By Sara Elizabeth Williams and Tom Coghlan
Refugees from a Christian Armenian town whose capture drew the American socialite and reality TV star Kim Kardashian into a propaganda war on the side of Syrian regime have described for the first time what happened after Islamic rebel fighters took their town.
The fall of Kessab, near the Turkish border, led to claims of atrocities carrried out by the rebel fighters, with the Assad government invoking memories of the Armenian genocide of 1915 by Ottoman Turks in which 1.5 million people died.
Disturbing photographs, widely disseminated after the capture of the town on March 23, showed headless bodies, prisoners being executed and churches being desecrated. One image purported to show a Christian girl who had been raped and murdered and left with a large crucifix in her mouth.
The Armenian government expressed horror, and the story entered public discourse in the US after Kardashian interrupted the usual flow of photographs of herself on her Twitter account to deliver an impassioned plea for the citizens of Kessab, referencing her own Armenian descent.
“Please, let’s not let history repeat itself!!!!!! Let’s get this trending!!!!#SaveKessab #ArmenianGenocide,” she wrote on March 30 to her 20 million followers.
“If you don’t know what’s going on in Kessab please google it, its heart breaking! As an Armenian, I grew up hearing so many painful stories!” she added the next day, offering an unexpected boost to the Syrian regime.
Syrian rebels disseminated their own internet videos showing respectful, bearded fighters dusting down prayer books in undamaged churches and helping elderly residents to cross the Turkish border.
In an attempt to debunk the Syrian regime propaganda, rebel sympathisers successfully identified seven of the photographs circulated on Twitter as depicting previous atrocities from the three-year civil war, or elsewhere. In the case of the murdered Christian girl, the image, it transpired, had come from a low-budget 2005 horror film called Inner Depravity.
Now refugees from the town have arrived in Beirut, offering more nuanced accounts of what happened. Babouk, 94, said he was unfamiliar with Kardashian, but scoffed at the idea of genocide. “This was nothing like the genocide,” he said. “I saw no violence. No murder.” Babouk is Armenian for grandfather.
Nonetheless, the fall of Kessab was a deeply traumatic experience, said other residents.
Hovsep, 66, was watering his garden when the assault began. He alleged that shelling came from the Turkish side of the border, causing residents to flee in panic to the government-held city of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
“This all happened in 30 minutes. I was still in my jazmas [wellies] — I wore them to Beirut. There were people in cars, trucks, school buses and tractors,” he said. “Everyone left.”
Before telephone lines were cut, Hovsep reached some of the few people still in Kessab. He says they described mass looting, with Turkish-plated cars and pick-up trucks sweeping in and their drivers loading everything on board. “You can’t find a straw in Kessab anymore,” Hosvep said.
Despite the shelling, looting and forced exodus, he heard of no personal violence. “”Everyone left. I saw no death, no killing in Kessab. Because no one stayed there,” he said.