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Massacre Memorial Day in Dersim

Massacre Memorial Day in Dersim

On cover: Turkish soldiers with local people of Dersim region.

On May 4 the intellectuals of Turkey mark the day of massacres in Dersim. On this day in 1937 the Turkish government made a final decision to suppress the alleged "uprising" of people of Dersim.  In sober fact the goal was to get the best of half independent Zaza population. The event is important for us, the Armenians, as back then many Armenians lived in Dersim, who found shelter there after the Armenian genocide (1915-1923).

The Dersim province is located in the western part of Armenian Highlands between Erzurum, Kharberd and Tigranakert.  As per the statistical sources just before the First World War the number of the population reached to 200 thousand people, where 45% were Armenians, and the rest were Kurds, Alevi and Zaza, leaving peacefully with the Armenians.  It should be noted that the choice of Dersim was non-casual.  Dersim was one of the few provinces that harbored thousands of Armenians during the genocide in 1915 who had miraculously escaped the Turkish yataghan. So for the Turkish government the issue of Dersim had also an "Armenian component." In the spring of 1921 the Turkish government managed to suppress the unrest in the province of Kochkiri-Dersim but failed to fully reign in the people of Dersim. In the early 1930's the Turkish authorities decided to apply the resettlement act to finally reign in the population of Dersim.  People of Dersim were to be resettled in various western regions of Asia Minor and the Turkish elements who immigrated from the Balkans were to be inhabited in their settlements. 

Moreover, the property of the people of Dersim was taken away and shared between the newcomer Turks.  By this step the government sought on the one hand to settle the eastern regions of the country with "reliable Turkish elements" and on the other hand prevent the new possible uprisings of the Kurds.  The project gave rise to big unrest in Dersim or as the Kemalists had renamed it Tunceli.   Soon Dersim was in rebellious fire that was led by Seid Rza, the tribal leader of alevi, who had sizable reputation in the region.  In 1936 at the suggestion of Kemal Ataturk the question of Dersim was included in the agenda of the private session of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (GNAT). On November 1, 1936 during the GNAT opening in his report on Dersim Ataturk said: "Dersim is the most important problem of our internal affairs.  It is essential that we eradicate the horrendous festering abscess at whatever the cost.  The government has a wide mandate to undertake the quickest measures regarding the issue."

Duirng 1936 the Turkish army rallied troops in the provinces of Dersim, Elyazig (Kharberd), Chapadjur and Bingel (Byurakn).  Early in summer 1937 the Turks began military operations against the "rebels of Dersim" by using air force, tanks and even poisonous gas.  The Turkish army ruthlessly destroyed not only the armed population but also the peaceful population of the village. To force the rebels to come out of their mountain shelters the Turkish military command gave orders to burn the forests in the neighborhood of Dersim.  The prime minister Ismet Inonyu and minister of Interior Affairs Shyukru Kaya of Turkey were present during the military operations.   

The uprising in Dersim in 1938 was suppressed with extreme atrocity.  The leaders of the uprising were fraudulently invited to Kharberd and hung.  The bloody score-settling began.  In 1937 Majlis (Turkish Parliament – ed. note)  passed a law according to which all the property of the rebels of Dersim was confiscated in favor of the state.  In 1938 the newly appointed Prime Minister Jelal Bayar declared that "the Kurdish question no more exists in Turkey."

Family of Arshaluis from Dersim

It should be noted that until recently the topic was not known to the modern Turkish society (even the topic of the Armenian genocide was more renowned).  The topic on the massacres in Dersim was introduced to the active political agenda by the ruling Justice and Development party led by Erdogan.  The goal was not the rectification of justice but suppression of the main opposition People's Democratic Party through this topic who accuse Erdogan and his party members of "historical crime."



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