(AINA) -- One of the indelible images of the Iraq war was the sight of Dr. Donny George, horrified and tearful, at the sight of looters and arsonists attacking the National Museum. As a former Director General of the museum, the destruction and loss of his country's heritage cut deeply. Little did he know at the time that this theft of history would soon be replicated by the ethnic cleansing of his own people, known as Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs.
As the heat of sectarian conflict exploded , Christian Assyrians were killed, some beheaded in front of video cameras by extremists who swore only Muslims should occupy Iraq, driven from their homes and businesses, targeted by religious intolerance and the prospect of economic gain. Along with other Iraqi minorities, almost half the Assyrian population has fled their homeland, the majority as refugees in Syria, Turkey and Jordan (report).
Donny George was one of the stubborn ones, committed to a united Iraq, a mosaic of all religions and ethnic groups. After severe threats made to his family, he was forced to join the mass of refugees escaping to Syria in August 2006. He was one of the few fortunate recipients of aid from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and received help to move to America. From his eventual post at the State University at Stony Brook he continued to champion the cause of recovering and preserving Iraqi artifacts and to advocate for the protection of the Assyrian nation in Iraq.
Fast forward to 2012. In a new wave of displacement, Assyrian refugees are once again being forced to flee, this time from their temporary homes in Syria along with other Syrians and Iraqi minorities -- Mandeans and Yezidis (AINA 11-24-2012).
Will international authorities step up this time to protect them?
Many individual stories of torment have emerged from the corrosive battles now engulfing Syria. On August 14th, a young Christian Assyrian man, Ninos Kato, was kidnapped and forced to publicly convert to Islam, his confession broadcast through a You Tube video. For most, the only recourse to escape the conflict is through human smuggling. A fast growing, billion dollar business, smugglers charge $18,000 to transport an individual to safe havens in Europe. Many disappear en route; others are abandoned by smugglers in Russia, Eastern Europe and Turkey.
Sweden is expecting 5,000 Assyrian refugees this year alone. In a small Swedish town, Södertälje, known as Europe's Assyrian capital, every fourth resident is of Assyrian descent. Assyrians have their own television stations, soccer teams and religious leaders. Here, they feel safe. But the town is suffering greatly; schools and social welfare programs are under massive pressure from the huge influx of new refugees and Boel Godner, the town's mayor, is pleading for help.
From the present to the past. At the height of the Assyrian empire, one of its great kings, Ashurbanipal, reigned in the latter part of the 7th century B.C. over territory stretching from modern-day Iran to Egypt. As can be seen from this quote he was not a modest man by any means. "I Ashurbanipal took care of the wisdom of Nebo, the whole of the inscribed tablets, of all the clay tablets, the whole of the mysteries and difficulties, I solved." A boast perhaps well earned for much of the phenomenal record of Mesopotamian achievement, scripted in more than 30,000 first books in the form of clay tablets, were written under his direction and lodged in the library at the Assyrian capital, Nineveh.
Not long after the king's death, Nineveh was looted and burned, a dramatic and final end to the empire. In a strange twist of fate, those fires helped preserve clay tablets which would otherwise have eroded. Since the first Semitic speaking tribes swept out of the western deserts to settle in what is now Iraq, Assyrians have maintained a continuous identity and culture over a span of 4,400 years. But the waves of change and destruction swelling through the Mid-East threaten a permanent end to their legacy and to the culture of Iraq's other minorities.
Donny George feared his people would become a nation of nomads hounded from one country to another and this is what now appears to be unfolding. On his way to make another speech about their plight, he died of a heart attack in the airport at Toronto. His greatest wish was for a secure homeland for Assyrians and other Iraqi minorities on the Nineveh plains in northern Iraq.
Failure to protect the indigenous people of Iraq and their heritage will be the world's loss. Time is running out for them.
D. J. McIntosh is the author of The Witch of Babylon.