Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 October - 31 November 2012
Issue No. 1120
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Aleppo's little Armenia

The first plane carrying relief supplies from Armenia to Syria landed safely in Aleppo last week after a six-hour inspection in the Turkish city of Erzurum, writes Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian

Ever since the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, which led to the deportation and massacre of the majority of the Ottoman Armenian population, there have been around 120,000 people of Armenian descent living in Syria.

Many of those killed during the genocide were located in the Syrian desert of Deir Zor, and Syria did not hesitate to support the Armenians, along with other Arab countries like Lebanon and Egypt that also received thousands of fleeing Armenians during and after World War I.

Syria established diplomatic relations with Armenia soon after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and later former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, father of the current President Bashar Al-Assad, maintained good relations with Armenia, given the large population of people of Armenian descent in Syria.

During the current uprising against the Syrian regime, the Republic of Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora have expressed their support for the Armenian community in Syria. Since July 2012, thousands of Armenians have fled from the Syrian civil war, trying to find a place in their motherland Armenia, whose government has been doing what it can to accommodate diaspora members.

Others have escaped to Turkey and adjacent countries, while thousands more remain trapped in the land that opened its arms to host them during the difficult times of 1915.

Suzy Keshishian-Telpian, an Armenian Syrian woman living in Egypt since 2004, closely follows news about her family based in Aleppo who refused to leave. "My mother does not want to leave Aleppo. She says she will stay there forever."

Suzy's sister goes everyday with her family and they spend the night at her mother's who lives in Suleimaniya district -- a safer place for the time being. "As for my brother who owns a shop in Al-Midan, a quite dangerous district, he opens the shop for only a couple of hours everyday." The Syrian army sirens bellow before any bombardment so that shopkeepers can close their shops and vacate the area.

Al-Midan or Nor-Kyugh as Armenians name it, is one of those districts that were heavily damaged. Armenian churches, a school and a hospital located in this district were partially damaged.

Meanwhile, Armenian-Turkish relations have been strained by historical and political issues, including the Armenian genocide and the continuing Turkish attempts at its denial. Tensions between Turkey and Syria have also escalated since five Turkish civilians were killed when a Syrian shell hit a Turkish border town three weeks ago.

Last week, humanitarian aid organised by officials in the Republic of Armenia was sent to Syria through a programme called "Help your Brother".

International and Turkish media reported that the 14 tonnes of humanitarian aid sent to Syria included food and medicine collected across Armenia, but that it had been intercepted and forced to land in the Turkish city of Erzurum, where it was subjected to inspection by the Turkish authorities for six hours.

However, Vahan Hovhannissyan, a leading member of the party that had undertaken the aid initiative, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "the aircraft was not forced to land in Turkish territory. The landing was pre-planned, and we were informed about it."

"But the inspection process was very thorough, to a meaningless extent in fact," Hovhannissyan said. The aircraft carried 1,400 boxes valued at around 14 million Drams [about $30,000], while the cargo cost 10 million Drams [about $24,000], Hovhannissyan added.

A few hours before the aid flight, the Turkish authorities announced that they were banning all flights to Syria through Turkish airspace in a decision backed by the United States.

Spokesperson for the US State Department Victoria Nuland said during a press briefing in Washington that "we are encouraging all of Syria's neighbours to be vigilant with regard to how their airspace is used, particularly now that we have this concrete example."

Nuland was referring to an incident that had occurred days before when Turkey had forced a Syrian plane travelling from Moscow to Damascus to land because of suspicions that it was carrying military weapons and communication equipment.

In another security incident, 17 Russian passengers on another Syrian plane on its way to Damascus from Moscow were grounded by Turkey in Ankara.

The Russian passengers were on their way to identify about 300 Russian citizens believed to be of Chechen origin fighting with Syrian rebels against the Al-Assad regime. The plane had not undergone a security check because the 17 passengers were carrying diplomatic passports.

One of the "Help your Brother" campaign's aims is to provide assistance from the people of Armenia to the people of Syria in general and not just to those of Armenian origin.

Last week's humanitarian aid mission will not be the only one. "More aid is on its way in the coming days, and we are trying our best to ensure that it reaches all sectors of the city of Aleppo -- Muslims, Christians and Armenians alike. The supplies have been distributed by the Armenian Apostolic Church of Aleppo and other benevolent associations," Hovhannissyan told the Weekly.

The first humanitarian aid sent from Armenia last week was received by the primate of the Aleppo diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, archbishop Shahan Sarkissian, Armenia's consul-general to Aleppo, Garen Krikorian, and Aleppo Governor Mohamed Walid, who expressed his gratitude to the government of Armenia.

According to recent reports, more than 30 Armenian civilians have been killed in Syria, thousands have fled the country, and several hundred families are living under harsh conditions.

Lala Shamamian-Nigolian is another case in point. Her sister immigrated to the United States only two months ago while her brother, father and mother refused to leave though they are considering coming to Egypt for a short break but the route to the airport is causing a big problem as it is very dangerous. A ceasefire proposed by UN Commissioner Lakhdar Brahimi might give them the chance to have a short break but going back to Syria is inevitable.

The Armenian diaspora has been showing solidarity with the Armenian community in Syria, with Armenian organisations and individuals all over the world mobilising to help the community in Syria.

Armenia's minister of the diaspora, Hranush Hagopian, stated a few weeks ago that so far around 5,000 Syrian-Armenians left Syria for Armenia since the beginning of the revolution.

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