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    an illustration of a pomegranate

    Syria’s Seed Planters

    The war with ISIS spawned a huge wave of refugees. But not everyone left Syria’s Khabur River valley.

    By Mindy Belz

    June 30, 2022
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    “The years of war have changed the face of the old world. Dynasties and Empires have fallen: old freedoms have been reborn, revolutionary systems of government have arisen. But it is probable that in proportion to its size, no community has undergone trials and upheavals to equal those of the little Nation-Church, which bears the name of the Assyrians.” —League of Nations, The Settlement of the Assyrians, a Work of Humanity and Appeasement, Geneva, 1935

    I traveled to Qamishli for the first time in 2002. Syria then was a sea of state-controlled tranquility in a storm-tossed region. The United States had just gone to war in Afghanistan and would soon be at war in neighboring Iraq. But Qamishli was calm, nestled in Syria’s northeast, with a diverse population of Kurds, Arabs, Jews, and Armenian and Assyrian Christians.

    The city borders Nusaybin in Turkey, home to one of the oldest surviving churches in Mesopotamia. Qamishli was the gateway to Tur Abdin, or “mountain of the servants of God” in Syriac. Once the apex of the Fertile Crescent, Tur Abdin filled with churches and monasteries in the first centuries of Christian life. From there came early Christian scholarly work, the distribution of Bible texts, and liturgical music.

    I flew to Qamishli from Damascus on a quavering Soviet-era passenger plane full of smoking men. As soon as we landed on the tarmac, Kurdish taxi drivers congregated at the base of the boarding stairs to take away passengers. Outside my hotel room window, I heard the market’s hum, the mix of Arabic, Syriac, and Kurdish dialects as shoppers clamored over prices. My Kurdish driver picked me up at dawn the next day for an hour’s ride to the Iraq border.

    We stopped at a roadside restaurant where we took hot tea in paper cups and ate a breakfast of warm flatbread, roasted eggplant, tomatoes, and yogurt. Tributaries of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers irrigate these upper reaches in Hasakah province. The grasslands that day were thick as any carpet, reflecting waves of early morning light caught in gentle breezes.

    The Church of the Virgin Mary in Tel Nasri on the Khabur River that ISIS blew up in 2015.

    The Church of the Virgin Mary in Tel Nasri on the Khabur River. In 2015, ISIS emptied the town of 1,200 and blew up the church on Easter Sunday. In 2019 only four people had returned. All photographs courtesy of the author

    As a reporter I tend to hurtle toward the next armed conflict, but in this quiet light I sat suffused by the past. Cobbled mounds rose from the plains marking ancient settlements. At least one, Tell Brak, is older than the Egyptian pyramids.

    The Khabur River, mentioned in the Old Testament and the writings of the Greeks, carves a valley through this region, which locals call Jazirah. Its ancient people may be the world’s first farmers, growing wheat and domesticating wild grasses for livestock. The land’s richness transformed nomads to landholders and city people.

    Reaching the Tigris before the sun grew hot, I boarded a motorboat to cross into Iraq. Saddam Hussein had turned much of his country into a no-go area for reporters, and I entered illegally with help from Kurdish activists and Syria’s military intelligence service. With coming wars, first in Iraq and later in Syria, I would not pass this way again until 2019.

    Starting in 2011, Syria’s civil conflict morphed into an international war. I would manage to enter other parts of the country, but by the time I returned to the northeast, warring parties had fought over it many times: terrorist groups, Syrian government forces, Russians, Americans, Kurdish and Christian militias.

    By 2019, Jazirah is a bleakened version of its former self.Islamic State terrorists have captured territory in Syria and Iraq that includes pockets of the Jazirah. The militants control key towns along Syria’s northern tier, whose oil and gas fields help keep their weapons flowing. From ISIS headquarters in the northern city of Raqqa, militants run a steady slave trade trafficking women and girls who aren’t Muslims, while jailing and abusing any who transgress their radical laws. Slowly coalition forces are driving them out, but scattered cells remain.

    Qamishli somehow escapes ISIS control, but suicide bombings torment its streets. The markets, I find, are nearly empty. Whole blocks go dark at night, a sign of how many residents have left. A government checkpoint divides the city down the center, with Syrian forces controlling one sector while a Kurdish-led force supervises the rest.

    The Kurds’ alliance with the United States helps wrest areas from ISIS control. The Assad regime in Damascus has more strategic battles elsewhere. Outsiders are beginning to see the Kurd-led governing autonomous administration – with a federal structure and Arab, Kurd, and Christian representatives – as a model for self-rule throughout the country. But war is far from over.

    A young shepherd and a flock of sheep in the village of Tel Tal.

    A young shepherd in the village of Tel Tal

    On a rainy night, I skirt the checkpoint area with Assyrian friends to visit Samir Khanoun, a Chaldean Catholic priest. He ushers us into his church’s barren reception room, presses to life a diesel heater, and calls for an older gentleman to bring coffee.

    Khanoun was born in the village of Tel Baz, south along the Khabur River where the League of Nations created settlements in 1938 for Assyrian Christians who survived genocidal massacres in Turkey and Iraq. About 250,000 Assyrians had been killed. As the survivors flocked to their new sanctuary along the Khabur, Khanoun’s parents met, fell in love, and married. Khanoun grew up helping them tend grapes, sheep, cows, and chickens. Each village had at least one church. Worship in the ancient Syriac dialect using centuries-old liturgies shaped Khanoun’s daily life. He left Tel Baz for high school in the city of Hasakah, then studied in Egypt and France. “I always was intending to come back,” he says.

    While he served as a priest in Qamishli, Khanoun’s relatives in the Khabur villages came under another attack – this time by Islamic State militants in 2015. The fighters overran thirty-five towns, killing Christian militia members guarding the towns and kidnapping two hundred fifty residents, from six months to ninety years old.

    It was one of the global jihadists’ largest hostage-takings. Only weeks before, members of the militant group gained international attention for lining up Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya and beheading them. Everyone expected the Khabur captives to suffer the same way.

    Seven months later, the jihadists released a video showing three Khabur men dressed in orange jumpsuits, kneeling before hooded gunmen who shot them. Each victim had been born in the villages and was well known to Khanoun and others. Each had refused a demand to convert to Islam.

    The Assyrians had no government to intervene on their behalf, so they turned to the church. For weeks the bishop in Hasakah, Mar Afram Athneil, negotiated with ISIS leaders while funds for ransom arrived from relatives and friends overseas. Over the next year, ISIS released the hostages, first in small groups, and eventually nearly all of them. By then the ordeal had cast a lasting pall over the region.

    “The ISIS attack broke all the Christians here,” Khanoun says. “They threatened us in Qamishli and everywhere so that people became very afraid.” Only a handful of Khabur residents returned to their villages. Daily masses where Khanoun once served more than a hundred people now have “twenty, maybe twenty-five, and the majority are women.”

    Sudden apocalypse was followed by slow attrition. The 2015 attacks in Khabur and suicide bombs elsewhere in Hasakah province brought violence and cataclysm. Fear brought a different wave of destruction.

    Christian families one by one quit Qamishli, Hasakah, and their Khabur settlements. The land that watered and fed their forebears grew fallow. Their flocks ran wild. Their shops were shuttered. Their churches formed smaller and smaller cliques.

    Those who had no means to leave or otherwise chose to remain try to carry on amid the slow demise of the life that was. The vendors selling popcorn under evening lights on Qameshli’s sidewalks or the clerks scooping falafels behind the counter are small reminders of the way it was before. But Khanoun sees the losses every day in his empty pews and his visits to vacant villages.

    “I have offers to leave,” he says, “but for me it is a personal decision to stay. To stay until this crisis is over. My Christian faith and responsibility as a priest means I will stay. I want to serve my people even if there’s one person left.”

    The electricity cuts off as we finish. Khanoun insists on serving us again before we leave. He retrieves a large bowl of chocolates in bright wrappers made in a candy factory his church supports. The chocolates are rich and could be sold in any gourmet grocery. We eat them in the dark.

    The next day I head across the flat grasslands again, now west toward the Khabur villages. Though it isn’t fully spring, the fields are a blinding green. Our car crosses the old Ottoman railroad that once carried passengers from Baghdad across Jazirah and all the way to Germany. West of Hasakah is a blank expanse before reaching the valley. Cultivated fields, ready to plant, rise into view.

    Malik, my translator, explains that in springtime the city families used to picnic along the Khabur riverbank. Now no one will risk it.

    We cross the river on a gutted bridge ISIS tried to blow up in 2015. Khanoun told me I’d find nearly all the villages empty. ISIS cells are close, even after the local forces, helped by US airstrikes, broke their hold on the valley.

    Villagers felt abandoned by Kurdish forces in 2015 and still don’t trust them four years later. Some Assyrians have moved to larger nearby towns, and some across borders into the mountains of Iraq and Turkey, back to where previous generations began. Others have emigrated to Germany, the United States, or Australia.

    Village after village is in ruins. ISIS toppled church steeples, burned and in some cases bulldozed the buildings. It laid mines around homes and watering troughs. It torched grape rows and fruit trees.

    As disheartening as it is to walk through the scorched towns, I see the remnants of a pastoral life. Rebar curls from piles of rubble, bullet holes pockmark sheds, but turn the corner and grassy paths lead to neat houses with curtains. Chicken yards sit empty, their fencerows intact. A young boy comes around a lane, leading sheep to a grassy enclosure. Behind the flock his mother shoos them forward, carrying a lamb.

    We are in Tel Tal, where I hope to meet Elias Antar, one of the returnees. Assyrians I spoke to from Chicago, Stockholm, and Beirut all implored me to find him if I reached the Khabur.

    Antar was born in Tel Tal and plans to die here. He and his wife Shamiram escaped ISIS fighters with many others that February 2015 dawn. The sound of rushing water awakened Antar at around one in the morning. Somewhere upstream, a dam in Turkey that drew down the Khabur for twenty years suddenly had opened. From his living room window Antar watched the flow and couldn’t go back to sleep. Soon he heard shots and doors kicked in nearby.

    Tel Tal was one of the last villages ISIS reached. Militants arrived as Antar and others escaped to a city upriver. He heard the cries of children and the explosion at the bridge as they went.

    Four years later, those days are something he doesn’t want to talk about, only to say, “We were the last to escape and the first to return.”

    When Antar returned to Tel Tal, fighting still coursed through the valley and jets hummed overhead. Too impatient to wait for de-mining teams, he checked for mines himself. His property sits at the edge of Tel Tal and down a winding lane lined with plum trees next to groves of apricots and pomegranates. His fields and fruit trees were torched, his chickens turned out, but he found his house intact. The best way to defeat ISIS, he decided, was to start over.

    Now, as years pass and other Assyrians stay away, Antar lobbies old neighbors, relatives, and friends to join his cause. “We challenge all those who are running away by growing things while they are hunting for work in the cities. We have sheep, bees, olive trees, and grapes.”

    He stands at his front terrace, sweeping his arms wide toward green fields, where women pick mustard greens. He has persuaded a few families to return to the villages. They include the young shepherd and several who had left for America after the attack. He convinced friends from Hasakah and Qamishli to come for day trips to help. Of his seven children, two sons live here. Two daughters emigrated to Germany, two to Australia, and Antar’s oldest son moved to Ukraine in 2015.

    Four hundred people lived in Tel Tal when ISIS drove them out. Now? I ask. “Maybe fifteen. Twelve or fifteen,” he says. “It’s difficult to be here,” he concedes. “But I work and I have no empty time.”

    Antar was born in this same house in 1946, he tells me over tea inside his airy, one-story home, its windows open to the Khabur just beyond. His parents’ long journey as refugees ended here. His father, forced to flee Turkey, met Antar’s mother in Iran. They had to move on to Russia, then Greece, Lebanon, Iraq, and finally to the Khabur settlements, finding sanctuary here. At that time the Assyrians moved in groups, he says, not scattered like now.

    In Tel Tal the family farmed cotton and wheat, raised livestock, grew olives, apricots, plums, and more. But “geography is history, and the geography is against us,” one of Antar’s childhood friends in Chicago tells me. “We are surrounded by many different ethnic groups and most of them are looking at us as kuffar,” using the derogatory Arabic term for non-Muslims. “It doesn’t matter that our people have been there longer.”

    Apocalypse is commonly understood as a complete and final destruction. In its Greek root the term means “to take the cover off,” an unveiling. That’s why John’s apocalyptic book ending the New Testament is called Revelation.

    “Some forms of unveiling entail shuttering,” author and professor Jeff Bilbro wrote in a 2020 essay, “closing institutions, turning off the lights, going dark. In such darkness, we are forced to stop, take stock, and then learn to go ahead without sight.”

    I have seen this too many times, where war engulfs civilian populations and ends the world they’ve known. Many people feel they have no choice but to take flight, forced from their home in the dead of night with no idea where their journey might end.

    In 2014 I met Syrian refugees arriving in their pajamas to a snowstorm in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Later, I would see Syrians begging on Beirut’s streets and living in garages in southern Turkey. I would see them in crowded camps on idyllic Greek isles and in shelters in Paris and Brussels, in transit between a home that is largely gone and a new home they have yet to find.

    And always I would meet singular people like Elias Antar and Samir Khanoun, who might serve as fools at the end of a parade but simply couldn’t give up. To be at home in Khabur valley, to start over, for all its risks, might be the dream.

    Later in 2019, nine months after my visit with Khanoun, I return again to Qamishli. ISIS is fighting what will be its last battle for territory in a town near the Iraq border. US forces want to pull out but stay in smaller numbers. Turkey’s forces inside Syria increase to create a buffer zone extending along the border. The Turkish forces move downriver, shelling towns and forcing residents from their homes, toward the Khabur valley.

    A farmer in his grove of pomegranates

    Elias Antar in his grove of pomegranates

    Terrorists are working overtime. Soon after I arrive, a suicide bomb blows up across the street from my hotel. A motorcycle intended also to detonate at the hotel instead runs out of gas and drives with explosives into Khanoun’s church. I dial and dial his number with no answer.

    I learn he is safe, visiting village churches to the north, and no one else was in his church when the bomb went off. The damage is limited to an outer wall, which he plans to fix.

    I stick by my plan to reach Tel Tal and Elias Antar’s groves once again, setting out from my hotel as street cleaners clear debris from the bombing. Shops along the street already are reopening, keeping fragile spirits alive.

    This time the flat plain is filling with camps for families fleeing the Turkish invasion. The Khabur villages have new residents too, mainly Kurds and Arabs displaced by fighting, who find shelter in the Assyrian Christians’ empty homes. Convoys of Russian and American forces move along the main road, and black plumes rise where Turkish forces are shelling old Assyrian towns.

    Even so, with my translator and driver I make my way to Tel Tal, and we turn into Antar’s lane. I have come to think of him as the mayor of Khabur. He remains unflagging in his campaign for fellow Assyrians to join him, industrious in his labors to make it attractive. Nearby fighting has made no dent in his efforts. In fact, he’s taken in a couple from upriver, displaced by Turkish forces, and put them to work tending chickens and rabbits.

    As winter nears, Antar is busy with harvest. I find him waiting on his front patio, dressed in a light-colored summer suit, smiling. He beckons me into his groves while Shamiram makes coffee.

    We walk through dried grass and wild thyme. He has something to show me just past the plum trees. Four years ago he took cuttings from his charred pomegranate trees and cultivated them into saplings on his patio. He replanted them atop the charred spaces. For the first time, they have fruited.

    The pink and red balls are fat and heavy, hanging like baubles on a Christmas tree. He stands proudly by each one, holding them out for show. Then he picks five.

    At his patio table we lay them out and he turns over each one. We sip coffee and he fingers prayer beads. “These are the seeds of ISIS,” he laughs.

    Perhaps what appears lost is only hidden, awaiting its unveiling. Antar seems to possess a secret insight, a hope denied others. What if his Khabur valley’s glory days are not only in the past, but waiting in days to come?

    Antar pushes the pomegranates across to me: “You will take them to America, and give them to my friends.”

    And so I do, wrapping each in craft paper on my dining room table and mailing them to the Khabur villagers now living in Chicago.

    Contributed By a portrait of Mindy Belz Mindy Belz

    Mindy Belz is a writer and former senior editor at World Magazine.

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