Remember the Captive Assyrian Christians

Elderly Syrian ChristiansThere is so much bad news, often repeated, that five months later it is easy to forget. On February 23, 253 Assyrian Christians from the Hassaka area of Syria were taken captive by the so-called Islamic State.

Unlike others, they were not executed for propaganda. It appears the jihadis desire ransom instead.

On March 1, a group of mostly elderly captives were released. Al-Monitor was able to secure an interview with one of them, describing their conditions. She is presently in Lebanon with her daughter’s family.

Al-Monitor:  Where did they take you afterward, and how were you treated?

Assyrian:  The first thing they did was to separate the men from the women. Children under 11 years old would stay with the women. From that moment on, we never saw the men and boys again. We were allowed, however, to send letters over to the men and receive theirs. They crammed all of us into a room with a single window. There was so little room we would take turns lying down to sleep. We would take turns by the window to breathe better.

Al-Monitor:  You spent over four months in these conditions. How did you and the other women survive? Did you suffer physical abuse by IS while in captivity?

Assyrian:  I am an elderly woman. What I feared, what we all feared, was abuse to the girls. Fortunately, that did not happen. We lived in the constant fear of it but while I was there we were not beaten, nor were there other forms of physical abuse. The psychological fear was tremendous. We were all held together in the same room: all women and children up to age 11. We slept very little and were constantly trying to cover our faces from the captors. We prayed six times a day. This gave us hope.

She describes most of her captors as local Syrians, though there were foreigners among them. She described a particularly poignant ritual:

An IS jihadist would come to the room where we were kept hostage every Saturday and tell us that if we agreed to convert, we would be set free. It became a ritual, every week on Saturday. One day a jihadist directed this offer to me and, debilitated and exhausted, I answered, “Look at me, I could be your mother. You stay with your religion and I stay with mine.”

In our group no one accepted the IS “offer” to convert to be freed. But we knew that those who put up physical resistance from other villages were killed.

When released, she was driven by truck to a nearby church. The priest offered money to pay for her transport, which was first refused, then accepted.

This seems like an odd detail, but it fits with the Arab culture as we know it. One must first refuse an offer of payment, after which it is received when insisted upon. It speaks to the deep patterns of behavior that persist, even under great stress and upheaval.

I wonder if it might also speak to the dignity of the Christians, insisting on behaving as equals, according to cultural norms, even when receiving back a captive.

Whether or not this is true, the article concludes with a priest in Lebanon joining the elderly Assyrian woman in lamenting how the world neglects them:

Georgio:  We receive no support. We feel completely abandoned. I try to support the Assyrian refugees with my church but there were a total of 1,400 families at a time, between those who fled from Mosul in Iraq and from Syria. It was impossible to provide the needed support to everyone. Europe is silent, not hearing our pleas for help.

Al-Monitor:  How are you able to live here in Lebanon? Do you have family here, or do you have the help of the Assyrian community here?

Assyrian:  I am lucky to have one of my daughters here. She moved to Lebanon years ago and lives here with her family. I live with her at her house. We receive some help from the Assyrian community. Father Georgio helps us. We do not receive any help from the government or from other institutions dealing with refugees.

Ah, but what can be done? At the least, remember.

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