KAFRO, Midyat — “We want to come back here [to Turkey] so that we don’t fade away,” says Aziz Demir, the mukhtar of the Assyrian village of Kafro. Kafro is located in Midyat, a district in Turkey’s southeastern province of Mardin. Demir, a 50-year-old Assyrian who has lived in Switzerland since the 1990s, has played a key role in encouraging Assyrians to return to Kafro. 

All of the village population left Kafro, known in Turkish as Elbegendi, for mostly European countries in 1994. The PKK was waging a full-blown armed campaign against the Turkish state in the country’s mostly Kurdish-populated eastern and southeastern provinces at the time. Mardin, which lies on the Turkish-Syrian border, was heavily affected. 

Finding their land surrounded by mines and in the middle of constant clashes between the Turkish security forces and the PKK, Assyrian peasants like Demir and others headed for Switzerland, Germany, and other Western European countries in the 1990s. The PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and NATO. 

“Our future lies in this region [Asia Minor]. Assyrians who emigrated to Latin America or to Western countries in the late 1800s and in the early 1900s lost their cultural identities,” Demir said. He established an association in Switzerland in the early 2000s to organise his fellow Assyrians to settle back in their old village in Turkey. 

The process began when Bulent Ecevit, the leftist Turkish prime minister in the early 2000s, called on the Assyrians to come back to Turkey. This led Demir and his friends to begin preparing to return to the village in 2002, collecting enough funds to build houses that respect traditional Assyrian architectural styles. 

In September 2006, after construction of the houses was finished, Demir and around 30 other Assyrian peasants originally from Kafro came back to the village, marking their return with a ceremony. 

If the Turkish state assures them of peace and stability for their community, Demir argues, many more Assyrians will return. Approximately 10,000 to 15,000 Assyrians currently live in Turkey, and the total population around the world is approximately five million. 

“We have not regretted coming back here,” said Aziz Ozdemir, a 61-year-old,  whose house is located behind Demir’s house. Ozdemir and his wife returned to their village in 2012, after making a decision to build a house there in 2008.