(AINA) -- Boarding the plane from Sydney to wellington my mind was still occupied by details of the planned event that was to take place early next day, I was trying to perfect each segment and working out alternate plans in case we were unable to execute a segment -- when I was hit with the first reality check.
On board sitting with Mr. Gabriel Gabriel on one side and Mr. Dean Beth-Lahdek on the other, we were approached by the head steward holding a newspaper in his hand.
"Hello I'm Assyrian," he said, my name is Ramen and introduced another steward, his sister. He showed us a New Zealand newspaper article in the Dominion that covered the story prior to our arrival. He was a young man and said he was so proud that he checked the list of passengers to see if there were any Assyrians on board. His sister then wished us a successful event gave us a bottle of champagne and said please drink this to celebrate your success.
Arriving at the checkout at Wellington Airport we were again greeted with shlamalokhon [peace be upon you, in Assyrian]. The security it seems were also Assyrian; extraordinary we thought until the baggage handler introduced himself as an Assyrian and finally the driver of a random taxi we hired was talking to us in Assyrian, we all wondered if the Prime Minister was also Assyrian.
The night preceding the event sitting in a hotel restaurant we met some members of the local community and one person left a lasting impression on me, Reverend Pithyou, St George Parish, Ancient Church of the East. This wonderful priest can best be described as a patriotic Assyrian with a heart of gold. On realizing our predicament of the event held on a Sunday morning and our lacking clergy representation he changed his service hours to accommodate us. I am forever indebted to this amazing person who after the event invited us to his parish and held a dinner in our honor, meeting the rest of the congregation that night was a delight and will stay imprinted in my memory.
On Sunday 18th April, 10 AM, at Trentham military camp arade ground, the New Zealand Military, led by Lt Colonel Piercy, the family of Captain Nicol and members of the Wellington Assyrian community including those from Sydney and Melbourne, filed on to the parade ground.
The Military represented by an honor guard from the seventh battalion and a platoon of commando's stood at attention while the Assyrian flag and the New Zealand ensign flew high over the parade. All appropriate ceremonies were observed including playing of Last Post, the flags were then lowered and the Assyrian flag handed to me and the ensign handed to the Colonel and that was followed by a flag exchange. The Assyrian flag handed to the colonel will fly permanently at Trentham Military Camp in the Memorial Chapel above the Assyrian plaques.
The Military ceremony was followed by a service in the chapel, The army padre opened the event which then included speeches from the Mayors of Wellington and Upper Hutt City and Mr. Chris Hipkins the local Member of Parliament, Dr Lindsay Grigg and Mr. jack Nicol. The Defense Secretary was also present and Revered Aprim Pithyou sang a prayer in Aramaic.
The plaque display was blessed on the pulpit and will later be mounted in a permanent position under the Assyrian flag in the chapel.
Two plaques were dedicated by Assyrians, one is dedicated to Captain Robert Nicol of the Wellington regiment who in 1918 defied British orders and moved forward to Assist Assyrian refugees. After a strong fire fight he lost his life and his body was never recovered. He was 23 years old. His plaque includes a message in cuneiform and Assyrian and says, "from this day you will be remembered by Assyria and New Zealand and your heroic deed never forgotten."
The second plaque was dedicated to the memory of the 750,000 Assyrian killed in the Turkish genocide of Assyrians in World War One. The text of the plaque read:
As a result of enemy action by Ottoman Forces in Assyrian villages during 1915, the Assyrian nation numbering over 800,000 joined forces with Russia and Britain.
By 1917 due to the determination of Ottoman Forces and the withdrawal from Persia by Assyria's greatest Ally Russia, the Assyrian nation was reduced to 100,000 men, women and children including 4,600 combatants.
By 1918 devoid of logistical support, and in constant contact with enemy forces since the beginning of the great war, Assyrians had no means to replenish their supplies or withstand the full brunt of the Turkish Army in Persia. Surrounded and ensnared in the Persian City of Urmia and commanded by General Agha Petros, they recorded 14 Major decisive victories against Turkish 5th, 6th, 11th and 12th Divisions and Kurdish Forces.
August 1918, A British Force [Dunsterforce] made physical contact with Assyrian Forces just as the Front collapsed and the survivors, men, women and children began a 1000klm Trek through hostile territory to reach safety. 10,000 were not able to flee, losing their lives in the city of Urmia. Starvation, enemy action and disease took its toll on the remaining 90,000 retreating Assyrians and over 25,000 died by the road side in what is known today as the "1918 Assyrian Exodus".
During the Exodus the capability of the Assyrian forces was severely reduced, a small number of ANZAC's seconded to Dunsterforce and commanded by an Australian, Captain Stanley George Savige rode forward to protect the refugee column. On the 5th August a member of that Force, Captain Robert Kenneth Nicol MC, Wellington Regiment New Zealand, attempted to assist Assyrian tribesmen recover ammunition when he met heavy gun fire from Turkish positions and fell, his body never to be recovered.
As a direct result of his actions and those of his comrades the remnants of the refugees. Numbering 60,000 were saved from certain death.
"In Honor of Assyrian and New Zealand Service Personnel, those who served and those who fell."
The Plaques were dedicated by the;
Assyrian Levies Association, Assyrian Victorian Community, Assyrian Sports and Cultural Club, Assyrian Australian Association, Assyrian Barwar Association, Assyria Liberation Party, Australian Careers Business College, Assyrian Association of Wellington.
With thanks to;
Australian Assyrian Arts and Literature Foundation, Assyrian Democratic Movement.
After the Chapel we were ushered to the Sergeant Mess where we enjoyed morning tea and few more speeches were given by Mr. Sargon Elya and Mr. James Gevergizian, including one from Constable Pithyou of Wellington police, whose dad was the very Reverend Pithyou. Among the Assyrians were also Mr. Assur Jako, president of the Assyrian Sports and Cultural Club in Sydney, Mr. Joseph Adams, the Secretary and Fairfield City and councilor Zaya Tooma.
This was followed by a gift given by the Gilgamesh Society to the Colonel, a beautiful colorful Lamassu. The ceremony went very well and I want to assure the Assyrian stewards on that Qantas flight that after the ceremony we enjoyed every drop of your congratulatory Champagne. Thank you and God Bless.
By Gaby Kiwarkis