Khet Khet Allap


A clip from the local history of Habbaniya—Part XV


By Mikhael K. Pius


The seed is sown

 In 1942 a new Assyrian nationalist movement was born. The Movement, Khoubba Khouyada Aturaya, meaning Assyrian Love and Unity, was known as Khait-Khait or Khait-Khait-Allap (KKA). Its seed was planted among a group of Royal Air Force Assyrian employees in the barren desert of South Iraq and a year later its sprout was transplanted in the more expansive and fertile environment of C.C. (Civil Cantonment) of the R.A.F. Station of Habbaniya in Central Iraq. It was a potent by product of an Assyrian nationalistic love, undertaken by courageous Assyrian patriots but apparently opposed by a few self-seeking compatriots! Surreptitiously but lovingly nurtured, it grew for five years before a treacherous hand cut it at the roots and caused it to wither on the vine and die.

Khait-Khait was originated by a carpenter named Moushi Khoshaba, popularly known as Ousta (Master) Moushi. He began the Movement in R.A.F. Station of Shaibah among a working community of Assyrians. Numbering several hundred local civilian clerical and skilled employees of various trades, the Assyrians were the bulk of the group that was transferred to the desert air base from the R.A.F. Station of Habbaniya, 55 miles west of Baghdad.

These employees toiled شبكة just outside the R.A.F. Station, a few miles away, during the day and lived in a special camp of makeshift sarayif (huts) in the desert country, within walking distance of their work place, said to be called Site Hangars. But the permanent civilian employees of the Shaibah air base lived in a local camp of mud brick houses built inside the R.A.F. Station.

The sarayif were made of hasseereh (reed mats). Each consisted of two rooms and an open courtyard and accommodated two persons. They were provided for them by the R.A.F., who also supplied them free of charge with basic dry rations and cigarettes as well as military truck transportation for commuting as well as for periodic trips to the cities of Ashaar and Basra some 15 or 20 miles away, for shopping, church services and other needs. But the living conditions in this camp were pretty harsh — cold and leaking huts during winter months and extreme heat, dust, and flies during summer. The residents used kerosene lamps for lighting and Primus stoves for cooking. They had treated running water, but no shower facilities; each one bathed out of a pail in a tub in his room in winter and in the open courtyard during summer. And the latrines, it is said, were so unsanitary that some people preferred to stroll out of the camp and do their ablution in the open desert. During rest days and evenings these "bachelor" employees did their own laundry, cooking and other housekeeping chores, and for exercise and entertainment they played a few outdoor games such as soccer and volleyball and, one camp resident says, a local game reminiscent of American baseball dubbed Shaqqa Gouivana. Another former resident says that on some evenings a few of the youngsters would walk in a group to cinema in Shaibah, talking and laughing aloud on the way to avoid being mistaken for prowlers by the British Gurka sentries. "And sometimes we would go on a picnic in a nearby palm-tree grove. There we would find discarded old military articles, such as empty ammunition shells, old boots, broken pieces of rifles" —probably relics of WWI. Others would get together in a group in one of the large vacant sanfa dwellings (which they called club) to relax, drink tea, chat and play indoor games, such as chess, backgammon, drafts, dominoes or cards. A few had musical instruments they played to entertain themselves and their camp mates.

It was during such group meetings that Ousta Moushi, a fervent nationalist, began to talk to them. First he narrated to them absorbing tales as well as stories from Assyrian history and about life in Armenia and Russia. Evidently, he had a knack for holding his listeners spellbound and would end the story on a high note, promising to finish it the next evening. "It was like watching a serial movie," ' one of the listeners says.

Then Ousta Moushi gradually began to speak of love, unity, nationalism and other subjects of patriotic interest. Evidently, his intention was to arouse and exploit Assyrian love and unity among them and to channel it into a nationalistic force.

At first, his listeners were just a few. But by and by their numbers grew into dozens. His intelligence, common sense, and eloquence were so absorbing that, according to one witness, "even the gamblers gave up their poker games and listened to his nightly talks."

In 1941-42 the war had not been going well for the British; Germany's Field Marshal Erwin Romel was giving the British a rough time in North Africa. And during a battle between the Iraqi Army and the Royal Air Force at Habbaniya in May 1941 (when the Assyrian Levies, assisted by a small contingent of R.A.F. personnel and a few old R.A.F. small airplanes, gallantly helped to defend the air base and defeat a much bigger force of Iraqi Army), the Germans, in collusion with the Iraqis, had bombarded Habbaniya, taking off from airfields in Syria and in Mosul, in northern Iraq. Evidently fearing the Germans might attempt to invade Iraq and Iran in order to control the two countries' oil resources, which they needed badly, a British and Indian military force, dubbed Perforce (Persia and Iraq Force), soon swarmed all over the Middle East to protect the area. The R.A.F. also fortified their Station of Shaibah as a British maintenance center and staging post, moving an essential part of their engineering machinery and air maintenance installations and equipment, such as the machine and aircraft engine shops and supply and maintenance units, from Habbaniya to Shaibah. Shaibah was close to Basra port, a shipping and escape gateway to India and elsewhere. So under British executive supervision, local civilian clerks at Shaibah carried out the administrative paperwork and the skilled workers did various repair and maintenance work, primarily of motor vehicles and airplanes. The latter also turned out a variety of mechanical and aircraft small replacement spare parts, such as bolts and nuts, squares, springs, etc, which otherwise could not be obtained easily from England, thus contributing to the British war effort.

Another belief is that the task work was the consignment of military equipment and supplies received from America at Basrah and transshipped as aid to Russia through Iran, which was the best and safest route.

Britain was then also trying to help its strapped wartime ally the Soviet Union. It is said that some British war planes, arriving in Shaibah from Cyprus and elsewhere, were being serviced and painted with Soviet Union emblem and markings and handed over to waiting Russian pilots, who flew them to Russia for engagement against the Germans.

However, it would seem that when the British General Montgomery defeated the "Desert Fox" (Romel) and the fortune of war turned in favor of the Allies and the feared German invasion of the Middle East evaporated in 1943, Habbaniya's reinforcement units and supplementary work force at Shaibah were returned to their home base in Habbaniya.

The sprout grows into a tree

After these R.A.F. employees were returned to their former jobs in Habbaniya, where over two-thirds of the few thousand local civilian work force was Assyrian, the KKA Movement was planned and organized well and took hold and spread among the Assyrian male community of the Civil Cantonment. General opinion is that several hundred of the Assyrian civilian employees, especially those patriotic ones, including some Levy civilian clerks, were recruited into the Movement during its five-year run.

Originated and headed by Ousta Moushi, KKA operated underground, because Assyrian nationalist activities were forbidden by both the R.A.F. and the Iraqi government. As a result of this and the fact that the R.A.F. had obliged every person they employed to sign a document promising to safeguard the confidentiality of his work and to be loyal to his British employers, KKA held its members to an oath of secrecy and loyalty of its own, with the pledge to accept and carry out orders and defend the Movement and its objectives.

One person remembers that when he became a member, he was taken by his cell leader to Ousta Moush's house. Ousta Moushi had brought out a Bible and a sword and asked him to kneel down and put his right hand upon the Bible. Placing the sword upon his shoulder, Ousta Moushi had read the oath of allegiance while he had repeated after him, swearing to be loyal to the Movement and to abide by its commands. He was then given a secret password name. Another former member says that every two candidates would go together to take the oath and be given secret password name. A fork and a knife would be placed on the table during the oath-taking ceremony. Yet another one alleges that a dagger was placed on the table during the ceremony. But none can remember the wording of the oath nor is able to explain the symbolic meaning of the articles.

Ousta Moushi had thought up the idea of establishing the movement to benefit his Assyrian people. Evidently, after discussing it with some nationalistic elders of the community in Habbaniya and obtaining their cooperation, he planned and tailored KKA, more or less, in the fashion of Tashnak, the Armenian nationalist party, whose member he had been for 15 years.

KKA was composed of a few dozens of small groups, or cells. Each cell had a secret code number and each member was given a secret password name. For instance, one prominent member says Ousta Moushi’s code name was "Judex" and his was "Danube". Cells were made up of six or more members, with a leader. Members of each cell knew only each other. No group members' names were made known to members of other groups. They were kept secret. Communication was made through a chain of committee leaders. Every dozen cell leaders formed a committee which communicated through one of its members with another committee, which in turn was connected through one committee member with the next committee, and so on, till the chain reached the Central Committee, the governing body. Thus the identity of only a few members was known to a few other members, while the bulk of the membership operated incognito.

The Central Committee, which issued the orders, was formed from the founding and elderly members. But their names were known then only to a select few. Some of the names mentioned today were Ousta Moushi, his brother Samson, and Gewargis Daniel (all of Soldus); David lskhaq (of Gavelan); Polous Oda (of Toulloun); Ewan Warda (of Chamakiyeh); Raabi Aprim Binyamin (of Supurghan); Binyamin Gundalove (of Mar Bishu); Shawel Sulaiman, Rovil Mikhail, Sargis Michael, and Avimalk Yonan (of Gan~achin), David Korvakos (of Jilu). Of course there may be other names that are not known by those interviewed today.

Meetings of individual cells and of various committee and Central Committee leaders were arranged secretly and held covertly in different places, usually in members' homes, but sometimes in isolated locations.

The Movement's echo penetrated Assyrian communities in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Basra as well as in Syria and Iran. It is said that it was received ardently particularly by the Assyrian community of Abadan and Tehran and by the Assyrian employees of the Iraq Petroleum Company's pipeline stations. Messages were sent even to Syria and Iran by hand of trusted members dispatched specifically for organizing purposes. One former member alleges that the Movement's voice reached even some Assyrian groups living in the United States through messages dispatched by hand of Assyrian-American pilots visiting Habbaniya. But this has not been corroborated except by one who says he knew American pilots used to come to Habbaniya, but doesn't remember if there were any Assyrians among them who took back Khait-Khait messages.

The tree wilts and dries up

Khait-Khait made a steady progress for five years. Then it came to an abrupt halt when the R.A.F. authorities uncovered it. It is not quite clear as to why and how the R.A.F. learned about it. Today some think it was the result of a struggle for leadership, and one prominent former member alleges that Ousta Moushi was led astray by flatterers and kinsmen. Others deny this and assert that Ousta Moushi was loved and respected as a leader and had no opponents, because he did not really hold himself above the others. Some others feel it was the hand of a treacherous Assyrian that thrust the spoke into the wheel, in order to gain favor from his British employers. One leading former member alleges it was a disgruntled demoted officer of the Movement who, to avenge himself, informed the Officer-in-Charge of the Cantonment. Still others think guileless and gullible members divulged the existence of the Movement by talking about it to friendly British personnel, who in turn passed the information on to R.A.F. Intelligence sources. The same person says that he had seen a top secret R.A.F. report on the Movement, smuggled out of a British high-ranking officer's office by Assyrian civilian clerks. Whatever the reason, two former members allege that Ousta Moushi and a few of his lieutenants were summoned to C.C. Office and were arrested, though most of the interviewed deny that anyone was detained following the interrogation. Another source alleges that Squadron Leader Lovett Campbell, the Officer-in-Charge of C.C. at the time, had summoned Ousta Moushi and a few others to his office. He had placed his gun on the table and had told them words to this effect: "If it's true that you people have a communistic movement I will shoot you all with this gun!" This statement has not been corroborated.

A leading former member alleges that Mr. Lovett Campbell was even contemplating on evicting from the Cantonment some 150 of the members involved. The same person says that two pro Assyrian British officers, however, took the case out of Mr. Lovett-CampbeIl’s hands and quietly passed the word to the KKA leaders to disband the Movement before things got worse and the Iraqi Government learned of it. One of the officers was Major E.C. Day of Levies, with whom the person in question alleges to have had a secret meeting one evening regarding the matter.

Evidently, the R.A.F. authorities were afraid the Movement was communistic. But after the investigation they realized that Ousta Moushi was an intelligent and able leader but had no ill intentions towards the British or the Iraqi authority and that the Movement's aim was merely patriotic—to create love, unity, and comradeship among the Assyrian community—and that in fact it had no teeth to bite.

However, because the R.A.F. probably realized that Ousta Moushi might become an unwanted problem for them later on, he was dismissed from his R.A.F. job as a carpenter. It is said that he was watched and, from time to time, questioned by the local Iraqi police commandant. This took place in 1947 or 1948.

Another former member alleges that the Movement —or at least its spirit— did not die until the Habbaniya's abortive labor strike that took place near C.C. gate on June 9, 1952, when, the evening before the strike, eleven Assyrians, accused of being "ringleaders", were detained and a few others were wounded by R.A.F. gunfire during the strike. He believes the strike was arranged by the dormant KKA Movement or inspired by its spirit. But if KKA, or its spirit, was still alive beyond Squadron Leader Lovett-CampbeIl’s murderous or eviction threat, the 1952 failed labor strike definitely killed it!

Ousta Moushi, however, was not jailed or evicted from the air base. He was left to live with his family in one of the lowly type of houses. Although his teenaged eldest son, Aram, was earning a meager livelihood, a close associate says that the Movement's founder and leader fell on hard economic times. At that time, the Movement had a cash balance of ID. 300 (about $1000) in its secret fund. The money was, one leading member says, with one of Ousta Moushi's related associates. A wish was expressed to donate the money to the fallen leader to help him in his economic hardship. But in order to avoid the possibility of a controversial furor over the decision, a few of the leading members thought it best to give the money instead to Mar Gewargis Church of the East in Habbaniya, which they did. So Ousta Moushi lived a quiet and austere life with his family until his death in 1951 at the age of 75.

Who was this patriotic "planter"?

What sort of person was this man who apparently possessed this gentle and humble yet effective leadership and commanded the love and respect of his fellow patriots?

A composite picture of Ousta Moushi emerges as being a rather short man of average weight at the threshold of old age, somewhat hard of hearing, with a solemn face and a balding head of gray hair. He wore glasses, and often a beatup English cap or a cylinder felt hat and a jacket that was a little too long for him, over baggy trousers, and walked with a slightly stooped posture. He buttoned up his shirt collar but did not use a necktie. "He did not care much about his dress," an eyewitness says.

His attraction and charismatic personality was not in his looks or attire but in his resourcefulness and in his voice, style, and the content of his speech. Evidently an intelligent and educated person, he has been described as being modest and gentle; a good listener who made eye contact and spoke slowly and in simple terms to make his meaning easily understood, giving his listeners the conviction that they were in the presence of a knowledgeable man, unassuming, earnest, sincere and understanding. It is said that he had an amazing memory and that he could recite, word for word, passages from what he had read previously. And when he talked he was so eloquent and persuasive that he would quickly captivate his audience's attention. He had even composed a stirring patriotic song for the Movement called Jivanqa Zakhma (Courageous Young man).

Ousta Moushi had two younger brothers, Samson and Yosip. All three were employed as carpenters in the R.A.F. Station of Habbaniya. Ousta Moushi and his wife Rakhy, daughter of Yosip Badal, had three children: Aram, Youliya and Awner.

According to information supplied in 1995 by his son Awner, Ousta Moushi was born in Soldus, Persia, in 1876. He was the eldest son of Khoshaba Moushi and Saanam. Saanam was Armenian, and Khoshaba was an ordained deacon of The Ancient Apostolic Catholic Church of the East in Soldus, Persia. He was, however, later converted to Presbyterianism and became a preacher in his village. In 1885 he moved his family to Armenia, where his nine-year-old oldest son Moushi grew up and lived for 26 years. During this time, Moushi went to school, was a member of Tashnak Party, and served as an officer in the Armenian Army, before returning to his native village of Soldus in 1911. In the Great War, he is said to have served as an officer under Agha Patros Eliya, the Assyrian general commanding the Assyrian Forces fighting alongside the Russians and the British against Turks and Kurds. He and his family arrived in Iraq in late 1918 among the some 50 thousand surviving Assyrian and Armenian refugees following the mass Christian retreat from Urmia, Persia.

It is said Ousta Moushi was a cultured man, having read some of the world classics. It appears that he was also a linguist: he could read and write several languages, among, them Armenian, Assyrian, and Russian and, some say, English and Farsi, and could speak Turkish and Kurdish and a spattering of Arabic. As a man of such stature he may have traveled to Russia, visiting its great cities and historical sites.

What was KKA's aim?

The KKA Movement's method of operation seems somewhat reminiscent of communist system. Was it a communistic sort of Assyrian nationalism? While one former member says he heard later that Ousta Moushi was communist-oriented and had the system's objectives. Several others deny this and assert that he was a nationalist. He had been a long-time member of Tashnak, and had taken part in military campaigns against the Ottoman Turks. And Tashnak was known to be strongly anti-communist. "His main intention," says one, "was to bring love and unity, develop and enhance Assyrian nationalistic spirit towards helping one another in every way possible, with a long-term aim of securing a national home and identity for our people in our legitimate fatherland."

The same person also asserts that Ousta Moushi was against violence. The gentleman explains that a few young hotheaded members suggested to Ousta Moushi that they do away with a well-placed Assyrian opponent of the movement who wanted to stir up trouble. Ousta Moushi was outraged! "We do not kill!" he told them. "We have come to unite. We don't want any blood to come from the nose of anyone. But when our cause is ripe, we shall do whatever is necessary against those who stand against us."

Apparently, the Movement had a political aim— in the long run. But first, Ousta Moushi wanted our people to unite, love each other, and live in harmony, simultaneously spreading the message to the Assyrian communities everywhere.

Ousta Moushi was evidently a brave man. It is said that when Mufawwat (Commandant) Patros of the C.C. Iraqi Police Station told him he was accused of being a communist, Ousta Moushi cursed his accuser and said to the Mufawwat: "Perhaps you are communist, but I am not! Your government should come and kiss our foot, because we are the ones against communists. We want to unite our people and stop the communists from infiltrating us."

Another former member says that Ousta Moushi's purpose in establishing KKA was to fight off Assyrian tribal, clannish, and religious differences and unite his people in love under one command. Apparently there was evidence for his purpose.

Assyrian community of Habbaniya was a conglomeration of dozens of tribes and clans professing several Christian denominations, namely Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, and Greek Orthodox Churches, with a sprinkling of Protestant believers. There was some prejudice between former territorial groupings of Urmishnayeh (former city-bred Bne-Urmia), Shapitnayeh (former farming plainsmen) and Tourayeh (former mountain tribesmen) on one hand; and between the many tribes and clans among these groupings on the other hand, as well as between the various Church denominations. This sometimes espoused bigotry, resentment, ill feeling and even physical conflict. So Ousta Moushi's work was apparently aimed at bringing together the conflicting factions in a bond of love and brotherhood.

KKA and local labor strikes

Was the Iraq Petroleum Company's Kirkuk labor strike of 1948 or the Habbaniya labor strike of 1952 connected with, or influenced by, KKA Movement in any way? In regard to the Kirkuk strike, the general consensus is "No!" It is believed that the Kirkuk strike, during which some workers were wounded, some shot dead, some jailed and a few hanged by the Government, was organized and directed by the Iraqi communists.

But there are mixed opinions concerning the Habbaniya strike. A few attribute its occurrence to former members of the then dormant KKA Movement, or at least to its spirit. Others think it was a conspiracy against the Assyrians that was instigated by Habbaniya's local Kurdish communists and other non-Assyrian elements that managed to put the blame on the Assyrian community and make scapegoats out of seven of its hapless members, who were imprisoned in August 1952 for 10 months without trial. Still others believe that the strike was not prearranged but that it happened spontaneously after the C.C. Gate was blocked by armed British servicemen following the short detention of eleven Assyrians the night before the strike.

What did KKA achieve?

What was the aim of Khoubba Khouyada Aturaya, and what did it achieve during the course of its run — One might ask? Evidently, Ousta Moushi's aim was an experiment in creating for the Assyrians a movement and a commonly accepted leadership that could unite them as a people on equal terms in love and unity, which aim, Ousta Moushi is alleged to have said following his alleged detention and interrogation, "had been achieved."

One member recalls that after Khait-Khait-Allap was established in Habbaniya, conditions truly became much better to the point that Assyrian people became closer to each other. Consequently, the emerging sense of brotherhood reduced tribal religious differences. There were fewer disputes and people were more friendly and affable. It is said that where there was trouble, Movement members would quietly get involved to help solve the problem or improve relations between families; between friends; between husband and wife; between parents and children—untying knots, soothing hard feelings and making peace. Efforts were also made to counsel the few wayward girls of the camp back to the right track. And it is said —though disputed by one member — that anyone who had lost his job or was sick or in need, the Movement would quietly offer a little aid from the small fund fed by a monthly membership subscription of 100-fils [25C]. This fund, however, was not connected in any way with Habbaniya's Assyrian Relief Fund, which was officially recognized by the Iraqi government. The KKA fund was kept secret for fear that if it was known to R.A.F. authorities, it would prove politically incriminating for the Movement and that the British might disclose it to the Iraqi Government.

The prospects of unity

These Assyrian patriots of the past risked their livelihood and that of their families as well as staked their personal political safety in order to work for the welfare and unity of their people. What are our chances for national unity today through our current "leaders", especially those in the West, who are enjoying not only a risk-free, comfortable —and even affluent— lifestyle but also relative political security?

Our Assyrian people as a whole still aspire to love and unity under one united leadership. But this still seems like an elusive dream, because evidently our love is faithless and our unity is splintered in many different directions! Perhaps what we really need is to produce a wise, meek and selfless man of peace and good will —a leader like Ousta Moushi— to bring all the factions together and to unite and lead us under one banner!

Is such a man (or group of men) in the offing, or are we promoting and nursing a pipe dream?

Editor's Note: The author acknowledges the assistance of the following persons who supplied feedback or corroborated some of the information for this article: Simon Yosip Putrus, Youkhanna Patros Youkhanna, Binyamin Warda, Francis Shawel David, Davis Eshai David, the late Fraidon Orahim ls'hak, and several others from California, Chicago and Australia who prefer to remain anonymous.

NINEVEH volume22 no.3 1999