THE SETTLEMENT OF THE ASSYRIANS
A WORK OF HUMANITY AND APPEASEMENT
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.
Not that the Assyrians have ever been strangers to trouble. Small, remote and insignificant as they were – so remote and insignificant that their very existence was forgotten in the West until the nineteenth century – they have never, it seems, enjoyed that happiness which falls to “the people whose annals are empty”. Their poverty has not saved them from invasion and aggression: their small numbers have not saved them from internal disunion. They have existed for centuries on the margin of history, bearing its burdens, excluded from its glories and rewards. Yet this people, poor, disunited, unshepherded, has handed down from generation to generation its strange ancestral titles – the shadowy heritage of the ancient name of Assyrian, the substantial succession of a once mighty Church.
Can it be that this community, marked by so stormy a destiny, is about to enter upon a period of happiness and peace? The following pages will make it plain that, in fact, a new and brighter prospect is opening before it. They will set forth briefly the circumstances which have made it necessary to try, at whatever cost, to give it a fresh start; the difficulties and obstacles which have had to be faced and the great efforts that have been made to overcome them. They will show that success is not yet definitely achieved, that much still remains to be done, that dangers and uncertainties must be guarded against for a long time to come. But they will show also that, thanks to the unremitting work of the League of Nations, and to the courage and generosity of the French authorities in Syria, the British Government, and the Government of Iraq, an admirable plan has been worked out, designed at the same time to unite the Assyrians in a new and safe home, and to bring into prosperous cultivation a great area which is now for the most part an uninhabited swamp; that the funds required have in great part been provided, and that the material arrangements for this beneficent work are already in hand.
I. THE ASSYRIAN CHURCH
It is outside the purpose of this paper to touch on ancient history: nor, in fact, can any clear connection be proved between the Assyrians of our day and those who ruled in Nineveh, though certain indications can be adduced in support of the tradition, which in itself is in no way improbable.
But we must consider for a moment the greatness of the Assyrian Church, of which the modern Assyrians are the undoubted successors. In the first place, the community-memory of that greatness must necessarily, however obscure its working may be, contribute an essential element in their character. Secondly, it is right that we should think of the debt we owe to this as to any of the great civilizing institutions of the past, however little may remain of them to-day.
Here “the shade”, at least can still be preserved. And, thirdly, there is a fascination in recalling a page of history so vast and so forgotten.
For who remembers now that the Assyrian Church had spread its influence, not only westward almost to the shores of the Mediterranean, but southward to Malabar and Sumatra, and eastward far into the Chinese Empire itself? That its colleges of Nisibis and Seleucia, the former of which was founded in the fifth century, were, until the fall of Constantinople, the chief centers wherein the tradition of Greek learning was preserved and transmitted to the Western world through the Arab scholars of North Africa and Spain? That, at one time, twenty-five archbishops, owed allegiance to the head of this Church, whose total congregation now is but a few thousand uneducated men and women?
Even in the centuries of its greatest extension, the Assyrian Church never enjoyed the privileges, or was exposed to the temptations, of political power. It dwelt, grew and flourished under the precarious tolerance of the Sassanid Emperors of Persia, and later of their Arab conquerors with their splendid capital at Baghdad. The days of its tribulation began immediately on the close of the first thousand years of the Christian era. From that time onward, successive disasters, culminating in the appalling horrors of the Tartar invasions, reduced the richest regions of the world to a desert, and their teeming and prosperous population, Christian and Moslem alike, to a shadow of its former state. The Church itself must have fallen rapidly from its modest heights of learning and of influence, until no sign and almost no memory of it remained to cross the barrier which Islam had set up between it and its brothers of the West.
Still it survived, and, as the slow process of civilization made headway amongst the Tartar conquerors, they began to show some sympathy with the Christian religion, though they never fully embraced it. At one moment, late in the thirteenth century, the Tartar monarch Argun took up the idea of an alliance with the crusading West for the re-conquest of the Holy Land. He chose as his ambassador the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church, who sent his Archdeacon, Soma, in his place. The chosen messenger went first to Rome, where, the Papal Throne being vacant, he was received by the cardinals, who asked him questions about the faith he professed, and, satisfied by his answers, allowed him to celebrate Mass in one of the churches of Rome. Subsequently, he traveled further, was received by Philippe le Bel of France and by Edward I of England, who received communion at his hands. His mission came to nothing; but when we think of the immense journey from Central Asia to Western Europe; of the fact that the Mass which he celebrated before the Roman cardinals and the Kings of France and England was said in that Aramaic language which was spoken by Christ himself; and, finally, that this simple priest was, like the Patriarch who sent him, of pure Chinese race, we cannot but feel that this story concentrates in a brief compass an epitome of the lost romance of mediaeval Christendom.
There is no need to trace further the slow and inexorable process by which the Assyrian Church was reduced by the close of the eighteenth century to a little group of mountain tribes, whose Patriarch was at once their religious and their tribal chief. Still more invasions, and, above all, the development in Mesopotamia of a Moslem culture superior to anything which the struggling and divided Church could maintain or each, bore upon it with a weight that it could not resist. It must be counted as a proof of uncommon courage and tenacity that the Assyrian community succeeded in holding together through long centuries of neglect and contempt, preserving something of its ancient traditions both as a Church and as a people.
Throughout the nineteenth century the main body of the community lived in the mountainous region of Hakkiari, in the neighborhood of the frontiers between Turkey, Russia and Persia. A smaller group was settled in the plains of northern Persia, in the neighborhood of Urmiyah. The head of their Church, the Mar Shimun, was not less a tribal chieftain than a religious leader, and in practice was recognized as such by the Turkish authorities. Some efforts were made by the Western Churches, which, in the early part of the century, became once more aware of their existence, to support and educate this small Christian group; but, on the whole, there seems no doubt that, at the moment when the great war broke out, their general condition, both from a material or administrative and a spiritual point of view, was continuously and rapidly deteriorating.
Nevertheless, the events of the war must be reckoned as the first act in the tragedy which has brought about the present situation. The main episodes in the existence of the Assyrians since that date must now be briefly related. It will be for the historian to judge of the responsibilities involved and to relate effects to their causes. We shall confine ourselves to the briefest narrative of the simple facts.
II. THE ASSYRIANS IN IRAQ
A. Final Loss of the Mountain Home
When, in November 1914, Turkey entered the great war, the Assyrians living as Turkish subjects in the Hakkiari mountains were soon swept into the vortex. In the spring of 1915, they decided to throw themselves on to the side of Russia and her allies, and formally declared themselves at war with Turkey. In spite of their courage and fighting spirit, the war was for them a series of heavy disasters. Driven by the Turkish forces from their mountain home, they took refuge at Urmiyah, in Persia, which was at that time in the hands of a Russian force; but early in 1917, when the Russian front collapsed as a result of the revolution, they found themselves once more deprived of outside help; and, though they managed to hold their own through a period of grim, irregular warfare, by the summer of 1918 their position in Persia had become untenable, and they had no alternative but to retreat in the direction of the British forces in Mesopotamia. Moving 300 miles south-eastward in disordered retreat with their families, live-stock and possessions, the Assyrians finally arrived at Hamadan, decimated from perpetual attacks on all sides from them Turks, Kurds and Persians alike. Scorched in the burning summer heat and ridden with typhus, dysentery, smallpox and cholera, old people and children exhausted with fatigue and fever were left to die by the wayside, marking the path of retreat with the dead and the dying. At length, 20,000 fewer in number, the survivors made contact with the British troops.
From that day to this, the Assyrians have lived in Iraq. For a period of three years, they were housed in one or other of the large refugee camps set up under the auspices of the British Government in the neighborhood of Baghdad or Mosul. Meanwhile, efforts were made to enable them to return to their old homes. But the difficulties were too great; and all hope of this solution of the problem had to be given up after the decision, taken by the Council of the League at the end of 1925, that the Hakkiari district should remain under Turkish sovereignty.
For although the Assyrians for whose future it was sought to provide did not all originate from the region which was left under Turkish sovereignty, but included considerable numbers from Urmiyah and from the northern area of what was left under Turkish sovereignty, but included considerable numbers from Urmiyah and from the northern are of what is now Iraq, it was felt by the British authorities – who now found themselves, by the force of circumstances, responsible for seeking a solution to the problem of the future existence of this unfortunate people – that by far the best plan would be to return them as far as possible to their former habitat, including a part of the vilayet of Hakkiari, where instead of being scattered, they could live in a compact community and thus enjoy a certain degree of local autonomy. This plan, however, required that not only the vilayet of Mosul, but also a portion of Hakkiari, should be brought within the borders of Iraq, since neither the British Government nor the Assyrians thought that the problem could be solved by bringing the Assyrian people or a portion of it again under Turkish rule.
It is unnecessary to go into the details of the numerous discussions which took place between early in 1923 and the end of 1925, when the frontier was finally determined. At the Lausanne Conference of 1923 it was agreed that the frontier between Turkey and Iraq should be laid down by a friendly arrangement to be concluded within nine months between Turkey and the United Kingdom; in case no agreement were reached within that time, the dispute was to be referred to the Council of the League. The efforts to reach a direct settlement, which took the form of a Conference in Constantinople in the spring of 1924, led to no result, and the question accordingly came before the Council in September of that year. It was first discussed at an extraordinary session held in Brussels to determine the status quo line, which was to be respected by both parties, pending the final determination of the frontier by a special Delimitation Commission sent to the spot. This status quo line was called “the Brussels line”, and, in fact, proved to be almost identical with the line eventually decided upon by the Council in December 1925 upon the recommendation of the Delimitation Commission.
At the same time, the Commission recommended that, in view of the inexperience of the Iraqi Government, the mandatory regime laid down by the Treaty of Alliance between the United Kingdom and Iraq should continue during twenty-five years, unless Iraq in the meantime were admitted as a Member of the League. Having in mind the interest of the Assyrians and other minorities, this proposal was accepted by the United Kingdom at the meeting of the Council of December 16th, 1925, when that Government agreed to continue the mandatory responsibility for twenty-five years “or until such earlier date as Iraq is, in the opinion of the Council, qualified for admission to membership of the League”.
If any hope remained that the Assyrians could settle once more in their mountain home under Turkish protection it was finally dispelled by an official communication from the Turkish Consul-General at Baghdad on June 25th , 1928, stating that “the Turkish amnesty law did not cover the Assyrians, who would not be permitted in any circumstances to enter Turkey; that any Assyrians who attempted to enter Turkey would be punished”.
B. Attempted Settlement in Iraq
The Council’s decision made it necessary to face the prospect that the only available possibilities for a permanent home for the Assyrian community must be sought within the boundaries of Iraq. The question was one of great difficulty. The resources of the new State, both in money and in land available for settlement, were limited, and some ill-feeling existed between certain sections of the Arab population and this small Christian minority, the greater part of which was not indigenous to the country and which had received what some felt to be too great favors from the mandatory Power. Nor, it must be added, was the attitude of the Assyrians, themselves such as to facilitate the difficult task of the Government. Nevertheless, a real effort was made. Special consideration was given to the Assyrians by the Government as regards settlement on vacant land, and they received a generous measure of liberty in the management of their local affairs. In 1927, a special Settlement Officer was appointed, and, by the end of 1930, it was estimated that only about three hundred families still required settlement. It is true that it had proved impossible to find any way of settling the Assyrians in a single homogeneous community, but there seemed good reason to hope that by 1932 the Assyrians might find themselves successfully settled in the Iraq body politic.
C. Termination of the British Mandate over Iraq.
It was in September 1929 that the British Government first declared its intention of recommending that the mandate over Iraq should be terminated in 1932, and that at that date Iraq should be admitted to membership of the League as an independent sovereign State. This announcement led to some degree of misgiving amongst the Assyrians and other minorities in Iraq, and the question of their future treatment was studied and discussed with great care by the Mandates Commission and by the Council during the years that followed.
It is certain that the Council, in fixing the frontier in 1925, had not expected that it would prove possible to terminate the mandate at so early a date. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Government and people had shown good reason to believe that they would give liberal and tolerant treatment to the minorities within their borders; fully satisfactory assurances on this point were given by the representatives of the mandatory Power, and the Iraqi authorities themselves stated that they were ready to sign a special declaration guaranteeing equality of treatment, freedom of conscience, and general protection of these minorities. If, unhappily, the event has proved that the protection given was inadequate in the face of a test of a specially difficult nature, there is no reason to doubt the good faith in which these promises were made, or that it was right and reasonable to accept it as adequate at the time. But for a series of unfortunate happenings, which no one could then have foretold, it may well be that the Assyrians might have led at least a tolerable existence as loyal subjects of the King of Iraq.
D. Final Attempt at Settlement in Iraq.
Meanwhile, at the moment at which Iraq became an independent Member of the League, the Council had before it certain petitions from the Assyrians asking either that they should be transferred to other protection or that they should be settled in Iraq in a compact community possessing local autonomy. Realising the difficulties, but anxious to make every effort in the interests both of Iraq itself and of the Assyrians to find the most satisfactory permanent arrangement possible, the Council, in December 1932, asked five of its members to make a careful study of the petitions. On the basis of that study, the Council adopted the view of the Mandates Commission that the demand of the Assyrians for administrative autonomy within Iraq could not be accepted. This question had long been one of the issues between them and the Iraqi Government. The Assyrians, as we have already said, are both a nation and a Church. For centuries they had lived as an isolated community and had developed a certain degree of autonomous organization under their own Patriarch, the Mar Shimun.
The circumstances now obtaining in the new Iraqi State were different. Isolation was a thing of the past; and a Central Government existed which made the exercise of temporal power by the Assyrian leader unnecessary. It was not always easy, however, to define clearly the limits of spiritual authority, and, in fact, serious misunderstandings had arisen on the point of “the temporal authority” of the Mar Shimun. It was one of the difficulties on which agreement had never been reached. But, in any case, the territory for a compact community of the Assyrians in Iraq could not be found; hence, even the first claim of the Assyrians could not be met.
Nevertheless, one more effort for settling the landless inhabitants of Iraq, including the Assyrians, was to be made, which the Council noted in its resolution with satisfaction. The Iraqi representative informed the Council that he intended to select a foreign expert to assist the Government to settle the Assyrians on the land, as far as possible, in homogeneous communities. For this purpose, Major Thomson, an experienced official from Sudan, was appointed by the Iraqi Government, and arrived in Mosul In the beginning of May 1933. It cannot be said, however, that the Assyrians as a whole gave their full co-operation to the efforts which were being made on their behalf. The difficulties were not lessened by the fact that the Mar Shimun himself was detained in Baghdad during this period, owing to differences with the Central Government as to the respective rights and powers which the Assyrian community should enjoy in Iraq.
III. THE SEARCH FOR A NEW HOME
A. The Events of August 1933
A series of grave events in July and August 1933 abruptly terminated this last attempt.
Dissatisfied with the manner in which the settlement scheme was being carried out, and persuaded that, if they did not accept the plan of settlement provided for them by the Iraqi Government, they would be obliged to leave the country, certain Assyrian leaders hastily decided on their own responsibility to leave Iraq.
Apparently unannounced and without warning, a group of some eight or nine hundred Assyrians with their arms crossed the Tigris River on July 22nd into Syria. Here they were at first disarmed, but, having resumed their arms, they re-crossed into Iraq on August 5th, presumably for the purpose of bringing their families back with them into Syria. It was in these circumstances that they encountered a section of the Iraqi army which had been sent to disarm them. Shots were exchanged, and during the day desultory fighting took place. Several score were killed and wounded on both sides, and at the end of these encounters some 550 Assyrians re-crossed the Tigris into Syria, where they have been ever since.
It is unnecessary to describe the effect of this incident upon the Assyrian and the Iraqi populations. Passions were inflamed on both sides and grossly exaggerated rumours were rife throughout the country. During the next several days, bands of fugitive Assyrians got into further skirmishes, until, on August 11th the troubles reached a terrible climax.
At a place called Simmel, several hundred Assyrians were killed, while, in neighboring villages, killing, robbing and looting continued to take place during the following days.
It is not a part of this story to assess the blame for these incidents. The representative of Iraq made it plain at the next meeting of the Council that his Government deplored them no less sincerely than the Governments represented on the Council, that stops were being taken to make amends to the sufferers and to care for the dependants without distinction, and that his Government was determined to leave nothing undone to ensure that there should be no repetition of those unfortunate events, which, he said, had created a situation which appeared to be beyond local remedy.
B. The Setting-Up of the Council Committee
It was, indeed, only too clear that the whole problem had now taken on a completely new aspect. Neither the Government of Iraq nor the Assyrians themselves could any longer avoid the conclusion that their further efforts, however sincere, could not suffice to lead to a satisfactory solution of the problem. The Council of the League, which had followed events in Iraq with deep anxiety, was unanimously of the same opinion. When, therefore, the Prime Minister of Iraq announced that, in the interests of all concerned, the happiness of the Assyrians themselves and the reputation of Iraq, it was necessary to find a new home elsewhere for the Assyrian immigrants who wished to leave, or were unwilling to settle peaceably and to be incorporated finally into the Iraqi State, and that his Government was prepared to make as generous a contribution as its resources permitted to help them on their way, and, at the same time, appealed to the Council to do what his Government could not do – namely, to search for some place outside Iraq where they might be settled with happier prospects - the Council, though well aware of the responsibilities and difficulties involved, did not refuse the task.
Accordingly, on December 15th, it decided to delegate extensive powers to a Committee of six of its members to prepare and execute, in co-operation with the Iraqi Government, a detailed scheme of settlement elsewhere than in Iraq of such Assyrians as wished to leave the country.
The Committee was composed of His Excellency M. Lopez Olivan (Spain) (President), His Excellency M. William Borberg (Denmark) Vice-President), M. Renato Bova-Scoppa (Italy), M. de Panafieu (France), Mr. J.C. Sterndale Bennett (United Kingdom) and M.M. Tello (Mexico).
It was, of course, understood that the Assyrians who finally decided to remain in Iraq would continue to enjoy the guarantees which Iraq had given on her admission of the League, and would, on their part, be bound by obligations of loyalty to the Iraqi State.
The Iraqi Government gave the fullest assurances as to the safety of the Assyrians in Iraq pending the completion of the plans for transferring them elsewhere, and, in agreement with the Council Committee, set up to local Committee, presided over by Major Thompson, to explain to the Assyrians the action that was being taken in Geneva. This Committee, which now includes a direct representative of the Council Committee, was subsequently made responsible for the individual consultation of the Assyrians and for organizing the transfer from Iraq.
At the same time, the Iraqi Government established in Mosul a camp in which some 1,500 persons, mostly women and children, who had been rendered destitute by the events of August 1933, were brought together. The Council Committee kept itself constantly informed of the conditions prevailing in this camp, which was gradually liquidated in the course of the next two years. The camp was finally closed in June 1935, when the last inmates were removed to the temporary settlement on the Khabur river in Syria.
C. The Khabur Settlement
The 550 Assyrians who had taken refuge in Syria in August 1933 following the disturbances in Iraq were settled provisionally, a year later, in the valley of the upper Khabur. In the following months, in accordance with an agreement reached between the French High Commissioner in Syria and the Iraqi Government, their wives, children and a few close relatives – many of them from the Mosul camp – to the number of approximately 1,450 persons were authorized to join them. At the request of the French Government, Mr. Burnier, representative of the Nansen Office for Refugees in Syria, took charge of the settlement in co-operation with Captain Duprez, representing the High Commissioner.
In September and October 1934, three villages were built, in which it was possible to settle all the refugee families in two-roomed houses before the rainy season.
In June 1935, the President of the Council Committee, M. Lopez Olivan, arranged with the Iraqi Government to put up the necessary funds to enable the 340 women, children and old men who were still at the Mosul camp, and about 1,000 Assyrians, selected from among the poorest members of the Mosul community, to be transferred to the Khabur settlement.
To provide for this population, it was necessary to erect pumping-stations by which an area of about 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) can be irrigated. The Assyrian immigrants immediately set about cultivating vegetable gardens; a small number of cows, goats and sheep was also provided for their use. Pasturage was available in the immediate vicinity and two small mills were set up to keep the villages in flour.
Since their arrival on the Khabur, the Assyrians have had to be fed; but they are rapidly becoming self-supporting as regards the more important foodstuffs. In spite of somewhat primitive conditions, a satisfactory bill of health is reported in the villages, the health service of which consists of an army doctor and seven nurses.
In September 1935, a further contingent of Assyrians was brought to the Khabur, making a total of about 6,000 persons. This last contingent was made up of members of the tribes which predominated in the settlement. It is planned that the Khabur settlement will remain in being until the reclamation scheme in the Ghab has been completed, some four years hence.
D. Missions to Brazil and British Guiana
From October 1933 to the middle of 1935, the Council Committee searched the world for a suitable place in which to settle the Assyrian people, and there is not a continent in which it did not consider possibilities.
In the spring of 1934, the Committee devoted its attention, in co-operation with the Brazilian Government, to the possibility of settlement in the State of Parana, in Brazil. The lands where settlement was contemplated had already been the subject of a report by the Counselor of the Swiss Legation at Rio de Janeiro, who had been authorized by his Government at an earlier date to inspect them on behalf of the Nansen Office in connection with the settlement of other refugees.
It was necessary, however, to be assured that the climate and physical conditions in the Parana region would be such that the Assyrians could be expected to adapt themselves and to settle down as a useful element in the country. Accordingly, the Council Committee decided to send out Brigadier-General Browne, who for many years had commanded the Assyrian levies in Iraq, in order to advise the Committee, in the light of his special knowledge of Assyrian needs and characteristics, whether the proposed area offered good prospects of success.
General Browne, assisted by Mr. Johnson, Secretary General of the Nansen Office, was in Brazil from February to April 1934, and, after a thorough investigation, reported that the area in question was suitable in all respects for Assyrian settlement. Plans for the removal of the Assyrians to this area were considered by the Council Committee, but the scheme eventually had to be abandoned owing to the adoption by the Brazilian Parliament of a law restricting immigration.
It was now clear that the Assyrians, who had had great hopes of an early departure, would be obliged to remain in Iraq much longer than had been anticipated. The Committee therefore addressed an urgent appeal to Governments to facilitate its task and at the same time assured itself that the Iraqi Government would continue to provide for the security and welfare of the Assyrians.
A number of Governments responded to the Committee’s appeal. In particular, the United Kingdom and France suggested settlement possibilities in British Guiana and the bend of the Niger in West Africa respectively. After a first study of these offers, it was decided to send a Commission of Enquiry to British Guiana.
This Commission was composed of General Browne and of Dr. Giglioli, member of the Royal Colonial Institute of Agriculture in Florence, who had already had personal experience of British Guiana, having visited the colony as a member of an Italian scientific expedition in 1931. These experts, in November and December 1934, made a visit of inspection to the interior of the colony, where it was thought the Assyrians might be settled. They traveled about 2,000 or on foot and some 700 miles in small boats on rivers, difficult and laborious to navigate owing to rapids and fallen trees.
Their first impressions were relatively favourable. The climate seemed suitable, the country well watered and health conditions generally good, and there was every reason to believe that the Assyrians could adapt themselves to the cultivation of the kind of crops that would grow in that area. Further investigations, however, revealed the existence of serious difficulties, apart from the obvious one of communications. It appeared more than doubtful whether the Assyrians could be settled there on a sufficiently large scale, and in any case the scheme could only be attempted after fuller investigations on a number of points and then very gradually on an experimental basis.
E. Visit of the Chairman of the Council Committee to Syria and Iraq
In view of the limited possibilities of settlement in British Guiana, the Council Committee came to the reluctant conclusion that it was impossible for it to accept the responsibility of embarking upon a scheme of settlement which was clearly of so speculative a nature in itself and which, even under the best of conditions, could not be regarded as offering a full or rapid solution of the problem.
The Committee now reverted to the idea of a more extensive settlement of the Assyrians in Syria. There were obvious difficulties which everyone realized, but the French Government, urged to do so on both humanitarian and political grounds, finally agreed, subject to certain conditions, to accept for permanent settlement, not only those who were provisionally settled there, but also those remaining in Iraq who wished to settle elsewhere.
It was also decided that the Chairman of the Council Committee, M. Lopez Olivan, accompanied by the Secretary of the Committee, M. Manuel Arocha, should undertake a journey to Iraq and Syria in order to facilitate the necessary negotiations and assist the various parties concerned effectively to realize the plan of settlement.
This mission took place in May and June 1935 and laid the foundation for the settlement scheme which is described in the next chapter. Representatives of a large number of Assyrian tribes were consulted in Baghdad, Kirkur, Mosul and the mountain villages, with a view to forming a rough estimate of the number of Assyrians who might wish to leave that country, and the Iraqi Government made an offer of 125,000 pounds towards the execution of the scheme. Part of that sum was devoted to the removal, in the course of the summer, of several thousand Assyrians to the Khabur, as described above. In the Levant States, the Khabur and Ghab areas, proposed by the French Government as possible sites for the permanent settlement, were visited by the mission and, after consultation with the High Commissioner, M. Olivan reached the conclusion that the latter area was the more suitable. The Committee met in Geneva in July and, after having studied M. Olivan’s report and the preliminary documentation furnished by the French authorities, endorsed that conclusion and decided to direct its efforts towards the realization of a plan for the settlement of the Assyrians in the Ghab district.
IV. THE SETTLEMENT SCHEME
As soon as the Committee had decided on the Ghab as the permanent destination for the Assyrians, it asked the French Government to draw up a detailed and comprehensive plan for the settlement and sent two representatives – one a financial expert and the other an expert in the exchange of populations – to Beirut to collaborate with the High Commission for this purpose. A draft plan covering every aspect of the settlement problem was completed by the end of August. In the following months, the Committee made a careful study of this draft plan, which was revised on one or two points in consultation with the French Government; but the greater part was accepted as it stood. In its revised form – the form in which it has since been put before the Assyrians by the Local Committee in Iraq – the plan is summarized in the following pages.
All plans, and especially estimates of costs, for the fairly distant future are bound to be in some degree tentative; but, in the present case, the uncertainty that exists regarding some of the essential factors – in particular, the number and the material situation of the Assyrians who have still to leave Iraq -= makes an express reservation to this effect necessary.
In view of the British proposal that the League should contribute towards the financing of the scheme, the Council of the League referred the draft plan to the Assembly in September. The discussions in the Assembly and, in particular, its favorable decision in regards to the above proposal will be described in a later chapter.
A. The Ghab and the Reclamation Scheme
The Ghab is a sparsely inhabited and marshy plain, lying some twenty-five miles to the north-west of Hama and about the same distance from the sea (see maps on the following pages): Through this plain, which is about forty miles long and from five to six miles wide, the River Orontes winds tortuously. The right bank of the river lies in Syria and the left bank in Latakia, a separate State administered by a French Governor and inhabited almost exclusively by Alawites and other non-Moslem groups. On the Mediterranean side, the plain is bounded by the tree-covered Alawite mountains (Jebel Ansarieh), rising steeply 4,000 feet above it, and on the east by a lower range known as the Jebel Zewiye.
To the formation of the marshes, which cover the greater part of the Ghab, two factors contribute. At the upper end of the plain, the banks of the Orontes have been raised above the surrounding land by alluvial deposits and serve as dykes, behind which the water from the numerous mountain springs accumulates. At its northern and lower end, where the mountains converge, the natural outlet for the river is partly blocked as a result of a volcanic upheaval, and the winter floods as a result of a volcanic upheaval, and the winter floods spread over the whole surface of the plain. The Ghab, lying in the midst of a land of frequent droughts and almost waterless desert, has thus been choked by its very riches.
The climate of the Ghab is similar to that of other parts of the hinterland of the Phoenician coast. From November to March the temperature is cool and there are heavy rains; the rest of the year is practically rainless and in summer the day temperature is high – though not nearly so high as in the Mosul Liwa or the Djezireh.
The soil, now mostly abandoned to forests of reeds, is very fertile and suitable for the raising, not only of the usual cereals – wheat, sorgho and maize – but also of rice, green vegetables and commercial crops, such as cotton and tobacco, for all of which a market exists in the interior – particularly in Hama and Aleppo, both of which towns are accessible to the Ghab by motor-track. In ancient times, the Ghab was partially drained and –judging by the extensive ruins of Apamea and other cities bordering the plain – must have supported a considerable population; the Public Works Department of the French High Commission in the Levant has for many years past been preparing a plan for its reclamation. That plan is now to be put into execution, not in its entirety, but to the extent required to provide the Assyrians with sufficient land for cultivation. Fifteen thousand – or, if necessary, as much as twenty thousand – hectares (37,000 or 50,000 acres) of scientifically drained and irrigated land will be made available for this purpose on the western (Alawite) side of the river against payment of the engineering costs involved. In view of the fact that part of the engineering scheme will serve in due course to put into condition the remainder of the Ghab, the mandated territories are bearing a proportionate share of these costs.
The engineering plan provides, first, for the draining and, secondly, for the irrigation of the plain. At the upper end of the plain, by the village of Acharne – whose lovely old moria-wheel, shown on page 32, will be put out of use – a large barrage is to be constructed to form a reservoir, which will accumulate the surplus water during the winter season and provide an additional supply for irrigation in summer. At the lower end a tunnel will be pierced through the obstructing rock to permit of the thorough drainage of the plain at all seasons; and over a distance of some eighteen miles, the Orontes will be deepened and its course straightened.
These essential operations having been completed, the area set aside for the Assyrians will be rendered fit for intensive cultivation by means of a network of drainage and irrigation canals, which will be spanned by a chain of small bridges. The total length of the canal system will be more than 140 miles and the maximum area of the Acharne reservoir will be little less than 40 square miles – figures which illustrate the magnitude of the whole scheme.
Unless certain preparatory works were undertaken by the middle of October 1935 – that is, before the rainy season – a delay of nearly a year in the completion of the engineering scheme was anticipated. In view of the serious political risks of such delay, the Committee decided to make available the funds required to start the work and the engineering programme has accordingly been launched.
Some of the advantages of the Ghab as the permanent home for the Assyrians are apparent from what has been said early in this chapter. But two or three points may well be emphasized.
It has been the constant desire of the great majority of the Assyrians to be settled on the land in a compact group; the area contemplated in the Ghab is large and fertile enough to permit the realization of this wish, and it will be possible to allot to each family holdings of sufficient size to enable it, not only to support itself, but also to make some contribution towards the costs of its settlement. Secondly, the immediate neighbors of the Assyrians will be Alawsites, and the administrative authority to which they will be ultimately subject is non-Moslem. Finally, certain of the Assyrian tribes are pastoral and own large herds. It is therefore of particular importance that a wide tract of upland and mountain rising immediately from the irrigated plain – country suitable for grazing and bearing not a little resemblance to that to which they have been accustomed in the past – is to be put at their disposal.
B. Settlement Authorities
The engineering scheme will naturally be carried out under the direction of the Public Works Department of the French High Commission. But an autonomous body is to be set up by the Council of the League in the Levant States to co-operate with the French authorities in all that concerns the installation of the Assyrians and the administration of the settlement, to undertake responsibility for all expenditure in connection therewith and to hold – and ultimately dispose of to the Assyrians – the Ghab land that is being made available. This body, known as the “Assyrian Settlement Trustee Board”, will consist of three members, one of them a representative of the High Commissioner. The precise distribution of functions between the Board and the High Commission, as the executive authority of the mandated territories, has not yet been worked out; but, in view of the close liaison necessary between them, it is proposed that the former body should appoint an expert in settlement questions to collaborate with the officials of the High Commission.
C. The Transfer and Temporary Settlement Health and Education
The Ghab reclamation scheme will take four years to complete. It was considered very desirable, on the other hand, that the transfer of the Assyrians should not be delayed, and arrangements for their provisional settlement in the mandated territories have accordingly been made. A property of some 20,000 acres – large enough for the provisional settlement of as many as 20,000 persons – stretching to within a few miles of the southern end of the Ghab, has been reserved for this purpose and the Government of Latakia has offered, in case of need, additional land for the pastoral tribes at the foot of the mountains not far to the west. To these lands, the bulk of the Assyrians will be directed, though a certain number may be moved, to join relatives or to complete their tribes, to the Khabur settlement, which will be kept in being until the Ghab land is ready.
It is hoped to begin the big transfer in March 1936 and to complete it is as large a measure as possible before the next rainy season. As on previous occasions, the Assyrians and all their movable property will be taken by lorry to the Syrian frontier, each convoy being accompanied by a member of the Local Committee in Iraq and a suitable guard. This time, however, they will follow a more northerly route to Tell Kotchek, the frontier town which is the present terminus of the railway. Thence they will travel by rail to Hama, a distance of some 400 miles, and from Hama to the settlement ground – a mere twenty miles – by lorry. Each convoy will be met at Tell Kotchek by one of the officials concerned with the settlement and accompanied and assisted by him to its destination.
The organization of the temporary settlement in the neighborhood of the Ghab will follow closely that adopted on the Khabur. On arrival, the Assyrians will be put under canvas – through the kindness of the French authorities, army tents are being lent for this purpose; but the task of building houses – two-roomed houses of pisé bricks – will be begun immediately. Doors and windows are to be provided, and the assistance of a few skilled hands will be necessary – above all for the construction of the roofs – but the bulk of the work the Assyrians will do themselves. At the same time, a large part of the land must be put under cultivation. The Assyrians who are unable to provide for themselves will at first have to be fed and maintained; hence the importance of making the community as soon as possible self-supporting as regards food. Two agricultural experts are to be attached to the settlement to organize the farming of the land on scientific lines, and up-to-date agricultural equipment and implements will be provided.
It is hoped that the reclamation scheme will provide employment for at least 1,000 Assyrian men not required for work in the fields. The temporary villages will be situated at an easy distance from the site of the Acharne dam, which is to take three years to complete, and nearer still to Sedjar, where several roads and a large bridge will be submerged by the reservoir and have to be reconstructed.
As the time approaches for the move into the Ghab, the permanent villages will be erected, with their schools, their churches and their dispensaries, and, by gradual stages, the newly conditioned plain will be brought under the plough.
Care has been given to the problem to the problem of the health of the settlers and a considerable item on this account appears in the budget. This side of the administration of the settlement will naturally fall within the competence of the Public Health Service of the French High Commission, which intends to set up immediately five dispensaries with thirty beds apiece, staffed by Assyrian nurses and attendants – a large number of Assyrian dressers were and still are attached to the levies in Iraq – and under the direction of three of four doctors. It also contemplates mass treatment of the Assyrians against malaria.
As long as the Assyrians are exempt from taxation, education will retain its present community character. Later on, Government action will be taken and subsidies or official teachers provided for the Assyrian schools. From the beginning, however, the French authorities have considered it desirable that the Assyrians should learn Arabic – the lingua franca of the Levant. Teachers of Arabic, selected as far as possible from among the Assyrians, will therefore be appointed, and instruction in Arabic – in addition to the Assyrian language – will be compulsory in the schools.
D. The Permanent Settlement
It is proposed to construct the permanent villages on the lower slopes of the Alawite mountains as far as possible 300 feet or so about the plain, in proximity to supplies of spring water. Instead of building small scattered hamlets, several centres of 2,500 to 4,000 persons will probably be organized. This will make it easier to install the non-agricultural elements, such as masons, blacksmiths, artisans and shopkeepers; will reduce the number of schools, churches and dispensaries to be built; facilitate the sanitary service and, in general reduce overhead costs. The tribes will, so far as possible, be reconstituted under their chiefs; tribes between whom friendly relations have existed will be settled together or near one another.
The irrigated land will be turned to account as and when the progress of the engineering scheme permits. Cereals, rice, lentils, beans and sesame will be the main subsistence crops, and barley and vetch the principal fodder. Attempts to grow cotton and the planting of fruit trees and vegetable gardens in the neighborhood of the villages – where, incidentally, irrigation from the mountain springs should, in general, not be difficult – will be encouraged. A vast olive forest higher up the mountains will presumably also be exploited.
During the waiting period, the bulk of the farming will have to be organized on some form of communal basis; but as soon as the Assyrians move into the Ghab, each family will have the opportunity of acquiring its own land. The experience acquired in settling the Armenian refugees has led the French authorities to propose that the normal family holding should, it possible, be of four hectares (ten acres); a holding of this size should yield, over and above the needs of the family, a considerable surplus, which should be easily disposed of on the Syrian markets.
The Committee has always considered that the Assyrians should be called upon to contribute in as large a measure as possible without involving undue hardship to the costs of the scheme that is being undertaken on their behalf, and it has reached the conclusion that the most equitable and practical method of realizing such a contribution would be to require the Assyrians to pay for the irrigated lands assigned to them. As the Committee is anxious to give every encouragement to them to settle permanently in their new home and to avoid imposing conditions which the poorest would find onerous, the Assyrians will be allowed to buy their land at a very low price and, if desired, by means of annual installments, over fifteen years, representing only a small proportion of the anticipated money yield of their of their holdings.
The ultimate success of a transplantation of this kind may well depend on the after-care exercised by the settlement authorities. It is anticipated that, after the final installation has been completed, the Trustee Board will remain for some time to help the Assyrians to adapt themselves to their new environment – in particular, to farm their land and to dispose of their produce to the best advantage – and will continue to advise the High Commissioner in all that concerns the administration and welfare of the colony.
The French authorities propose to naturalize the Assyrians en bloc after a period of not less than five years. Until then, their position will be a special one, and they will be subject to certain restrictions; for example, they will not enjoy political rights and will not be allowed to reside outside the places set aside for their settlement. On the other hand, they will, from the beginning, enjoy all the public liberties and private rights of Syrian nationals, including free access to the courts, which will be provided with Assyrian interpreters. Further, during the waiting period and for some five years after the final settlement, they will enjoy the valuable privilege of exemption from all taxation.
Under the terms of the mandate, the Assyrians, like every other religious community, will have the right to manage their own affairs and to maintain their own schools; and they will be allowed to settle all matters of personal status in accordance with their customs and usage.
For administrative purposes, the colony will be directly under the High Commissioner for a number of years and the chiefs will be the official intermediaries between the authorities and their people. It will ultimately be incorporated in the administrative organization of Latakia on the same footing as the other religious groups in that State – Alawites, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Ismailiehs and Sunnite Moslems.
E. The Financing of the Scheme
The cost of putting into conditions 15,000 hectares for the Assyrians in the Ghab is estimated at 62 million French francs, of which the mandatory authorities are contributing 22 millions, leaving 40 millions (a little over 500,000 sterling pounds) to be found through the League. This figure is a maximum, as the mandatory authorities have agreed to bear any excess over the estimate quoted and to share with the League fund any economies that may be realized.
For the settlement operation proper, the calculations are more complicated. It is estimated that the total expense on account of the present settlement on the Khabur – including expenditure incurred up to date and that foreseen until the colony has become self-supporting – will amount to a little over 7 million French francs. General administrative expenses, including the cost of the various missions to Brazil, British Guiana and the Near East, will amount to something over 2 million French francs, and the installation and permanent settlement of the Assyrians still to be moved from Iraq (assuming the number to be about 15,000) to just under 18 millions, of which some 8 millions are for food, 3.5 millions for equipment and live-stock, 2 millions for health services, a similar sum for administration, and 1 million for houses.
The total thus reached for settlement proper is 27 millions, which may be reduced to 24 millions through certain incidental receipts – deduction, on account of maintenance, from the wages of Assyrians employed on the Ghab scheme and contributions by the Assyrians before leaving Iraq. If more or less than 15,000 Assyrians eventually have to be provided for, the estimates will, of course, be affected. The number is, in fact, more likely to be above than below that figure and for every additional thousand settlers, about 1 million French francs more will be required.
The payments to be made later by the Assyrians on account of the purchase of their land may amount roughly to between 15 and 20 million French francs, according to the length of time over which they are made. But they will not begin to be available until almost all the expenses of the scheme have been incurred;, and for obvious reasons, they would not furnish by themselves sufficient security for a loan on a commercial basis. The Committee was thus faced a few months ago with the serious problem of finding from other sources the whole of the sum required for the scheme; but the problem has now fortunately been reduced to more manageable proportions. As mentioned in a previous chapter, the Iraqi Government offered 125,000 sterling pounds in June. In September, when the detailed plan had been submitted, the United Kingdom Government offered 250,000 sterling pounds on certain conditions, among which were the contribution of an equal sum by the Iraqi government and a contribution by the League itself. These conditions were soon fulfilled; the Iraqi Government doubled its previous offer and the Assembly of the League voted a subsidy of 1,300,000 Swiss francs, or roughly 86,000 sterling pounds. The French Government also offered, on behalf of the mandated territories, a further sum of 6.5 million French francs (86,000 sterling pounds) on a recoverable basis.
The decision of the Assembly to contribute to the financing of the settlement scheme – a vote of a combined contribution from all the States Members of the League – was significant, for it was unique in the history of the League. It is worth reproducing here the terms of the resolution of the Sixth Committee of the Assembly (political matters) on thus subject:
The Sixth Committee,
Recognizing the efforts made by the Committee of the Council for the Settlement of the Assyrians of Iraq to find a destination for those Assyrians who may wish to leave that country;
Considering that the projected scheme of settlement in the Ghab area of the French mandated territories of the Levant offers the prospect of a satisfactory and permanent solution of the Assyrian problem;
Taking note of the extent to which the Iraqi Government, the United Kingdom Government and the authorities of the French mandated territories of the Levant are prepared to contribute to the realization of this scheme and in the firm hope of contributions from private charitable organizations;
Recognizing that a considerable balance is nevertheless inevitable when all these contributions have been taken into account;
Having regard to the special features of the problem and more particularly its humanitarian aspect, the deep interest which the Council has always taken in its solution, and, finally, the dangers to the tranquility of the Near East which a postponement of a decision would involve:
Considers that the proposal of the united Kingdom concerning the financial participation of the League is worthy of the most sympathetic consideration of the Assembly.
The greater part of the funds required have thus been assured. But, on the basis of the cost estimates adopted above, there remain to be found at least 13.5 million French francs (180,000 sterling pounds) and the amount ultimately required may be considerably larger.
In January 1934, and again in July 1935, the League appealed through Governments to charitable organizations – Churches and others – the world over to assist financially in finding a home for the Assyrians outside Iraq. Now that Governments, individually and through the League vote, have made substantial contributions, the Committee relies on those organizations which have long expressed their interest in the welfare of the Assyrian community to play their part and make possible the realization of the permanent and satisfactory solution that is now in sight.
F. The Role of the League
In conclusion, a word must be said regarding the role of the League in the carrying-out of the scheme.
It has already been mentioned that a special body, the Trustee Board, is to be set up on the spot by the Council of the League to co-operate with the local authorities. Two of the three Members of the Board – including the Chairman – will be appointed (and be removable) by the Council, which will be kept periodically informed by the Board of the progress of the scheme and the condition of the settlers and may be appealed to if difficulties arise. The funds subscribed for the scheme will be held by the Secretary-General and released by him quarter by quarter to meet the requirements of the High Commissioner and the Board. The half-yearly budgets for the settlement operations and all transfers between chapters of those budgets will require the approval of the Council Committee; and the detailed accounts of expenditure will be regularly audited by the League services.
Thus the League, which has for so long watched over the destinies of the Assyrians and has not initiated and helped to finance a scheme for their transfer from Iraq and settlement in the Levant States – a work of humanity and appeasement – will exercise a general supervision over the execution of that scheme and over the welfare of the Assyrian community during its first years in its new home.
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