Turkish state apology to Kurds, 75 years too late.



Sabiha Gökçen holding a bomb before the bombardment operation over Dersim with her Breguet 19.

Fato Dersimi was among those who fled Dersim, which is a predominately Kurdish district in Northern Kurdistan. When Turkish troops were killing Kurdish civilians between 1936 and 1939, children and women were instructed to hide in the caves surrounding the Dersim area. Fato sought refuge in the mountains. It didn’t take long for the Turkish armed forces to find the caves where women and children were hiding. Her father writes in his memoirs;

The army bricked up the entrances of the caves (…) at the entrances of other caves, the military lit fires to cause those inside to suffocate (…) those who tried to escape from the caves were finished with bayonets.

A significant number of women committed suicide in fear of being raped; Fato Dersimi threw herself off a cliff into the Munzur and Parchik ravines while trying to escape from the Turkish armed forces.

13,000 to 70,000 civillians systematically killed

The Prime Minister of Turkey has apologised for the Dersim Massacre where an estimated 13,000 to 70,000 people were systematically killed, displaced into smaller camps and forced to become ‘Turkish’. When the Dersim Massacre took place, little information reached neighbouring countries, the earliest account of what happened was written by a Kurdish author fourteen years later in exile. Nuri Dersimi is a key eyewitness to brutal slaughter of Kurdish people. For many Kurdish people, Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s apology is 75 years too late, and it was made to shame the opposition party that was in power when the Dersim massacre took place.

Erdogan is the first Prime Minister to apologise for the Dersim massacre, and it is a step forward in acknowledging Kurdish grievances, but the circumstances of the apology was one that casts doubt on the sincerity of it, and whether it was merely done for political gain. The Prime Minister said,

If it is necessary to apologise on behalf of the state … I will apologise, I am apologising,” and “Dersim is one of the most tragic events of our near history. It is a disaster waiting to be enlightened and boldly questioned.

The Rebellion

Seyid Riza was a well-known Kurdish patriot and leader, and led the Dersim rebellion with four other tribesmen leader. He is quoted to have said:

The government has tried to assimilate the Kurdish people for years, oppressing them, banning publications in Kurdish, and persecuting those who speak Kurdish, forcibly deporting people from fertile parts of Kurdistan for uncultivated areas of Anatolia where many have perished. The prisons are full of non-combatants; intellectuals are shot, hanged or exiled to remove places. Three Million Kurds demand to live in freedom and peace in their own country.

On the 4th of May 1937, the council of ministers in Ankara formed the ‘Tunceli Questioning Operations’. The estimates of civilians systematically killed are disputed, ranging between 13,000 to 70,000 people.

Children were thrown in Euphrates by Turkish armed forces

The mass-slaughter and indiscriminate killings led to one of the strongest allies of the Turkish government such as the British consul to break the diplomatic niceties and speak about the massacre. On March 1937, telephone lines were cut in Dersim. No one could reach out to the outside world in Dersim, and with winter approaching, the slaughter intensified. As this deadly operation was underway, the outside world was largely silent and unaware of what was happening. The silence was broken when the British Consul at Trebizond, which was the closest diplomatic post to Dersim, reported on the indiscriminate and systematic attack on Kurdish people. He is quoted to have said;

Thousands of Kurds, including women and children were slain; others, mostly children were thrown into the Euphrates; while thousands of others in less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were deported to provinces in Central Antolia. It is now stated that the Kurdish question no longer exists in Turkey.

Men shot on the spot, women and children burnt alive

Nuri Dersimi recalls in his memoirs,

All who tried to escape or sought refuge with the army were rounded up. The men were shot on the spot, the women and children were locked into hay sheds’, that were set fire to.

This is how the Turkish government responded to the Kurdish question at the time, and it attempted to eradicate the Kurdish population systematically, or ‘Turkify’ them.

Seyid Riza arrested but the Massacre continued

In September, Seyid Riza was arrested and later hanged with his teenage son on 16th of November 1937. Despite his arrest, the massacre continued, Kurdish men were shot, including Nuri Dersimi’s own brother. In his book, he writes about the Karaca tribe,

Men, women, and children were bought near the military camp outside Hozat and killed by a Machine gun’ and ‘Even young men from Dersim who were doing their military service with the Turkish army were taken from their regiments and shot.

Banning of books regarding the Dersim Massacre

One prominient Turkish sociologist published a book in 1990 where he accused the Turkish Government of Genocide in the Kurdish district of Dersim. Ismail Besikci was imprisoned for more than 10 years because of this, and his books were banned. He is the first Turkish intellectual to publicly criticise Turkey’s ideology towards Kurdish people. The information available about Dersim is limited because the Turkish government at the time went to great lengths to deny Kurdish history, and its atrocities towards them.

The banning of books regarding Dersim massacre, and silencing of critics was an attempt to deny that this massacre happened, just as Kurdish ethnic rights have been denied. The Turkish government went to great lengths to cover-up this horrific part of its history, including the changing of ‘Dersim’ to Tunceli in 1936.

Pilot in Turkey honoured for her ‘bravery’ in the Dersim Massacre

AKP’s deputy proposed changing the name of Sabiha Gokcen Airport in Istanbul because it is an insult to Kurdish people and their suffering. Gokcen was the adopted daughter of Atatürk who was the first female pilot to drop bombs in Dersim, killing men, women and children indiscriminately. Imagine the international outcry and outrage if there was Hitler Airport in Germany, or if there was a Ratko Mladić in Bosnia.

Erdogan’s apology is progressive, but in retrospect Kurdish people have suffered decades of systematic killing, arbitrary arrest, unlawful detainment, banning of ethnic and cultural rights, and in light of this, a mere apology must be met with action for it to be meaningful. Kurdish people will not be cajoled with an apology when Kurdish language does no have any legal status, academic institutions can’t be set up to teach other disciplines in Kurdish, and Kurdish declaration of autonomy has not been recognised. When these issues are addressed, an apology will be met with open arms.