my harmless musings. The treasures inside were beyond what I imagined.
Besides beautiful architecture and art, there were recovered intact bones, detailed maps, scores of pictures of Armenian life before 1915, sand from every Armenian village neatly lined on a shelf where it would be easy to see the contrasting colors of the soil and its texture. All these things, along with a trip deep into the dessert to feel the sand and bones with my own hands, made the people of 100 years ago as real and tangible as my next door neighbor.
All of these things are now gone. ISIS razed the Genocide Cathedral and Museum, overtook Palmyra, has its sights on Aleppo and will mostly likely pass through Kessab, like some rebel group’s attempts last year. The rebel groups, particularly ISIS, target Christians in territories it occupies. The rest of their deeds in occupied land doesn’t need to be mentioned.
This is not a political discussion but rather a conversation of humanity. We are facing an extermination of epic proportions. Unfortunately, this time Armenian won’t even be mentioned because this is a story about ISIS, Syria and the rest of the Middle East. Armenians don’t even qualify as a footnote. And yet the pain and suffering is real and it’s happening now. Those who can have already escaped to Yerevan and Beirut. Those who can’t still live in the war zone scurrying about trying not to get kidnaper or blown up as they search for food and water.
The lucky escapees live in third world conditions in a grey area between refugee and immigrant. Neither country has a social services network to help them. They rely on a network of friends and family who are already living on the edge themselves. The few with some resources quickly depleted them.
How does this affect us here? These are people we know. Before globalization and the internet world, there was the Armenian network. The Armenian world is small where everyone has three degrees of separation from everyone else. We can choose to keep our blinders on and live in denial, or we can wake up and step up to make a difference in the lives of people we know who have lost everything in an attempt to save their children. Our children.