Dersim ‘38: From Rebellion to Massacre?


Editor’s note: Tens of thousands of men, women, and children were massacred by Turkish troops during the destruction of Kurds and Zazas of Dersim (now Tunceli) in 1937-38. For decades, this genocide was denied and framed as “suppression of an uprising” by the Turkish state. In November 2009, the Turkish Republican People’s Party deputy chairman Onur Oymen said that the destruction of the Kurds in Dersim was an example of the struggle against terrorism, and a heated public debate ensued. Columnists and political figures harshly criticized Oymen’s statement, and even high-ranking Turkish officials called the events of Dersim a “massacre.” Some thought Turkey was finally coming to terms with at least one horrible chapter of its past. As Kemal Kahraman explains in the article below, that is hardly the case.

In the discussions about the Kurdish initiative on Nov. 10, 2009, Onur Oymen, the CHP (Republican People’s Party) deputy chairman, said something that shouldn’t have been said—and the Dersim ’38 issue, which hasn’t been talked about for 70 years, became one of the most important items on the Turkish and European agendas. We are expected to see it like this.

We realized that all columnists, television hosts, documentary producers, historians, sociologists, party chairmen, members of the parliament, heard and unheard of researchers, publishers, music producers, institutions, and, as the prime minister and the president themselves have said, even our state, have been silently coming to terms with this shame of humanity for 70 years, have passed their judgments of conscience, but have waited all this time for Onur Oymen’s gaffe to speak… We are supposed to understand it like this.

The discussion started with superficially dramatic stories or with academic explanations of the trauma that the event caused in the victim, but many times with an ironic thanking to Onur Oymen, followed by lessons teaching the people of Dersim that they had to leave the CHP or had no reason to fear the AKP. The discussion, having been thus used for current political purposes, was finished and laid aside in a month.

In this way, in the eyes of everyone from political organizations to academicians, from journalists to unions, and in fact, according to the institutions that speak for Dersim, even for the people of Dersim, we now have not a Dersim Rebellion, but a Dersim Massacre, understood within the framework prescribed by our state. We are supposed to believe it so.

But is it so? Was Dersim ‘38 put on the state agenda accidentally due to a gaffe? Were all our politicians and intellectuals waiting for Onur Oymen’s gaffe to speak about this? Did a 70-year-long state policy change due to a gaffe? What was put in its place? Did a crime against humanity find its place in history, when it was changed from a rebellion to a massacre? Or was it moved to a new framework for the holy survival of our state?

That is, will our state, which has acknowledged a historical crime by calling it a massacre, also open the way to a confrontation with the ongoing practices and damages caused by that crime? For instance, will it put under state protection, not only Zazaca, a language that makes itself known only as one of the dying languages in the UNESCO 2009 report, but also the Dersim Kizilbash/Alevi oral culture that faces the threat of extinction together with this language? In short, will it lead to an actual change toward repairing the damages caused by the 70-year-long cultural genocide committed by the state itself?

Now that Turkish academicians and intellectuals have expressed their opinions, eased their consciences, joined our state in calling the event by its name, and even given extensive advices to “our dersimites” about what they have to do in the future, will the state provide room for reflecting on the 70-year-long silence and the social trauma that it has brought about?

Or, is all this—done in the name of “facing a historical mistake,” at the very moment that for the first time society is asking the question, “What happened in ‘38?”—really a political operation by the state with the goal of redefining, in a month, the event, its place in history, and its addressee?

Or, does all this, done in the name of facing a historical mistake, not go beyond mundane political agendas like destroying the CHP, winning over Alevis, attacking Kemalism, taking hold of Dersim, and thereby re-victimizing the victims, leaving them once again face to face with their sufferings?

Or, what is worse, does all this, done in the name of facing a historical mistake, mask the new stages of that historical mistake? That is, just when Dersim ’38 is being discussed these days, is it a coincidence that the Munzur Dam Project, which is the last stage of ’38, is quietly being materialized with the Uzuncayir Dam? (*)

It is well-known that in Turkey everything from deep-rooted social problems to small narrative changes becomes possible only according to the needs of the political authorities, i.e. the state mechanism, and hence by the interference of the state authorities.

Today the changes in the narrative of Dersim ’38 become intelligible only seen as a state project, just like the Armenian, Kurdish, Cyprus, Alevi, and Roma initiatives in the last couple of years, and even the Ergenekon operation, and other similar current headlines.

Furthermore, as convincing written sources and documents now show, the 1937-38 Dersim events constitute a state project prepared and executed by the newly founded Turkish state since 1926.

Clearly, with the Dersim Massacre narrative today, a new political concept is being constructed only with respect to the state, and new opportunities are being created for various political forces—and the academic circles under their control—all of which will be functional in the legitimatization and ripening of this concept.

Because the state, which until recently based its argument on “legitimate self-defense against an armed rebellion,” is labeling a state project that has to be described as genocide—according to the well-known definition of Raphael Lemkin and international legal norms—instead as a massacre, and thereby reducing it to a military excessiveness that just happened in 1938, and defining it within a framework that lacks political and legal counterparts, and sanctions.

In any event, Dersim ’38 has been put on the agenda of the Turkish public; even if it is too late, at least it is being discussed now. That in itself is a positive development. However, looking at what has happened in this short time, the only optimistic formulation about the subject is in the form of a question: What is the goal in relation to Dersim ’38? Is it at least a confrontation with the perpetrator, a purification, leading to social trust and security and made permanent by the state’s safe-guarding, that will serve as the foundations for a life together?

Or, is it a way of minimizing the costs of a historical crime committed by the state, by drowning it in conceptual discussions about massacres and ethnic cleansing, etc., discussions without international legal significance, and reshaping the public opinion by producing the academic, legal, and historical documents?

Kemal Kahraman is a distinguished musician from Dersim, Turkey. Together with his brother Metin Kahraman, he formed the Metin-Kemal Kahraman Ensemble and produced nine CDs which are widely distributed in Turkey. They mainly sing in the
Zazaki language. Apart from their own compositions, they are engaged in tracing and representing the oral culture of Dersim, which is doomed to vanish given the state’s assimilation policies. For several years now, they have been conducting oral history interviews with the elderly from Dersim to document not only the atrocities that occurred there (which are captured in laments, poems, etc.) but also the larger spectrum of cultural and religious life in Dersim. Kemal Kahraman lives in Berlin, Germany.

(*) Since the 1990’s, the state has started to build 11 dams in Dersim on the Munzur, Karasu, and Pulumur Rivers, two of them are already operating and the others are still being built. The Uzuncayir Dam, the most important of these dams, leaves part of the city center under water, and was put into service just as the Dersim ’38 issues started to be discussed in Novermber 2009. Even though this project is officially based on the energy needs of the country, as the 1934 General Command of Gendarmerie DERSIM “secret” reports (of which only 100 copies have been printed and carefully distributed) show, this idea has been discussed since 1875, with the goal of “leaving the region under water by artificial lakes, erasing it from the map,” and thereby “destroying the source of trouble completely,” and is still a project that is very much alive. (See General Command of Gendarmerie report DERSIM–Kaynak Yayinlari 1998, Istanbul. For a current article on this issue, see “134 yillik surgun plani,” ).


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One Comment;

  1. pat said:

    too all Kurdish people want a place to rest? a place to taste freedom then head to Israel
    surpport Israel and they will do the same for you.