Stepping out of the minibus I staggered trying to stamp my feet on the side of the road, exhaust fumes and dust swirled as the bus left me, the four or was it five hours scrunched up at the back had cut the blood supply to my legs and now I was stumbling like an inebriated imbecile.
A man was approaching me, he was portly and dishevelled by life, his crumpled grey shirt half tucked into his trousers and half flapping in the dust, he drew on his cigarette and raised the other hand in some sort of weary greeting, the cigarette smoke hung in the air, he smiled or grimaced.
We introduced ourselves; he was the police and I was vague. He had not told me he was the police but his questions and the fact he had made the arduous journey across the street were something of a clue, he was now flipping through the grubby pages of my passport. I told him I had travelled from Damascus to see the Armenian shrine, but I suspect he knew that already.
I had spent all of the previous day passing through the arid monotony of the Syrian Desert; I had spent the night in Deir ez Zour and had taken the time to visit the Armenian Church and its memorial to the Genocide, its museum and archive, a simple and elegant complex that served to honour the martyrs but also provided documentary evidence to a crime still denied by some. The US has finally come around to accepting the idea, it’s taken over a century and it is in part the reason I have written this essay now.
When the driver was quite sure it was impossible not to cram another soul into the bus we trundled out of Deir ez Zour, crossing a languid looking Euphrates and heading towards Hasakeh, the road running parallel to the twisting Khabour River. Fertile veins that should bring life, but in 1915 and since, they had run with blood.
The town of Markada was as nondescript as all they others I passed along the way, buildings of breeze blocks, shops without windows, mongrels too lazy to even find the shade, few signs of life in a part of the country that feeds the rest.
Each year the rain falls less and the heat gets hotter. Poor people and poorer governance, soon another drought would come and the combination of climate change and corrupt incompetence would drive 100,000s into the suburbs of overcrowded cities.
The policemen lead me back down the road to the shrine, a small squat stone building enclosed in a courtyard tucked into the side of a hill. Wax encrusted candles inside a cenotaph to an almost forgotten tragedy.
I had read a vivid account of the site by Robert Fisk, much of the trouble I have found myself in had been inspired by his now often debunked reporting but I had also taken advice from an Armenian photographer friend in Damascus, who didn’t recommend photography.
Outside I climbed the hill, not high but just enough elevation to get a view of the surroundings, a dun coloured desolation, no doubt on a clear day the Mountains of Sinjar would be visible, the border with Iraq is just a few hours’ drive.
I kicked away some rocks and using a stick I dug into the earth, I didn’t have to dig far, I scooped out a handful of earth and with it several fragments of bone, dried and fragile, indeterminable skeletal parts that could have been either animal or human but I already knew the history of this mound and the Khabour river just beyond.
On the 24th April 1915 as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling a purge was ordered, assimilation or annihilation. Armenians from all over Anatolia were rounded up and massacred or marched into the desert; the death marches were brutal, denied food and water, mostly women and children.
This hill, a mass grave in a land of mass graves, a testament to man’s inhumanity to man, a half forgotten tragedy in a half forgotten land.
The Armenian refugees who survived did so under the protection and shelter of local Syrian Arabs and over time built a community and thrived. Just below the hill on the edge of Markada is the local hospital, it was funded and equipped by the government of Armenia and not the incapable Syrian government, forgotten in Damascus but not in Yerevan.
“Never again shall Masada fall”
Of course we have long since learned that we learn nothing from history but a couple of hours further along the river is the archaeological site of Tell Brak, first excavated by Max Mallowan (the husband of Agatha Christie) in the 1930s and has been periodically excavated ever since, the last albeit interrupted discovery was that of a mass grave dating more than 3,600 year BC.
There are currently 100, 000 of Syrians missing since the war began in 2011, mass graves are being discovered all the time and the ruthless efficiency of the regime has been likened to that of the Nazis, court testimony in Germany describing refrigerated trucks filled with tortured corpses.
The town of Markada and its strategic hilltop once again becoming the setting of carnage, fought over by the Syrian Army and Al Nusra, by ISIS and then the US coalition and finally being taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces. More blood seeping into the parched land of a half forgotten people.
The shrine was destroyed, the hospital was destroyed, and the Church, Museum and Archive in Deir ez Zour were destroyed. In time they will be rebuilt, there is a resilience born of suffering.
After drinking tea with the policeman he flagged down a passing trunk and told the driver to give me a ride back to Deir ez Zour. Sitting in the cab of the truck I looked down at the muddied knees of my trousers and then my dirty fingernails and tried to understand.
We broke the journey at roadside shack to drink Nescafe, the driver was curious to know what I doing in such a remote place, I didn’t really feel I had a satisfactory answer. I mentioned the Armenians and he shook his head and said “Haram” his colloquial Arabic implying something unlawful or shameful.
Thank you for supporting my work-Buying me a coffee makes all the difference-click the button below;
I am a freelance photographer based in Istanbul
Drop by my website for more images and less rambling https://wreford.photoshelter.com/about
You mentioned Fisk – he was the reason I knew about this event. There is so much that we in the west conveniently don’t know, something which seems to dictate our often-puerile governments’ policies.
Robert Fisk inspired me a great deal, such a shame that his work deteriorated over the years
I remember Bob Fisk as top-notch, especially in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. So muych so, I used to hunt his books out. I lost touch over the years, and had a stroke 5 years ago when as you can imagine I forgot about him completely
I was surprised earlier this year to learn of his death in Dublin, because I always remembered him in Beirut. But I suppose he must have been quite an age by now so I guess he just retired there.
Powerful photos! There is so much tragedy in this world….a very long history of it. Thank you for documenting it. I’m glad the policeman treated you nicely.
Thank you 🙂
Overwhelmingly wherever I have been for the most part I have been treated well.
Another powerful post John, thank you for sharing.
Thank you Clive-I really appreciate you taking the time to read
WHY? Comes to mind with all these massacres and why would any regime want to destroy their own people and cities.
I read of the Armenian massacre in a book about T.E.Lawrence called Lawrence in Arabia He tavelled in a train that had scoops on the front of the engine to move bodies off the tracks.So sad. And for what?
For what indeed.
A never-ending story it seems
Very powerful post.
Thank you 🙂
I don’t remember being taught about the genocide when I was in school. The first time I read anything was the Historical Fiction book “The Sandcastle Girls” by Chris Bohjlain. History just keeps repeating its self, makes me so sad. Especially in that part of the world.
The Sandcastle Girls is brilliant isn’t it? A great book but yes, so shocking and harrowing as well. I wish more people would read it and learn about Armenia.
Thank you. I shall.
Thank you Carolyn
I have a very cynical view of state education!
I have not read The Sandcastle Girls although I am aware of it. Partly set in Aleppo I believe where there has always been a vibrant Armenian community
John, I just love when I see a post from you because I know there will be stunning photos and an interesting story to read. But damn,some stories are just so wretched aren’t they? What a world this is!
Thank you Anna
It wasn’t an easy story to write but I felt I should. I think I will try and balance it with something a little more light-hearted next time 🙂
I don’t know how you do what you do, visiting and recording for history these sad places, but I’m grateful that you do.
Thank you, Rebecca
Sometimes I really don’t know myself, to be honest. In the end I do feel that some stories just have to be told
I enjoyed reading your essay and your Identity without Borders project. I’ve been working on my Diaspora project for a while now, but due to Covid restrictions, it’s been slow to get off the ground. I have engaged with several refugee organisations in Swansea (city of sanctuary) and have done a couple of photo shoots of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in an attempt to find my narrative. I have applied to return to uni to do a MA where my major project will be diaspora. Allegedly, my local county council has taken in five Afghan refugee families, and I’ve requested an opportunity to meet them with a view to photo-document their diaspora. I’d be very interested to follow your work and learn more about refugees.
Well done Ray. You have some great work and please do feel free to get in touch.
Thanks for taking the time to look at my work-the images are still hanging in the Pitt Rivers Museum if you ever make it to Oxford and although I am not very well connected there these days do have some very proactive incentives with refugee communities
Best of luck
Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment on your work. I joined, but dropped-out of an MA course, it wasn’t going where I want my work to go. I have created some strong connections with several refugee agencies around Swansea, so hopefully I can begin to earn some trust and create work. I am also working on a uni inspired assignment – ‘Smile at a Stranger’, I am considering all aspects of the effects of smiling, from commerce, modelling and therapeutic. I’m also working on an essay considering the work of French graffiti Artist JR and the boundaries of street art, graffiti and vandalism.
Keep up the good work.
Thanks for this story on Syria and the Armenian genocide. I’m curious when you made this trip? From your point about the shrine being destroyed etc I assume it’s more than ten years ago? Also specifically on this para
“Robert Fisk, much of the trouble I have found myself in had been inspired by his now often debunked reporting but I had also taken advice from an Armenian photographer friend in Damascus, who didn’t recommend photography.”
Do you have a view that all his reporting is suspect? Or just on the Syrian war? And what was the perceived risk of taking photos of the site?
I’m assuming at some point you hope to return to Syria. What’s your intelligence on the situation inside most of Syria, at this point – apart from the obvious that you see on the now scant reporting on Syria. I have several friends in Turkey who came from Ghouta (and whose families are mainly now in Idlib area) & at some point I like to think I’d be able to go with them to visit their families, but I’m guessing that is many years off.
On Sat, 4 Sept 2021 at 19:55, John Wreford Photographer wrote:
> johnwreford posted: ” Stepping out of the minibus I staggered trying to > stamp my feet on the side of the road, exhaust fumes and dust swirled as > the bus left me, the four or was it five hours scrunched up at the back had > cut the blood supply to my legs and now I was stu” >
I clicked on buy you a coffee and nothing happened. I love your writing and I am personally somehow connected to Syria and it’s story. Thank you. Perhaps look at the coffee thing.
I am pleased it resonated with you Sonya
Not sure why the BMC button didn’t work-it seems to be now
Amazing. When were you there no words.
Cheers Andy. It wasn’t easy to write for a number of reasons. It would have been around 2003/4 that I first visited the shrine
Such a long history of tragedy and suffering, which is as hard to comprehend, as is is to read about. Thank you for the telling.
Hello Vivien,how are you doing?
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment
I noticed your post when I was travelling back from Mallorca yesterday but thought I would save it for today when I could savour it. I wasn’t disappointed. Saddened though by the oft repeated fact that history repeats itself endlessly. My husband’s family has a strong Armenian element and so this was doubly interesting for me. Is there any way I can share your article? I think more people should know about this aspect of history? Thank you so much for writing it.
I hope you had a nice break in Mallorca?
I am very pleased the article resonated with you and I would be very happy for you to share it-
Thank you 🙂
Thanks John for this. Our world has so much tragedy . We visited Cambodia and saw the horrendous Killing Fields.
I like your writing style, thank you for sharing
My first post
Specialist in emotional return, master professor gbêchégnon can help you find your love again and consolidate your romantic relationships. I carry out work in the following themes.
Love, Return of the loved one, Enchantment of love Desenvoutemen, Protection, luck, Work.
Contact me on WhatsApp + 229 90951598
Wow, I wish I read this earlier, thankyou🔥🤭🏵️ very nice post
Thank you 🙂
I am so glad you appreciated it
Peace in the Middle East would be great.
Wouldnt it just!
I always feel so callow and shallow over on my page, bemoaning my 1st world problems, when I read your stuff and “cathect” with your photos (long story). Anyway, you’re very good at all things “ambience” and “dialogue.” And I’m not just blowing smoke.
You are very kind, thank you.
We all have our first world issues to contend with 🙂
A tough read but fascinating. I have been somewhere in this region many years ago, well in Deir ez Zour that is – back when low key tourism to Syria was feasible and rewarding. But I’m sorry to say I was unaware of the fate of these Armenians. Our focus then was on much more ancient history. Thank you for enlightening me. So sad that this region, like so many in the world, seems to have to suffer much more than its fair share.
Syria has so much to offer. Many tours that were visiting only ever touched a small part, sadly.
Lets hope things improve 🙂
Dear John, Interesting Narrative.
Thanks brother for this
Thank you my friend 🙂
Reblogged this on Mitch Teemley and commented:
My Featured Blogger this week is John Wreford, a professional photographer based in Istanbul, Turkey. John’s Middle East-focused photo journals are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes unexpectedly beautiful, always engaging. Visit his site and see the world from John’s unique and compassionate perspective.
Thank you so much for sharing my blog.
I really appreciate you taking the time to not only read but consider it worthy enough to feature.
All the best from Istanbul
So touching and so sad! Lovely in its beauty and its sadness!
Kind of you to say so Valerie, thank you
Thank you for this piece, John. It’s important to remember.