For four years Krikor held out. Twice shells hit his home in Aleppo and he rebuilt it. His wife had shrapnel lodged in her leg and chest after a bomb tore down their neighbor’s house, but the family refused to leave their home in the city’s Armenian quarter. Then, two weeks ago, as opposition forces escalated their offensive on regime-held areas of Aleppo, one of his closest friends and daughter nearly died in a bombing. He rushed them to hospital and watched as they clung to life. Three days later Krikor packed his wife and two daughters into a taxi and fled for Lebanon.
“Life had become unbearable,” says Krikor. Things had been bad for a while. Eight months ago it became too dangerous for him to go to his auto supply shop that had supported his family for decades. His relatives have been kidnapped by rebels and killed by snipers in the streets. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the $400 for the trip to Beirut, but as the grandson of Armenian refugees who fled their homes 100 years ago this month, he was raised on stories of displacement, refuge and an exile that never ended.
On April 24 each year, the Armenian diaspora commemorates what they say was genocide against their people by the Turkish leaders of the Ottoman Empire. As many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed and thousands sent on death marches into the desert. Some reached the Syrian borders seeking what they thought would be temporary refuge. “My grandparents fled their villages. And still today, one hundred years later, we have not gone back,” says Krikor. “This is one of the things that made me stay in Syria so long.”
For Krikor, it’s particularly sad this week that he will be commemorating the 100-year anniversary of his grandparents’ exodus, in a second exile. His family lived for almost a century in Aleppo and had made the Syrian city their home. He had a comfortable apartment, a successful shop and his daughters were in good schools. He was part of the once 100,000-strong Armenian community in Syria.
The day after Krikor arrived in Beirut he put his family on a plane to Yerevan, the capital of the modern Armenian state. More than 15,000 Armenians from Syria have left for Yerevan, with the promise of assistance from the government there. But Krikor doesn’t want to go. Today’s Armenia does not include the villages of Krikor’s grandparents. Like most in the Armenian diaspora, his ancestral lands are actually part of present-day Turkey. Instead, he’s debating return to Aleppo. “I don’t want to give up my property and life,” says Krikor. Because he hopes to go back, he is scared to use his real name, fearing he will be targeted by opposition rebels. “I hope to return.”
Bedro Zeitounian also fled Aleppo three years ago and now has a small shop in the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood of Beirut, once an Armenian refugee camp, now a densely populated, primarily Armenian, neighborhood. Here, the walls are spraypainted with anti-Turkish graffiti — “Turkey guilty of genocide.” Another popular one has the words “Eastern Turkey” crossed out, and instead “Western Armenia” written above.
For Zeitounian, the atrocities against Christians in Syria and Iraq today, are reminiscent of the stories his grandparents told him of their exodus. “What these rebels and ISIS are doing is incredible. These stories of cutting off heads — these were only stories we heard from our grandmothers and grandfathers,” says Zeitounian. “But now we are seeing it in front of us.” Zeitounian also wants to return to Aleppo, despite knowing little remains of this life there.
“The Armenians want to go back to Syria. Otherwise we are helping the Turks to make the Middle East — Syria, Iraq, Lebanon — without Armenians,” says Hagop Pakradounian, a member of the Lebanese parliament and head of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in Lebanon. “We don’t want that.”
In March of 2013, Islamist rebels stormed the Syrian-Armenian town of Kassab. They entered through the Turkish border and residents fleeing the town were quick to put the blame on Turkey, saying the Turks helped the jihadis enter the Christians village. For the large part, Armenians have sided with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, against their historic Turkish foe, whom have been clear they want Assad out. Armenian Syrians have become targets for kidnappings, extortion and murders. An estimated 40,000 Armenians remain in Aleppo, most in regime-controlled parts of the city.
“Our history has always been a history of war and refugees,” says Pakradounian. “How many times in century will be subject to immigration, displacement and deportation?”