By Joseph Haweil

Published: 2011-04-29

In the next instalment of Seyfo Center's series of interviews with
scholars of the Assyrian Genocide, Joseph Haweil spoke with Sydney's
Racho Donef. Dr. Donef was born in Istanbul and migrated to Australia
in the 1980s. He first studied languages and sociology and after
completing a Masters degree in sociology, studied for a Diploma in
Social Sciences at the University of Stockholm.

Upon returning to Australia, he embarked upon a doctoral thesis
focussing on Greeks, Assyrians, Armenians and Kurds, conducting
research both in Australia and Sweden for the thesis. As part of
his research Dr. Donef also interviewed survivors of the Armenian
Genocide. Dr. Donef was awarded a PhD by Macquarie University in
1999 after completing his doctoral thesis entitled Identities in
the Multicultural State: Four Immigrant Populations from Turkey in
Australia and Sweden: Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and Kurds.

Dr. Donef has worked both in the Federal and New South Wales State
Public Services for many years. He has also been tutoring in subjects
related to Middle Eastern religions, politics and the Turkish language
at the Workers' Education Association in Sydney.

When did you initially learn of the Assyrian Genocide and what sparked
your interest in writing about it?

I was giving an interview to the Assyrian program in a local radio
station in the Sydney suburb of Fairfield, in the late nineties. I
was talking about my thesis. For the first time during the program
I learned about the Assyrian genocide and a caller told me about Dr.

Gabriele Yonan's book Forgotten Genocide. The book was just translated
to Turkish. I tried to look for the book the next day and an Assyrian
friend from Sweden found it and sent it to me. This was my first
source on the Assyrian genocide.

Do you consider the genocides of the Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks
to be one genocide? If yes, how best can these three communities work
together towards recognition?

Yes I do. I think there are some tendencies in some sections of the
Armenian and Greek community to concentrate only on the calamities
their communities were subjected to. However, this is not helpful. The
Young Turks wanted to eliminate what they regarded as foreign elements
off their utopia. Though, primarily it was the Christian elements
which were singled out for destruction. We should not forget that
the small community of Yezidis, who it must be added, helped both
Armenians and Assyrians to escape the holocaust, were also a target.

Given that there was a concerted effort on the part of the Ittihat
ve Terraki (Union and Progress) party to exterminate Christians
and Yezidis, there should be a concerted, collaborative effort to
raise awareness of the Genocide but also to pressure the Turkish
government to accept responsibility for the crime that the Young
Turks perpetrated. I think various research centres and organisations
should unite under one banner on this issue. A research centre or
a lobby group can be set up with membership from all the ethnic
groups affected. I guess what I am advocating is an international
co-ordinating entity.

Have you experienced Turkish denialism during your academic career? If
so, how?

Well, a few years ago I was invited to London by the Firodel Institute
to launch a book I had translated, Ahmet Refik, Two Commitees, Two
Massacres, and give a lecture on the issue of genocide. The meeting was
hijacked by a group of denialists, including staff from the Turkish
consulate. As they were organised and had statements and quotations
prepared before hand, it was difficult to have a meaningful discourse
on the issue. They came to sabotage the meeting. In their mind they
were successful. All that they succeed was to strengthen my resolve.

Do you feel that knowledge of the experiences of Assyrians during
the genocide is lacking amongst genocide scholars? How can Assyrians
raise awareness amongst this particular group?

I don't have sufficient experience and knowledge of those academic
circles to respond to that. I assume that there is not enough
knowledge about the Assyrian experiences during the Genocide. The more
Assyrian Genocide scholars attend conferences the more awareness will
spread. The trouble is there are not many scholars who focus on the
Assyrian Genocide.

Some Assyrians have questioned the importance of erecting monuments
and other memorials to the genocide as opposed to other means of
advocacy. How do you respond to the sentiments of individuals holding
these opinions?

I am of two minds on this issue. Societies erect monuments to remind
themselves of the past. We need these physical markers. Unfortunately,
as we have seen in Fairfield, with the monument erected there, it is
also easy to vandalise such markers. I don't think erecting monuments
will necessary prevent other means of advocacy. In any case, erecting
monuments is not necessarily an activity which will consume all the
energy Assyrians can master to remind the world of the genocide. I do
think however that research into the Assyrian genocide, support for
publication on the issue, organisation of conferences and lobbying
politicians for the recognition of the Genocide is more important.

Should greater awareness of the genocide outside the Assyrian,
Armenian and Greek communities be more a priority than official
recognition of the genocide by Turkey?

The priority should be the official recognition of the Genocide
by Turkey. This is a clear objective the success of which can be
measured. Awareness of the genocide should be an ever continuing
exercise but one which has no standards by which we can evaluate to
inform ourselves of its accomplishment.

From: A. Papazian