Opinion Editorial
The Origin and Meaning of Assyrian Martyrs Day
By Robert DeKelaita

(AINA) -- As we remember our martyrs today, there is a town whose name we should never forget: Simmele.

The word Simmele is at the root of our Martyrs' Day. Indeed, the very idea of our martyrs came from the tragic and heroic story of Simmele. It is important to recall the story of Simmele today and to understand what it means for us today.

In 1933, the Assyrians were faced with limited choices. Having fought for the Allies, namely the British, the Assyrians were being surrounded by hostile forces after the British began to depart Iraq, leaving the Assyrians in an uncertain future. The Assyrians had suffered much during the First World War earlier, losing about two thirds of their numbers to massacres, war, famine, and disease. Having gone through difficult times, the Assyrians were again being challenged. This time, it was the newly formed Iraqi government, being supported by Britain.

The 1933 Massacre of Assyrians in Simmele, Iraq

Some Assyrians, given a choice after their Patriarch Mar Shimun was exiled to Cyprus by the Iraqi government, decided to leave to Syria to seek asylum. When they returned to gather their families, they were met by an Iraqi force that tried to stop them. A battle started and the Assyrians, despite the overwhelming odds, came out victorious. The Assyrian defeat of the Iraqi army sparked hatred toward the Assyrians.

In the village of Simmele, the Iraqi army machine-gunned young Assyrian men, women and children. All around Simmele, in over 63 villages, innocent Assyrians were assassinated by the military and their supporters. Over 3000 Assyrians were killed.

According to Colonel Stafford:

The Assyrians had no fight left in them, partly because of the state of mind to which the events of the past week had reduced them, largely because they were disarmed. Had they been armed it seems certain that [the Iraqi army] would have hesitated to take them on in fair fight. Having disarmed them, they proceeded with the massacre according to plan....Their opponents were helpless and there was no chance of any interference from any quarter whatsoever. Machine gunners set up their guns outside the windows of the houses in which the Assyrians had taken refuge, and having trained them on the terror stricken wretches in the crowded rooms, fired among them until not a man was left standing in the shambles. In some other instance the blood lust of the troops took a slightly more active form, and men were dragged out and shot or bludgeoned to death.

Many writers have described a proud people in despair and panic, cowering in fear after the massacres that resulted in the murder of over 3000 innocent Assyrians.

When all was said and done, and a church of Martyrs came to rest on the site of Simmele, it became for us Assyrians a call to unity and a stronger sense of identity. Poems and songs were written and sung. A new symbol, one that began as a tragedy, now became one of struggle and victory. We lost lives, but gained our nationalist spirit. We shed blood and tears, but became renewed with hope.

Simmele became a symbol of resistance and power, and of course, inspired a celebration of the Assyrian Martyrs Day. It made us think not only of what happened that August in 1933, but what came before, thousands of years to the fall of Nineveh, and a years into the future. Simmele became independent of time and space. It became a thought, a thought that we carry with us today, tomorrow, forever.

As I stand here today, in Chicago in 2014, I say to the spirit of the Martyrs of Simmele:

You gave your blood to remind us we must sacrifice.
You gave your lives so that we can live.
You gave yourselves so that we can find ours.

May Simmele always remind you of hope and strength.

Robert W. DeKelaita is a graduate of the University of Chicago's School of International Relations (MA), and Loyola University's School of Law (JD). He is an immigration attorney, practicing in Chicago, Illinois, having successfully represented thousands of asylum seekers from various countries of the Middle East.


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