On March 8, International Women’s Day, many of the people in southeastern Turkey only want to discuss one thing. She is Sara, an 18-year-old Assyrian/Syriac woman, who was allegedly kidnapped by sympathizers of Huda-Part, Allah’s party, the Kurdish equivalent to Hezbollah. Others say she merely followed her heart and converted to Islam to marry the love of her life. Or that that she is just a pawn in the upcoming election, that they have manipulated a naive and vulnerable Christian girl to marry a Muslim in order to get more votes from Islamists, because if you convert a non-Muslim you have completed a great deed for Allah and Muhammad, and you should be rewarded. I decided to hear her own version of this modern Shakespearean drama, in a place where world politics has a habit of colliding with ancient civilizations and religions at war.
“What do you want? What does everyone want from us? Leave us alone. No one was forced to anything. Can young people not fall in love? You can fall in love across religions. No?”
It is early morning in Midyat in southeast Turkey. The rooster is crowing and the first prayer of the day is heard loudly from the eleven mosques. I have booked an appointment with the only Assyrian parliamentarian in Turkey, Erol Dora, to talk about the upcoming election. When I mention that I am also interested in hearing the story about Sara, he introduces me to Vadi Aydin, a colleague and also his bodyguard. “He traveled to Idil to see the leaders of the clan she is with and her husband’s family,” Dora says.
“We were four people who went to see her,” Aydin says. “It was the 20th of February, and we met at the home of one of the relatives to the family she is staying with in Idil. There was a lot of tension in the air. Understandably so as we were there to take her back and they were there to tell us that they would keep her. The whole village sympathizes with Huda-Part . . . and we belong to the competing Kurdish party. That only made things worse.”
He shakes his head and says that just the mere thought of “that little girl” in the company of fundamentalists upsets him.
“Finally they agreed. If Sara truly was not a victim of a kidnapping then we would leave the family alone, but if she told Hasibe anything else we would take her home to her mother. They took Hasibe to Sara. Half an hour later Hasibe was back and we left Idil empty handed.”
Aydin said the whole situation is unfortunate for Sara, but also for the other Christian Assyrian/Syriacs who left the area.
“This might be difficult for people who are not from here to understand, the girl’s naivety is used as a political weapon in the election campaign. Islamists show the voters that they do the errands of Allah, and that they have managed to convert a non-Muslim. And at the same time they are scaring the other Assyrian/Syriacs into leaving Turabdin.”
When Aydin and Dora leave us, I decide to travel to Idil myself.
An hour later, we drive into a very colourful town with approximately 20,000 inhabitants, most of them Muslims. There are flyers hanging everywhere. Most of them belonging to the biggest parties in the area: yellow, red and green for the biggest Kurdish party, BDP, or orange for the current Turkish party, AKP. Music and election propaganda streams out of loud speakers. It is a warm day and the people of Idil are enjoying the sun. Everywhere there are groups of older men who are either discussing local or national politics. On the main street young boys and girls are dressed in a modern fashion and without any veils, as a stark contrast to many of the older veiled women and abaja-clad men.
After a long lunch and discussion among the restaurateurs and servers about the upcoming election, poverty, corruption, religion and history, I am ready to start looking for Sara. But before I leave, I enter the kitchen and give the two veiled women who cooked our food a tip for International Women’s Day. They are very happy, not so much for the money but more because a stranger congratulates them on such an important day.
On the street, an Idil inhabitant whispers to me: “Be careful, the family the Christian girl is staying with belong to Huda-Part. They’re not to mess with, they are very dangerous.”
We walk into the grocery store where she was last seen. Apparently it is owned by her husband’s older brother, who we find standing behind the cash register.
He is very upset. He says he has had enough, a young man and woman have fallen in love and married and he does not understand why everyone is making such a big deal about it. Another man joins us. He introduces himself as Nuri, my namesake, and says he is married the store owner’s sister. He is even more upset.
“What do you want? What does everyone want from us? Leave us alone,” he spouts out. “No one was forced to anything. Can young people not fall in love? You can fall in love across religions. No?”
When I and Eliyo Eliyo, an Assyrian archaeologist who has followed with me from Midyat, tell him we are here to understand and learn, not to argue, and as I ask everyone to calm down, we are presented with plastic chairs to sit on. We sit down in front of the cash register. There is still tension in the air. When I hold my hand out, the store owner introduces himself as Hasret Akdeniz. He is now trying to control his temper and tells his version of Sara and his younger brother’s love story.
“They met three years ago. My younger brother was in her village Midin to work for twenty days but they have kept in touch since. And a few weeks ago he surprised us all by saying he wanted to marry her. It was no more than that. And she ran away from her village, came here and said she wanted to marry our brother. It was not anything we wanted, chose or interfered in.”
Nuri, the brother-in-law, continues:
“There are plenty of unmarried Muslim girls in Idil. Beautiful. Rich. But he chose a Christian girl. The whole thing is hard for all, even for us. We have run this grocery shop for twenty years, Assyrian/Syriacs have always been faithful customers. We have plenty of friends amongst them. But now that has ended, none of them shop here anymore.”
I show them wedding pictures that are available online and ask them why Sara is shown wearing a veil. Both look at me with a surprised look.
“She is married, of course she should wear a veil,” Nuri says. “Unmarried women, look at the street, it’s filled with them, and they can choose not to wear a veil, it is up to them what road they take, but a married woman must wear a veil.”
When everyone calms down and we finish the soda we were treated to, I tell them I would like to meet Sara and get her version of the story. Only she will know the full truth.
Akdeniz gives Nuri a signal to take over the cash register. We ask if we should follow their car. Instead, he offers to drive us.
Suddenly we are on our way to the home where Sara lives. I am under the impression we are going to the village the family is from. But a few minutes later, still in central Idil, he stops the car. We jump out in front of three newly built pink houses, on a street where most of the houses are new. In every balcony and window there are people, some curious and some upset, who wonder why we are here. From one of the balconies a man raises his voice above everyone else.
“They are definitely not entering my house. You are stupid for taking them here,” he screams at Akdeniz, and we understand that he is the father, also known as the clan leader. He looks like he’s about to have a heart attack, red in the face, gesticulating. He is Sara’s father in law, the man that politicians in Mardin and Midyat say is the local unofficial Hezbollah leader. He is screaming. Threatening. Swearing. I am telling him to come down from the balcony and meet me eye-to-eye. He hesitates, but then disappears from the balcony and we hear him and a few others hurry down the steps behind the main door they are refusing to open for us.
He runs out of the building and almost hits his son, who drove us to the house, therefore giving away their address.
“If you don’t leave immediately there will be trouble,” he shouts with his fist in the air whilst giving me a threatening look. When I say we are reporters interested in Sara’s story and that we are not here to fight, he threatens to call the police. I think that sounds like a good idea so I ask him to do so. I would have done it myself if I had the number.
He gazes at his son, who brought us here, and shakes his head. Then it starts again, the screaming and shouting. I shout back that I can’t hear anything that anyone is saying unless everyone calms down.
“Ok, I might let you in,” he says suddenly, “but on one condition: You have to ring her mother and demand she takes back her police report.” I don’t understand.
“Her mother has reported us to the police; if she withdraws her statement I’ll let you into my house. Those are my conditions.”
I repeat that we are journalists, we neither can nor want to persuade Sara’s mother, or anyone else, to do anything. We can, however, relay the message. By now, we all speak with raspy voices. But it has paid off; a woman whispers in Kurdish that they are done, that she is ready, and refers to Sara.
They make space for us in the doorway so we can pass through. We continue to an apartment on the first floor where we are asked to remove our shoes. All the floors are covered in rugs. There are teenagers, children, men and women. The whole house is full. We are escorted into a large sitting room without any furniture other than rugs and mattresses.
A young couple sits tightly together at the front of the room. The man was in the crowd on one of the balconies as we arrived at the house. Though it is not only from the balcony I recognize him, but from wedding pictures circulating on the internet. The woman must be Sara. She is more beautiful in person than in the pictures, where she is covered in loads of makeup. She is wearing no makeup at all now, but instead is covered in gold on her neck and both arms. She casts us a demure glance. He looks down to the floor.
“It’s a lie that we are part of or sympathize with Huda-Part. An even bigger lie is that she was kidnapped, persuaded or manipulated. Shame on those who say so,” says a man who initiates the discussion but does not introduce himself. Later, we are told he is still another of Sara’s brothers-in-law.
He is even more hot-tempered than his father. Every question I ask fires him up and he acts as if we are in the middle of a fist fight. Once again I’m forced to shout that enough is enough; either we use a friendly tone with each other or we leave the house and report how we could not conduct a civilized conversation with the family. Some try to calm the others who are more upset.
We are offered coffee and water and the tone gradually becomes friendly, or at least friendlier.
After a lot of persuasion I manage to get permission to speak to Sara in Turkish, the language she and I share. But to be able to speak to her at all, she must first move closer; she is now at least four meters away from me. Whispers start floating left, right and center; people whisper to each other and then to Sara. She is granted permission to move closer. She and her husband are now just a meter or so away. Before any one of us has the chance to say anything, the husband produces the marriage certificate to show us. Sara then says:
“Please, I beg you, convince my mother to withdraw the police report. The district attorney can request that I undergo a psychological evaluation. The whole situation is very upsetting. I chose to come here, I chose to become Muslim and now everyone will believe I am retarded – “
She is interrupted by her father-in-law.
“I’m rich, I’m powerful, and my son could get any of our beautiful Muslim women. No one would turn me or him down if we asked for them. More beautiful girls. Richer girls. More intelligent. I have a lot to offer, gold, property. My son chose her and no one else. As I said, more beautiful… “
A woman silences him, gesturing towards Sara.
“I cannot understand why everyone makes such a big deal out of this. After all, at the end of the day we are all Kurds”, blurts one of Sara’s brothers-in-law.
We are astounded. What does he mean? Eliyo and I exchange glances. “I’m not Kurdish,” I say. Emotions fly high again. The brother-in-law acts surprised.
“You should be ashamed to say such a thing. All who are born and live in this area are Kurdish, you just happen to confess to the wrong religion. We are all Kurdish, you, we and everyone else here, except for certain public service officials who are Turkish.”
I turn to Sara. What does she think? Is she Kurdish? Her eyes begin to water. Everyone else’s eyes are on her: “No, we are not … I haven’t heard that we … in the village where I grew up we are not…” She is interrupted again.
Each time Sara says something, she looks around the room to assure herself that she had said the right thing. This time she nervously looks only at me and Eliyo. She briefly also turns to Adam Ottowa, the photographer.
I ask if she misses her family.
“Of course I miss my little brother and my mother. It was only the three of us.” She tells us of how her father died when she was a child, and her mother had to work day and night to provide for her children, in a small village of about 50 households.
Adam would like to photograph Sara and her husband, but she wants to know what the picture will be used for. “There will be no pictures,” her brother-in-law decides. I instead turn to her father-in-law to ask if we can at least take a picture of him. Such a brave man like himself. He wants to know first where Adam is from. I inform him that Adam is from Iowa, USA.
“May Allah’s martyrs forever be blessed,” is the surprising response I get.
As we stand up to leave after taking the pictures, Sara’s husband begs us to listen to him. He emphasizes that they were married out of love. Sara in turn gives me her mother’s mobile phone number and asks me once again to call her.
“My mother will lose a lot of money on a trial,” she says, worried. She turns to one of the brothers-in-law with a questioning look.
“Yes, that’s right, she will lose a lot of money because of the complaint she lodged about us manipulating Sara – money we know she doesn’t have, tell her that,” he says. “It’s alright for us, we can afford a trial, but she can’t.”
In the car, I dial the mother’s number. No answer.
It is now dark; it’s already 5 p.m. when we ask to be let past the gates of the Syriac-Orthodox monastery Mor Gabriel. During the past few years the monastery’s board has dedicated most of its energy to fight the government’s confiscation of monastery land, parts of which were returned only days before from none other than Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan himself. The archbishop, Samuel Aktas, greets us with open arms. He insists we dine with them. It is lent: vegetables, fruits and bulgur is offered, all from the monastery’s farms.
“You should be aware that there is always an ulterior motive,” he explains during the meal. “In the same manner of using a poor naive girl to fish for votes, Erdogan uses us to attract liberal votes. ‘Look! How good I am towards Christians,’ he wants to display.”
Aktas is annoyed. “She does not understand how big this is, how many she has hurt. What emotions she has stirred. She is just a little child. Parliamentarians, other politicians, us priests and many others, have spoken of nothing else in the last few days. This was somewhat of the last straw. We have endured so much in the last few years, oppression and persecution, sometimes openly but mostly not. And today, after only seven years in jail, they’ve set free the people who brutally killed Christians in the Turkish city of Malatya.”
It reminds me of what one of the police chiefs in Mardin said about Sara. “Promise you will not publicize my name,” he asked me. “It’s very simple; had it been a Muslim girl who ran away with a Christian boy, we would not have been able to guarantee the safety of the boy’s family. I am not prepared to say more than that.”
The next morning, I have an appointment with the teacher and Yazar Kaygisiz, a feminist well known for fighting for Christian and women’s rights. She has also tried to meet with Sara, and is surprised that we managed to do so. “All we got to see was the marriage certificate,” she tells us.
“I do not believe that she got married and converted by free will,” Kaygisiz says. “Too many things points to the contrary. For instance, the guy only had six months left to finish his military service. Why not wait until he finishes and comes home? Yesterday, when you got to meet them, he was only on leave. The fact they claimed that they do not belong to the Huda-Part, Allah’s Party, is plainly ridiculous. We know for sure that they do. Another thing is that she didn’t use her mother tongue when she called home, instead she spoke in broken Kurdish with her mother to tell her two things: that she had got married, and that she had found the proper religion.”
Kaygisiz’s voice is full of resignation. “The situation for Assyrians/Syriacs is sad. Far too few people dare to speak openly about the persecution. Of course, the law protects them, but real life, the life they live here, is different. Not a day goes by without news reaching me about yet another assault. I’m sorry, but I cannot stop thinking of Sara: She will now live in a large Islamic family whose language, culture or religion she barely knows, while the man she supposedly fell in love with is not even there. It’s sick.”
Before we part, she says, “What is important to understand is that everyone tries to assimilate the Assyrian/Syriacs: first the Turks, then the Arabs, and now the Kurdish. Suddenly some Kurds insist that the Assyrian/Syriacs must refer to themselves are Christian Kurds. You must include this point in your report. And one last thing, how come that several of the most prominent Turkish artists, actors and singers have married Christians but do their utmost to hide it? Well, otherwise they wouldn’t get a single record sold or never again be considered for an acting part.
“A Christian person I know in Istanbul got married to a famous Muslim Turkish pop star, it’s very secret. Now I know why.”
In Mardin, I meet with the author and teacher Yusuf Begtas, who for many years served as a managing director at the monasteries Mor Gabriel and Deyr ul-Zahfaran. We are interested in his view of Sara’s situation.
“I’m deeply touched by the fate of this family,” he says. “Sara’s father and I did our military service together. He died of a serious illness; Sara was only a little child then. Already before that the family was in deep economic difficulty because of expenses for medical care and medicine. He left behind a family in financial misery. Perhaps it is the poverty that drove her to this?”
I call the archbishop, Samuel Aktas. There was something he said when we met that has acquired new meaning. I want him to repeat it.
“We believe that they have been manipulating her for years. Well, yes, simply preparing her for this,” he says. “For them it is a feat to have managed to convert one of us. I understand that in European ears it may sound as though we exaggerate our feelings. One has to live here to understand why this has hurt us, how it has upset us and frightened us at the same time.”
Nuri Kino is an independent investigative reporter, filmmaker, author, Middle East & human rights analyst. This article was translated from Swedish by Izla Rhawi and and Vivianne Deniz.
- A previous version of this story contained an incorrect description of Eliyo Eliyo’s profession. He is an archaeologist.
- This version of the story changes the word “town,” used in a previous version, to “village.”