The last time Sargon Saadi was in Syria, he was filming his 2016 documentary Silence After the Storm. When he returned in January 2018, he had no plans for another project. “It was the first time my family was reunited in seven years.”
Saadi lives in Los Angeles, California. But his parents, his brother Akkad, and his two sisters Ivla and Eyala have lived through the conflict in Syria in their hometown Qamishli. “They’re stubborn Assyrians,” he joked. “They won’t leave. They still feel like they have something to offer our community in Syria.”
His father is a civil engineer, and his mother an architect, but for years now there has been no work. Even so, they manage to get by, Saadi said. His mother opened a small shop where she sells handmade clothing for infants. He says the shop is a source of happiness for her—she takes pride in the fact that she employs other Assyrians. Saadi said she’s making a statement. “It’s her way of telling the world, ‘We’re here to stay.’”
It wasn’t until he visited the Khabour Region in northeastern Syria that Saadi realized his trip had a purpose outside of visiting his family. Before the start of the war, the vibrant area was home to tens of thousands of Assyrians, most of whom were the descendants of Assyrian genocide survivors, the oldest among them survivors themselves. The 35 Assyrian villages situated along the Khabour River were steeped in culture and full of life.
That changed on the morning of February 23, 2015, when the Islamic State raided the region. Dozens of Assyrians died defending their lands. In the course of the incursion, IS captured 253 Assyrian civilians, and in many cases, entire families. IS released the majority of the hostages over the course of one year, though it is unclear whether their release was the result of ransom payments, negotiations, or both. Three male Assyrian captives were executed later that year on the morning of September 23, 2015.
The collective population of these villages, which since the start of the war had dwindled to approximately 3,000, fled to Qamishli and Hassakah. The Khabour villages are now free of IS, but exist in a state of devastation. Most families have not returned and are externally displaced as refugees.
During his trip, Saadi captured haunting images of the devastation spread across the 35 Assyrian villages of Khabour. His Khabour in a Thousand Words opened on May 18, 2018 at the Assyrian National Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.
The Assyrian Star spoke to Saadi ahead of the conference:
Q: How did it feel to be home again?
Qamishli isn’t the same anymore. It’s not the city it once was. It’s dirtier, and it has lost its color. So many people have left—my neighbors have disappeared. Homes are empty and shops are closed. There’s a checkpoint everywhere you turn—some of them controlled by the Syrian Government, others by the Kurds, and some by Assyrians. So many streets have been blocked off, and barricades have been installed that divide the city. Despite all the differences, it was good to be there. It was good to see my family. Somehow, it was still home.
Q: What inspired the exhibition?
When I booked my trip, I wasn’t planning to do any work. Of course, I don’t go anywhere without my camera, but my only reason for the trip was to see my family. When I got there, I wanted to visit Khabour. Everyone advised me against it, because of the dangers. My parents tried everything to keep me from going. It was almost impossible to get in. I had to be escorted by the Khabour Guards. But I felt I needed to see it, because I feared I might not get the chance again. The situation is rapidly changing.
I knew it would be bad. Of course I knew homes and churches had been destroyed. But when I got there, I was overwhelmed. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Seeing it in person was an entirely different experience. It was devastating in every sense of the word. In front of me was all of this devastation, but in my mind, all I could see were the Assyrians who used to live there, and all the memories they made.
As we traveled through the different villages, I took photos for my own personal collection. When I was looking through them, I realized that people needed to see them. After all, if I didn’t know what the villages looked like—as an Assyrian from Syria—how would others know?
I’m sharing the photographs because I want other people to feel what I felt. I don’t want anyone to one day be able to say they didn’t know. The plight of Assyrians in Syria, and even in Iraq, has been lost in the greater suffering. I’m not suggesting that our suffering is greater, but our suffering is unique, because we have all but disappeared from our homeland.
The Khabour Region was founded as a place of refuge for Assyrians. This isn’t just another wave of the cycle of genocide. This could be the end of the cycle. I want people to see it and maybe be inspired to go home, and see it for themselves. I want this exhibition to inspire Assyrians to act. Too many of us see it as a lost cause, or maybe we are just waiting for someone else to do something about it.
Q: Can you describe Khabour as you saw it earlier this year?
It’s simply not Khabour anymore. It’s a shadow of what it once was. I don’t know what else to say—I think the photos will speak for themselves. That’s how I came up with the exhibition name. I thought of the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The photos will say what I don’t know how to say.
I can describe the damage, sure, but no words can capture the reality. It doesn’t hit you the same way. You have to see it.
Q: Are there any Assyrians left in Khabour?
There are less than a thousand Assyrians left, scattered among a handful of villages. Kurds are the majority in Tel Tamar now, which is considered the heart of Khabour, and they have been for a while. Recently, a significant number Kurdish civilians fleeing Afrin have taken refuge in the abandoned Assyrian homes.
Those Assyrians who remain are there for different recents. Most don’t have the means to leave. Others have become numb after nearly a decade of war, and figure its best to live out the rest of their lives in their village, as opposed to trapped in the refugee system.
A man that I stayed with in Tel Tal, Abu Shem—his real name is Elias Antar—said he returned to Khabour just to prove a point. His entire village only has nine people, but he’s taken it upon himself to rebuild. He bought a generator for the village, and is proud that his village is the only one that has lights at night. He also patrols the town at night. He is tending to all the farmlands that have been left. He holds onto hope that people will come back someday. Abu Shem said if everyone else leaves, he will stay, even if it means he’s the only Assyrian in Khabour.
Those who are still there will probably die there. Those who wanted to leave have already left—another lost generation of Assyrians.
Q: What do you think the future holds for Khabour?
Forced demographic change is real. We have seen its effects in Iraq and other parts of our homeland, but for me, it was hard to see it happening before my eyes in Syria, where I grew up. For the first time, there are Kurds living in Tel Nasri. It will happen slowly, but overtime, Khabour will likely become a Kurdish-majority region. We will be completely erased.
Syria belongs to all of its people, but Khabour belonged to Assyrians. I know that ownership of land is a strange concept to some, but this is not a nationalistic claim. It belonged to Assyrians because they made it everything it was. They came to those lands with nothing. They farmed the lands and built the homes and brought the region to life. They were good neighbors and hard workers. They deserved better than this.
Khabour is so important to so many Assyrians. I feel sorry for those who never got to see it.
Q: In your view, is there anything that can be done?
I try to be hopeful and spread hope—I really do—but I’m often pessimistic. Or perhaps realistic is a better word. I have to be honest. After what I’ve seen, I think we’ve reached a point of no return in Khabour. I don’t think there is anything that can be done. For Khabour, all we can do is hold onto the memories and document everything we can. Talk to people and record their stories. Collect their old photographs. We have to make sure the Khabour we knew exists somehow. We can’t forget about it.
Khabour is lost, but there’s still hope for the Nineveh Plain. I think that’s where our focus should be. It’s the only hope we have left for a future in the homeland.
Q: So you haven’t lost all hope?
There are always glimpses of hope if you look for them. Action brings hope. For example, I met a woman named Atour Isaac who stayed behind because she realized there was no one left to take care of the elders. This courageous woman created a nursing home for Assyrians on her own dime. She now selflessly serves dozens of elders with volunteers.
Abu Shem is another example. It’s uplifting to see Assyrians taking action, no matter how small. One woman runs a nursing center. The other man is farming lands and fixing homes. They are doing things. Action gives me hope.
Syria is moving backwards, and things are getting worse. I think there will always be Assyrians in Syria, but in small number like there are in Iran and Turkey. I allow myself to be more hopeful about Iraq because of our numbers there. To hear that nearly half of the Nineveh Plain residents have returned is amazing. Every single one that has returned is a reason to hope.
We have to strengthen our ties to one another. I think more and more the diaspora is going to become critical to our survival as a nation. We can rely on each other for hope.
Q: What can people expect from the exhibit?
Most of the photos are black and white. There are 23 photographs in the exhibition—for February 23. I will let them speak for themselves.
Khabour in a Thousand Words is sponsored by the Assyrian Arts Institute. Photographs are available for purchase at $200 each. All proceeds will be donated at Saadi’s discretion to efforts to rebuild infrastructure in Assyrian villages in Iraq and Syria. To purchase, contact Sargon Saadi.
This piece was originally published in a May 2016 special edition issue of The Assyrian Star.