ESME, Syrian Kurdistan—On Feb. 22, Turkish special forces entered a Turkish exclave inside Syria — where the remains of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the first Ottoman Sultan, are held in a tomb — to evacuate the tomb and some 40 guards, who had come under siege by Islamic State fighters.
Following evacuations, the contents of the tomb were moved to the village of Esme, closer to Turkey but still in Syrian territory under Kurdish control and, in addition, a major site along a route on which Ottoman forces led Armenians in death marches during the Armenian Genocide.
The Esme village, in the Birecik district, was located on the route of the death marches that departed both from Urfa and Birtha (Birecik in Turkish), just north along the Euphrates from Esme, and continued to Cerablus (Jarabulus in Syrian) and then to Deir ez-Zor, the final death place of countless victims of the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1920.
The forefathers of Suphi Yavuz, the Village Head of the part of Esme that lies on the Turkish side of the border today, were from the families that lived on the Syrian side of the border before the border was drawn. Yavuz states that the people of the region always remember the Armenians in a positive light: “Armenians are always remembered as very intelligent and hard-working; and they are always referred to as trustworthy. The elders of the region tell us that there used to be Armenian villages connected to Birecik [Birtha].” Suphi Yavuz also said that the people of the region do not speak about how the Armenian population was destroyed.
However, Birtha and its environs are of great significance in the history of the Armenian Genocide. Nvard Şirinyan, who spoke to Verjine Svazlian who compiled the memoirs of those who survived the Armenian Genocide, was among those who passed through Birtha in 1908 when she was 5-6 years old: “Before the massacre we lived in Tokat, we were very wealthy, we had everything. They first took the men, and never brought them back. We heard that they had all been slaughtered… We passed through Kirkiz, Malatia and Birecik, and reached Carablus. We reached Aleppo, there, my uncle’s two children died.”
While for some, Birtha was a stop on the deportation route, for some others, it was a turning point. Like Toros Petrosi Tercanian, who was born in Sebastia in 1912: “We stayed in the Birecik town camp close to the Euphrates River for a few months. One day, my mother was trying to make way through the crowds to reach the fountain when a Turkish soldier hit her on the head with the back of his rifle. My mother passed away a few days later. I embraced my dear mother’s body and did not want to let her go for days.”
Hakob Circiyan, who was born in Antep in 1900, and was forced into exile at 15, told the story of how Ironsmith Artin was killed in Birtha when he tried to escape from the convoy: “I wish I had gone blind so I did not see those horrific scenes. We arrived in Homs-Hama on foot… They had tied the hands and feet of children and women and lined them up along the shore of the Euphrates River to slaughter them. One of the exiles, Ironsmith Artin, broke his chains, jumped into the water, and reached Birecik swimming under water… But the Tajiks [Turks] killed Artin with seven bullets.”
Historian Raymond Kévorkian, in his book “The Armenian Genocide” states that losses were great on the Urfa-Birtha route. According to Kévorkian, only 20% (around 130 thousand people) of the population along this route had managed to reach the Syrian deserts.
The Aleppo Consul of Germany Walter Rössler provided detailed information about the victims of the Genocide on the shore of the Euphrates in Birtha in the reports he wrote: “As I reported on July 17, the bodies on the Euphrates I mentioned before were visible for twenty-five days in Rumkale, Birtha and Cerablus. All the bodies had been tied together in twos, back to back, in the same way… A few days later, the number of bodies increased. This time, most of them were women and children.”