The silver gates of Kurdistan: Dersim

Dersim is a mountainous region between Sivas, Erzincan and Elaziz­. It covers an area of 90 km east-west and 70 km north-south and, according to official estimates in the 1930s, it inhabited a total population of nearly 80,000.

The first language of the Dersim Kurds, as they were called by contemporary observers, was Zaza. Kurdish nationalism had had its impact on a few of its leaders and intellectuals since the early 20th century. The 28th President of America Woodrow Wilson wrote about the principle of self-determination after World War I and linked an articulated ideology to Kurdish activism, which General Fevzi Çakmak complained about in his report of 1930. Çakmak therefore demanded the removal of all functionaries of Kurdish race in Erzincan. The Koçgiri uprising in 1921 had been the first rebellion marked by open Kurdish nationalism; it had taken place in an Alevi region, called Koçgiri, at the western boundary of Dersim.

After the establishment of the new state in Ankara and the repression of the Kurdish uprisings of the 1920s, the attention of Ankara turned more and more to Dersim. A Law of Settlement of 21 June 1934 legitimised in general terms the depopulation of regions in Turkey for cultural, political or military reasons, with the intent to create, as Minister of the Interior Kaya stated “A country with one language, one mentality, and unity of feelings.” This law was conceived in order to complete the Turkification of Anatolia in the context of the new focus on Dersim in interior politics.

In 1930, Bozkurt had spoken of a war between two races, Kurds and Turks, and had gone so far as to say, “All, friends, enemies and the mountains, shall know that the Turk is the master of this country. All those who are not pure Turks have only one right in the Turkish homeland: the right to be servants, the right to be slaves”

These elements formed the context when, in December 1935, Minister of the Interior Kaya presented a draft law, commonly known as Tunceli Law, that once more labelled the Dersim region “A zone of illness that needed surgery”. Dersim, meaning ‘silver gate’ in Kurdish was established as a separate province and renamed Tunceli meaning ‘bronze fist’ in Turkish. The military governor Abdullah Alpdo­an, the head of the Fourth General Inspectorate, had ruled this name change in a state of emergency. Alpdo­an was the son-in-law of Nurettin Pasha, the general who had led the repression of the Koçgiri uprising in 1921.

Seyyid Riza, perhaps the most important tribal chief, in addition to being a religious figure, insisted on autonomy for Kurdistan and the revocation of the Tunceli Law of 1935. He seemed to have believed initially that Dersim could not be subdued militarily. He had worked for years, partly successfully, to unite the tribes of the region.

After several incidents, culminating on the nights of 20/21 and 26/27 March 1937, tribal attacks against the new infrastructure in Pah and a police station in Sin in eastern central Dersim, the military campaign was launched. With 8,623 men, artillery and an air force in early May, it was largely superior in numbers to the forces of the insurgents. On 4 May 1937, the Council of Ministers, including Atatürk and Fevzi Çakmak, the Chief of General Staff, decided secretly on a forceful attack against western-central Dersim, to kill all who used or had used arms and to remove the population settled between Nazimiye and Sin. The same day, planes dropped pamphlets saying that “In the case of surrender, no harm at all would be done to you, dear compatriots. If not, entirely against our will, the military forces will act and destroy you. One must obey the state.”

It is understood from various sources that in clearing the area occupied by the Kurds, the military authorities have used methods similar to those used against the Armenians during the Great War: thousands of Kurds including women and children were slain; others, mostly children were thrown into the Euphrates. The army used poison gas to kill people who hid in caves. Many others were burned alive, whether in houses or by spraying individuals with fuel. Even if people surrendered, they were annihilated. In order not to fall into the hands of the Turks, girls and women jumped into abysses, as many Armenians had in 1915. The suspicion of having lodged bandits or, according to witness accounts of soldiers, military unit desire for vengeance sufficed as justification to kill whole villages. Soldiers confirmed that they were ordered to kill women and children. An estimated 40,000 victims were massacred in the ‘Dersim Rebellion”, mostly women and children.

In the following months, the army successfully advanced against fierce resistance and changing tribal coalitions led by Riza, allied tribal chiefs and Ali, a talented poet and activist. Unity of the tribes was far from achieved; only a few tribes formed the hard core of the resistance. On 9 July, Ali and his wife were killed by their own people, their heads sent to Alpdo­an. In July, Riza sent a letter to the prime minister in which he vividly described what he saw as anti-Kurdish politics of assimilation, removal and a war of destruction. Via his friend Nuri Dersimi, who had gone into exile in Syria in September, he also sent a despairing letter to the League of Nations and the foreign ministries of the United Kingdom, France and the United States, none of which answered. On 10 September, he surrendered to the army in Erzincan. Messages of congratulation were sent to Alpdo­an by Atatürk, Minister of the Interior ükrü Kaya and Prime Minister Inönü, who had visited Elaziz­ in June. Shortly before Atatürk’s visit there, Riza was executed in Elaziz­, together with his son Resik Hüseyin, tribal leader Seyit Haso and a few sons of tribal chiefs. The execution was hastily organised by Ihsan Sabri Ça­layangil, who was later appointed foreign minister.

I wander if the Kurdish population under Turkish oppression at that time had any benefit to America and the west as the Kurds under Iraqi oppression did with the Halabja massacre when trying to topple Saddam, whether the world wouldn’t be so ignorant to the Dersim genocide and the fall of yet another Kurdish warrior. I wander if the world knew about the Dersim genocide whether they would think twice about the current situation of the app. 20 million Kurds still suffering under Turkish oppression. I wander if humanity truly existed in the world whether people would be asking for justice and peace for those who have fallen martyr to and continue to suffer from the then Kemalist ideology, which still runs deep in Turkey.