Saturday, May 14, 2022



“My people and your people, my Syrian 

Brother, are dead ... What can be 

Done for those who are dying? Our 

Lamentations will not satisfy their 

Hunger, and our tears will not quench 

Their thirst; what can we do to save 

Them between the iron paws of 


Gibran Khalil Gibran: “Dead are my People.” 


It took an inordinately long time for scholars to appreciate that the premeditated slaughter of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks by the Ottomans and after their downfall, the Kemalists, formed part and parcel of the same Genocide, that of the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. It appears that it will take an even longer time for interested Greek parties to realise that the genocide of the Pontic Greeks and the genocide of the Greeks of Eastern Thrace and the rest of Asia Minor, is also part of the same event,  which is why in Greece, paradoxically, two separate genocides are commemorated. That aberration notwithstanding, the haphazard manner in which Assyrians were rounded up and murdered along with the Armenians attests to the genocide not being based upon nationality, but rather upon religious criteria. 


It is as a consequence of this understanding of the Genocide as being directed against the native Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire, rather than any specific nationality, that the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek communities in Australia are increasingly collaborating in both commemorating and lobbying for recognition of the Genocide, notably with the recent formation of the intercommunal “Joint Justice Initiative.” Yet even that conceptual framework requires review, as the Genocide narrative, as it is currently being formulated does not yet encompass all of the native Christian groups that were subject to genocide. 


The Maronite Christians of Lebanon are a case in point. Originally adherents of the monothelite sect, the Syriac speaking Maronites eventually entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Numerically significant in Lebanon and Syria, they currently form the majority of the Christians in Lebanon, where the Constitution prescribes that the President of that country must be a Maronite. In 1860, the Maronites rose up against their Druze overlords, followers of an esoteric Islamic sect with gnostic elements and the Druze in turn, massacred 20,000 Maronite Christians on Mount Lebanon, destroying 380 Christian villages and 560 churches. A further 25,000 Maronite Christians were also slaughtered in Damascus. 


The slaughter of the Catholic Maronite Christians caused France,  recalling its ancient role as protector of Christians in the Ottoman Empire which was established by treaty in 1523 to intervene, landing troops in Lebanon to protect the Maronites. France also compelled the Ottomans to grant autonomy to Lebanon under a Christian governor, a precedent recalled with alarm by the Ottomans in 1878 when they were compelled by Russia to give greater autonomy to the eastern provinces of their Empire where Armenians existed in large numbers. As a result of the intervention of a World Power on behalf of the native Christians in each case, from the Ottoman point of view, the sympathies and loyalty of both the Maronites and the Armenians were suspect and they were considered as a potential fifth column in the event of a conflagration. 


That conflagration was not long in coming. The First World War saw France and Russia, protectors of the Maronites and Armenians respectively, pitted against the Ottoman Empire. An Allied naval blockade in the Eastern Mediterranean was creating great damage and upheaval to the Ottoman economy, resulting in food shortages in Syria. On Mount Lebanon, Maronite heartland, the effects of the blockade were even more deeply felt, given that the area was not particularly fertile and heavily dependent upon  food imports from the adjacent Bekaa Valley and Syria. Making the situation worse, a plague of locusts descended upon Mount Lebanon, eating the few crops that were able to grow.  


In 1914, after the storming of the Beirut granaries, the governor of Beirut was able to organise the delivery of relief food supplies. In 1915 however, the Commander for the Fourth Ottoman Army, and key member of the Young Turk triumvirate that was ruling the Ottoman Empire, Jemal Pasha, decided to restrict the delivery of food supplies to Mount Lebanon. He did so knowing full well that his decision would cause the inhabitants of the region to starve.  


The results of Jemal’s targeted starvation policy were felt almost immediately. In a letter to Mary Haskell, dated 26 May 1916, famous Lebanese poet Gibran Khalil Gibran wrote: “The famine in Mount Lebanon has been planned and instigated by the Turkish government. Already 80,000 have succumbed to starvation and thousands are dying every single day. The same process happened with the Christian Armenians and applied to the Christians in Mount Lebanon.” 


Gibran here was alluding to the fact that Jemal Pasha was in charge of overseeing the final leg of the Armenian Genocide: ensuring the death, by starvation, illness or murder of those Armenians who were able to survive the harrowing death marches across Anatolia and into Syria. Gibran also served as secretary of the Syrian–Mount Lebanon Relief Committee which ultimately raised $165,815 in two and a half years from about 15,000 Syrian subscribers in America. 


In his seminal novel Al-Raghif (The Loaf), Lebanese writer Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad described in devastating detail, the horrifying effects of the Ottoman imposed famine: 


“There was a woman, lying on her back, covered with lice. An infant with huge eyes was hanging to her naked breast. One of the men pushed her with his foot and waited... Tom bit his fingers and stepped forward. The woman’s head was tipped back and her hair was sparse. From her bosom jutted out a scratched and battered breast that the infant kneaded with his tiny hands and squeezed with his lips, then gave up and cried.” 



Edward Nickoley, 1917, an employee with the Syrian Protestant College, later to become the American University of Beirut, was an eyewitness to the targeted destruction by famine, of the Maronites of Mount Lebanon. Accordingly, recorded their plight in his diary: “Starving people lying about everywhere; at any time children moaning and weeping, women and children clawing over rubbish piles and ravenously eating anything that they can find. When the agonised cry of famishing people in the street becomes too bitter to bear, people get up and close the windows tight in the hope of shutting out the sound. Mere babies amuse themselves by imitating the cries that they hear in the streets or at the doors.” 

Even Turkish feminist author and Ataturk devotee Halide Edib was profoundly moved by the plight of the Maronites of Mount Lebanon writing in her memoirs: “The nights….were atrocious: You heard the whining and screaming of starved people: ‘Hungry, hungry.’”  


Professor Aaron Taylor Brand, of the American University of Beirut, believes that the Armenian Genocide also exacerbated the suffering on Mount Lebanon:  “The conditions of the refugees from the Armenian Genocide and those fleeing to the cities in search of work or food increased the incidence of epidemic disease during the period. The increase in susceptible individuals and the wet springs of 1916-1918 meant there were more mosquitoes feeding on more people, allowing the spread of malaria to reach crisis levels by 1917. The anaemia and diarrhoea of malaria, combined with malnourishment, was a bad combination, probably subtly contributing to the death tolls.” 


Around 200,000 people starved to death at a time when the population of Mount Lebanon was estimated to be 400,000 people. At 50% of the total population,  the targeted Mount Lebanon famine caused the highest fatality rate by population in World War I. Bodies were piled in the streets and people were reported to be eating street animals. Some people were even said to have resorted to cannibalism. 


Jemal Pasha was never brought to trial for his role in the Genocide. He was assassinated in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1922 by Armenians seeking revenge for his pivotal role in the genocide of the Armenians. He was never compelled to account for his decision to deliberately starve the Maronites of Mount Lebanon to death. 


The targeted starvation of the Maronite Christians further serves to reinforce the conviction that all Christians of the Ottoman Empire were considered a security risk and were thus ultimately expendable, despite any variations in the timing of method of their extirpation. Their plight must be included within the broader narrative of the Christian Genocide, if the full extent of the genocidal intent of the Young Turk regime and the effects of their policies upon their Christian subjects are to be fully comprehended. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 May 2022