The Dersim Genocide began 78 years ago

Today 4 May marks the 78th anniversary of the beginning of the Dersim Genocide. The Turkish government massacred thousands of people, those who survived were banished, Dersim was depopulated.

Today 4 May marks the 78th anniversary of the beginning of the Dersim Genocide. The Turkish government massacred thousands of people, those who survived were banished, Dersim was depopulated. The cause of these merciless acts was being Kurdish, Alevi and Kizilbash.

78 years have passed, and yet Turkey is not willing to acknowledge this Genocide like many other Kurdish Genocides. Those responsible for the deaths of thousands of people have never been tried nor have they been brought out into light. The broken families could never discover their past. Thousands of people still haven’t received news from their families and close friends. The whereabouts of the Kurdish children taken by the Turkish Government at the time are unknown. Many other world countries who have had a similar experiences and committed genocide against its people have acknowledged the injustice and sorrow they have caused and have apologised. However Turkey is continuing to resist and use “it does not exist” strategy with the Kurdish Genocide just as they have with the Armenian Genocide."

It was sociologist Ismail Beşikçi who started to shed some light on one of the "forgotten Genocides" of Turkey. In 1990 he published a book in Turkey that by its very title accused Turkey's one- party regime of the 1930s of having committed genocide in the Kurdish district of Dersim. The book was immediately banned and did not generate the debate its author. As author and academic Martin Van Bruinessen recalls "Beşikçi was the first, and for a long time the only, Turkish intellectual to publicly criticize Turkey's official ideology and policies regarding the Kurds, beginning with his 1969 study of the socioeconomic conditions of eastern Turkey through a whole series of increasingly polemical works." Ismail Beşikçi paid a heavy price for his moral and intellectual courage; all his books were banned, and he spent more than ten years in prison for writing them.

As Van Bruinessen wrote himself studying the Dersim genocide, "Dersim is an inaccessible district of high, snowcapped mountains, narrow valleys, and deep ravines in central Eastern Turkey. It was inhabited by a large number of small tribes, eking out a marginal existence by animal husbandry, horticulture, and gathering forest products. Their total numbers were, by the mid-1930s, estimated at 65,000 to 70,000." Dersim was a culturally distinct part of Kurdistan, partly due to ecological-geographical factors, partly to a combination of linguistic and religious peculiarities. Some of the tribes spoke Kurdish proper, but most spoke another, related language known as Zazaki. All adhered to the heterodox Alevi sect, which separated them socially from the Sunni Kurds living to the east and south (among whom there were both Zaza and Kurdish speakers). Although there are Alevis in many other parts of Turkey, those of Dersim constitute a distinct group, with different beliefs and practices.

Dersim was, by the mid-1930s, the last part of Turkey that had not been effectively brought under central government control. The tribes of Dersim had never been subdued by any previous government; the only law they recognized was traditional tribal law. Tribal chieftains and religious leaders wielded great authority over the commoners, whom they often exploited economically. They were not opposed to government as such, as long as it did not interfere too much in their affairs. Many chieftains, in fact, strengthened their position by establishing close relations with the military and police officers appointed to the region. There was a tradition of refusing to pay taxes — but then there was little that could be taxed, as the district was desperately poor. Young men evaded military service when they could, but by 1935 a considerable proportion of them did in fact serve in the Turkish army.

The military campaign against Dersim was mounted in response to a relatively minor incident, and it would seem that the army had been waiting for a direct reason to punish the tribes. One day in March 1937, a strategic wooden bridge was burned down and telephone lines cut. Seyyit Riza and the tribes associated with him were suspected. The army may have believed this to be the beginning of the expected rebellion. One Turkish source mentions that there was around the same time another minor incident elsewhere in Kurdistan and suggests coordination by Kurdish nationalists. 

The first troops, sent in to arrest the suspects, were stopped by armed tribesmen. The confrontations soon escalated. When the tribes kept refusing to surrender their leaders, a large campaign was mounted. Military operations to subdue the region lasted throughout the summer of 1937. In September, Seyyit Riza and his closest associates surrendered, but the next spring the operations were resumed with even greater force. They must have been of unprecedented violence and brutality.

The number of slaughtered people ranged between 12 thousands, according to official figures, and 70-90 thousand according to the people of Dersim. More than 10 thousand people were exiled.

In 2008 the European Parliament held a conference on the Dersim genocide. And the committee for the Dersim '38 conference has applied to the International Criminal Court.

There have been some personal initiatives as well by victims of the Dersim genocide. For example Efo Bozkurt who lost his whole family in the massacre applied to court under allegations of "crimes against humanity" in 2010 but his complaint was dismissed.

The Hozat Public Chief Prosecution decided to drop procedures on 18 February 2011. It was stated, "The Turkish Criminal Law in effect at the time of the incidents that allegedly happened in Dersim in 1938 did not include 'genocide and crimes against humanity' as imputed by the complainant". It was furthermore said in the decision that the alleged cases of death were to be evaluated as "homicide" and thus fell under the statute of limitation.

In a recent development, the pro-government Yeni Şafak newspaper has published a top secret intelligence document revealing that Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) met Dersim leader Seyit Riza the night before he was executed, telling Riza he would be spared if he ‘begged pardon’. Seyit Riza refused and was hanged along with 6 of his colleagues early the following morning. The document proves that the death sentences were decided on beforehand and that the gallows were prepared. The document refers to Mustafa Kemal telling Seyit Riza the people of Dersim are "Turks from Khorasan”. The document also reveals that the bodies of Seyit Riza and his friends were burnt after being exhibited in public.

Documents reveal that the execution of Seyit Riza and 6 others after the massacres in Dersim was carried out with the full knowledge of Mustafa Kemal. The newspaper has previously published documents claiming: "Atatürk was poisoned by [Prime Minister] Ismet Inönü”. The document claims Seyit Riza was taken to see Mustafa Kemal the night before he was executed, and that he refused to beg pardon.

In mid April 2015, excavations began in Dersim at a site where it is said 24 people, including women and children, were murdered during the massacres of 1938. Human remains, including 8 skulls, were found yesterday on the first day of digging at a mass grave in the Hozat district of Dersim, where 24 people from two families were burnt alive in 1938. The exhumations, carried out in the presence of the public prosecutor, experts and members of the families, was the first to take place at a mass grave in Dersim, 77 years after the massacre.