The Simele Massacre in Iraq: A Legacy of Trauma and British Neglect

“The Suffering” — Nahrin Malki. Stamp Technique on Canvas, 2016.

August 7th is a special date for Assyrians, a nation so obscured in our modern world that many people will still raise their eyebrows at their very mention. Nevertheless, Assyrians persisted as a distinct people after the fall of the empire, and so did the country of Assyria — or Ashur/Atour as Assyrians refer to it in our Assyrian-Aramaic language.

This country became known by different names during the centuries following the fall of Nineveh, its last capital, in 612 BCE: the last king of the Babylonian Empire — Nabonidus — was an Assyrian from the north; Achaemenid Assyria was a protectorate called “Athura” during in the 6th-3rd Century BC; the [Assyrian] Kingdom of Adiabene rose to prominence in these lands in the 1st Century AD; the Sassanids called the country “Asoristan” from the 2nd Century onward. Assyrians had indeed lost control of their lands politically and militarily, but with that also came a loss of control over its written history — something which gradually became eroded and reclassified by ascending political powers.

Fast forward to the present day, it is an extraordinary feat that our ancient people still persist in their ancestral lands after waves of tremendous violence by invading forces of Mongols, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, and Persians. This violence reached its catastrophic peak at different moments during the last 150 years, first with the massacres perpetrated by Kurdish warlord Bedr Khan Bey in mid-19th C Hakkari, Turkey; the Assyrian Genocide (or Seyfo) at the hands of the Ottomans during World War 1, and then the Simele Massacre in 1933, Iraq.

Simele: The Last Defeat

The role of the British here was thus: during the years of British mandated Iraq, they had drafted local men derived from Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian background and charged them with a wide array of tasks from fighting and guarding points of interest to acting as a bridge to local communities. Assyrians quickly became the overwhelming majority of those drafted, perhaps because of their perceived skills and capabilities, perhaps because of their Christian background — a factor which created tension and set them apart from their neighbours — or more than likely a combination of all of these things.

Assyrian levies being initiated by their British commanders.

The British were aware of this tension and amplified it by bringing Assyrians closer to their operations, thereby making them feel privileged, all the while creating further hatred and resentment for them from Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds. The horrors which engulfed the Assyrian people after the British mandate ended in 1932 was entirely foreseeable too — the authorities navigating Iraq’s independence, including the famously anti-Assyrian general, Bakr Sidqi, did not hide their cruel and violent intentions towards the Assyrian people in Iraq.

Mar Eshai Shimun inpecting Assyrian soldiers in 1932, shortly before his detainment in Baghdad and eventual exile leading up to the Simele Massacre.

The Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Eshai Shimun, repeatedly wrote to the relevant authorities, including the League of Nations, and requested settlement in other countries given the growing tension among Iraqi authorities and the Assyrians. On October 23rd 1931, he wrote to the mandate commission in Mosul warning “that if the Assyrians remained in Iraq, we shall be exterminated” whilst requesting that the French government accept Assyrians into French mandated Syria. This letter included the signatures of all of the major maliks (Assyrian tribal chiefs). Given the lacklustre response and the imminent independence of the Iraqi state, all Assyrian officers under the employ of the British signed a document voluntarily resigning their positions with effect from July 1st 1932.

The British were dealt a serious blow with this act. Despite the growing perception of Assyrians being an unruly group, or a “disease”, as was the view of future Iraqi Prime Minister, Ali Rashid Gaylani, the Assyrians were the only group in the new Iraq who had not yet taken up arms against the government, unlike Kurds and Arabs. Their agitation for reassurances of their future however was perceived as riling up Kurds in the north and the Shia Arabs in the south. Iraqi government deputies proceeded to make speeches commencing June 29th 1933 which incited hatred towards Assyrians — these were published in al-Istiqlal newspaper and many others.

Moving across the border into Syria became ever more appealing for the Assyrians. In late July, hundreds of Assyrians attempted to cross into Syria but were disarmed and detained by the authorities there. The French had promised partial resettlement but reneged and turned many away after a League of Nations decree ruling the settlement unlawful. Upon their miserable walk back to Iraq, as many as 5,000 Iraqi soldiers including aircraft were deployed to attack 800 Assyrians returning through Fayshkhabour — a neglected, poverty-stricken Assyrian border town that persists today with no clean running water.

This confrontation ended with relatively few casualties but enraged the Iraqis who labelled the French’s actions in allowing Assyrians to return armed as treacherous. The Iraqis perceived the “Assyrian threat” as a growing, existential one harming the legitimacy of a fledgling state. Throughout August alone, over 200 anti-Assyrian articles were published in the press circulating lies and smears against the Assyrian people, riling up the civilian population to support or contribute to the coming carnage.

Beginning on August 6th, rumours were circulating in Iraq that Assyrians had massacred Iraqi Army soldiers, blown up bridges and poisoned water supplies. The Iraqi government encouraged these unfounded rumours despite there being no evidence for them outside of their own communication channels. Assyrians were then forcefully disarmed in stages after initially resisting any demand for them to do so. From an Assyrian perspective, putting down weapons while being surrounded by Kurds, Arabs and other neighbours who had routinely massacred them was not a serious consideration going forward.

Yet when faced with the sheer number of arms brought to bear against them, many eventually saw disarmament as the only possible way out of this nightmare. The British were keeping an eye on developments and requested that the newly independent Iraqi government reassign General Sidqi away from the northern territories. Reassurances were made to the British that this would be done by Iraqi authorities, but it never happened. On August 7th, General Sidqi led his army north to begin what now represents Iraq’s first military action as a sovereign nation: the massacre of Assyrian men, women and children.

An eyewitness account of this month-long massacre as relayed by a British intelligence officer in Iraq present at the scene:

“I saw and heard many things about the Great War, but what I saw at Simele was beyond human imagination.”

The grizzly details included the mass shooting of hundreds of unarmed men at a time; the abduction of countless women; the slashing open of their wombs and placing them on their heads for amusement; the impaling of pregnant women; the rape of young girls who were then forced to march naked before Iraqi commanders; the running over of children by military cars or the flinging of them in the air to pierce onto the points of bayonets; of priests who had their genitalia dismembered and stuffed into their severed heads; of holy books which were used for the burning of the massacred.

There was a hell on earth which explored the very depths of human depravity and Assyrians were once again the object of this inspection.

A brief timeline:

  • August 7th: General Sidqi’s army marches north and begins its campaign of indiscriminate murder and destruction.
  • August 8th: Iraqi army began executing all Assyrian males captured in the Bekher mountains in northern Nineveh.
  • August 8th: Mayor of Zakho began disarming Assyrians in the town.
  • August 9th: Shammar and Jabour tribes attacked 60 Assyrian villages south of Dohuk. The captured males were given to the Iraqi army who executed them.
  • August 10th: Kurds and Arabs looted Assyrian farms south of Dohuk.
  • August 11th: Assyrians in Zakho and Simele were attacked by the Iraqi army led by General Bakr Sidqi. One group of 300 were massacred whilst sheltering in police station.
  • August 11th: Another 40 Assyrian villages attacked and 600 more killed mostly by Kurds.
  • August 16th: Iraqi army campaign to massacre Assyrians in north ended, but continued by Kurdish villagers and tribesmen.
  • August 18th: The Iraqi Army held a victory parade and were rewarded by King Ghazi, the son of King Faisal, for massacring the Assyrians in north. General Sidqi was promoted. The soldiers were greeted with flowers and rosewater by civilians, as well as a procession of Iraqi ministers and deputies who hailed their victory. They were also given free use of local cabarets, restaurants and buses.
Iraqi Army victory parade in Baghdad.

British Involvement and Neglect.

Batarshah, a village 15 miles northwest of Simele. The craters are evidence of bombings from Iraqi Warplanes.

This failure to answer The Assyrian Question continued into World War 2, where Assyrians were yet again drafted in as many as six companies of fighting men. These Assyrians were sometimes referred to “the smallest ally” in the fight against the axis powers Iraq had decided to join. Assyrians joined the paratroopers and fought to defend British bases like RAF Habbaniya, a key place in the memory of many Assyrians who had grown up there after fleeing genocide.

Britain sought to maintain the important flow of petroleum from Iraq to support the allied war effort and deployed its own forces after Iraq dispatched units to stem this flow of fuel— this conflict became known as the short-lived Anglo-Iraqi War of May 1941 and resulted in British victory and a temporary reestablishment of British imperial authority. Yet again however, Assyrians were not compensated or awarded any political settlement for their sacrifices.

This pattern is common with Britain and other imperial powers throughout the centuries, but in this modern day, recognition and reparation must be made the norm otherwise alleged progress made by Western states and societies, morally and otherwise, is brought into question. The illusion of converging interests was utilised by the British in order to gain the service of Assyrians once again to solely further their own interests — interests in which we had no wider concern. This was betrayal in the starkest of terms.

The British lack of recognition extends to tragedies such as the Anfal Campaign waged by Saddam in the 1980’s. All references in official UK government statements exclusively offer condolences to Kurds, despite the fact that hundreds of Assyrian villages were targeted and many destroyed throughout that barbaric campaign. Iraq not only recognises Anfal, it recognises it as exclusively affecting Kurds. The tradition of writing Assyrians out of history continues with those who claim a benevolent and elevated position in the world’s moral order, as well as those who claim primacy on our lands. This is erasure not only of our present suffering, of which Britain has offered nothing to address, but of past trauma which persists in the minds and hearts of all affected survivors who find themselves yearning for acknowledgement and justice.

More recently, the world watched on apathetically when ISIS began its assault on the remaining Assyrians in the Nineveh Plain, Iraq on August 6th — an event almost deliberately synchronised with the commemoration of Assyrian Martyrs Day today. New lives were destroyed as they were forced to repeat the steps of their predecessors and flee from their homes in a fight for survival which ushered in a new chapter of genocide and neglect. Iraq has done nothing to acknowledge and recompense the surviving families of Simele from 1933, nor is it helping Assyrians who are trying to rebuild their lives in the political battleground of Nineveh Province.

So today as Assyrians mourn and remember the 6,000 victims of Simele and countless other Assyrians who had sacrificed everything and were killed for who they are, many others will inevitably shrug or even celebrate. They will say, “the past is the past.” The point of pieces like this is an appeal to reestablish humanity and truth — without which, Assyrians will constantly be stuck in cycles defined by trauma and erasure, whilst the perpetrators or those who mimic their atrocities will continue to ascend, free from rebukes of conscience, into new cycles of violence uninformed by the consequences of crimes which have not been legally, morally and historically addressed. In this dynamic, all empathy is lost.

Moving beyond acknowledgement from other peoples’ and governments however, Assyrians must ask themselves not only how we can appropriately remember and honour those who we have lost, but how can we heal?

Creator.

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