The Massacre in Dersim Still Haunts Kurds in Turkey

Jacobin Magazine

By   Jaclynn Ashly
Jan. 12, 2021

A reporter for Jacobin traveled to the Kurdish province of Dersim to
investigate the recent discovery of a mass grave from a 1937 massacre.
But far from being forgotten, it's an atrocity that still haunts the
region today, with millions of Kurds in Turkey struggling for freedom
against Erdoğan's latest crackdown.

Turkey’s suppression of the Dersim rebellion was likely used as a
warning to other Kurdish areas of what would happen to them if they
resisted Turkey’s assimilation policies. (Photo: The Federation of
Dersim Associations)

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A Turkish police official waves his arms at our vehicle, gesturing for
us to stop and pull over for a routine security check at one of the
numerous police checkpoints scattered throughout Dersim, a
predominantly Alevi Kurdish province in the eastern region of Turkey.

Metin Albaslan, thirty-one, immediately steps out of the car after the
officer asks for our IDs. He knows the routine. The officer quickly
becomes fixated on Metin’s ID. He looks up and shouts “Metin, come

In Turkey, army conscription is compulsory. Metin is a former
guerrilla fighter for the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a
militant group that has fought a bloody campaign for Kurdish autonomy
in the east for decades and which Turkey, the United States, and the
European Union consider to be a terrorist organization. Metin was just
released from a two-year prison stint for his affiliation with the
group six months earlier.

Predictably, he refuses to join the Turkish army.

The only way for an able-bodied citizen to get exempted from this
national duty is to pay around thirty-one thousand Turkish liras
($5,380), and even then you still have to serve a month. “We don’t
want to serve at all,” Kerem, another friend in the car who requested
I not use his real name, tells me while we watch Metin outside being
questioned by the police. “Even if it’s only a month, we don’t want to
be in their army at all.”

Kerem, like many of the politically engaged youth in Dersim, is
continuing his education with a master’s in sociology, largely because
it temporarily exempts him from military duty.

Metin, after sitting down with three police officials under a
makeshift blue tarp for several minutes, is told to sign a piece of
paper promising he will report for his national duty. He is then led
to a police jeep where he is told to get in so the officials can
transport him to a military compound where he will sign a pledge to
join the same army that he spent years fighting against.

We follow behind the jeep carrying Metin as it weaves around the roads
in Dersim, passing the seemingly uninhabited, lush green mountains
where the only visible structures are Turkish military watchtowers in
the distance that peer over the province from the mountaintops.
Metin’s tattoo.

Images of Seyid Riza, a leader of a local uprising in Dersim more than
eighty years ago — which resulted in the Turkish army carrying out a
brutal massacre on Derism’s residents — flash past our windows as we
pass a stone wall in the city center built during the rebellion and
now adorned with framed photographic images of the uprising and the
massacre that ensued.

In Dersim, the ancestors are alive.

We pass a mountain that has a natural imprint on its length that
resembles the shape of a Kalashnikov. Locals, naturally, nickname it
“Kalash Mountain.” Metin’s entire back is marked with an unfinished
Kalashnikov tattoo, inspired by the natural design of Dersim’s

After waiting for about fifteen minutes outside the military compound,
Metin emerges. “I’m free!” he shouts, smiling and waving a copy of the
signed military pledge in his hand. His right arm has a tattoo written
in Chinese characters. When I asked him what it meant, he shrugged and
said: “I have no idea. One day someone from China will visit Dersim
and then they can tell me.”

Metin jumps into the back seat and we resume our journey to Munzur
Gozeleri, the source of the Munzur River in Dersim — a sacred place
for Dersim’s Alevi Kurds and the site of one of the Turkish
government’s most harrowing campaigns of ethnic cleansing.
“It’s Too Painful to Think About”

“It’s too painful to think about. What’s the point of talking about it
anymore?” Bego says. The ninety-year-old’s voice sounds quiet and
emotionless. With the help of a translator, he speaks to me in the
Kurdish dialect of Zazaki, having no knowledge of Turkish. “The
massacre took everything from us. Whatever we say it doesn’t matter.
The government doesn’t care. No one listens to us. We are just talking
to ourselves. It’s all just the past now.”

Bego was just nine years old in 1938. It’s a year that painfully gave
birth to the identity of the Alevi Kurds in Dersim, descending deep
below the earth where their ancestors’ bones snuggle into the
contorted roots of the oak trees dotting the length of the mountains.

The historical lands of Kurdistan span throughout areas of Turkey,
Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Following the defeat of the Central Powers in
World War I, the 1920 Sèvres Treaty was signed between the defeated
powers and the Allied Powers. In the treaty, Armenians were promised
full statehood in the territories of the former Ottoman Empire, and
interim autonomy with the possibility of obtaining full independence
was envisaged for the Kurdish areas of Turkey — to be determined by a

However, these promises never materialized. Instead, the Turkish
nationalist movement took hold, under the leadership of Turkey’s
founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who led a rebellion against the foreign
powers. Atatürk had stated that in areas of Turkey where Kurds
constituted the majority, they would be permitted to govern
themselves. Most Kurds assumed their fight would result in a
multiethnic Turkish-Kurdish state.

Instead, however, Kurds in Turkey, who now make up about 20 percent of
the country’s population, found themselves among the victims of a
nationalist program aimed at “Turkifying” the country’s minorities by
forcibly severing them from their cultures and attempting to
assimilate them into a monolithic Turkish identity.

İsmet İnönü, Atatürk’s successor, expressed the country’s nationalist
position in 1925, two years after the official founding of the Turkish
state. “In the face of a Turkish majority other elements have no kind
of influence,” he said. “We must turkify the inhabitants of our land
at any price, and we will annihilate those who oppose the Turks.”
"The Turkish army would block the entrances of the caves and light
fires that would cause the women and children inside to suffocate.
Anyone who tried to escape was stabbed to death with bayonets."

The Kurdish language, dress, folklore, and Kurdish names were all
banned for decades. Even the words “Kurds,” “Kurdistan,” and “Kurdish”
were banned by the government. Up until 1991, the Turkish government
only referred to Kurds as “Mountain Turks,” alleging that they were
actually Turks whose language had been corrupted over the years.

In 1934, the government introduced the Law of Resettlement, providing
a legal avenue to deport Kurds and other non-Turks from their
communities and resettle them into Turkish communities in the west.

According to Martin van Bruinessen, a Dutch anthropologist and author,
the Turkish government’s aim was to completely depopulate certain
Kurdish districts, while “diluting the Kurdish element” in other
Kurdish areas by deporting Kurds from their communities and replacing
them with Turks.

The following year, in December 1935, the Turkish government issued a
special law on Dersim, which had already gained a reputation among
Turkish officials for being a particularly rebellious area in the
eastern region. The law designated the district into a separate
province and placed the communities under direct military control.
Dersim was one of the first districts in Turkey the government applied
the Law of Resettlement, and residents began being expelled from the

The law also officially renamed the province to “Tunceli,” which means
“bronze fist” in Turkish; to this day, Tunceli is still Turkey’s
official name for the Dersim province. Bruinessen noted that Dersim’s
military governor was given “extraordinary powers to arrest and deport
individuals and families.”

Not surprisingly, in 1937 Turkey’s military operation caused a
rebellion to break out, partly led by Seyid Riza, an Alevi Kurdish
chief of one of the numerous tribes that inhabited Dersim. In
response, the Turkish army unleashed a campaign of unfathomable
brutalities, which included aerial bombardments and alleged poison gas
attacks. According to various sources, the Turkish army
indiscriminately slaughtered women and children, which included
burning them alive.

In September that year, Riza surrendered to the Turkish army in the
Erzincan district, which borders Dersim. Two months later, he was
executed by hanging, along with his son and several of his closest
associates. His body was buried in an undisclosed location — still
secret to this day.
Seyid Riza.

Attacks on Turkish security forces continued into 1938. According to
the historian Hans-Lukas Kieser, at that time many residents in Dersim
believed that if they did not resist, Turkish forces would ultimately
exterminate them. In 1938, Turkey’s military campaign took on a “new
and comprehensive character,” Kieser wrote in an article on the
massacre, and embarked on a “general cleansing” of the province.

Turkish soldiers hunted down members of certain tribes and residents
of particular villages suspected of supporting the rebellion. Nuri
Dersimi, Riza’s friend, was a local veterinarian and activist in
Dersim who lost many family members in the massacre. He was involved
in the rebellion for several months before going into exile in Syria.
He wrote a book fourteen years later that detailed the heinous
practices of the Turkish army.

According to Dersimi, when the men would race to the mountains to
fight in the rebellion, the women and children would hide themselves
in caves. When the Turkish army discovered them, they would block the
entrances of the caves and light fires that would cause the women and
children inside to suffocate. Anyone who tried to escape was stabbed
to death with bayonets. Dersimi noted that the caves in Dersim were
marked with numbers on the military maps of the area, showing that
this was not a practice of some rogue force in the army, but a
strategic policy.

Some of the women and girls opted to throw themselves from cliffs
overlooking the Munzur and Harcik rivers that traverse the province,
so as to avoid facing the brutality of the Turkish soldiers. Even the
tribes who were loyal to the Turkish government, and worked as
collaborators, were not spared.

The collaborating tribes would often remain in their villages during
the operation, assuming they were safe from the army’s aggressions.
But the Turkish army eventually raided the villages, according to
Dersimi. The chiefs were tortured and shot. Anyone trying to escape
was taken and shot to death; women and children were locked inside hay
sheds and burned alive.

Turkey’s military campaign only ended toward the end of 1938.
According to Bruinessen, Turkey’s suppression of the Dersim rebellion
was likely used as a warning to other Kurdish areas of what would
happen to them if they resisted Turkey’s assimilation policies.

According to the Turkish government, 13,160 civilians in Dersim were
killed during the massacre; however, Dersim’s residents have long
contested this number. In his book, A Modern History of the Kurds,
author David McDowall puts the number of deaths closer to 40,000.
Dersim’s residents allege that the death count is even higher. At
least 11,818 residents were also forced into exile at the time.

The Turkish government has long downplayed the extent of the army’s
brutality in Dersim, alleging that the bloody campaign was necessary
to quell the rebellion. In 1938, the estimated population in Dersim
was about 65,000–70,000.

If McDowall’s number is correct, at least 57 percent of Dersim’s
population was wiped out from the massacre.
“The Massacre Was Just the Beginning”

Bego’s wife Gulizar, now eighty-four, was about three years old at the
time of the massacre. Most of her memories are second-hand — donated
trauma from the adults who were lucky enough to survive. Almost all of
Gulizar’s male relatives had taken up arms at the time, disappearing
into the dense forests on the surrounding mountains to fight in the

But her father remained behind in the town center of Dersim to protect
the family. One day, the soldiers came to her family’s home and took
her father. He was never heard from again and they never found his
body. According to Gulizar, on that same day, Turkish soldiers lined
up twenty-five Alevi Kurds in the town and released bullets into their
trembling bodies — a heinous harbinger of the likely fate that befell
her father.
"I remember being so hungry and trying to find food on the streets."

Gulizar was with her mother and aunts at the time in a nearby village.
“That’s the only reason we survived,” she says. Gulizar speaks in
broken Turkish; her first language is also Zazaki and she only learned
to speak Turkish during her adult years.

Gulizar, however, does have one original memory that has followed her
like a tightly knotted leash stretching back eighty-two years. It does
not run in a continuous motion, but it flickers — distorted and

“There was a Turkish military commander who gathered all of the women
and children into a pen outside where the animals were kept,” she
says. Her eyes are fixated on an empty space in front of her.

“The man had a stick. He was screaming at us to take off our
traditional clothes. He walked around and threw western-style clothes
at us — shirts, pants, and skirts. In our culture, the women wear fez
hats. The commander came around and hit the women with the stick and
demanded they take off the hat.”

“Once we changed our clothes, the soldiers allowed us to go back to our homes.”

“But the massacre was just the beginning,” Gulizar adds. Turkish
soldiers also slaughtered the residents’ animals and scorched their
farms. For the residents who relied almost entirely on agriculture,
the famine that swept over the land — brushing past the dead bodies
and bullets — was at the very least predictable and at the very most
strategically planned.

“Before the massacre we lived a normal life,” she continues. “We were
farming and earning our own income. But after the massacre we had
nothing. No one was planting or growing anything and we couldn’t
afford to buy food. I remember being so hungry and trying to find food
on the streets.”

Gulizar recounts the routine police and army raids on her house
throughout the decades “They used to always come to our home,” Gulizar
says. “I used to be so scared of the soldiers. Whenever I saw them I
would hide. But now I’m not so afraid of them. I have gotten used to

In 1974, following decades of persecution in Turkey, the PKK was
formed under the leadership of Turkish-born Kurdish activist Abdullah
Öcalan, who has been held as the sole prisoner on a remote island
prison in Turkey for the past two decades. While authorities initially
did not take the group seriously, by 1984 the PKK, originally built on
Marxist-Leninist ideologies, launched a full-on guerrilla insurgency
in Turkey with the goal of creating an independent Kurdish state. In
the 1990s, however, the PKK changed their goal from fighting for an
independent state to demand equal rights and Kurdish autonomy within
the Turkish state.

The armed conflict has continued to this day. Around thirty to forty
thousand people, which includes thousands of civilians, have been
killed since 1984, according to the International Crisis Group. In the
1990s, as part of its attempts to root out the PKK, the Turkish
government and security forces were accused of expelling hundreds of
thousands of Kurds from their villages in the eastern provinces, along
with killing thousands of civilians, including more than a dozen
journalists, destroying hundreds of Kurdish villages, and carrying out
enforced disappearances, according to Human Rights Watch.

Rights groups have noted that the Turkish army has systematically
targeted Kurdish civilians as retribution for PKK attacks, which
includes raiding homes, carrying out mass arrests, destroying
property, and indiscriminately shooting and throwing hand grenades at
the homes of civilians.

In 1992, for instance, following clashes between the PKK and Turkish
security forces in the town of Kulp, a district in Turkey’s Diyarbakır
province, at least five Kurdish civilians were killed and four wounded
after Turkish forces opened fire and shot randomly at houses, shops,
and vehicles for days. One of the wounded was reportedly killed after
Turkish security forces soaked him with kerosene and set him on fire.

The PKK has also been accused of committing serious human rights
abuses, such as killing civilians, including women and children, and
other Kurds who are suspected of collaborating with the Turkish army —
and even targeting PKK defectors.

Members of the village guard, or koy korucalar — predominantly Kurdish
militias who assist in Turkey’s military operations against the PKK
and its various offshoots — have been a particular target for PKK
fighters. Many villagers were given a choice to either join the
village guard, and henceforth become collaborators for the Turkish
state, or be entirely expelled from their villages. Villagers have
also reported facing torture and abuse from Turkish authorities if
they refused.

Members of the koy korucalar have been accused of carrying out summary
executions, enforced disappearances, sexual assaults, and seizing the
lands and homes of displaced villagers — at times disguising
themselves as PKK militants in order to shift the blame onto the PKK.

The fighting was temporarily abated following the arrest of Öcalan in
1999, who called on the PKK fighters to put down their weapons and
cease the militant insurgency. But the unilateral ceasefire only
maintained for a few years before the fighting resumed.

“After the massacre, life continued in the same way,” Gulizar says.
Her snow white hair is partly blanketed by a thin, white scarf. Her
body remains completely inert; the only movement I can detect is the
subtle opening and closing of her mouth as she speaks. “In the 1930s
and ’40s, they massacred us. In the ’70s and ’80s they tortured us. In
the ’90s they destroyed our villages. Now they continue to imprison
us. Nothing has changed.”
“I Avoid Looking at the Mountains”

When Bego finally begins to speak, he takes a moment to unlock his
eyes from the empty space in front of him, lift his arm, and point to
the mountaintop beside us. “I fled to a village on that mountain with
my mother, brother, and two sisters,” he says.

Bego and his family were part of the Demanan tribe, who the Turkish
army partly blamed for burning a bridge between Dersim and Erzincan at
the start of the rebellion. Bego’s family fled their village after
receiving news that Turkish soldiers were approaching. They hid
themselves in another village called Hopik — located on a mountain
adjacent to Bego’s current home.
"When the bullet entered his sister’s head, it also sliced through
Bego’s fingers. He raises his right arm to show me his deformed hand
that has just three fingers remaining on it."

According to Bego, soldiers had made it to nearby villages and began
interrogating locals about the whereabouts of members of the Demanan
tribe — many of whom were active in the rebellion. “One man told the
soldiers that my family was from the Demanan tribe and then told them
where we were hiding,” Bego says.

The soldiers quickly found them and rounded all of them up. “They
brought us beside the Harcik River. They told us to line up. My
younger sister was so scared. She was shaking and crying. So I put my
hand on her head to try to console her.”

The soldiers began to shoot; one of the bullets was aimed at his
sister’s head. When the bullet entered her head, it also sliced
through Bego’s fingers. Bego pauses from his story and raises his
right arm to show me his deformed hand that has just three fingers
remaining on it.

The pain caused Bego to faint. The soldiers, assuming he was dead,
threw his body into the Harcik River, along with the bodies of his
family members — all of whom were shot to death. But when Bego’s body
plunged into the ice cold water, he was shaken awake.

“I drifted for several kilometers and then pulled myself out of the
river,” Bego recounts. “I walked to my aunt’s house and one of my
uncles came and brought me into the mountains to hide.”

Bego’s voice continues, uninterrupted; still staring into space — not
producing even a flicker of a reaction to his own words or memories.
He describes the brutality of the Turkish soldiers. During the
rebellion, men would often go into the mountains to fight the Turkish
army, leaving the women, elderly, and children behind in the villages,
Bego says.

In the Rovaik village, now known locally to be the site of a mass
grave, Turkish soldiers indiscriminately killed the residents left
behind. “We always thought that women, children, and the elderly
should never be part of war,” Bego says. “War is between men and men;
soldiers and soldiers. But they came to Rovaik and they killed
everyone. They didn’t leave anyone alive.”

“When the men returned from the mountains, they found the bodies of
all of their loved ones scattered on the ground,” he continues. “They
were just left there by the soldiers.” The Alevi Kurdish fighters were
then forced to bury their parents, grandparents, wives, and children.
According to Bego, there were so many bodies that they had no choice
but to bury them all together — in one mass grave.
Bego’s wound.

“I try to avoid looking at the mountains,” Bego says. “Every time I
look at them I remember my family being killed. I feel the pain over
and over again. I have never been able to forget this pain.”

In 2011, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized for the
Dersim massacre. “If there is a need for an apology on behalf of the
state, if there is such a practice in the books, I would apologize and
I am apologizing,” he said in a televised statement. He called the
massacre the “most tragic event in our recent history” and called on
the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the party of Atatürk which was in
power at the time of the massacre, to “face up” to its history.

However, many Kurds scoffed at Erdoğan’s apology, which they viewed as
a political stunt to turn Kurdish voters away from CHP, Turkey’s main
opposition party.

When I ask Bego his thoughts on Erdoğan’s apology, I expect him to
respond angrily, but his voice continues in that same low, monotonous

“They are still killing us. They are still arresting us and torturing
us. They just recently massacred us in Sur,” he says, referring to the
2016 siege of the Sur district in Diyarbakır, when more than two
hundred Kurds, most of whom were civilians, were killed by the Turkish
army and police in a span of about three months during confrontations
with PKK militants.

“If he wants to apologize then he should stop killing us first,” Bego says.
“It’s Like the Bones Were Calling Me”

Huseyin Baran’s depression has lasted for years — haunted by a past
that lurks like a relentless shadow creeping behind the tired gait of
Dersim’s elders. Huseyin’s mother, Zarife, was born in the year 1938 —
her first breath and cries joined the last breath and screams of her

Like all residents in Dersim, Huseyin learned the stories of the
resistance and massacres before he was old enough to attend school. In
1938, Turkish soldiers killed every single member they could find of
the Canan family, Zarife’s uncle’s family — along with the Baran
family. Locals say there were twenty-four victims in total.

The Turkish soldiers gathered them inside a house sitting on a hilltop
located several kilometers from Huseyin’s home in Hozat. According to
the story passed down from the elders, all of the victims, which
included children, were shot to death before the soldiers burned the
house down.

Huseyin has always felt a “spiritual burden” to his ancestors, and has
long wanted to build memorials for them. “I grew up with these
narratives of the massacres,” Huseyin says, sitting on a couch in his
living room with his hands gently clasped together. His spirit seems
soft and kind.

“I felt like I had some responsibility to them — to at least create a
space where we could go and show our respect to them.”

However, building a memorial for Dersim’s ancestors could have landed
Huseyin in a Turkish prison. Even publicly mentioning the name
“Dersim” would likely attract the state’s “bronze fist.” But Erdoğan’s
Justice and Development Party (AKP) began liberalizing its policies on
the Kurds over the last decade in order to attract Kurdish voters and
revive stalled peace talks with the PKK, which had resumed its
operations against the government in 2004.

In March 2013, after negotiations between Öcalan and Erdoğan, Öcalan
announced a ceasefire, which included a withdrawal of PKK fighters
from Turkish soil, while Erdoğan promised to expand Kurdish cultural
rights in Turkey.

For the first time in Turkey’s history, Kurdish schools began popping
up in the region and dozens of Kurdish language TV channels,
newspapers, and associations were established; the printing of Kurdish
language books more than doubled.

Kurdish municipalities also began constructing memorials for slain
Kurdish leaders and civilians killed by Turkish security forces.
Riza’s statue was erected in Dersim in 2010 and three years later a
memorial was built in Diyarbakır to memorialize the victims of the
Roboski massacre, when in 2011 Turkish fighter jets bombed and killed
thirty-four Kurds, most of whom were minors, from the village of
Roboski in Turkey’s Sirnak province as they were returning from the
Iraqi border where they had collected supplies to sell at the market.

Huseyin finally found himself with a political opening to construct a
memorial for his massacred ancestors. In April 2014, Huseyin and three
hired workers, armed with shovels, began their hike to the site of the
massacre — about a forty-five minute walk from Huseyin’s home.

“I was digging in the area and I suddenly struck a large rock with my
shovel,” Huseyin says. “I lifted the rock and under it I saw bones.
There were skulls, arm and leg bones, a jaw, and what looked like

“I knew immediately that these were the bones of my ancestors.”

Huseyin collapsed and began to uncontrollably sob. “I can’t explain to
you what I was feeling,” he says. When he found the strength to
continue uncovering the bones, he was barraged with powerful flashes
of scenes and images from more than eight decades ago.

“I could feel what they felt. I could see them being burned. I could
hear the gunshots and the children crying,” he says. “It was like the
bones were calling me to this exact spot.”

Huseyin immediately scrambled to contact lawyers who could help him.
For twenty days, he watched over the bones of his ancestors — only
leaving the site to eat and sleep. He feared that Turkish officials
would hear about his discovery and come to damage the bones.
"These are skeletons we found of two children who were trying to cover
each other when the Turkish soldiers began shooting."

Two and a half weeks later, Cihan Soylemez, a lawyer in Dersim,
arrived at the site. This was not the first time a resident had
discovered skeletal remains hiding under the earth in Dersim. In 2012,
Soylemez had also worked on a case in which villagers had uncovered
bones in a mountainous area of Erzincan, where elders say at least a
hundred five people were gathered and shot to death by the Turkish
army. However, the case, which requested an investigation into the
deaths, was rejected by the courts and Soylemez never got any further.

Many other residents in Dersim have also stumbled upon bones; other
times they peek out from their hiding places under the soil when the
earth becomes eroded. But the crushing fear of the Turkish state —
inherited from their ancestors still stacked below their feet —
restrained most residents into silence.

“In 1938, the army was marching from village to village massacring
people,” Soylemez says, seated in a chair behind a large desk in his
office in Dersim’s city center. “People went into hiding in the
mountains and the forests. When they returned they found people

“They tried to cover the graves as best they could,” he continues. “It
was the people of Dersim who buried the dead, so they remember exactly
where the graves are located. Most of them were mass graves because
people were too scared to bury the victims individually; they thought
they would be targeted by the army. Other times there were just too
many bodies.”

According to locals, there are at least three hundred mass graves
located around the Dersim province. Dersim’s residents often visit
these mass grave sites, lighting candles and praying for the souls of
their ancestors beneath them.

When Soylemez arrived at the site in Hozat, he brought the media with
him. Once the discovery had been documented, Huseyin finally felt at
ease. Soylemez took the findings to the public prosecution’s office in
Hozat to demand that the Turkish government assist in excavating the

But the public prosecutor rejected the case. Soylemez then took the
case to the criminal court in Erzincan, which overturned the public
prosecutor’s decision. But during the initial investigation, the
public prosecutor sent officials from the gendarmerie to the site
without informing the community in Hozat. When the officials arrived,
the bones had been covered by Huseyin to protect them from wild
animals. They concluded there were no bones at the site; they left and
the case was rejected once again.

Soylemez was forced to take the case to Dersim’s magistrate court. He
pulled examples from a European Union Court of Human Rights decision
that held Turkey responsible for various violations during its 1974
invasion and occupation of Cyprus. Most notably, the court found that
Turkey had continuously failed to carry out effective investigations
into the circumstances around the disappearances of 1,485 Greek
Cypriots at the time.

“The issue here is that the right to life has been violated,” Soylemez
says. “The bones could be from the 1970s, of people who were tortured
by the military. Even if they did not belong to those who died in
1938, they belong to someone. And that should be investigated
according to the law.”

The court ruled in favor of Soylemez, and ordered that the site be
excavated and an investigation be carried out. In April 2015, the
Turkish government sent in forensic experts from Istanbul University
who had been involved with excavating mass graves in Bosnia.

During the excavation, which took two days to complete, Huseyin stood
by and watched the team digging through the dirt that for decades had
muffled the souls of his ancestors — and, again, he heard their

“It happened to me when I found them and then it happened again during
the excavations,” Huseyin says. “The bushes and the wind were crying;
they sounded like children. They were saying, ‘We are here. We are
still here.’”

The findings of the excavation echoed the hollow and distant voices of
Dersim’s elders.

“They found eleven skulls. Some of the skulls were piled in the same
place; others were spread around the area,” Soylemez explains. “They
found remnants of ashes, thirteen bullets, and jewelry — like rings,
necklaces and bracelets.”

The bones were then sent to Istanbul to be examined. In February 2016,
the full forensic report was released. According to Soylemez, the
forensic team concluded that seven of the eleven skulls belonged to
children; the oldest was fourteen-years-old and the youngest was just
four. All of the thirteen bullets were those used by the Turkish

“Come here and take a look,” Soylemez says, gesturing for me to join
him behind his desk. He clicks his mouse and displays photographs, one
after the other, of various bones excavated at the site. In one photo,
hands wrapped in blue surgical gloves are holding onto one of the
skulls, as another set of hands measure it with a tool.

“Look at this one,” he adds, as his finger clicks the mouse once
again. I cannot deduce what is happening in the photo; it looks like
brittle rocks are coming to the surface from deep in the ground.
“These are skeletons we found of two children who were trying to cover
each other when the Turkish soldiers began shooting.”
Dersim’s Missing Daughters

The sparkling water at Munzur Gozeleri gushes over rocks and splashes
into the basin below as we walk along the Munzur River’s banks. The
river is a tributary of the Euphrates River, which flows through Syria
and Iraq to the Shatt al-Arab in the Basra governorate of southern
Iraq. “You can easily ride this river to Iraq. No problem!” — as Metin
put it.

Around the water, smiling Alevi Kurdish women wearing loosely fitted,
colorful head scarves sell gozleme, a flatbread and pastry dish common
throughout Turkey. A gift shop sells keychains bedecked with Imam
Husayn’s image, the son of Ali — the cousin and son-in-law of the
Prophet Muhammad whose mystical teachings the Alevi follow.

While Alevism is the largest minority religion in Turkey, the Alevism
practiced in Dersim is unique to the Kurds there; they have their own
saints and their beliefs are intricately tied to Dersim’s natural
landscape. It is also heavily influenced by Armenian Christian
beliefs, as many Armenians in Dersim converted to Alevism to hide
their identities from Turkish authorities during the Armenian
genocide, and then later during the Dersim massacre.

Higher up on the rocks, people are lighting candles and praying as the
water runs down the stones and crashes around them. Others are dipping
their hands under the cascading water, lifting their arms, and sipping
from the small pool they collected on their palms. The water from
Munzur Gozeleri is considered sacred to the Alevi Kurds in Dersim, who
believe that its holiness can make wishes come true.
The Missing Girls of Dersim memorial at Munzur Gozeleri.

A woman is stooped over one of the lagoons at the site, which collects
the water from the river into a pool; she hikes up her pants and
splashes the holy river onto her feet and legs. Beside her stands a
plague with a poem written on it, authored by Fecire (Kocer) Buke, one
of Dersim’s missing daughters.

Following the 1938 massacre, hundreds of Alevi Kurdish girls were
stolen from their families and given up for adoption to Turkish
military officers. Scores of children were also taken by soldiers and
sent to Turkish boarding schools. To this day, many are still
searching for their missing relatives from Dersim. Fecire was taken
when she was about three years old and given to a Turkish military
officer. She wrote this poem many years later from Istanbul.

In the poem, written in Turkish, Fecire expresses her yearning for the
Munzur River. My translator told me that the poem would “lose all its
meaning in English,” but still tried to translate its meaning as best
he could:

    You are my soul and heart

    And the tears in my eyes

    You are my gravestone

    And the crown on my head

    My dearest Munzur

    “I shared my blood with you

    I shared my life with you

    Have you not witnessed it all?

    My dearest Munzur.

Helicopters Over Dersim

Emre and Metin invite me to go fishing with them and their friends.
Emre is a serious fisherman. He stands for hours with a net beside the
Harcik River — throwing it into the glistening water and patiently
letting it wade until he feels a catch.

Meanwhile, Metin and I sit to the side and drink beer. They run into
more friends and we congregate to swim at a pool in the river. In
Dersim, everyone seems to know each other. The laughing and splashing
of people swimming, jumping off rocks, swinging from a thick rope, and
plunging into the ice cold water, is periodically interrupted by the
sound of helicopters flying above us.
Metin Albaslan.

“It’s OK,” Emre says, after he notices me looking up in curiosity.
“It’s just the Turkish government making sure we’re not terrorists.”

In 2015, the ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK
collapsed. Kurdish activists had accused the Turkish government of
assisting the Islamic State, or ISIS, in their attack on the Kurdish
city of Kobanî in Syria. A few weeks later, Kurdish activists alleged
that the Turkish state was responsible for an ISIS suicide attack in
the border town of Suruç in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa province, which killed
thirty-two people, most of whom were university students who were
planning on traveling across the border to assist in rebuilding
efforts in Kobanî.
"Hundreds of Alevi Kurdish girls were stolen from their families and
given up for adoption to Turkish military officers."

Dersim’s mountains once again became home for hundreds of male and
female PKK guerrilla fighters. The killings of civilians, displacement
of hundreds of thousands, and the widespread destruction of property
resumed. In a little more than a year, the Turkish army drove up to
half a million people from their homes, according to the UN, and put
dozens of Kurdish cities, towns, and neighborhoods under strict
curfews, in which movement was not allowed unless with special
permission. During the curfews, Turkish officials reportedly cut off
water, electricity, and food supplies to entire cities.

Since July 2015, at least 5,123 people have been killed in the
fighting, including hundreds of civilians. PKK militants make up more
than half of the fatalities. In a 2017 report, the UN documented the
Turkish army’s practice of torturing detainees and its use of sexual
violence, including rape. Reports also emerged of Turkish officials
taking nude photographs of detainees to use for potential blackmail.

The Turkish army carried out aerial bombardments of PKK bases in
Dersim’s mountains and declared large swathes of land in the province
“closed security zones,” where, according to locals, if anyone is
caught treading through they risk being shot by the helicopters
hovering above.

While the intensity of the conflict has subsided, locals say there are
still a few dozen dedicated guerrilla fighters who have remained in
the mountains. Turkish helicopters have become the loudest birds in
Dersim, periodically fluttering through the sky, surveilling the
canvas of oak trees below. Residents are so used to their presence
they do not even look up anymore.
A New Crackdown Against the Kurds Begins

Back in Hozat, Huseyin finally received his ancestors’ remains from
the labs in Istanbul after months of waiting. They were delicately
wrapped in fabric bags. He gently laid the remains on a couch at his
home, placed a veil over them, and kept them there for twenty days —
the same amount of time he stayed by their side when he first
discovered them in the ground.

“I would speak to them every day,” Huseyin says. “I talked to them
about all of the pain they experienced. I made sure they knew that
someone was listening and what happened to them would never be

Huseyin returned the bones to the hilltop, which he had transformed
into a memorial — with large plagues listing the names of all of the
victims, including an Alevi Kurdish family that was massacred on that
very same hilltop during the Ottoman era. He placed the skulls and
bones inside a tomb that he positioned in the center of the memorial.
The memorial constructed by Huseyn for his massacred ancestors on a
mountain near his house.

“I have felt so depressed since I found the bones,” he says, his
large, somber eyes glued to the floor of his living room. “It has
lasted for years. All of it continues to haunt me.”

Huseyin had plans to expand the excavations and follow the geography
of his elders’ memories. “We know how many people were massacred on
that hill and it was more than the people they found,” he explains. He
also wanted to create a single cemetery to collect all the remains of
the victims found in the excavations, where the dead would be given
proper burials and graves.

However, following the coup attempt in July 2016, Erdoğan declared a
state of emergency, enabling him and the AKP government to bypass
parliament and rule by decree. Erdoğan came down hard on the Kurdish
region, shuttering dozens of Kurdish TV channels, newspapers, and
associations. He arrested thousands of members of the Kurdish-led
Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which Erdoğan has frequently accused
of having ties to the PKK, and dismissed dozens of their elected
officials, replacing them with state-appointed trustees.

The state trustees immediately began overturning the cultural gains
the municipalities had achieved during the peace period, including
closing down Kurdish schools and destroying public monuments and
memorials. The memorial for the victims of the Roboski massacre, which
consisted of the names of all thirty-four victims and a sculpture of a
woman on her knees, mourning the victims, with her hands raised to the
sky and missiles surrounding her, was swiftly removed.

Kurds in Turkey were once again thrown into the silencing shadows of
fear; any whisper of dissent could easily lead to a terrorism-related
charge. Dersim’s HDP co-mayors, part of a system adopted by HDP in
which both a female and male mayor are elected to promote gender
equality, were arrested. Dersim co-mayor Nurhayat Altun, who was
arrested in 2016, is still in prison and facing more than twenty-two
years on charges of being an “administrator in a terrorist

As the people fell back into silence, their ancestors also cowered
back into the soil. Following Huseyin’s discovery, more bones had
appeared. According to Soylemez, he worked on an additional case for a
family in a village called Nazmir, who were demanding the Turkish
government help in excavating a site where their ancestors were
massacred and thrown into a pit. But following the attempted coup and
the subsequent state of emergency, the case was suspended.

Today, Huseyin is too nervous to continue with building memorials for
the massacre victims. “I don’t search for the bones anymore. If I
found them it wouldn’t be possible to determine who they were or what
happened to them, because the political situation wouldn’t allow it,”
Huseyin says.

Zarife, his elderly mother, dressed in her traditional clothes with
long, red braids falling over her chest, sits across from him — quiet
and intently listening. “It’s better to leave them in the earth until
the political atmosphere changes in Turkey.” But he continues to visit
the memorial and other mass grave sites to light candles, pray for
them, and console them until it is finally time to help them to the
Huseyin’s mother Zarife.

For Huseyin, his fight has never been about justice. “You can’t find
justice in this country. So there’s no point in looking for it,” he
says. “I don’t want financial reparations either. All I want is
confirmation from the government. I want the government to admit that
all of these children and elders were massacred and burned alive just
because they were Alevi Kurds.”

“I can feel it deep in my conscience. It keeps me up at night. What
the government did here was genocide. I want them to admit to their

“If the Turkish government finally takes responsibility for what it
did here, would that really be enough?” I ask Huseyin.

He pauses for a moment. “At least our conscience would be relieved,”
he finally says. “We want their names to be written. We want our dead
to be remembered. I want the world to know that these people existed
and I want the world to know what the Turkish government did to them.”

“All of Dersim is a place of memory,” Huseyin continues. “All of our
history lies in these mountains. Everywhere I go, I see my ancestors’
footsteps. I can hear their screams. I cry for them each time I visit
the mass graves. I can see the children playing together on top of
where all of their bodies were buried.”
“A Lineage of Pain”

Metin lives in a modest, two-room wooden house deep in Dersim’s
mountains. One day he leads me to a location beside the Munzur River.
The night is dark and icy. The air and wind get colder and stronger as
we approach the river. We are here to meet with another former PKK
fighter. For fear of reprisal, he asked that I use a pseudonym to
protect his identity. I will call him Omer — one of the most popular
names in Turkey, according to a quick Google search.

Omer, like all the residents in Dersim I met, seems gentle and kind.
He is twenty-four and took up arms against the Turkish government when
he was just twenty. According to Omer, in 2015 there were about three
hundred male and female PKK guerrilla fighters and a smaller number of
communist rebels fighting the Turkish army in the mountains. They
marched over their ancestors and hid in the same caves and shrubbery
where their grandparents had many decades before attempted to find
refuge from the Turkish soldiers.

Both Metin and Omer speak in a cautious, low tone. Even subtle murmurs
of support for the PKK could easily lead you into a set of handcuffs
in Turkey. “We were not fighting for ourselves, but for our people and
our culture,” Omer says, his voice entangling into the soothing
movements of the Munzur River. “We are not from Iran, Iraq, or Syria —
or anywhere else. We are the children of these lands. We are the
children of Dersim.”

Omer and Metin watched many of their comrades shot to death by Turkish
soldiers — desperately clinging to that last breath before joining
their ancestors. “When you see their faces… their eyes… it’s not
possible to explain the feeling. It’s terrible,” Metin says. He slowly
lowers his head, seemingly in search for words that could describe the
indescribable. “We all stayed together in the forest. We became like
brothers and sisters.”

Metin’s heart is tightly enveloped by the Kurdish struggle. He is a
principled man who believes bullets and jail cells are necessary if he
is fighting for what is right. He also has high expectations of
others; he expects everyone to sacrifice for the movement like he
does. However, for most people the fear of landing in a Turkish prison
is enough to keep them in line. For many other Kurds, Turkey’s forced
assimilation has proved successful; therefore, Metin is often left
Munzur Gozeleri.

In the mountains, when their comrades were killed, the PKK fighters
would quickly carry them off and bury them. “We were scared the
Turkish soldiers would find them and mutilate their bodies,” Metin
says. He mentions the name Barin Kobani, a female fighter in the
People’s Protection Units (YPG), a predominantly Kurdish militia in
Syria, whose dead body was filmed and mocked by Turkish-backed forces
during the 2018 invasion of the Syrian city Afrin.

After burying their comrades, the PKK fighters would keep track of the
exact locations of the graves. The fighters would lead grieving
families through Dersim’s treacherous terrain to visit the sites where
their sons and daughters were buried. In 2015, the fighters decided to
retrace their steps and collect all the bodies of their comrades
buried around Dersim over the years and provide them a proper burial
in a cemetery — which they referred to as the “Martyrs’ cemetery.”

“It was important for us to make sure our friends were remembered
after their death,” Metin recalls. “But we also wanted to make it
easier for the families to visit their children’s graves.” With the
help of villagers in the area, they dug graves and constructed the
cemetery, and, according to Metin, collected the remains of two
hundred seventy fighters and buried them there.

But in Dersim, the earth’s rivers and the people’s veins coalesce
together in 1938.

Soon after constructing the cemetery, the PKK fighters decided to
build a memorial beside the cemetery for their ancestors massacred on
these mountains just fifteen years after the establishment of the
Turkish state.

About fifty fighters traced the memories of their elders and began
searching for the bones of their ancestors. “We spoke to our elders
and villagers around the areas where we knew there were mass graves,”
Omer says. “The places where the resistance was strong were usually
where massacres took place.”

Both Metin and Omer went to an area in a village called Alacik.
According to the villagers in Alacik, about fifty years ago, the bones
came to the surface and the villagers threw soil on top of them —
scared that Turkish officials would target them or try to dispose of
their ancestors’ ghosts by destroying the evidence.

It was not time yet for the bones to come out from hiding; so they
were sent back into the soil. But stories are steadfast in Dersim, and
it did not take long for Metin and Omer to stumble upon the bones. “We
found parts of a finger, ribs, and a hip bone,” Metin says. Based on
the stories of their elders and the villagers, they concluded that the
bones were the remains of their massacred ancestors.
"This was not the first or last massacre in Turkey’s history."

The fighters also found skeletal remains, presumed to be from 1938, in
two other villages in Dersim: Bor and Lac. They brought the bones to
the site of the memorial beside the Martyrs’ cemetery, where they had
placed a plague that stated that the bones were the remains of Alevi
Kurds killed in 1938 and the locations where they had found them. They
then placed the bones in a glass display case they erected at the

“We wanted to show that the pain we’re experiencing from 1938 until
now is similar,” Metin explains. “There’s a lineage of pain here. This
was not the first or last massacre in Turkey’s history.”

The memorial was also meant to remind the people of Dersim, who were
visiting the cemetery to mourn their slain sons and daughters, of
their history. According to Metin, Turkey’s most destructive policies
in Dersim were not its bombing campaigns or its physical military
operations, it was the army’s attempts at creating a wedge between the
PKK fighters and the civilians in Dersim.

“They have tried their best to turn our own people against us,” Metin
says. “We wanted the memorial to help our people come back to their
roots — to remember our culture and history so that we can protect

But the memorial only lasted for a few months before the Turkish army
bombed it in an aerial attack, destroying the memorial and the
cemetery. Nowadays, this area is part of the closed security zone
where Dersim’s residents are forbidden from entering.

“There are thousands of bones beneath us,” Metin says. His breath
comes out of his mouth like smoke. The cold has gripped us. “And we
still have not even had the chance to properly bury them.”

“If we forget what happened here, these massacres will continue to
happen. This could be the fate of my children. We follow and protect
our ancestors because their stories will protect our children in the
future.” Metin’s voice shakes as he fights through shivers. The Munzur
River’s murmurs become louder; it sounds like she is roaring.

“It has been decades of massacres and wars. But we are still here. The
rivers of Dersim run through our blood. We will never leave. I believe
if we continue to resist, no matter the obstacles, one day the Turkish
government will have no choice but to finally leave us alone.”


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