Dersim is “an abscess” that urgently requires surgery.
Dersim is "a disease” that needs to be treated “at the source.”
These ideas, expressed by government officials in 1926 and 1935, respectively, summarize the attitude of the Turkish state toward Dersim, from the days of the Ottoman Empire to modern times. The euphemistic surgeries and treatments that have been attempted there – usually by the Turkish military – have produced seismic upheavals in the region, leaving tens of thousands of people dead, tens of thousands forcibly displaced, individuals and communities traumatized, and a culture forever altered.
During Ottoman times, Dersim had a well-earned reputation for being fiercely independent and resistant to rule from a central authority. The tribes of the area – and particularly their leaders – had no use for a sultan in Istanbul, and the rugged terrain of their remote homeland helped them maintain a substantial amount of autonomy. Following the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, many Alevi Kurds viewed the country's founder and iconic leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as a hero for overthrowing the overtly Islamic Ottomans and for promoting a policy of vigorous secularism across the country, which they hoped would reduce discrimination against Alevis. Still, the people of Dersim weren’t persuaded to cede their autonomy to the central government, rebuffing efforts to bring them into the country's administrative fold.
Meanwhile, Atatürk set about institutionalizing Turkish as the only legitimate ethnicity in the country. It wasn’t enough for everyone within its borders to be Turkish citizens – they were also expected to speak the Turkish language and adopt Turkish customs and values. Laws were passed making it illegal to speak Kurdish, wear traditional Kurdish dress, tell traditional Kurdish folktales, or engage in other customs that reinforced Kurdish identity. Even the use of the word “Kurd” was banned, as historians announced that Kurds were really of Turkish origin, but because they had lived so near to Iran for so long, their culture and language had been tainted. The government made it its mission to rehabilitate these wayward, so-called “mountain Turks” by ushering them into a superior way of living. In 1925, following the outbreak of a brief Kurdish rebellion in eastern Turkey, Prime Minister Ismet Inonü declared, “We shall, at any price, turkicize those who live in our country, and destroy those who rise up against the Turks and Turkdom."
The government in Ankara, however, had little influence over Dersim, prompting Turkey’s interior minister to describe the region, in 1931, as “completely anarchic.” A change, it was concluded, was needed.
In 1934, the Law on Resettlement was enacted. In addition to giving the government the right to seize tribal lands, it laid out a plan to deport Kurds from eastern Turkey and resettle them elsewhere in the country, among ethnic Turks. It was assumed that, as concentrated Kurdish communities were dispersed, their culture would become diluted until it eventually disappeared. Kurds, absorbed into the mainstream, would in a couple of generations be converted into “pure Turks.”
The deportation program was to begin in Dersim. At the end of 1935, most of the region was designated as a new province, named Tunceli, which was placed under martial law. The clampdown was advertised as an effort to quell an epidemic of banditry and lawlessness, the real motive was to crush the people’s “growing Kurdish ethnic awareness” and their refusal to abandon their culture and mother tongue.
Before the deportations began, the government extended its reach into Dersim by building a network of road, bridges, Turkish boarding schools, and garrisons. Local tribes responded in different ways. Some assessed their options and concluded that it would be to their benefit to cooperate with the government, accepting promises that they’d be largely left alone if they helped the state establish the infrastructure of its occupation of Dersim. Some tribes remained neutral, neither cooperating with nor actively opposing the government presence. Others viewed the government's moves as an unacceptable encroachment on their lands and into their lives; fearing worse was to come, they decided to resist.
The best known and best organized group of rebels was led by a 75-year-old political and religious leader named Seyit Rıza, who managed to forge an alliance between six tribes. These tribes were fighting for the autonomy that they had long enjoyed, as well the right to keep their culture intact, but they were not linked to a larger Kurdish nationalist movement. In fact, the tribes of Dersim were generally leery of Kurdish separatist groups, which often emphasized their Sunni Muslim identities; the Alevi Kurds tended to prefer the idea of living in a secular Turkey to an overtly Muslim Kurdistan. The rebels of Dersim were not trying to overthrow the state or break away from it – they just wanted to be left alone.
Armed resistance began in March 1937, with minor displays of force, more nuisance than threat. At the end of that month, following a rebel attack on a police station and the burning of a wooden bridge, the Turkish military launched a campaign to pacify Dersim completely, once and for all. As the conflict escalated, the atrocities began. Local women and children, who hid in caves to escape the fighting, were murdered by the thousands, as Turkish soldiers sealed up the mouths of the caves or lit fires in them, asphyxiating those inside. Thousands more women and girls are reported to have leapt off of cliffs overlooking the Munzur River, to their deaths, rather than be captured by the Turks.
Entire villages were destroyed by the army, including those that had agreed to cooperate with the government. According to anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen’s translation of an account written by local activist Nuri Dersimi, who was involved in the resistance, “Because the Kirgan [tribe] trusted the Turks they remained in their villages, while the rebel Bakhtiyar withdrew. As a result, [the Kirgan] were destroyed…The men were shot on the spot, the women and children were locked into haysheds, that were set fire to."
By the end of August 1937, in response to a peace proposal offered by the military, Seyit Riza surrendered, along with a handful of other rebel leaders. They were all executed, and, once winter passed, the army’s assault began anew. Its mission, according to political scientist Nicole Watts, was “to completely cleanse the Tunceli region of tribes.” Villages were destroyed, fields were burned, livestock was confiscated, and many people were killed.
Nuri Dersimi recounts: “In the spring of 1938 military operations resumed on an even larger scale. The Karabal, Ferhad and Pilvank tribes, which surrendered, were annihilated. Women and children of these tribes were locked into haysheds and burnt alive. Men and women of the Pilvank and Asagı Abbas tribes, that had always remained loyal to the government, were lined up in the In and Inciga valleys and shot. The women and girls in Irgan village were rounded up, sprinkled with kerosine and set alight. Khech, the chief village of the Sheykh Mehmedan tribe, which had already surrendered, was attacked at night and all inhabitants were killed by machine gun and artillery fire. The inhabitants of Hozat town and the Karaca tribe, men, women and children, were brought near the military camp outside Hozat and killed by machine gun…Thousands of women and girls threw themselves into the Munzur river….The entire area was covered by a thick mist caused by the artillery fire and air bombardments with poisonous gas….Even young men from Dersim who were doing their military service in the Turkish army were taken from their regiments and shot.”
While one particularly brutal period of 17 days in August 1938 is commonly referred to as the Dersim Massacre, it was simply the peak of 19 months of “cleansing.” Accurate numbers of those slain between March 1937 and November 1938, when the military assault ended, are impossible to ascertain. Official figures count about 14,000 dead, while the unofficial count falls somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000. Thousands of those who weren’t killed were deported, sent westward, with men separated from women – the idea being that if the Kurdish women married Turkish men, they would have Turkish babies, thus facilitating a solution to the so-called “Kurdish question.” In Dersim, the system of tribal rule fell apart, and the culture suffered radical losses.
Still, survivors remained, rural village life in the Munzur Valley continued, and a new kind of unity began to emerge among Alevi Kurds, as their tribal affiliations – and rivalries – became less important. While the government had extended its authority into Dersim, it had failed to weaken the locals’ sense of Kurdishness, their attachment to their faith, and their spirit of independence.
The events of 1937-38 left a historical wound that cut deeply into the collective memory of the region. Fifty-seven years later, in the fall of 1994, the Turkish military devastated Dersim once again.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Nurcan Gündoğdu, as she stood among a tangle of weeds and thorns that had grown over fallen roof beams, inside the stone-walled ruins of her family’s home. It was set high on the sloping hills of the remote Mercan area – a scenic, fertile valley that joins the Munzur Valley near Ovacik. “They burned us out of our house! 15 or 20 soldiers showed up and told us to get out – we weren’t given any time to grab anything, not even any clothing – and we weren’t given a reason. They pointed their guns at us and told us to leave and started setting fire to everything right in front of our eyes. This happened to many villages around here. So many lost their homes – and some people were taken away and never heard from again.”
Sometime around 1990, PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) guerillas had begun filtering into the area. They were engaged in an armed insurgency, trying to win greater autonomy and civil rights for Turkey’s Kurdish population. Since 1984, their fighters had attacked Turkish army bases and soldiers, as well as civilians. The military responded with indiscriminate force, often against innocent Kurds: even before turning its sights on Dersim, Turkish troops had destroyed over 2000 Kurdish villages and hamlets across the country’s southeast in its war against the PKK.
In the Munzur Valley, locals greeted the PKK with ambivalence. The Alevis’ longstanding mistrust of Kurdish nationalist movements remained intact, compounded by th efact that the PKK, in its early years, self-identified as a Sunni group. Local sympathies were more likely to be extended toward another militant organization, called TIKKO (The Liberation Army of Turkey’s Workers and Villagers), the goals of which were Communist and completely secular.
Despite the region’s failure to embrace the PKK, the military began a scorched earth campaign in Dersim in 1994, which has become known as The Evacuation. In the Ovacik district, in the upper Munzur Valley, upwards of 80% of the villages and hamlets were destroyed. In the Tunceli district, the number hovered over 50%. Fields and orchards were burned to ash. Livestock was seized. Forests were set ablaze, and the flames were encouraged to spread by helicopters that sprayed chemicals on the trees. Many men were reportedly arrested, some were tortured, and some simply disappeared. Thousands of families were suddenly homeless. Some moved into tents and public buildings in the towns of Ovacik and Tunceli, while others left Dersim altogether.
The purported rationale behind this assault against the people of Dersim was to deny the PKK any possible sources of food and shelter, which the villagers might provide. But there is little doubt that the government was also using the opportunity to try to finish what was left undone in 1938. Government plans called for moving villagers “to the center” – pushing them from remote hamlets and into larger towns within Dersim, or out of Dersim altogether, to places where they would be easier to watch and control.
For more than ten years following The Evacuation, the military maintained an oppressive presence in and around the Munzur Valley. Soldiers patrolled streets and manned checkpoints along the valley’s main road, stopping vehicles and inspecting papers. Helicopters swept low across the sky. Commando bases, all barbed wire and steel walls and gun turrets, perched on strategic hilltops and loomed on the edges of towns. Food was strictly rationed, and no household was allowed to have more than a few days worth of supplies, which caused severe distress in winter, when families typically survive on food that’s been stored for months.
A butcher carries a carcass into his shop, while an armored vehicle cruises the streets of Ovacik in December, 2014.
A butcher carries a carcass into his shop, while an armored vehicle cruises the streets of Ovacik in December, 2014.
If anything, the actions of the military drove the people of Munzur to sympathize with the PKK more than they ever had before, or otherwise would have. The destruction of so many villages and the burning of the forests was seen as simply barbaric. Today, many people view the PKK – which still operates in Dersim, even after all that transpired – as an essential counterbalance to the Turkish army, ready to defend the rights of all Kurds, not just those who are Sunni.
The Dersim Massacre and the Evacuation of 1994 have undoubtedly contributed to the exceptional degree of political awareness and activism that permeates this isolated, marginalized region. The majority of people in Munzur favor Communist parties, and the town of Ovacik elected Turkey's first-ever Communist mayor in March, 2014. Locals sense a direct link between Communist economic theory and the core ethos of the Alevi religion - in which caring for other people and sharing what one has with others are among the greatest of goods. As residents of the Munzur Valley have no desire to live under the intrusive, dictatorial apparatus of a stereotypical Communist state, they strive for a form of Communism that remains democratic at heart, in which all religions are equally tolerated, rather than equally forbidden. They simply want a system that does away with what they regard as the institutionalized economic exploitation of the lower classes, and ends the promotion of Sunni Islam by the Turkish government under the ruling AK Party.
Writer's note: Though it makes sense that Alevis would favor Communism as a model of wealth-sharing that their religion preaches, we are puzzled by the fact that during the time when Dersim was essentially autonomous - hence ruled by Alevis - the tribal system in place was more reminiscent of feudalism - with a few very rich and powerful lords and many peasants.
Above: Ibrahim Kaypakkaya, founder of the Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist-Leninist (TKP-ML), and its armed wing, TIKKO, was tortured and killed at Diyarbakir Prison in 1973. He is venerated as a martyr for the Communist cause, and for being one of the first prominent activists to raise the issue of Kurdish rights. His image is now an iconic and ubiquitous symbol across Dersim.
Below: Supporters of Partizan, the current name of the legal political wing of TIKKO, wave flags during a musical performance at the 14th annual Munzur Culture and Nature Festival, in 2014.
Following the 2013 truce between the government and the PKK, security loosened up in the Munzur Valley. Roadside checkpoints were unmanned; the commando base in Ovacik was dismantled; the oppressive feeling of strict oversight by unfriendly authorities had largely lifted.
For the past several years, some people have been spending summers in the villages from which they were evacuated, pitching tents beside the rubble of their former homes. Some are beginning to think about repairing their houses and returning to live in them year-round. They don’t think the military would stop them now. They know the PKK won’t stop them. The only thing that could stop them, they say, are the dams…..
For more on the Dersim Massacre, start with:
Dersim Massacre, 1937-1938 by Hans-Lukas Kieser.
For more on the Evacuation of 1994, start with:
Forest burning as a counterinsurgency strategy in Eastern
Turkey by Joost Jongerden et al.
Turkey’s Failed Policy to Aid the Forcibly Displaced in the Southeast by Human Rights Watch.
Writer's note: At the time of this writing - August 2015 - the truce was in tatters, following air attacks launched by the Turkish military against PKK bases in northern Iraq. In Dersim, the PKK reaction was limited, but - at this time - it is too early to guess how severely the military might respond.