By Bassam Said Ishak

Bassam Said Ishak is the Co-Chair of the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council. He is a Syriac Christian from Hasakah, Syria.

Six years ago, the Assyrian Christians of the Khabour villages in Syria were undergoing a brutal attack by ISIS. The villagers were brutalized, detained, and held for ransom. Many doubted they would survive the ordeal. ISIS preyed upon the Khabour villages in the Hasakah region of North and East Syria because they were predominantly Christian.

Today the Hasakah region is under the democratic governance of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which is based on equality, religious freedom, women’s rights, and local empowerment. As long as the AANES endures, Christians in the region are free to practice our religion. But the 23rd of February stands as a symbol of the unity of the people of the region and the need to oppose religious extremism.

The attack took place February 23, 2015 — one hundred years after the 1915 massacres against Syriac Assyrians and Armenians in a region that is now southern Turkey. Some of the Assyrians fled the 1915 massacres to Iraq, only to experience what is known as the Simle massacre of 1933. Following that bloodshed, a number of those Iraqi Assyrians moved to northeast Syria and populated the city of Tel Tamer and 33 nearby villages along the Khabour River.

The Assyrians who were the target of the 2015 ISIS attack in Hasakah were the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of the uprooted Assyrians from southern Turkey over a hundred years.

History repeats itself against the same people in three different countries, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria by the same mentality under the pretext of holy war in the name of God, or Allah in Arabic language.

ISIS faced a coalition of fighting resistance composed of people’s protection units (mostly Kurds), Al Sanadid group (Arab Mulims), The Syriac Military Council (Syriac Christians), the Khabour Brigade (Assyrian Christians), and many other locals.

This military coalition of locals of all religions and ethnic groups proved the unity of the local people against a group, ISIS, bent on repeating history, and also manifested the locals rejection of a model based on using and abusing a religious identity.

As the ISIS fighters were forced to retreat, they gathered hundreds of Assyrian men, women, and children, and took them as hostages. Their explanation was that these were Christians, the “people of Zima.” They said they are not to be killed if they pay the “Zima people” tax, a tax for Christians and Jews. Over the following months, the Assyrian diaspora had to collect and pay the tax — or extortion — to secure the release of the Assyrian hostages. Sadly, three of the hostages did not return. They were executed by ISIS. The execution was sent in an extortion video threatening to kill the rest of the hostages if the tax is not paid.

The event demonstrates an oppressor’s mindset wherein diversity is accepted only if the other is second class, and then, only if those second class citizens have some monetary benefit for the oppressor. Even after ISIS was driven out from the Assyrian villages and after the Assyrian hostages were released for ransom, most of the Assyrian villagers did not go back to their homes. Actually, the majority had to leave the country because their villages were mostly destroyed and they didn’t feel safe living there anymore.

So many perished at the hands of ISIS in Syria in the past decade, including Christians, Kurds, Yezidis, and Muslims o[8⁸who refused their extremist interpretation of Islamic law. We must commemorate those who died, and we also must remember the lessons that these episodes have taught us.

On the grim anniversary of the attack on the Khabour villages, many local civil and military organizations visited “The Cemetery of the Syriac Assyrian Martyrs” in Hasakah in observance of the tragic day, and paid tribute to the fallen victims. 

The day has become a symbol for all people of the region of the unity of all ethnic and religious groups in the face of religious extremism. And it is a reminder of what we stand to lose if religious freedom is not protected, and we once again fall prey to a history of oppression repeating itself once again.