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Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds and Turks: A Tragedy behind the Scenes of the Armenian Genocide

Date: Tuesday 4 June 2013
Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Dr David Gaunt (Södertörn University)
Chair: Dr Armine Ishkanian (London School of Economics and Political Science)

A crowd of a slightly different demographic from usual gathered for the third in the Programme of Armenian Studies’ Towards 2015 series of events on the Armenian Genocide. Dr David Gaunt, lecturer in history at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies at Södertörn University in Stockholm, came to talk not about the Armenian Genocide, but the genocide of another people who inhabited Eastern Anatolia during the violent early years of the twentieth century: the Assyrians, or, if you prefer, the Syriacs or Suryoyo. In the audience were familiar faces, but also new ones, including representatives of the Assyrian community and scholars of Assyrian issues, and it was before this audience of diverse and yet parallel historical interests that Dr Armine Ishkanian opened the floor to Dr Gaunt.

After a brief introduction to the Assyrians and their history in the region, the speaker went on to address the similarities between the experiences of the Armenians and the Assyrians during the genocide period. Indeed, there was sometimes no distinction made by the authorities between the two communities, and they were often killed together. In other cases, when Assyrians and Armenians found themselves forced into the same labour battalions, the Assyrians would pretend that the Armenians beside them were also Assyrian, in order to spare them the fate of other Armenian labourers, who would be removed from the battalion and executed. Dr Gaunt wrapped up by saying that Assyrian testimonies about the killing of Armenians (the former having a higher survival rate than the latter) were key to shedding more light on to the Armenian Genocide experience, and to filling in the gaps in our knowledge of the mass violence of that era in general.

The mixed background of the audience made for interesting after the lecture, ranging from why the Republic of Armenia hasn’t recognised the shared victimhood of the Assyrians and the Pontic Greeks, to why it is that we know more about the Armenian Genocide than the Assyrian. This last question was the trigger for a lively volley of questions and comments between the speaker and various members of the audience, the debate being whether the Assyrian community was united enough to come together and translate the written evidence provided by Assyrian writers at the time into English. It is to be hoped that, for the sake of the communities who suffered during that bloodthirsty time and their descendants in the diaspora, such valuable sources are made available for all to access sooner rather than later.

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