YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—The first two residents of Kessab have taken refuge in Armenia and many others are said to be willing to do the same nearly two weeks after the historically Armenian-populated town in Syria was seized by Islamist rebels.
Stepan Sularian and his wife Vartine were among about 2,000 Kessab Armenians, the town’s virtually entire population, who fled their homes in the face of advancing rebel forces, among them members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. The couple crossed into neighboring Lebanon before flying to Armenia.
“We don’t know what they [the rebels] would have done to us if we had stayed in Kessab,” Sularian told reporters in Yerevan on Thursday.
The town mayor, Vasken Chaparian, confirmed earlier this week that none of the Kessab Armenians is known have been killed or wounded. Most of them are currently staying in Latakia, a provincial capital 60 kilometers south of Kessab which remains under Syrian government control.
In Sularian’s words, many of them would like to migrate to Armenia but lack money for travel expenses or fear that they will have trouble finding jobs in their ancestral homeland. “That’s what holds other people back,” explained the middle-aged man.
“Now I have come to Armenia. If I don’t get a job, how am I going to get by?” Sularian said, adding that most Kessab Armenians will readily return to their homes if Syrian government troops regain control of the town close to the Syrian-Turkish border.
Armenia’s Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian condemned “the use of force” against them in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent last Friday. Nalbandian urged the international community to “ensure the safety and security of displaced people, including the Armenians, facilitate conditions for their early, safe and dignified return to their places of residence and provide indispensable humanitarian assistance to address their urgent needs.”
The situation in and around Kessab was on the agenda of a weekly session of Armenia’s government held on Thursday. Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobian said that the Armenian diplomatic missions in Syria are keeping in touch with the local community and assessing its needs. She accused the rebels of desecrating Armenian churches and looting homes in Kessab.
Hakobian also said that representatives of various Armenian government agencies met on Wednesday to discuss ways of helping the Kessab Armenians. “If Kessab Armenians and other Syrian citizens decide to come to the [ancestral] home, all our structures and organizations will be ready to assist them,” she said.
About 10,000 ethnic Armenians from Syria have already taken refuge in Armenia since the outbreak of the bloody conflict in the Middle Eastern state two years ago. Most of them are struggling to make ends meet.