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A piece of mastery which brings to life a historical event
on 8 April 2017
This is the first book I read on the subject so my assessment is narrowly based on this book alone rather than a wider context. The score is for the technical merits of this book; and "I love it" is not in the sense of pleasure or enjoyment in reading this book because the content should make us uncomfortable and squeamish over the atrocities committed against humanity,
Just as I finished reading the book, President Trump of the US has ordered missile attack on Syria as a response to Assad's chemical attack on a ISIS held town. The civil war is into its seventh year, and many have been displaced and Europe faces a refugee crisis from Syria. An overarching impression that this book gives is one of volatility and instability of that region of Asia Minor. The necessary consequence of the destruction of Smyrna was a refugee crisis. It brings home that what we are confronted today is nothing new.
The author's mastery in piecing individual eyewitness accounts into a coherent recounting of the event as it unfolded is very impressive. He skilfully zooms in and out so that we have the micro details as we follow the eyewitnesses without losing sight of the big picture in geopolitics. But this book is largely about the former with the latter as the backdrop. It is a book about the people. I don't know how the author does it but reading this book was as if we saw the events unfolding with our own eyes like a first-hand account - yes, it's good. It is not an historical analysis, which would have read more detached.. Rather this book is a historical record of what actually happened, which need to be straightened out first. This is personal and gives a voice to the victims, the survivors and the lost. Sadly there were still many remain as a statistic, faceless and unknown.
The account of the destruction of Smyrna brings us face to face with the human nature of excess. When we take revenge, we won't go for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth if it were left to our own devices. The Old Testament law is to restrain evil. When people do not heed to the law, each round of revenge will only escalate the level of violence, cruelty and atrocities, until we have purged the last of the enemy from our land. This was what the Turks did to the Greeks, who were cruel to the Turks when they enjoyed the advantage first. Before the Holocaust in the Second World War, we have the destruction of Smyrna where Greeks and Armenians were tortured, violated, looted and massacred with brutality in September 1922. It is very sobering to stare into such an ugly reflection of human nature and what is more sobering is that this capability of monstrous acts is in the nature of each one of us. When I was reading the book, I did not feel morally superior, but was made acutely aware of the shared responsibility. There were human errors in judgement along the way, precipitating and magnifying the crisis and there was tardiness in coming to aid. In contrast, there was also heroic acts like Jennings' who managed to mobilise the Allied's resources to evacuate the refugees albeit limited to women and children. It is soul-searching for us especially pertinent in asking, "what is our attitude towards the refugee crisis today on our doorstep?" I think the reflections that the book provokes have a lot of relevance for today.
Another warning from this historical event is that racial tension takes a long time to ease and heal but takes only a moment to incite out of proportion. It can easily get out of hand. Restraint and disciplines is not easy to exert once the flare has gone out of hand. We must be careful with our speech and should never turn one group of people against another. It is not a fire that we should play for personal political gain, and we should never have too much confidence in ourselves to put out the fire at our will. In this book, we can see the extent of human wickedness such force can unleash. "Their inward part is destruction. Their throat is an open tomb. They flatter with their tongue." (Psalm 5:9)
What surprises me a little however is the lack of mention of personal faith journey in a crisis of a magnitude like this one. Did the eyewitnesses have any faith at all, especially when the persecuted were mostly Christians? What kind of questions did they ask God and what were their spiritual struggles in coming to terms with, in sustaining faith and hope through it and in healing after it? Were there any spiritual reflections having been purged and refined by the fire (literally)? It would be incredulous if no one in their diaries jot down these inner thoughts. I wonder if the author has deliberately screened them out and restricted himself to accounting "facts". If you are Christian, an understanding without the spiritual dimension will not be complete. Furthermore, the eyewitness accounts are from the survivors (Europeans, Americans, officials, marines, Greeks and Armenians); there is no first-hand account from the viewpoints of the Turks. I wonder why.
Here is a human perspective in making sense of what she saw:
"It seems to her [Lovejoy - an American doctor who played a leading role in the humanitarian rescue] how men, women and children who had experienced unspeakable atrocities nevertheless clung to life with hope and conviction for the future: 'Fortunately, there seems to be a point at which human beings become incapable of further suffering. A point where reason and sensation fail, and faith, cooperating with the instincts of self-preservation and race preservation, takes control, releasing sub-human and super-human reservoirs of strength and endurance which are not called upon under civilised conditions of life.'" (p. 362)