Assyrian Christians: Life Inside a War-Torn Nation

By Friday, January 22, 2016

Throughout all of the media attention given to the various people caught in Syria’s civil war, one group, the Assyrian Christians, has been largely left out of the coverage. Jeff Gardner, director of operations for the Restore Nineveh Now Foundation, traveled deep into northeastern Syria to find out who the Assyrian Christians are and how they are managing to remain in their ancestral homeland.

It’s late in the morning, almost 11:30 a.m., but it is still chilly. I am sitting in a largish office at a training center for the Assyrian Christian defense force, the Gozarto Protection Force, and the Assyrian Christian police force, the Sootoro, in Qamishli, a city in the Hasakah province of northern Syria.

The office has marble floors and a kerosene-fueled cast iron stove burning off to one side. It gives the room some warmth, but also leaves a heavy, acrid smell in the air.

Across a glass coffee table from me sits Joseph. He is a tall man, well built, but with a weary look on his face. He is comfortable in brown, camouflage fatigues; on his right sleeve is a patch for the GPF, and on his left is the national flag of Syria.

Also present is Ashur, my translator and military spokesman for the GPF.

To relieve the constant tension that is life in Syria, we are all smoking – even though I am a non-smoker.

I spent the earlier part of the morning touring the training facility, watching young men go through “ready-up” rifle drills, RPG basics and the trickier business of manning a large machine gun mounted on the back of a pickup truck, a unit referred as a “technical.”

Joseph, whose days routinely run 12 – 14 hours long, has agreed to sit with me for an interview and a photo session, although for security reasons, he has asked that I not show his face. I agree, giving him not only my word but also my camera, and he inspects every image that I take. Pointing to a photograph that pictures him from roughly the chin down, he nods his approval.

As I press record on my phone’s voice-recorder app, an assistant to Joseph enters the room carrying a tray with three steaming glasses of yerba mate – an Argentine drink made with a mixture of dried leaves and twigs from the holly tree of South America, steeped in hot water and served with ample sugar. Although I am slightly annoyed at the interruption of my limited time with Joseph, having the hot mate to sip goes well with the delay in the interview caused by Ashur’s translation of my questions to Joseph, and in turn, his answers to me.

I begin with, “Joseph, what do you do here?” He answers, “I oversee the training programs for the GPF and Sootoro, and as member of a committee, I decide which trainees will be selected for the GPF and which will serve in the Sootoro.”

Through my translator Ashur, Joseph continues to explain that the GPF is an Assyrian military force that fights the Islamic State, and Sootoro is an Assyrian police force operating in Qamishli. Sootoro does everything from patrolling the streets to standing guard at schools and restaurants. Its members are the keepers of the peace, public safety and security for the five Assyrian Christian neighborhoods in Qamishli.

GPF and Sootoro recruits receive extensive operations and technical training. Photo credit: Jeff Gardner, The Picture Christians Project, www.picturechristians.org.
GPF and Sootoro recruits receive extensive operations and technical training. Photo credit: Jeff Gardner, The Picture Christians Project, www.picturechristians.org.


Both units, Joseph tells me, came into being by way of grinding necessity. As the Syrian civil war (which began in 2011) dragged on, government protection and services collapsed. And although ISIS, which has repeatedly attacked Assyrian Christians in the area, has made it clear that it intends to transform Syria into an Islamic State, the radical militants are not the most pressing problem for Christians in Qamishli.

“We formed Sootoro and the GPF, primarily, in response to Kurdish forces here in Hasakah province [in which Qamishli is located], Syria,” Joseph notes.

That the Kurds in the Hasakah province pose a problem for the Assyrian Christians may come as a surprise to Americans. Most in the United States associate the name “Kurd” with the peoples of northern Iraq who fought with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein and now are allies in the fight against ISIS. While it is true that the Kurds and Assyrians in Iraq have a working relationship, across the Tigris River in Syria, the situation is more precarious.

Kurds in the Hasakah province of northern Syria belong to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and its militia, the YPG. The YPG is so tightly aligned with the terrorist group, the Kurdish Workers’ Party or the PKK, that they are nearly one and the same. Pictures of Abdullah Öcalan, the now-jailed terrorist founder of the PKK, are everywhere in Hasakah province, including, and especially in, cities like Qamishli.

Both the YPG and PKK are self-proclaimed atheist Marxist groups and have declared northern Syria their own autonomous state, renaming it Rojava, which means “the West,” or “the land where the sun sets,” in reference to its location relative to Kurds in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. Turkey, for its part, has sworn that it will not tolerate a Kurdish state in Syria, and the actions of the YPG and PKK continue to destabilize the region, threatening to ignite an even wider war.

For Assyrian Christians in Qamishli, the threat is much closer to home. “This building,” Joseph tells me, “was built by the church to serve as a daycare center, but as the crisis in Syria worsened, the church gave it to Sootoro for training. The Kurdish YPG tried then to take it from us – first stealing the construction materials and then surrounding us and blockading us in the building for 10 days. The YPG does not want us to protect ourselves.”

“Protect yourselves from what, exactly?” I ask. “From them,” he responds, matter-of-factly.

Joseph explains that as part of their plan for a larger state, the Kurdish YPG pressures the Assyrian people, pushing them to leave Qamishli and emigrate. “We do not have a problem with [the YPG], and we want to be part of the security for our city,” Joseph explained, “but they seem to have a problem with us.”

Of the five Assyrian Christian neighborhoods in the city of Qamishli, Al-Wusta is the largest. Taken together, Assyrian Christians make up the majority of the population of the city.

Later in my trip, I had the chance to speak with a number of the Assyrian residents of Qamishli – shop owners, parents and the 20-somethings. All of them tell me a version of the same story: The YPG extorts money from the shop and/or business owner, tries to seize apartments from Assyrian families and is even known to force young Assyrian men to serve in the ranks of the YPG.

Deciding to play the devil’s advocate for just a moment, I ask Joseph, “Wouldn’t it be better, then, to disband Sootoro and the GPF, go along with the larger plan and leave security matters to the YPG?”

“If we disband Sootoro or the GPF,” Joseph replies between sips of mate, “then the YPG will again put pressure directly on the Assyrian people. Sootoro means ‘shield,’ and we are training them to stand between our people, ISIS and the YPG.”

GPF and Sootoro recruits receive training on how to operate a rocket-propelled grenade. Photo credit: Jeff Gardner, The Picture Christians Project, www.picturechristians.org.
GPF and Sootoro recruits receive training on how to operate a rocket-propelled grenade. Photo credit: Jeff Gardner, The Picture Christians Project, www.picturechristians.org.


Shifting gears, I ask, “What did you do before the civil war, before ISIS, the YPG, the training center, before all this mess?” With a short laugh, Joseph exhales a large cloud of cigarette smoke and says, “I was an IT technician, a computer and software expert.”

“So the civil war made it impossible for you to make a living, and you joined the GPF and Sootoro?” I asked. “Oh, no,” Joseph responded, acting genuinely surprised by my question. “As people with computer skills left Syria because of the crisis, business for me was very, very good. But I could not stand watching what was happening to us, the robberies and kidnapping, by both the Arabs and the Kurds.”

Fishing for his phone in his side pocket, he continued, “So I had a long conversation with my wife and we decided that for now I should serve the GPF and Sootoro any way that I am able.”

“What about that?” I ask out loud, pointing to the Syrian flag on his left shoulder. “Why are you wearing that flag? Does that mean that GPF and Sootoro are fighting for the Assad regime?”

“This flag,” Joseph replies with a gesture towards his shoulder, “is the flag of our country, Syria. The Syrian people voted for this flag. We believe in democracy, and when there is another vote to change the flag, we will change it.”

“But why not wear the flag of the Free Syrian Army?” I ask, pressing the issue.

“There are many flags now in Syria,” Joseph replies, matter-of-factly. “ISIS has a flag, al-Nusra, YPG, YPJ … Whose flag should we wear? This is the flag of our country. It is the flag that is flown at the United Nations. When the people of Syria decide to change it, we will change with them.”

As I crush out my last cigarette, Joseph passes me his phone. On it is a video of his two daughters (both very cute toddlers) playing in a modestly appointed living room with his wife.

“They are beautiful,” I say to him.

“Yes, they are,” he said, a smile spreading across his face.

Having finished our mate, I sense that Joseph’s available time for me is at an end. But that’s all right. Seeing the mixture of pride and sorrow reflected in his eyes as we watch another video of his daughters, I don’t need to ask him any more questions, I have what I came for. I understand what the training center, the GPF, Sootoro and even Joseph are all about.

Jeff Gardner

Jeff Gardner is the founder and director of the Picture Christians Project and the director of operations for the Restore Nineveh Now Foundation. Contact him at picturechristians@gmail.com.