Report on Turkish and Kurdish Confiscation of Assyrian Property
By Augin Kurt Haninke
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The Assyrian village of Ainwardo in Turkey (photo: Markus Tozman).
(AINA) -- The German journalist Susanne Gusten in Istanbul has recently compiled a report showing that both the government and the Kurds confiscate Assyrian property. She suggests measures to be taken by the government to minimize the damage. These measures should not wait for a possible peace settlement with the Kurds.

The report (English, Turkish), titled The Syriac Property Issue in Tur Abdin, was published by Sabanci University's Center for Politics in June 2015, before the ongoing clashes broke out between Turkey and the PKK. It is based on the relative calm that followed the so-called peace negotiations between the government and the Kurdish national movement. The author, however, points to a series of difficulties faced by the Assyrians who have returned or are planning to do so.

According to the report, the biggest problem the Assyrians face is the confiscation of Assyrian land and property after the establishment of a land register in Turabdin.

The report says,

On top of all of the inherent problems of the return process has come yet another obstacle, namely the widespread recent expropriation of Syriac [Assyrian] land in Tur Abdin that was brought about by the modernization of Turkish land registry records. Hardly a Syriac village, monastery, or family in Tur Abdin has been left untouched by these expropriations, and Syriacs returning from the diaspora often find that their land has been seized either by the state or by Kurdish tribes during their absence. The Turkish state's land registry updates, meant to modernize cadasters and bring them in line with European Union standards, were undertaken in Tur Abdin at a time when most Syriacs were living in exile. In the eastern parts of Tur Abdin, which fall in the province of Sirnak, properties were registered in the 1990s; in the larger part of Tur Abdin that belongs to Mardin province, registration was done in the early 2000s.

Because many landowners -- not only Syriacs but Yazidis and Kurds as well -- were absent from the region at the time, much of their property was registered either to the state or to third parties. Transfer of property to the state occurred firstly where registrars determined that land had lain fallow, i.e. not been worked, for 20 years, in which case property is deemed to have been abandoned and falls to the state treasury under Turkish law. Although this is a common, and in itself irreproachable, legal norm, its application here failed to take into account the fact that owners had not abandoned their land voluntarily but rather had been squeezed out of the region and forced to leave their property behind. In the words of a [local] Syriac lawyer [Rudi Sumer] fighting many such cases, "the law does not ask why people left their land or why they had to leave." Secondly, private property was seized by the state where it was classified as "forested" by registrars, which automatically makes it property of the state forestry. As a covering of oak scrub has sprung up on fields left behind by fleeing farmers, vineyards burned down by the army during the years of the conflict, and abandoned fruit orchards chopped down for firewood, much of this land has passed into possession of the forestry.

While these legal expropriations have affected all population groups who fled the war-torn region, another form of land grab has specifically targeted the non-Muslim minorities, i.e. Yazidis and Syriacs. Their land has often been appropriated by Kurdish neighbors who either registered it to their names or simply seized it. In the former case, Kurdish tribes exploited the absence of minority neighbors by claiming their land, acting as [false] witnesses for each other when testifying to registrars and obtaining the deeds to the land. In the latter case, Kurds simply occupied minority land during the absence of its owners and now refuse to give it up on their return, even when the title deeds remain in the owners' possession and the land is registered to them. Far from being isolated cases, these expropriations are widespread throughout the region. The best known case is that of the monastery St. Gabriel Monastery, whose lands have been claimed by the state treasury and the forestry, as well as neighboring Muslim villages, in various lawsuits since 2008. Although 12 of 30 parcels of land contested between the treasury and St. Gabriel were returned to the monastery last year by decision of the government, the 18 other parcels remain disputed while the legal battle with the forestry has reached the European Court of Human Rights and related lawsuits continue. Other monasteries, including St. Malke and St. Augin, are engaged in similar struggles. Less well known is the fact that the expropriations have affected thousands of individual Syriacs (and Yazidis). Many of them are diaspora dwellers who only discovered their loss when attempting to return to the region. Some Syriac villages have been reduced to their core, with the surrounding farmland and vineyards stripped away, while the lands of other villages are held by Kurdish occupiers defending them at gunpoint. The number of diaspora Syriacs affected by the expropriations is thought to be in the tens of thousands, with thousands affected in Germany alone.

Corruption and bureaucracy

The local authorities are corrupt, and the tangled bureaucracy puts major obstacles for those few Assyrians who still choose to go to court. The courts, however, cannot do much about the state's confiscation in the name of the Forest Act or on the basis that the land has lain fallow and been classified as ownerless. The Assyrian MP Erol Dora, from the Kurdish party HDP, agrees. He has proposed a motion in parliament to investigate the land issue. But according to the report Erol Dora and the HDP have not made any concrete proposals to resolve the issue. The report points specifically to the confiscation of the land of the monastery of St. Augin, which local leaders of the HDP refuse to leave. The Kurdish leaders who have tried to resolve the issue have failed. This concerns about 300 hectares of fertile farmland with access to running water.

Serious political measures

The Turkish government must therefore take serious action and not only make half-hearted attempts by recommending to local authorities that they be helpful to returning Assyrians. No local cares to follow these recommendations, according to the report. The report suggests that the government and parliament must first and foremost recognize and sanction that the Assyrian property has been unjustly confiscated. If the government is not capable of solving the issue concerning the Kurds' confiscation, it can start with the return of the big areas which are in state ownership. In cases where the property has been sold to a third party, the state must compensate the Assyrian owners. Otherwise, all talk about the Assyrians being welcomed to return is pointless. The Assyrians want to see concrete action.

Help from Germany

Turkey can also take help from Germany, which has more than 120,000 Assyrian citizens of Turkish origin. Germany has highlighted the case of the monastery of St. Gabriel at the highest political level and possibly also contributed to the fact that some of the monastery's land has been returned. The Germans could also share their experience of how to solve similar cases at home after the war. However, Germany has so far done nothing to help its Assyrian citizens vis-a-vis Turkey, the report's author says and indicates that incognizance of politicians is the main reason for that. The same can of course be said of Sweden and other European countries with significant Assyrian populations. These countries have a moral obligation to help their new citizens.

Susanne Gusten has been active in Istanbul since 1997 and has covered Turkey for international media such as the International New York Times, Al-Monitor, Der Tagesspiegel, Das Parlament, Deutschlandfunk, Deutsche Welle and Swiss National Radio. She was editor-in-chief of AFP. Since 2001 she has followed the Assyrians in the Diaspora and their difficulties in returning to Tur Abdin, Turkey.

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