An Autonomous Assyria in the Nineveh Plains.
By Maria Ghatine
This paper seeks to argue for an Assyrian autonomous governorate in their ancient homeland of the Nineveh Plain, located in Iraq and part of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The purpose of this is to remedy the persecution of Assyrians as an endangered minority in their ancient homelands, and for the preservation and rebuilding of their existence. Evidence of the Iraqi and Kurdish Governments ethnic-cleansing, genocides, and human rights violations against the indigionous Assyrian Christian minorities in Northern Iraq, provides just cause for such right to self-detirmination and security in autonomy. To understand the significance of the region in question, the paper begins by providing a historic, ethnic, and geographical timeline of the Assyrians, Iraqi Arabs, and Kurds. This is also to clarify justified claims to the lands. Next is the introduction to the three sources of evidence being the 1933 Simele Massacre (also referred to as Semel), the invasion and destruction left by ISIS from 2014 to roughly 2017, and the human rights violations recorded post 2000 to present by the Government of Iraq and the KRG.
Firstly, the 1933 Simele Massacre provides historical context as to the manipulation, abuse, and betrayal by the League of Nations and the British military to their Assyrian allies. The League of Nations action, or lack of, allowed the Iraqi army and Kurdish militants to commit the massacre that led to the violent death of so many Assyrians in August of 1933. Secondly, the invasion of ISIS has left a permanent scar of ethnic cleansing and genocide, similar to that of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide on the memories of the international Assyrian community. The Peshmerga’s broken promise to protect the Assyrian villages, only to abandon them defenceless to ISIS attacks has also left a lasting distrust between Assyrians and the KRG. ISIS forced Assyrians to decide between paying a jizya, coverting to Islam, or death. Documented media by ISIS and news agencies memorialised the executions, kidnapping and abuse of Assyrian women, men, and children, and the erasing of Assyrian ancient and holy sites in cities such as Mosul and Nimrud.
The lack of trustworthy security from the Kurdish and Iraqi military led to the creation of several Assyrian security forces, most notably the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit (NPU). Still, the lasting effects of a mass Assyrian exodus has left ghost towns in once ancient lands and harsh conditions for the few attempting to return and rebuild. Thirdly, the numerous human rights violations and targeting of Assyrians by the KRG and the Government of Iraq are making it impossible for those remaining Assyrians to see a possibility of a prosperous existence in their ancient homeland. The Iraqi Government has attempted to destroy sections of the Nineveh Wall to expand a road; which ISIS has not already destroyed. As well they are being accused of ethnic cleansing and targeted violence towards Assyrian Christians and other minorities. Similar issues with Assyrians living under the KRG, who face intimidation, land theft, Kurdification, anti-Assyrian prejudice, second-class status, and a lack of basic necessities and emergency services.
The paper concludes that the solution to the preservation of the Assyrian people in their ancient homelands is the creation of an Assyrian administered autonomous Nineveh Plain province. With international Assyrian approval, the NPU is seen as the most trusted Assyrian security force to protect the people as they have the true interests of the community at heart, being locals of the Nineveh Plain region. After numerous evidence of neglect by the Government of Iraq and the KRG to preserve the Assyrian ancient lands and sites, the Assyrians to whom they belong are the best to care for their own preservation. There have already been previous plans for an autonomous Nineveh Plain province by the Iraqi government in 2014 to serve as a self-determined safe haven for Assyrians and other minorities. Coincidently, a few months after the introduction of this referendum, ISIS invaded Iraq which halted such changes. An Assyrian autonomous Nineveh Plain province can only survive if it is internationally recognised and supported. Such success can be seen through the creation of Armenia and Israel, who both have suffered genocides, ethnic cleansing, and share Mesopotamian roots. The Nineveh Plain province will allow Assyrians to heal and rebuild their nation under the Iraqi central government, preserving their language, culture, traditions, historic identity, and hopefully see a growth in their population, as well as the return of those in diaspora.
Historic and Geographic Origins
One of the first groups of people mentioned in the Bible are the Assyrians. In Genesis 2:14 (ESV) it identifies “And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.”  Assyria was known to be the first great empire during the Bronze-Age of Mesopotamia. Contributions made by Assyrians and other Mesopotamian people include but are not limited to irrigation, astrology, astronomy, law, writing/language, medicine, military strategies and devices, etc. Three well known ancient cities in Assyria are Nineveh, Ashur, Kalhu/Nimrud, and Arbela. Since the fall of Assyria, these lands have been conquered by Persians, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, and more. Today, these ancient Assyrian cities have been renamed from the native neo-Aramaic into Arabic. For example, Northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq; Nineveh being Mosul, Ashur being Qal’at Sherqat, Kalhu/Nimrud being southeast of Mosul, and Arbela being Erbil. In all corners of the world and from the time of Mesopotamia itself, land has been settled and conquered. But where does that leave the native people to the land, such as today’s descendants of Assyrians, once it has been conquered?
Today there is an estimate of two to four million Assyrians in the homeland and in diaspora. Many Assyrians reside in the United States, Europe (specifically Sweden), Russia, Australia, and Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia. Assyrians struggle with international recognition and a secure identity, most strongly felt by those in diaspora and the younger generations. Due to external definitions attached to this community by scholars, politicians, media as well as the cultural genocide/Arabization committed in the Middle East. There is much confusion over the roots and identity of Assyrians. The Assyrian native language is a “modern form of Aramaic/Syriac (the language spoken in the neo-Assyrian Empire),” and has variations of dialect depending on their region within the Middle East. Aramaic being the language the Bible was written in and the language Jesus spoke, Assyrians are one of the first people to convert into Christianity and identify themselves as Christian. Assyrians may belong to any of the following churches (Church of the East being the original church): “the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Church of the East (also referred to as Nestorian), the Syrian Orthodox Church (also referred to as Jacobite), and the Syrian Catholic Church” The separation of the churches due to agressive missionary work and the need to hide/dissociate from the Church of the East during times of genocide and massacures, has also caused confusion relating to the Assyrian identity. Even still without having a independent country of their own, Assyrians in diaspora and in the Middle East are able to stay united through their religion and church, where the church acts as the cultural centre and the Patriarch as somewhat of a president.
Renata Sargon provides a quote by Donabed and Mako in her dissertation that states about the diasporic community, “Being relatively distant from what is considered to be the Assyrian heartland around ancient Nineveh (the Mosul region of today’s Iraq), these people developed a symbolic attachment to their ancient past rather than to an immediate visible material one” For many Assyrians, the greatness of their ancient past is a more positive focus than their modern reality filled with genocides, massacures, human rights violations, confusion of identity, fighting to preserve culture and identity in diaspora, and the weight of an unknown future on their shoulders. Assyrians need to feel the land of their ancestors, the Nineveh Plains, under their feet without fear of persecution and that they may be seen on an international stage with a singular identity.
This land is now known as Iraq and is occupied and claimed by Iraqi Arabs. Although it was not always occupied by Iraqi Arabs, the Arabs had migrated north from the southern areas of the Middle East as they are known for having been nomadic tribes. It is stated that “The notion that the ‘true’, ‘authentic’ first Arabs were Bedouin is so strong that even the archaeological finds which attest to developed pre-Islamic Arabian urban cultures in Yemen, Oman and Bahrain have not altered the conception of Arab origins”. Although this statement is comparing two notions of Arab origins, both still place their native heartlands in Yemen, Oman and Bahrain, or follow the nomadic Bedouin tribes around the Arabian peninsula. It was not until after the Arabs had adopted Islam that they began their mission to propigate their faith in the lands they were to conqure. Those native to the ancient Near East “were not in a position to resist the Arab conquerors, who arrived in the seventh century”, as they had their attention drawn to the Romans to their north and Persians to their east. The Arabs began settling and occupying these northern regions of the Middle East and had kept it up until the Ottoman Empire.
Moving forward to the twentieth century, the region of Iraq became under British mandate and was constructed between 1919-23 “out of the three Ottoman Vilayets of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul”; Still called Mesopotamia This came after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide they conducted (including Greeks and Assyrians), where the French and British began dividing control of the Middle East. The rest of the twentieth century Iraq will have: gained its independence in 1932 while still having a monarchy under British influence, have the monarchy overthrown in 1958, go through the Arab nationalist socialist Ba’ath Party in the 1970s, Saddam Hussein’s leadership through the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), Hussein’s end in 2003, and so on with modern turn of events.
The other occupants of the Nineveh Plains are the Kurds under the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. The origins and direct descendants of the Kurds is still a hotly debated topic. There is much mystery as to whether they descended from the Karduk, Parthian, Guti, or the most agreed upon and accepted by most Iraqi Kurds, the Mede tribe. The different claims argue today’s Kurds are a descendent of one, some, or all of these groups. Since the most agreed upon origins by those Kurds in the Nineveh Plains are the Medes, that will be the focus. One possible political advantage to the Median claim is their capture of Nineveh from the Assyrians in the year 612 B.C., the year the Kurdish calendar begins. This would legitimise to an extent their claim over the current Kurdish Region of Iraq, as well as to explain the dual Assyrian and Kurdish demands. For native status to the Nineveh Plains, the Medes “first expanded from their heartland in southern Kurdistan and their capital, Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana), to cover the Zagros mountains, western parts of the Iranian plateau and eastern Anatolia.” Hamadan is a city in western Iran to the left of the Zagros mountains. Where the Zagros mountains stretch along the western border within Iran and the very north edge of the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Much like the Kurds of today, the Medes were also a mountain tribe.
The Kurds, by the end of WW1 in 1914, had still been occupying the bordering mountains of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and had a considerable population in Mosul. The Kurdish fate had been in the hands of the British under the British Mandate of Iraq and the new boundaries formed in the lands of Mesopotamia, hoping for an independent Kurdistan of their own. Some time after the mandate ended, and once the rural and urban Kurds teamed to work together towards their cause, “The Kurdish (later, Kurdistan) Democratic Party (KDP) was therefore formed on 16 August 1946” and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1975. After decades of Kuridish rebellions against the Iraqi government and strategic political works, it was the October uprising of 1991 after the Gulf War that had the Iraqi Government and military withdraw from Kurdish occupied areas of Iraq. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was created a year after the uprising, and in 2005 Erbil, Sulaymaniyya, and Duhok became constitutionally recognised Federal regions of the KRG in Iraq. The Kurds had been put through “a brutal combination of coercive assimilation and Arabization imposed by successive Iraqi governments, which brought them to the verge of extinction during a genocide campaign of the late 1980s”. Kurdish success can be pinned to the growth of Kurdish nationalism, the Kurdish communities working together rather than against each other, and their cleverness of reaching for international recognition and autonomy at any chance.
Summary of Evidence
Assyrians have experienced much violence such as genocide, cultural genocide, ethnic cleansing, basic human rights violations, and more in Iraq and KRG alone; not including within Ottoman/Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Although there are many of these examples to research and discuss, the three main occurrences of these acts of violence that stand out are the Simele Massacre, the creation of ISIS, and recent human rights violations at the hands of the Government of Iraq and the KRG. The Simele Massacre provides the foundation of Iraqi independence and nationalism through the destruction of the Assyrians, specifically the Church of the East sect, and leads down the long road that explains events today. The creation of ISIS, their targeting of Assyrians, and the way the Assyrian identity was communicated through international media is another key point to be taken when understanding why the Assyrians are scarcely known; adding to how such atrocities are allowed to continue.
The more modern and ever continuing human rights violations committed by the Iraqi and Kurdish government (as well as those citizens who take part in such actions), will aid in depicting the death of a culture and the decreasing number of native Assyrian people willing to fight for their homes in exchange for a more peaceful existence in diaspora ripped from the lands of Ashur (Assyria). Examining these three events in time presents the conditions of the early, late, and immediate threats to Assyrian existence in the Nineveh Plains. An honourable mention must be made to the intense Arabization campaign done during the Ba’ath Party and their aggressive infliction of Arab nationalism, forcing Assyrians and other non-Arab minorities to assimilate and take on Arab identities. Regardings Assyrians in Iraq, “. If they were not native to Iraq, and did not claim Arab identity—which was integral to the Mesopotamian narrative propagated by the state—neither could they claim Mesopotamian heritage.” This is where the idea that Ancient Assyrian is synonymous with Iraqi Arab history and Iraqi nationalism. By stripping today’s Assyrian from their ancestral roots, and consequently from their legitimate claims to the land within Iraq, Assyrians became a problematic question and a threat to the falsified Iraqi Arab and Mesopotamian joint identity.
1933 Simele Massacre
The Simele Massacre of 1933 is one that often gets overlooked, although it is after this massacre that the term ‘genocide’ was coined and used. The Assyrian blood spilled here in Iraq is the direct responsibility of the League of Nations and the British, as their use and abuse of the Assyrian Levies and ignored promises of protection from the Iraqi and Kurdish armies guided the sword. The Assyrian Levies are a creation of the British out of the displaced refugee population since the fall of the Ottoman empire and redrawing of the Middle East. Known for their fierce and skilled fighting abilities, the Assyrians were a praised group of fighters the British used often as they could when needing to deal with the Arab, Kurdish, and Turkish. The British favour over the Assyrian Levies caused strife between the locals where “feelings of intense jealousy sprang up between the Assyrian Levies and the Iraqi Army”. The Iraqi distrust of the Assyrians cemented significantly with their allying with the British and West against them. The British used the Assyrian Levies to put down Arab and Kurdish revolts and encouraged them to “use their famous ferocity against the Kurds and Arabs. Although Assyrians had their own significant reasons of distrust towards the Iraqis and Kurds, and although there was also distrust with the British, they seemed to be the greater promise of hope at the time.
The events of the 1933 Simele Massacre are remembered and recorded by Malek Yakoub D’Malek Ismail of Upper Tyari, an important Assyrian political and military leader (Major in the British Army in the Assyrian Levies Unit). The following descriptions of events are described in his book “The Assyrian and the Two World Wars” published in 2020. In October 1932, His Holiness Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun, head of the Assyrian nation, accompanied by Bishop Jelu had left Mosul for Geneva to present to the League of Nations the demands of the Assyrian people in Iraq. Assyrians have been gathering together trying to produce a unified list of demands on behalf of the Assyrian identity and independence. There are many tribes within the community and settlements covering Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran who tend to have conflicting agendas towards such demands, such as place of settlement. One of these Assyrian members who saw things differently was Khoshaba Yosip who, while working with the Iraqi Government, wrote a letter signed by others sent to Geneva that stated Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun “was not appointed by the Assyrian people to speak on their behalf before the League of Nation”. If it were not for this interruption, there could very well have been hope for internationally recognised rights for the Assyrians in Iraq.
Thereafter began a series of detaining of Assyrian leaders and individuals such as the patriarch in Baghdad and Malek Yakoub D’Malek Ismail. There were many traps set by the British and Iraqi leaders, Colonel Stafford being the British representative, by making Assyrians sign guilty on police criminal papers as having killed government officials and other criminal acts. Author Malek Yacoub believes “The British government was playing a sly game, along with the Iraqi government, in order to deny the rights of the Assyrian…They wanted them to stay in Iraq so that they may have a permanent foothold in the land, by creating trouble, and at the same time acting as judges in the land.” This is important to keep in mind as the Assyrians were used as militants by the British to control the Iraqi and Kurdish revolts as mentioned earlier. As Assyrians had begun to leave the Levies British Army, their distrust in both the British and Iraqi support in rights had gone thin.
It was in July 1933 that groups of Assyrians considered seeking a new home in Syria under the French; having heard of better treatment under that government. A small group of a few representatives, notably Malek Loco and Malek Yacoub, had gone to Syria and were waiting for the French ambassador in Beirut to respond to a letter, allowing more Assyrians in Iraq to seek refuge in Syria. Rather than wait, some 900 young Assyrian men who were armed had arrived at the border arguing that the Iraqi government had heard they crossed into Syria and began to crackdown harder on Assyrians. The French Captain Lariste gave permission for the Assyrians to cross, although they must go back to Iraq and return one tribe at a time. On their return on August 5th, 1933, Malek Ismail (the author) recalls the Iraqi army waiting for them at the Tigris River crossing with “Iraqis using machine guns and Lewis-guns, while our men were using ordinary rifles”; their welcome back was needless to say not welcomed. The Assyrians fighting in the battle were soon aided by another Assyrian platoon under Rayes Warda and were able to push back the Iraqi army, killing 45 of them.
On August 11th in the town of Semel, The police-chief had ordered all the Assyrians near the towne of Semel to gather there under the guise of protection, and to surrender their arms as respect and loyalty to the Iraqi army commander Bakr Sedqi (Kurdish origins) and Haji Ramadan who were to arrive; the Assyrians trusted these words. Once the Iraqi Army arrived in Semel, “‘Machine gunners set up their guns outside the windows of the houses in which the Assyrians had taken refuge, and having trained them on the terror stricken wretches in the crowded rooms, fired among them until not a man was left standing in the shambles. In some other instances the blood lust of the troops took a slightly more active form, and men were dragged out and shot or bludgeoned to death and their bodies thrown on a pile of dead’”.  An estimated 60-100 villages were destroyed and 315-6,000 were killed by the end of the massacre. This was a hunt conducted by the Iraqi government and Kurds, allowed by the British watch in the League of Nations, killing all those who identified as Assyrian. British diplomat and officer Gerald de Gaury states about the Simele/Semel Massacre, ‘‘it was enough for them to be Assyrians to be shot’’. Women, children, and the elderly were not exempt from these killings.
The dead Assyrian bodies were left for days on the streets to decay, thrown into water springs and “draw polluted water from there and give for drink to the prisoners” already bloodied during the massacre, and thrown into ditches. These massacres were also taking place in villages in the province of Duhok, today’s capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq. A letter by Malek Yakoub and Malek Loko was written on September 28, 1933 to His Holiness Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun about the Simele Massacre. In this letter they state that on September 17th “they have begun to forcedly convert the people to Islam…There is a great persecution agaisnt the Assyrians…and there is the danger tthat another wave of massacres will take place in Iraq.” Simply because the initial massacre against the Assyrians had seemed to end, this did not mean the general targeting and persecution against Assyrians, their culture, and identity had ceased. Indeed, these similar tactics of terror and genocide will seem to continue in later waves of targeting Assyrians.
The mistreatment, abuse, and neglect by the League of Nations and British military towards the Assyrians is a disgraceful mark that will mark their legacy. A handwritten letter from Sir Henry Dobbs to Sir Percy Sykes dated 15 october 1933 states, “I do not believe there is anyone in this country who is aught but ashamed and unhappy at the fate of a minority for whose welfare we are completely and admittedly responsible … their very espousal of our cause in the war made it impossible for them to live in their homeland save under our guarantee – and we have failed them.” This letter serves as admittance of English and League of Nations guilt and remorse, taking responsibility for the Assyrian blood spilt on their native land at the hands of the Iraqi and Kurdish government. The loyalty and trust ensued by the Assyrians for military allied service in exchange for protection and rights by the League of Nations, had been completely abandoned and abused. The Assyrians were left like sheep to the wolves without the promised protection of the shepherd. At the end of his book, Malek Yacoub sarcastically thanks “the most trusted and genuine Englishman” “Major Thompson, who was sent by the League of Nations in order to establish the Assyrians in the vast new country of Iraq.” The blood spilt during the 1933 Simele/Semel Massacre is still remembered by today’s Assyrians. A reminder not to trust Western promises for protection in exchange for loyalty and service, and to be able to rely on themselves above all else.
In the summer of 2014 the Islamic State (ISIS/ IS/ISIL/Daesh, henceforth ISIS) entered Iraq and seized Mosul. By August the same year, ISIS had taken most of the Nineveh Plain where the Assyrians of Mosul had escaped to temporary safety. As a member of the diasporic Assyrian community, the ethnic cleansing and genocide (as some would argue) committed by ISIS between the years of 2014 and up to around 2017 have left lasting traumatic scars in the memories of Assyrians. The result of ISIS’ actions diminished the Assyrian population, damaged the historic evidence of artifacts existing in the region, and led to the last straw emigration of Assyrians from their homelands in the Nineveh Plains and Iraq as a whole. Before ISIS reached their grip on cities in the Nineveh Plain, Kurdish forces were designated to protect those cities and their inhabitants; Kurdish forces (Peshmerga) focused on Northern Iraq close to the Kurdish Regional Government and Iraqi forces focused on everything south. Months before ISIS entered the city Qaragosh in the Nineveh Plain, the Kurds had forbidden and confiscated the weapons from the people which left them defenceless except for Peshmerga protection. A week before ISIS invaded the city, the Peshmerga retreated with the excuse from their Secretary General Jabbar Yabbar being that they did not have the “weapons to stop” them. The Assyrians and others left behind were left to face ISIS on their own with no defences. This was not the only case where Assyrians were left to save themselves from ISIS and which deepened their distrust in Kurdish, Iraqi, and aid outside of their own Assyrian community.
The Assyrians left to face ISIS in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain were given three choises and made to live under extreme conditions resembling those of the Holocaust. Assyrian Christians were given the three choices of either paying jizya (religious tax), convert to Islam, or be killed; the fourth option often taken was to flee as many would do. Even when the Assyrians agreed to convert against their will to save their lives, there was no true promise that they would not be killed right after their conversion. ISIS would do this to harm the Assyrians in twofold: to kill them physically and spiritually by their denying God and forsaking heaven as is believed. Beside having to make this choice, Assyrians were forced to mark their homes “in red with the Arabic letter ‘N’ [nun/ﻥ], which stands for Nazarene, an early Islamic term for Christians”; as the Nazis marked the Jews with the star of David. ISIS’ mission was to ethnically cleanse and eradicate all “archeological traces of pre-Islamic antiquity”, being seen as haram, impure, and corrupt to Islam. Assyrians were both the living descendants of ancient Assyrians and Christians, making them the ultimate target.
During the height of ISIS, there have been numerous types of media documenting the atrocious ethnic cleansing and genocidal acts committed against Assyrians and other ISIS victims alike. These were documented as ISIS produced propaganda videos and pictures as well as interviews, videos, and pictures documented by news agencies and on-the-ground witnesses. Many of the original ISIS published videos are no longer available or difficult to hunt down, as well as too graphic and triggering to study for this purpose. Simply searching Google images for “ISIS kills Assyrians” will show Assyrians crucified, the infamous hostages beheaded in their orange jumpers, graphic dead bodies of children and elderly, one decapitated body with three detached heads placed on each side, and pictures of destroyed churches and ancient artifacts. The news articles, interviews, and videos chosen to be cited depict the variety of horrific acts ISIS caused. The importance of how media was used during ISIS is significant due to the international reach it was able to achieve. ISIS themselves knew how effective media documentation of these acts would be in having their own propaganda. They used these propaganda videos to gather more volunteers to their jihad and to spark international fear. Unlike the Simele Massacre, ISIS vividly and graphically documented the genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Assyrians, Christians, and other minorities targetted.
The article “GRAPHIC: ISIS Executes 200 Syrian Children In Horrific New Video” by Breaking 911 shows a screenshot of the original video believed to have been taken in 2014. Although this source states they are Syrian children, other sources specify them to by Assyrian; as the misunderstanding of Assyrians being called Syrian is quite regular. In the picture, one can see children laying, crammed side by side, face down in a single file row. Above them are two ISIS militants cut off on the sides of the frame and the main one in the middle. The main ISIS militant is holding a gun like the others, but he looks to have smoke shooting out the barrel which suggests the screenshot of the video was captured mid fire. The article explains this as well and states that the video was circulated by an anti-ISIS activist group in Yemen. The original video was available at the end of the article but has since been removed.
An article posted by the National Review goes into political desicions regarding whether or not to consider the actions against Christians in the Middle East as a genocide. The author Nina Shea speaks on the significance of these Christians (Assyrians) who are targeted specifically for being Christian. She even noted that in September 2014 three Assyrian Christian men were executed on video as ISIS threatened to do the same to the other 200 being held captive. Shea continues to share how women are “enslaved and sexually abused” when taken by ISIS and that the American Christian aid group reports that Christians refusing to convert are “raped, beheaded, or crucified”. This treatment of minority Christian women and girls kidnapped by ISIS is a tragic and true reality many Assyrians face. Assyrian families in diaspora who have sisters and mothers taken by ISIS would likely never know the location or condition their loved ones are in.
This is the case seen in an interview with Mimi Odicho, who recounts and expresses her emotions of her sister and three children having been kidnapped by ISIS on February 23, 2017, at Tal Shamiram, northeastern Syria. She expresses how her sister may live her daily life and if she is safe, has food, and other basic necessities. The video also shows Mimi Odicho speaking at an Assyrian protest in Chicago held demanding America and international organisations to step forward and save the Assyrian people from persecution. These are only a few details as to what happened once Assyrian men, women, children, and elderly were kidnapped and relocated.
A news clip from NBC posted on February 28, 2015 covers the destruction ISIS caused to ancient Assyrian artifacts. They reference and show clips from the original ISIS propaganda video, where they are seen in the Mosul Museum knocking down and using power drills to destroy ancient Assyrian artifacts preserved for all these years. The ISIS militant is recorded saying “We were ordered by our prophet to take down false idols and destroy them”, all while showing the Assyrian Lamassu near the museum (a winged bull statue that guarded the ancient gates). NBC condemns ISIS with war on culture and systematic eradication of pre-Islamic evidence. The Christian Post also provides an article with pictures of the rubble left of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, also known as Calah. Winged bulls/Lamassu, wall panels, and a still image of the explosion destroying the city are shown. The before and after pictures of the Nineveh Gates are provided by the National Geographic, showing again the ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide ISIS committed to.
Evidently, the Assyrians could not rely on the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Iraqi Army for protection, so they created several of their own militias; two of them being the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit (NPU) and the Self-Sacrificers/Dwekh Nawsha (DN). Assyrians may not have an overbearing presence in Iraq as a whole, though they “probably comprised the largest ethno-religious community in the Nineveh Plain, and dominated most of its population entres.” This meant necessary cooperation from political players who wished to succeed long-term in these areas, in exchange for resources and support of the Assyrian militias. With the assistance and guidance of the American group Sons of Liberty, the NPU received military training for its 350 to 500 Assyrian men in preparing to fight ISIS. The NPU works mostly with the Iraqi army, helping to liberate cities such as Karemlesh, Baghdad, Alqosh, and Qaraqosh to name a few. This Assyrian militia group is by far the most known and professional of the rest. It is not only the Assyrian men who are fighting, but Assyrian women have created the Bethnahrin Women Protection Forces (HSNB). Embodying the strength of Assyrian Queen Shamiran and goddess Ishtar, these women are ready to die for the survival of their people, to save the women held hostage by ISIS and sold as sex slaves, and to seek revenge for their family and firends “martyred fighting terrorism”. ISIS believes that being killed by a woman is the worst fate, let alone a Chtistian woman, where they will be sent to hell. This makes female militias like HSNB so much more powerful in terms of an individual ISIS kill.
The other is the DN, who works primarily with the Kurdish Peshmerga. A video report produced by PBS NewsHour in 2015 interviews Bret, a 28 year-old US army veteran who volunteered to join DN in their fight against ISIS to protect their people, culture, and religion. Bret served in “2006 in the US army 14th Mountain Division for 15 months in Iraq” where he was wounded by an IED. His Christian faith plays a significant part in helping the Assyrians, saying that many back in America take advantage of being able to practise one’s faith freely without the fear of being killed. The video report is filmed in Alqosh, an Assyrian city taken by ISIS but had been saved by Assyrian militias and the Peshmerga, where Bret says had only one or two inhabitants left but now with many returning.
The video also depicts videos of ISIS destroying the artifacts in Mosul, a short quote from an Assyrian woman living in Alqosh, other Assyrian inhabitants, and expertise on Assyrians from a lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Bret ends the report insisting on international aid through funding and recognition of the crying Assyrian Christians ISIS intends to wipe out and kill. He quotes from the Bible “Jesus said ‘Before they hated you, they hated me. Before they persecute you, they persecuted me. Before they kill you, they killed me’ and it shows the resilience of the people here”. This is reflective of how the Assyrians, with Christianity so close and deep rooted in their hearts, view their martyrdom. Bret is not the only volunteer to help the Assyrians and locals fight ISIS, many others being from Canada, Britain, as well as America.
Everything ISIS has done against the indiginous Assyrians from the three choice ultimatum, genocidal mass murders, kidnapping, abuse of women, cultural and historic cleansing, have lead to the mass exodus of Assyrians from their native lands. The population of Assyrians in Iraq has fallen “from 1.4 million at the beginning of the century to a few hundred thousand today.” After years of false promises of peaceful safe coexistence only to be met with the Simele Massacre, the Ba’ath movement, several other human rights violations, and now ISIS and the abandonment of Assyrians to fend for themselves, how can that trust be expected? Former Mosul resident forced to flee to Erbil expresses this exhaustion of trust and betrayal saying, “How can we live with them again?…My father lived his whole life with them, talking with them, working with them, and just like that, that is how they treat us?…No, I don’t think so…I don’t think that trust can ever be restored.”; referring to those neighbours in Mosul who welcomed ISIS as Assyrians fled in fear. This is an all too familiar feeling shared by Assyrians in diaspora and in the homelands.
Many NPU members say the same about Iraqi Sunnis who at first supported ISIS and who they believe would not welcome Assyrian if “they returned to the Nineveh Plain.” This Assyrian exodus is detrimental to the preservation of Assyrian livelihood and tradition as well as these Assyrian cities. Qaraqosh once had about 40,000 residents where it is now a ghost town as many other once Assyrian populated cities; due to broken trust with locals as well as airstrikes that have destroyed the buildings only leaving debris. These conditions are inhumane and uninhabitable for a people in need of much healing. Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan and Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch say about the conditions of those Assyrians returning to their towns, “We observed their suffering and the lack of the most basic elements needed for a dignified life, namely housing, work, health care or education for the children”. Without safe buildings to live in, uncertainty of clean water, medicine, schools for children to attend and grow, markets to access basic needs, and no work for income, it would be a violation of basic human rights to expect Assyrians to return willingly. The pains of the Assyrian exodus are still felt in the Assyrian community today, as it has worsened the worrying trend of a dying culture, tradition, and knowledge of the Neo-Aramaic mother tongue; so often preserved in concentrated native populations in the homelands.
Human Rights Violations by the Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government
Outside of the two major events of the Simele Massacre and ISIS, the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish Regional Government commit human rights violations against the Assyrian communities regularly. Although less public and flamboyant, it is often the slow yet consistent build of smaller events that make life unbearable. In 2021 the Iraqi government began demolition on parts of the Wall of Nineveh in Mosul for road construction, despite outcry from local Assyrians and other international communities. Former Iraqi MP Joseph Sliwa has fought hard in attempts to halt the construction of the road where the ancient Nineveh wall will be the consequence. Being Assyrian himself, Sliwa pleads his case to the prime minister and minister of tourism of Iraq, and has achieved halting the destruction as well as sparking an investigation commission.
He also attempts to send a petition to UNESCO with collected signatures to raise awareness, as UNESCO has previously stated directed at ISIS, “These deliberate destructions are a war crime against the people of Iraq, whose heritage is a symbol and medium of identity, history and memory. These destructions are linked to the suffering and violence on human lives, and weaken the society over the long term.” If UNESCO is able to condemn ISIS so harshly and readily for destroying the Nineveh Gate, why would they not have a similar attitude towards the Iraqi government? If ISIS destroying the Nineveh Wall is a war crime, then the Iraqi government should be held to the same standards. Both the Iraqi Government and ISIS acted in the deliberate destruction of ancient landmarks linked to a suffering and violent history of the Assyrian people. This furthers the sensibility of why the Assyrian locals do not trust the Iraqi government.
The vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has stated that violence against Assyrians in Iraq since 2003 has intensified and warns of a new “ethnic-cleansing campaign”. Reports done by the United Nations, the United States government, the United Kingdom, as well as by other organisations have all stated systematic violence targeting Assyrian based on ethinc and religious grounds. Some of these acts include murders, bombings of Christian churches, seven people riding on a bus who were massacred in one day, three Christians killed in Basra for selling alcohol, Christian women being assaulted for not wearing veils, Christians fleeing, and a “campaign of kidnappings has terrorized Iraqi Christians at a rate of two or three disappeared per week in Baghdad alone.” This ethnic cleansing has caused hundreds of thousands of Assyrians to escape to other countries in the Middle East, Europe, Russia, Australia, North America, and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Although the KRG is seen as more progressive in accepting minorities that the rest of Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, it is still extremely repressive and shares some aspects of ethnic cleansing seen in Iraq.
Kurdish Regional Government has also conducted such human rights violations where Assyrians face political intimidation, land theft, Kudrification, harm for practising free speech, anti-Assyrian prejudice, forced KDP propaganda , lack of basic necessities, second-class status and overall descrimination. In a 2017 report done by The Assyrian Confederation of Europe titled “Erasing Assyrians: How the KRG Abuses Human Rights, Undermines Democracy, and Conquers Minority Homelands”, written by Reine Hanna and Matthew Barber, provides 115 pages detailing abuses and essentially ethnic cleansing done by the KRG. This report contains statements from eyewitness accounts and provided pictures as evidence of some of the threats and documents spoken about.
Within chapter two, the report covers “Conquest Masked as Liberation” and accuses the KRG as guilty of interfering with the NPU, blocking U.S. aid to the Nineveh Plain (specifically to Christian/Assyrian populations), voter fraud and intimidation, removal of Assyrian mayors in several cities and the forced imposition of pro-KRG. The NPU had attempted to build a base in the Nineveh plains but had been purposefully delayed. The KRG attempted to force the NPU to serve under the Peshmerga, and were not approved to build this base independently “until the U.S. Consulate Erbil intervened” in May 2015. The Peshmerga has also been recorded of delaying access to weapons specified for the NPU, stalling the approval of 1,000 new NPU recruits for months, and Peshmerga harassment at checkpoints by blocking and illegally holding NPU members. Between 2005 to 2012 the United States set out to provide aid specifically to minorities in the Nineveh Plain through the KRG. In 2007 Congress was concerned funds were not reaching these minorities and wrote to the KRG to provide a report on the “‘ethnic and geographic distribution of U.S. assistance programs and specifically a report on all U.S. assistance reaching the Nineveh Plain region.’” Nothing changed as in 2008, aid was still taking preference to KRG interests before reaching assigned Nineveh minorities.
Chapter three is “Despotism Masked as Democracy” and covers KRG land theft, the KRG draft constitution and how dangerous it is to Assyrians, lack of religious freedom (Kurdish clerics inciting violence, religious intolerance in society), secret police restricting freedom of speech, anti-Assyrian prejudice (glorifying Kurds who led the 1915 Seyfo Genocide in Assyrian textbooks, Kurdish hero streetnames who have killed Assyrians, placing Kurdish flagson Assyrian historical figures, neglect and defacment of Assyrian heritage sites). It goes on to report the Kurdification of Assyrians, PKK using Assyrian towns as human shield between Turkish airstrikes, descrimination of Assyrian businesses, lack of basic services due to funding and intentional neglect through prejudice (medical care, basic needs like heating, clean drinking water, electricity, poor infrastructure, unresponsive emergency services, lack of schools, discriminatory higher education political indoctrination), building over and around Assyrian lands and holy sites, and high taxation in Ankara (Christian town being given a jizya tax). Assyrian puppets and Kurds, and intentionally promoting fraturing in the Assyrian identity.
The vast amounts of Assyrian lands being stolen has been described by Yacoob G. Yaco, an Assyrian politician, as “a genocide, like that perpetrated by IS, only more slowly.” Kurds have been expanding their villages into Assyrian farmlands, taking profitable orchards, illegally building homes on Assyrian property, and even the confiscation of entire villages through aggression. July 13, 2016, a mysterious fire started in the Assyrian village of Dehe. The fire was allowed to grow for nine hours before Kurdish firefighters arrived. They had stopped for a moment in the Assyrian village, but moved “to the nearby Kurdish village to block the fire from spreading there—this was despite the fact that the fire was only in Dehe at the time” Thousands of dollars worth of crops were allowed to burn along with Assyrian homes and buildings. Assyrians were left without aid due to anti-Assyrian prejudice from emergency services within the KRG.
An Autonomous Assyria in the Nineveh Plains
The Nineveh Plain is a region significantly populated by Christians even after ISIS, considering the Assyrian Christians from Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq sought refuge in the Nineveh Plain and KRG. These native ancient Assyrian lands hold the thousands of years old cities of “Nineveh, Nimrud, and Dur-Sharrukin, as well as numerous ancient Assyrian religious sites, such as Mar Mattai Monastery and Rabban Hormizd Monastery.” The evident destruction and lack of attention in preserving these historic sites on part of the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, makes it clear that care would be best entrusted in the hands of the Assyrians to whom they belong. Assyrians have been voicing their concern for years now that “without a Nineveh Plain autonomous administration (or some type of internationally-protected ‘safe zone’) the indigenous Assyrian presence in the homeland will disappear” This goes back to the lack of trust in equal citizenship status and protection under the law of the Government of Iraq and the KRG. Assyrian-administration and Assyrian-managed security within their native lands are the only secure solution to the ethnic cleansing, security descrimination, and secondary-class citizenship issues. With the NPU being the most legitimate security force devoted to the Assyrian cause, they have expressed in their mission statement:
Our long-term goal is the creation of a new Nineveh Province [i.e. a governorate] separate of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and equal to other provinces under the Government of Iraq. We believe that only through a separate Nineveh Plain Province independent of the KRG may Assyrians realise their potential as free and equal citizens of the Government of Iraq.
The Assyrian community both in diaspora and within the Middle East vastly agree and support this statement by the NPU, as they have international trust from the Assyrian community to protect and serve their interests. There are many viewpoints within Assyrian discourse about the level of autonomy. Some believe an autonomous region under the Central Iraqi Government is the best option, while others believe they are ready for a completely independent nation carved out of the Nineveh Plains. There are pros and cons to both futures, although the more realistic route at this moment would be an autonomous province of the Nineveh Plain under the Central Government of Iraq.
This is not a new concept, on 21 January 2014, the Iraqi Council of Ministers voted for the creation of a Nineveh Plain Governorate in Resolution No. 16. The designated purpose of this new Governorate was to “serve as a safe haven for minorities, including Assyrians, while remaining part of Iraq and under the authority of the Central Government.” The long awaited hope for a safe homeland administered by Assyrians for Assyrians and where minorities, such as the Yazidis, could practice their culture, religion, and freedom of speech without fear of persecution was halted by the invasion of ISIS months later. It is essential now to revive this resolution within the Iraqi constitution in the next referendum. The continued assault Assyrians and other minorities face at the hands of the now dwindled threat of ISIS, the Government of Iraq, and the Kurdish Regional Government will not end without such drastic measures to ensure their continued existence in their native lands.
It is crucial that this Assyrian administered Nineveh Plain Governorate be internationally recognised and supported by the United States (as the Assyrian community is already blessed to have members of Congress and the Senate stand for the Assyrian cause), the European Union, and other international countries that host significant populations of Assyrian diasporic communities. It is this international recognition that will promise long-term security for the Assyrian autonomous province from future Kurdish, Iraqi, and other hostile entities attacks. Not only will having an internationally recognised Assyrian Nineveh Plain Governorate promise international security support, it will also promote Assyrian historic, cultural, linguistic, awareness and knowledge to many who do not know Assyrians still exist.
Evidence of having an internationally recognised province, government, and especially an independent country can be seen, yes with the KRG, but more so with Armenia and Israel. Both Armenians and Jewish people have experienced massive genocides because of their ethnicity and religion. These communities have been massacres, assimilated, culturally and ethnically erased at the hands of the Ottoman Turks and Nazi Germans. Wounded and crippled, many of these people sought refuge internationally and even to this day have diasporic communities due to such emmigration. The creation of Armenia and Israel are evidence of how having an autonomous safe haven in one’s native lands spark a surge in population growth and cultural, linguistic, traditional, and historic preservation. The essential rebirth of a wounded people can only be promised in the safety of their own secure lands. Assyrians often refer to Armenians as their cousin nation due to similar side-by-side origins in ancient history, Christian roots, and shared genocide and persecution. Similar diasporic patterns between Armenians and Assyrians have also found the church to be a home where no home was found.
Hayganush Mark was a prominant Armenian woman and feminist who fought for the preservation of Armenianess in her influential journal Hay Gin, living in post-1915 Genocide Turkey. She wrote in a piece for her journal on January 6th, the first Armenian Christmas held in Istanbul since Turkey’s ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne, “For us, a nation dispersed all across the world, against the threat of dissolution [koyaludzum] and Assimilation [tsulum], the church is the most important place of refuge for self-preservation.” When a people have no country or safe haven to run to, the church becomes that uniting home. In this home, language is preserved as well as culture, tradition, and the continuation of population through a united community. This is the reality for Assyrians in diaspora today who have no province or country in their homelands, where they can draw strength from their ancestral rooted soil, and rebuild their endangered and forgotten people.
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