Assyrian academics rally around investigation into Simele Massacre sites

A locked door at a Simele mass grave site in April 2019. (Photo by Miriam Zia)

August 2020 | By Joe Snell | Photos by Miriam Zia

WASHINGTON —  Assyrian academics around the world are urging for an investigation into the remains of the Simele Massacre sites of 1933. 

The letter, addressed to Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials, UN agencies, and Non-Governmental Organizations among other institutions, comes in the wake of continued pressure for Assyrians in Iraq to leave their homelands.

“An investigation of sites related to the Simele Massacre may yield critical evidence for future justice processes and create a historical record,” reads the letter, authored by the Assyrian Studies Association and part of a broader coalition of Assyrian organizations, and seeks to “reconfirm the dignity of the victims.”

The plea outlined seven steps for federal and regional authorities to follow that focus on protecting the sites from further degradation and preserving evidence. It will be sent to authorities on Oct. 1.

An investigation is important to begin now as KRG officials and Kurdish academics have begun digging in the historic areas, said Assyrian Studies Association board member and Roger Williams University history professor Sargon Donabed.

Donabed hopes the letter begins a dialogue with authorities and leads to Assyrians being recognized in the preamble of the Iraqi constitution for their historical roots in the country.

“Most modern national states were built on the massacres and genocides of indigenous populations,” Donabed said. “In many cases, like in Iraq, those committing the massacres were celebrated by the government and majority as a joyous occasion and the military and irregulars committing the atrocities were heroes… This is a problem. Recognition is the first step towards reconciliation, towards justice.”

Efforts to investigate the sites come in the wake of Assyrian Genocide Remembrance Day, held annually on Aug. 7 to memorialize Assyrians who lost their lives to genocide and persecution.

The date also marks the anniversary of the start of the Simele Massacre of August 1933, which was an attack and subsequent targeted killing of Assyrians in northern Iraq led by the newly-founded Iraqi state. Over five days, the national army is estimated to have killed as many as 6,000 Assyrians and tens of thousands more were forcibly displaced and barred from returning. 

The Simele Massacre of 1933, along with other events in history including the 1915 targeted killings of Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks by the Ottoman empire, inspired lawyer Raphael Lemkin to first coin the term ‘genocide’.

The definition was later adopted in a December 1946 UN resolution that recognizes genocide as a crime under international aw consisting of the “denial of the rights of existence of entire human groups.”

So far, nearly 120 Assyrian academics have signed the petition.

Mark Tomass, an economics professor at Harvard Extension School, said he endorsed the document to show solidarity with the forgotten and unrecognized victims of the first mass murder in the state of Iraq.

“Recognition and accountability is one of the important mechanisms that pave the way for people who identify with the victims to make peace with the past and move forward to live in peace with their neighbors,” Tomass said in an email statement to the Journal.

There has been a lack of resolve to preserve the historic sites, Tomass said, because the international community is overwhelmed with recent mass murders in the Middle East and that has made them forget about atrocities of the past.

“It is another moment of silence about a miserable human failure that seems to repeat itself,” he said.


On April 2019, Miriam Zia visited the main Simele mass grave site, the Simmel Archaeoligical Hill, during a Gishru trip. And four months later in August, she visited the same site. Here, she describes the broad changes that she witnessed in only a few months:

“The human remains you could at times see protruding through the dirt months earlier were no longer there. Instead, the site had been dug out. Ceramics, pottery, artifacts of the life that had been on that hill in 1933, were strewn on the ground. But no sign to recognize who these ceramics belonged to. No sign to recognize that a genocide had occurred. No sign to say, ‘Here laid the remains of 6,000 innocent Assyrian children, women and men.’ And what has been done with these remains? Where have they been taken?”

Here are some photos that Zia took during her trips in April and August:

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