Fresno Armenians decry violence affecting kin in Syria

The Fresno BeeMarch 28, 2014 

With anguish and anger in his voice, Manas Saghdejian stood before a group of his fellow Armenians in Fresno on Friday and recounted how his nephew in Kassab, Syria was chained by Islamic rebel forces who took over the village last weekend.

His nephew was made ready for "butcher" but managed to escape, along with an estimated 2,000 others, Saghdejian said. But not everyone in his village on the Mediterranean Sea made it out alive.

During the meeting at the Armenian Community Center in downtown Fresno, attended by about 80 people, Paul Sarimazian of Fresno talked about reports of violence in the postcard-pretty coastal village with a predominately Armenian population.

The Kassab grab provided rebels with their first outpost on the Mediterranean Sea, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

Sarimazian said family in Kassab told him that as they were fleeing, they saw one man killed by gunfire -- a shooting also witnessed by his 7-year-old cousin.

According to the Armenian National Committee of America, Fresno is home to thousands of Armenians who are from Kassab or have family in the region.

Along with sharing news, Friday's gathering was also meant as a call to action.

"We are here to put out a plea to Armenians and non-Armenians alike, to all the media, to please take notice of what is happening in Kassab," said Rosie Bedrosian, on the central executive board of the Armenian Relief Society, a humanitarian agency.

Vahagn Bznouni, a committee member for the Central California chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America and who led the meeting, urged residents to write to their elected officials about the need to help stop the violence.

Last weekend's takeover of Kassab bore historic weight: It was the third time since 1900 that Armenians in Kassab felt compelled to run for their lives.

They left once at the hands of vengeful Turkish neighbors, and later because of Ottoman forces. Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I -- an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century.

"The genocide is continuing," Bedrosian said of reports she's received from the latest attack on Kassab. "People are being killed, people are being decapitated, massacred and displaced."

Syrian rebels who stormed into Kassab last weekend came from an array of conservative and Islamic groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, according to a report by Associated Press.

A Syrian field commander told journalists in the nearby town of Badrousieh that gunmen began their attack "with clear support from the Turks," although Turkish officials have refuted the claims.

Most Kassab residents fled to Latakia, emptying out a village that boasted a Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant church. Many Fresno Armenians remain worried about their relatives' plight.

"They don't have any clothes, because they only left with what they were wearing," Sarimazian said of his family now in Latakia, adding food supplies are starting to run out in a mission where they are seeking refuge. "There's only so much supplies a tiny little church and a couple schools can provide for thousands of people."

The Associated Press contributed to this story. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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