The Killing Fields

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.


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A Syrian smile near Raqqa