header image
Home arrow Homeland arrow Turkey arrow A man from Siirt
A good man from Siirt PDF Print E-mail

Siirt is now a predominantly Kurdish town in southeastern Turkey. Till 1915 however it was the hometown of a large Christian population. That year Ottoman Turkey started a holy war against the 'infidels'. Terrible massacres took place in Siirt and the local Christians were brutally murdered. The Year of the Sword - 1915. It is old history now. Who still cares about it after all those years? One particular Kurd from Siirt does care. He is a decent man with a heavy burden on his conscience. How to regain peace of mind with a grandfather who was one of the perpetrators of the gruesome crimes? Grandson Behzat Bilek found a solution.

It happened in 1915 in Siirt, a small town in southeastern Turkey. Four Kurdish men gathered a group of Christian women in the cathedral’s yard. The husbands and male relatives of these women had already been butchered. The four Kurds pointed their weapons at the women while forcing them to carry out all the books they could find in the cathedral’s library and pile them up on the yard. Quickly, the yard was full with books lying on top of each other. When the library was emptied, one of the men took out a match and put the books on fire. One of the other men closed the gate to the yard as the other men gripped and pulled the women’s frightened children from their arms and threw them into the fire. The mothers instinctively rushed to save their children, as the men opened fire and shot the women who fell into the flames. The men didn’t stop piling up the women in the big fire until all women were dead. In the yard, there were now only ashes left. A ten-year-old girl survived the massacre and became the only eyewitness of this terrible crime.

Siirt - street in the old town center
This is one of the many stories of the genocide committed on Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks in Turkey during the First World War. Behzat Bilek is the grandchild of one of the Kurdish perpetrators from Siirt. He wants to be the first to apologize for the genocide and he wants to do this with a real action. Behzat has given back his share of the family’s land he inherited from his grandfather who had confiscated it from Assyrians after they were murdered in the genocide. Behzat says that he didn’t know about the genocide until as an adult he started researching it. It was never taught in school and at home it was also taboo. Behzat is now living in the city of Mersin. Most of his nine brothers and sisters have also left Siirt, but their mother still lives there. Behzat explains: ‘It wasn’t until I had spoken to my mother that I finally made up my mind. She gave me her support and she said that what I was about to do was honorable.’
Crime and Penance
Seyfo Center is a lobby-organization in Holland with members and offices all over the western world. Seyfo is the Assyrian word for sword and the name Assyrians use in reference to the genocide during the First World War. Sabri Atman, chairman of Seyfo Center, is a Swedish citizen. This is why in May 2009 the official hand over of the title deeds of Behzat’s property was held in the Swedish parliament. It was a very emotional ceremony. Many of the people present couldn’t hold back the tears, including Behzad himself. Behzat: ‘Finally, I can relax and let go. From the time I made my decision till the time it was done, it has been very difficult for me. My wife, who is an attorney, has supported me the most. Our biggest concern is our ten-year-old daughter, who tells me that she doesn’t want to live without a father. Up until now, I have only received positive reactions, but I also know that my actions have made me some enemies as well.’

Behzat Bilek (right) handing over the title deeds of his land to Sabri Atman

An official hand over of title deeds is one thing, but how it is going to happen in practice and what if Sabri Atman decides to sell the land? Behzat firmly sticks to his action:  ‘We are talking about 5000 hectare that will be divided among ten people, my nine brothers and sisters and Sabri Atman. Sabri will get my share. How and when, I don’t know. The future will tell. All I know is that I feel happy. I feel that I have made  history, and I hope that my action will contribute to recognition of the genocide.’ Behzat has done something great. After all, it is the symbolic value that counts. Most Kurds, and Turks for that matter, don’t even know about the genocide. Now it has been confirmed by the grandchild to one of the perpetrators of these atrocities in the town of Siirt where Behzat was born.
Archbishop Sher
Chaldean bishop Addai Sher
The Chaldean-catholic archbishop Monsignor Addai Sher lived in Siirt at that time. He was in charge of the new cathedral, consecrated in 1895. Throughout his years in Siirt the archbishop was mostly known for his book collection and for the cathedral’s library with its valuable collection of old manuscripts and books. Monsignor Sher was an author of works on theological, philosophical and linguistic topics. Exactly those manuscripts and books were thrown into the fire when the four Kurdish men murdered the Christian women and their children. One precious Syriac manuscript, the only copy left of a dissertation of the 6th century theologian Theodorus of Mopsuestia about the two natures of Christ in one person, is said to have been saved from the flames. Monsignor Shed had it wrapped in goatskin and ordered his servant to hide it in a well, known as Ayn Salib and situated close to the residence of the archbishop. 

Monsignor Sher himself met a gruesome fate. He was befriended with a Kurdish aga and when the massacres of 1915 started in Siirt, the archbishop fled to a village that belonged to this Kurdish aga. Monsignor Sher went to hide in a cave outside the village. Eventually the Turkish soldiers who were looking for him reached his hiding-place. The archbishop was brought back to the village. He was severely beaten up, sentenced to death and finally executed. This happened in June 1915. Behzat Bilek’s grandfather must have heard about the execution and being one of the perpetrators of the massacres at Siirt, he will certainly have approved of it.     

Heroic and honorable
The chairman of Seyfo Center, Sabri Atman, looks relieved, just like Behzat. Sabri has feared that the hand over of the title deeds would be sabotaged. He explains: ‘Of course it is not about the land itself, it is the action. The ceremony in the Swedish parliament is an historic event. It is not just a beginning to recognition of the genocide, it is also a first step to reconciliation. Up till now Behzat Bilek was known as Berzan Boti, a pseudonym to protect him. Until the last minute before going public about his real identity, Behzat had to keep it a secret because we feared that he would be hurt or that someone would somehow sabotage everything. Now we will see what will happen next. None of us knows how things will develop, but one thing is sure: Assyrians worldwide have gotten a very eagerly awaited recognition. Behzat’s action is heroic and honorable. It is just a shame that the only eyewitness, who was a little girl when she survived the massacre in Siirt, isn’t alive to experience this historical moment.’
Adapted from an article by Nuri Kino, Assyrian and investigative journalist in Sweden (ATH)