One of the bloodiest chapters in Kurdish history began in March 1937, when Kurds led by political figure Seyid Riza in Dersim province rebelled against Mustafa Kamal Ataturk’s Turkish government.
Dersim’s rebellion lasted for nearly two years; Turkish forces launched a campaign of brutal repression to quell it, including the use of aerial bombings and poisonous gas. Estimates for the massacre’s death toll run as high as 45,000.
Kurds annually commemorate the genocide on May 4 and reiterate “the state should fulfill what an apology entails.”
It took until 2011 for senior Turkish political leadership to formally apologise for the mass killings.
If there is need for an apology on behalf of the state, if there is such a practice in the books, I would apologise and I am apologising, incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised remark in November 2011.
However, many viewed his apology as an empty ploy to win the voting favour of Kurds in the southeast of the country.
In his two-volume book Hatıralarım (My Memories), prominent Kurdish writer and journalist Musa Anter narrates the massacre through officers who, while Anter was a student taking part in compulsory military training, recounted their involvement in the killings.
Anter was born in 1920 in Mardin province. He later moved to Adana to complete his junior, high school and further education.
While a college student in Adana, Anter worked as a reporter for the Turkish-language Vakit newspaper. He has written a number of books in both Kurdish and Turkish.
Anter wrote My Memories from 1991 until 1992 – the year he was assassinated while in Diyarbakir to attend a festival.
Bese vs Zubeyde
“The leader of the Dersim revolution was Seyid Riza. His respected wife was Bese, who led a unit of the guerilla fighters. Almost every day, Bese was attacked by the media in Istanbul. These attacks made me very sad. I protested the attacks. My friends felt this. Half-jokingly and half-seriously, they would call me ‘the grandson of Bese.’ One day in class, they pinned a piece of paper on my back, which read ‘the grandson of Bese.’ When the teacher left the class, the students began laughing at me and teased me,” Anter writes.
He adds that one night, a group of 8-10 students all cursed Bese in his presence – so Anter retaliated by cursing Zubeyda, the mother of Ataturk.
“We took the incident as a joke. However, my classmate Kenan the son of an officer at Adana’s Kurukopru police station, informed his father about the incident. Later, a police team came and took me to the police station. I was detained there for 15 days. This was my first detention.”
The principal of the school went to the police station and told them that Anter only cursed Zubeyda after he was provoked by other students – resulting in his release.
“When I returned to school, nine of my friends who were involved in the incident were expelled. I thought the case was closed. Two months after the incident, I was summoned by the principal. When I entered, I saw a foreign-looking man sitting there. He was Adana’s public prosecutor. He took out a paper and read it out, then made me sign it. Ataturk had been asked whether he intended to file a lawsuit against me but he had responded in the negative. The prosecutor said, ‘Look my son. Ataturk has pardoned you. Do not repeat such childish behaviour.’ I thanked the prosecutor coldly and left after kissing the principal’s hand.”
Anter says that the mass killings “affected all honest Kurds. So many crimes and genocides were carried out that it was impossible not to be sad.”
In reference to a memoir by former Turkish commander Muhsin Batur, published circa 1958, Anter says that the commander indirectly confesses to killing people in the Dersim massacre “‘after receiving an order from Ankara.’”
He later refers to a February 1990 televised interview with Sabiha Gokcen, Turkey’s first female military pilot, where she indirectly confessed to having taken part in the incident. Known as “the Hero Pilot,” Gokcen was the adopted daughter of Ataturk.
“In the past, high school and university students had to attend a paramilitary camp for 20 days after the end of the academic year, for three years and two years respectively,” says Anter, who adds that he attended similar camp in 1941 and saw a Turkish commander confess his involvement in the mass killings.
“One day, we were taking a break under a tree in the camp. Secaettin, commander of our division, began talking about the events of Dersim with enthusiasm,” Anter writes. He then shares one of the commander’s stories about his involvement in the killings with the reader:
“We had begun sweeping operations in Dersim. We found many families in a cave. They consisted of grandparents, fathers, mothers and children who aged 5-6. We killed the adults with machetes. We did not kill the children so that we could trick them to speak [about the rebellion], because we failed to get anything from the mouths of Dersim’s adults. We would kill them immediately because we knew they would not say anything. We would kill the parents and grandparents of the children out of their sight so that they would not be terrified...We tried to befriend a child. We gave him food and candy but he refused to eat them. At that moment, one of our aircrafts flew overhead. The child...picked up a stick, held it like a gun and aimed it at our aircraft. This made me very angry and I ordered: “Finish off this bastard.” The soldiers began attacking him with a machete, and after killing him, they threw his body off the cliff,” Anter quotes the commander as saying.
The commander went on to narrate another of his memories of the Dersim genocide.
“Again we were maneuvering through a wide field. We collected thousands of Kurds from caves while they were sleeping. Our commander ordered us to throw them all into the Munzur River to die rather than killing them [by gunshot] because this required too many bullets. We took the Kurds we had collected, to the edge of Munzur Bridge. The river was very deep and wild. We took these [people] and threw them into the river: some threw themselves in, while others were forced to do so,” continued the commander as per Anter.
The hostages held each other to form a chain, fearing they would have to throw themselves into the river. The soldiers were ordered to use sticks from nearby oak trees to beat the hostages until they jumped to their death. “Some soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone in the river who tried to swim for survival,” the commander said according to Anter.
The third incident the commander narrated to Anter and others in his camp division was the rape of a 12- or 13-year-old Kurdish child, which he said he committed with a number of other soldiers.
Anter ends the book by saying he wrote the book not to spread hatred or a desire to retaliate, but so “people can hate incidents of this kind.”
Additional reporting by Mashalla Dakak and Hawar Ismael