The Greek Assyrian minority group in northern Iraq was driven from the oil-rich area of Mosul in the 1910s after a pogrom launched by Ottoman forces.
President Biden recently officially recognized the Armenian genocide in a first for an American president. The Greek Assyrians accordingly hope that the change of climate in the U.S. could help highlight their ordeal and at least help to reclaim compensation for their lost properties.
Seventy Greek Assyrian families could claim compensation for lost property in northern Iraq, as recent reconstruction plans try to bring justice to the members of oppressed minority groups.
Thousands of Assyrians, also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs, were driven from the oil-rich area of Mosul in the 1910s. For decades, those who had settled in Greece hesitated to press claims, fearing reprisals against their compatriots in Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, however, now brings new hope to the cause.
“Our people lived there for thousands of years and they threw them out violently,” says Steve Sorros, whose grandparents were expelled from the Mosul district. “Of course, we do not wish to return there…but [we] have every right to be compensated. And our property was where the oil is.”
Sorros, who emigrated to New York in 1976, believes the interests of oil companies overrode human concerns. He hopes Greek Assyrians will pursue a class action lawsuit as Holocaust victims did against Swiss and German financial institutions, winning twenty billion dollars.
The case has potential, according to lawyers like Nick Karambelas of the Washington-based law firm Sfikas & Karambelas. “There might be a strong legal base for compensations,” he says. Karambelas has experience in such matters, representing families who lost property in the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus.
Assyrians are still classed as foreigners in Greece, which may help the case, he adds. Six thousand of these individuals emigrated from Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Only around a thousand are naturalized citizens of Greece while the rest have no papers; Karambelas says this refugee status means that they did voluntarily not give up rights to their land.
Another Greek-American lawyer at one of New York’s largest consulting firms, who asked to remain anonymous, was even more optimistic. He estimates that descendants of the expelled Assyrians could demand twenty percent of the profits since oil started to be exploited on their properties—an amount that could reach billions of dollars.
Greek authorities, however, are largely oblivious to the brewing controversy. The Greek Foreign Ministry has not commented on the situation despite repeated requests.
The time is ripe for political settlement for Assyrians in Iraq and abroad. They dare not hope for an autonomous state like the Kurds; cultural freedom is all they ask for, according to Kyriakos Batsaras, president of the Union of Assyrians in Greece.
“Whatever the Muslims get, this is what we also want, nothing more, nothing less,” he stresses. Yet, Assyrians may be excluded from the final settlement in northern Iraq, sources there claim. Instead of being recognized as a minority group, they are being dismissed as Orthodox Christian Arabs.
“For a people with 7,000 years of history, it’s ridiculous to call us that,” Batsaras says.
Greek Assyrian odyssey
Today, 4.5 million people in the world consider themselves Assyrians. Their empire once stretched across northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Nineveh, the ancient capital near Mosul, may have been the first city in the entire world.
The kingdom crumbled in 612 BC, scattering the people into small pockets around the Middle East. They embraced Christianity in the 1st century AD and still speak Aramaic, one of the languages spoken by Jesus Christ.
Over the centuries, the Assyrians have been persecuted for their ethnicity and their religion. They enjoyed some autonomy under Ottoman rule in the early 20th century, however, because it was difficult for Imperial forces to subdue their militia.
This delicate balance ended when the Ottoman Empire massacred Christians—Assyrians and Armenians alike—in 1915. Winston Churchill described it as “whole districts blotted out in one destructive holocaust.”
Sorros believes oil-hungry foreigners prompted the attack: “They used the Muslims to expel the more educated Christians. After they threw them out, they drilled the oil. Our forefathers did not receive any form of compensation.”
The late Nissan Yaou, president of the Union of Assyrians in Greece for many years, supported this theory. His written testimony attests: “Oil was running into the river and people used it to burn wood that had not yet dried.” Locals called the stream “Kriya” (black), because it brimmed with the crude liquid. During the winter snowfall, the oil turned to asphalt, which had to be scraped off to cultivate the land.
Yaou documented the expelled Assyrians’ flight. They initially sought refugee in Iran and then Christian Russia followed by the Black Sea port Novorossisk. They decided to return home in 1922, as the Mosul district was under British rule.
Yet, English authorities in Constantinople stopped their ship, claiming an epidemic had struck their area. The Assyrians were lumped in with the people fleeing the Asian Minor disaster and re-routed to Greece. They landed at Makronessos, which later became a notorious prison island.
Conditions were rough there. The refugees would draw water and wash from one large hole, encouraging the spread of disease. Approximately ten to fifteen people died each day —among them Yaou’s stepmother.
They were moved several times to Keratsini, a monastery in Poros and the military barracks of Kalamata, where an estimated four thousand people perished. Locals warned them not to drink the contaminated water, but no one understood Greek, Yaou explained. At the end of 1923, the Assyrians finally settled in the Athens suburb of Aegaleo, building a church in the memory of Saint Andrew.
Further troubles back home
Assyrians who remained in the Middle East suffered as well. They fought for the Allies in World War I but were left without ammunition and support just before the conflict’s end. They fled to Baghdad, losing one-third of their population to attack, disease, and other hardships.
Britain, France, and Russia promised to help establish an Assyrian homeland in the Mosul district, but this never came to pass. During the formation of the modern Iraqi nation in 1933, civilians were massacred and sixty villages destroyed. Batsaras says that English authorities moved eighty thousand Arabs into the abandoned area, harshly oppressing any remaining Assyrian resistance.
Iraqi forces razed another two hundred towns in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as scores of ancient churches. Saddam Hussein’s “Arabisation policy” forced more people from their homes in the mid-80s. After the Gulf War, 250,000 Assyrian refugees joined the fleeing Kurds. Batsaras says, however, he adds, “When you hear about ships full of Iraqi refugees, the majority are Assyrians.”
Search for justice for Greek Assyrians
Both Sorros and Batsaras remain hopeful that all Assyrians eventually might return to a safe and tolerant homeland. In the meantime, those in Greece will pursue compensation for lost lands and revenue. At least seventy families are eligible for such remediation.
Sorros plans to push the case through powerful Assyrian organizations in the US, whose leaders met with President George W. Bush and his administration in March 2003. “For 70 years big conglomerates drilled oil from my grandfather’s backyard,” he says. “At least something should be given to us.”
*Demetrios Rhompotis is the publisher of NEO Magazine in New York.
-Amanda Castleman contributed to this report.