Kassab, Syria – When the sound of shelling and gunfire cut through the early morning air, the Armenians of Kassab did not stick around to see what might happen: They bolted.
With the war in Syria becoming increasingly sectarian and the centennial of the Armenian genocide looming in 2015, the residents of Kassab, a mostly Armenian-populated town just 1km from the Turkish border, are alert to the horrors of targeted killing. For years their network of sleepy villages remained quiet, but the silence was broken just over a month ago.
The military operation that began on the morning of March 21 was part of a broader offensive on Latakia, on Syria’s coast. Kassab was overtaken in just two days by an assortment of opposition fighters.
“It came from the Turkish side, boom-boom-boom. I thought, what is this?” recalled 66-year-old Hovsep Paslikian, who was up early watering his garden when he heard the sound of shelling that morning. The noise moved along the border from the Jabal Akhra crossing to the Sakhra station near his home. Hovsep and his family headed for Latakia before the war came any closer.
Jirair Terterian, a 57-year-old farmer who lives at the entrance to Kassab, remembers hearing shots from the Turkish side and feeling stunned. “There was no obvious reason to invade, no heavy Syrian military presence,” he said. “But that morning, shelling was pouring down like hail.” He and his wife also fled.
By 10am, Kassab was nearly deserted. Mayor Sebou Korkejian, who oversaw the exodus of 2,500 ethnic Armenians from Kassab to Latakia said: “We were evicted.” Most of the people are now sheltering in Latakia, Aleppo, or a collection of Armenian-populated suburbs in Lebanon and Turkey, Korkejian told Al Jazeera in a recent interview.
There's no recent news from Kassab except what we are seeing online, on YouTube and Facebook. They have been emptying our homes from the day we fled.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has not documented any deaths of Armenians in the offensive, and the origin of the attack is still unclear. Syria and Lebanon researcher Lama Fakih said HRW interviewed 10 people from the area who were present that morning. “They all said that from what they saw, the attack was launched from the Turkish side of the border,” Fakih told Al Jazeera.
The rumour that fighters launched the attack from Turkey is widespread but still unproven, said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and an expert on the Syrian insurgency. Turkey insists it was not involved, and has called the allegations that it let opposition fighters use its territory “totally unfounded and untrue”. This was reiterated in a statement by the Turkish minister of foreign affairs in early April; the Foreign Ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Just two of Kassab’s residents reported face-to-face encounters with the fighters who invaded their town. One, a 94-year-old who goes by the name Babouk (Armenian for grandfather), hid at home when the shelling began. After two days he answered a knock at the door and found two men he had never seen before. The first told him in Arabic that they wanted to change the regime but had no problem with the people; the second, tall and heavily bearded, remained silent.
These men dispatched a guard to watch Babouk’s house and took him to Latakia at his request. From there he went to Lebanon. “They were kind enough,” Babouk said from his bed in a retirement home in Bourj Hammoud, a suburb of Beirut. “They gave me help and brought me food because I was alone.”
Another Kassab resident, Stephen, who would not provide a last name, described a more harrowing encounter. At the first sound of gunfire, the 51-year-old farmer leapt onto his motorcycle, still in his white pyjamas, and rode to outlying villages, warning residents to flee. On his way back, he says, he was captured by a group of five bearded men armed with rifles and night-vision goggles, and was handcuffed to a fence near their position at an old cemetery.
When fighting between the opposition and the Syrian armed forces intensified, distracting his captors, Stephen wriggled free and hid in a patch of hibiscus bushes. “I considered myself dead in any event, but I’d rather be shot than killed with a knife,” Stephen said. After hours in hiding, he crawled through the forest with his captors still firing guns and rockets on his left, and a large group of rebel fighters on his right. He eventually reached safety in the village of Eskouran.
Five weeks after Kassab’s residents left, none have returned. But information about what has happened to homes and possessions still trickles out. “There’s no recent news from Kassab except what we are seeing online, on YouTube and Facebook,” Korkejian said. “They have been emptying our homes from the day we fled. They have opened our shops.”
Garo Manjikian, a media representative for the Armenians of Kassab, elaborated: “They have taken the televisions, radios and microwaves to Kassab Square, and they’ve gathered all the tractors at the Kassab Tourist Resort.”
One video posted online shows a heavy-set, bearded fighter trick-driving a tractor in front of a fenced-off home. Hagop Handian, Stephen’s cousin, says the home is their great-aunt’s: He recognises the distinctive fence. He has not told her yet.
From his bed in the Armenian retirement home in Bourj Hammoud, Babouk says he just wants to go home. “If there are three families going back, I will be the fourth.”