The Chechens of Ras al-Ain: Expelled by Russia, Pursued by the Regime, Shamed by the YPG

Souriatna chronicles the 150-year history of Chechen migration to northern Syria from the time of Hadji Murad through Ottoman, French and Baathist rule

In the year 1864, after the Russians conquered the Caucasus, many residents of the area were displaced to several countries, with various Syrian cities receiving a share of these migrants. These included about 500 families who were displaced to the Syrian city of Ras al-Ain, where from the beginning they held power and prestige throughout the period of Ottoman rule, the French mandate, and independence. However, since the ‘60s, facing repression under Baath rule and the spread of epidemics, their numbers today in Ras al-Ain reach just 70 families.

Chechen elders in the city quote their fathers as saying that their journey lasted two years on foot, including a large number of children, women and elderly protected by horsemen, while their possessions were transported by oxen-drawn carts.

After a difficult journey, they settled in an area which would later become the Khabur springs in Ras al-Ain. The Ottoman state granted the area from Ras al-Ain up to Mount Abdulaziz to the Chechens, as there were no urban population concentrations there at the time. The newly displaced people built mud homes on the banks of the Khabur River and its springs, and this area remained their property, until the agricultural reform law ensured its distribution to the peasants, leaving only a limited section for the Chechen families who still inhabit the cities of Ras al-Ain, Hassakeh, Qamishli and the villages of Al-Safah, Tal Sanan, Al-Masjid, Majaibra and Tel Dhieb.

The Chechen flower harvest

Chechen sources, including the “Caucasus Creativity” forum, say that after Ras al-Ain was destroyed in the year 1129 by Tamerlane its residents were expelled and no one lived there until 1864, when 12,000 Chechens arrived from the Caucasus, according to the forum.

The area at that time was under Ottoman rule, and the Chechen presence was concentrated in the city of Ras al-Ain after the village of Al-Safah, which is considered their first dwelling before they rebuilt the city. They spread along the banks of the Al-Khamur River to near the city of Hassakeh, and called Ras al-Ain the “flower harvest” because of the death due to diseases of a large number of Chechens who were young people in the flower of youth.

From feudal lords to oppressed

Hajj Mahmoud, an elder and notable from the Al-Bakara tribe, told Souriatna: “The Chechens were great lords, including the houses of Abadi, Jaweesh, Dankat, Razzat, Saleemat, Kidda and other families. Even those residing near their lands were at that time ruled over by the Chechen lords because of an absence of state authority.”

Hajj Mahmoud continued: “In the ‘50s, we were accused of killing a man from a village near Ras al-Ain, and so we took refuge in the Abadi house throughout the period of Syrian coups before independence. The patrols avoided us because of the prestige of this family at the time.”

However, the Baath Party’s ascension to power was painful for them and increased the humiliation of elders, says Azzawi al-Kidda, a Chechen notable in Ras al-Ain. “The regime wanted to impose the Baath concepts on everyone, and inflicted humiliation on those who refused, including us. During the ‘70s, we were stripped of our land in accordance with the agricultural reform law, and small plots were left to some families.”

Kidda continued: “Today, the [Kurdish] Democratic Union Party is continuing and taking control over what remains of the land, including the land of the notable Ahmad al-Qureishi, under the pretext that his son was a leader of the Saqr al-Quraysh brigade in the Free Syrian Army. To deepen the humiliation of the family, they have turned the area into a dumping ground for waste, which has made it a site for the spreading of disease to villages in the southeast of Ras al-Ain.”

Dwindling numbers in light of migration and adhering to customs

The “Chechens of Ras al-Ain” page on Facebook, which lists the social status of Chechens in the area, including births, marriages and deaths, has documented the migration of 245 Chechens among 59 families to Turkey because of what it called “the difficult living conditions which have forced a number of families and young people to migrate internally and abroad.” The page also documented the migration of 73 people belonging to 20 Chechen families of Ras al-Ain to Europe.

Interest in documenting these cases began as the average age of marriage became later and the number of births declined. Spouses in the community sometimes stop at one child and the daughters of some families remain single because of the lack of acceptance over marriage to other groups. Social conditions act as a key factor for the declining number of Chechens, who preserve their customs and traditions with internal marriage. As well as this, many young people hoping to learn the language traveled to the Chechen capital Grozny in the '90s before Russia reoccupied it at the end of 2000. This all has contributed to reducing the numbers of Chechens in Syria.

Active participation of Chechens in the revolution

The Chechens did not align with any particular political association or organization either under Ottoman rule, during French occupation, or after independence, but they were landowners and integrated with all classes and ethnicities which came to the area about 50 years after their arrival.

Saad Eddin Mouloud, a Chechen from Ras al-Ain, said: “One organization was in touch with the Chechens by virtue of kinship to request donations, which was the Circassian Society in Damascus, but it did not have a role in administering the affairs of Chechens, who held influence in the area recognized by successive Syrian governments.”

Regarding the role of Chechens in the Syrian revolution, Saad Eddin, who spent 20 years in the notorious Palmyra prison, said: “We were proactive in participating in the demonstrations which began in Ras al-Ain in April 2011 with the Kurdish youths who answered Daraa’s call, which led to Chechen youths being hunted down and arrested.”

Chechen youths became involved in military action with the beginning of the operation to liberate Ras al-Ain until the city fell fully under the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party, which seized the property of those who had joined the revolution from among its residents after expelling about 40 Chechen families and seizing their homes.

The Chechen situation today

The number of Chechens in Ras al-Ain today is about 3,000, including those who are in the city’s countryside and own farmlands, while some have sold their land and headed toward the city to find stability and work in various fields as doctors, pharmacists and teachers.

This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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