Throughout all of the media attention given to the various people caught in Syria’s civil war, one group, the Assyrian Christians, has been largely left out of the coverage. Jeff Gardner, director of operations for the Restore Nineveh Now Foundation, traveled deep into northeastern Syria to find out who the Assyrian Christians are and how they are managing to remain in their ancestral homeland.
By Jeff Gardner, Philos Project.
It’s late in the morning, almost 11:30 a.m., but it is still chilly. I am sitting in a largish office at a training center for the Assyrian Christian defense force, the Gozarto Protection Force, and the Assyrian Christian police force, the Sootoro, in Qamishli, a city in the Hasakah province of northern Syria.
The office has marble floors and a kerosene-fueled cast iron stove burning off to one side. It gives the room some warmth, but also leaves a heavy, acrid smell in the air.
Across a glass coffee table from me sits Joseph. He is a tall man, well built, but with a weary look on his face. He is comfortable in brown, camouflage fatigues; on his right sleeve is a patch for the GPF, and on his left is the national flag of Syria.
Also present is Ashur, my translator and military spokesman for the GPF.
To relieve the constant tension that is life in Syria, we are all smoking – even though I am a non-smoker.
I spent the earlier part of the morning touring the training facility, watching young men go through “ready-up” rifle drills, RPG basics and the trickier business of manning a large machine gun mounted on the back of a pickup truck, a unit referred as a “technical.”
Joseph, whose days routinely run 12 – 14 hours long, has agreed to sit with me for an interview and a photo session, although for security reasons, he has asked that I not show his face. I agree, giving him not only my word but also my camera, and he inspects every image that I take. Pointing to a photograph that pictures him from roughly the chin down, he nods his approval.
As I press record on my phone’s voice-recorder app, an assistant to Joseph enters the room carrying a tray with three steaming glasses of yerba mate – an Argentine drink made with a mixture of dried leaves and twigs from the holly tree of South America, steeped in hot water and served with ample sugar. Although I am slightly annoyed at the interruption of my limited time with Joseph, having the hot mate to sip goes well with the delay in the interview caused by Ashur’s translation of my questions to Joseph, and in turn, his answers to me.
I begin with, “Joseph, what do you do here?” He answers, “I oversee the training programs for the GPF and Sootoro, and as member of a committee, I decide which trainees will be selected for the GPF and which will serve in the Sootoro.”