1933 Assyrian massacre still vivid for woman
(Published: Friday, August 11, 2000)
Kay Nesan is an 82-year-old great-grandma living in a posh north Modesto home.
The stories she tells from the days when her life was new are told only in Assyrian. Even her great-grandchildren don't know what she really went through in August 1933, when she survived a massacre Assyrians remember as Martyr's Week.
Khazama, as she was called, was a happy young wife in a Middle Eastern village. The 15-year-old girl lived with her husband's family, in the Assyrian custom. Her mother-in-law was teaching her how to make cheese and yogurt from sheep's milk and how to knit wool shawls and hats. They lived together in one house -- her mother-in-law, her father-in-law's brother and their sons' families -- in Simel, Iraq.
Simel was a growing village, called "Simeleh" by Assyrians and "Sumayl" by their Muslim Iraqi neighbors. Families farmed the fertile valley land. They drew water from fountains and wells. The village's largest ethnic group was Assyrians -- an ancient people who became Christians long after ruling the land that is now northern Iraq.
The village also was home to Malik Yacoub, or General Jacob -- the leader of Assyrians trying to peacefully establish a separate enclave in northern Iraq. Land had been promised by the British government in return for support from the legendary Assyrian fighters during World War I.
But the British never delivered. At the same time, a special military task force of Assyrian "Levies," which the British Army used to control Muslims after the war, were viewed as oppressors by other Iraqis.
Historians say the British exploited ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq for their own gain, primarily oil fields and railways. In return, Britain recommended Iraq be admitted to the League of Nations in 1932, which gave the government legitimacy.
A year later, Yacoub and several hundred men who feared the Iraqis would murder them fled to Turkey in a bid to seek refuge in France. They were denied.
Then on Aug. 4, the men battled Iraqi troops blocking re-entry into Iraq at the Tigris River. The Assyrians spilled a lot of Iraqi blood that day. News about the fighting spread to remote villages. Assyrians feared the Iraqi troops would seek revenge, so they, in vain, fled smaller villages in search of safety in Simel.
While exact dates and numbers were lost somewhere in the wheat fields of Simel, Iraqi troops killed at least 600 Assyrian villagers over several days. Assyrians say the number was closer to 3,000.
Khazama's family was at home when neighbors shouted from rooftops that Iraqi soldiers were riding into town. Her mother-in-law, Nobar Yacoub -- no relation to the general -- sent her to fetch extra clothes. Khazama was so scared she grabbed a bag of rags. Soldiers were at the back door when the family left.
They ran to the police station, which was surrounded by walls and already sheltering hundreds of Assyrians. Khazama's husband, Nesan David, was stationed in Hanide, Baghdad, as a soldier with the Levies. The only man with them was her husband's brother, until Khazama found her aged father.
Outside, Iraqi troops shot anyone in their way.
Khazama's relatives believed they were safe within the police station's protective walls. Yet the women and girls watched with terror as Iraqi soldiers came and took every male away. Gunshots always followed.
Her mother-in-law quickly devised a plan. Assyrian women often layered several dresses on top of each other. Nobar Yacoub peeled off two dresses for her son and Khazama's father. The women disguised them with the dresses and scarves and sat on the men to hide them. One night, the two men slipped out of the police station and disappeared.
The Iraqi government packed the survivors into trucks bound for a refugee camp in Mosul.
Khazama and her husband's family stayed at the camp a few days before they were allowed to join her husband in Baghdad. Her father and brother-in-law turned up at the refugee camp several days later.
The Simel massacre pushed many Assyrians from their ancient lands in Iraq. Thousands were sent to neighboring Syria, including Khazama's parents and siblings. She and her husband, who was spared because he was in Baghdad, had their first child a year later.
Khazama's parents died before she could visit Syria in 1966. Her husband died three years later after a stroke. She immigrated to the United States in 1976 to live with her oldest son, his wife and their children in Modesto.
Today, Khazama's days bear little resemblance to her life in Simel. She has her own bedroom. A sunken tub waits through an arched doorway to soothe feet that have carried her many years away from her life as a young apprentice who spent her days milking sheep.
She and her children worry the generations that follow will forget what happened in Simel. That is why some Assyrians set Aug. 11 aside to mark the massacre's end. Khazama's family will light a single candle today.
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