Photo: Ruins of an old handmill within a destroyed village home in the Ovacik district of Dersim (tunceli), Turkey.
Dersim is a fairly unknown word when we speak of the Ottoman Empire, or Anatolia, or the Middle East. Its life in the broader imagination, like most of the world in the present, is buried, ignored, trivilialized and therefore ‘unknown’ to most people, except for those who study the region and histories, or who know people from this region. Dersim is a distinct region in Eastern Turkey. It is also a distinct culture. For the Dersim people, the Dersimians, it is a struggle for cultural memory and dignity. Political circumstances have forced much of Dersim history to be collapsed within the history of the Kurdish struggle in Turkey presently, inside the general Kurdish struggle in the entire Middle East and Central Asian areas. A nation “Turkey” was born after the Allied treaties created the new maps of the world after World War I. The boundaries were made and certain elites gained control. The control of Dersim shifted, in 1923,to be molded through the hands of the state functionaries of the new Turkish nation and their many arms: the education system, the judicial system, the military, the paramilitary groups. the process had started far before 1923, but now it is an official ‘fact.’ For the Europeans and US Americans, Turkey’s role was to become a buffer state in the war against the rising tide of socialism and communism. Communism itself arose in response to the growing domination of global capitalism over other life-governing histories and developments.
Today, Dersim is called, Tunceli in Eastern Turkey. Turkey has long considered this the center of anti-state activity since before the turn into the 19th century. Because Dersim’s villages and towns were located in the rugged and foreboding mountain terrain, the state could not completely subjugate the Dersim area. The Ottomans began trying in the 14th century. Dersimians practiced a religious form that was not the majority Sunni Muslim religion. The Dersim leaders refused to bow to capitalism and modernization carte blanche, to pay taxes or to send their boys to the state military to help protect the Ottomans from the encroaching military powers of France, Britain, Italy, Greece and the Russians. But once the Turkish state was formed, Turkey performed a series of horrific tactics intensifying its propaganda which in turn intensified the Dersimian need to survive. They did not want to become slaves to the whims and desires of a state that was unconcerned for their well-being. After several betrayals by the state officials, resulting from deals that the Turkish government used to frame the leaders of Dersim, the Dersimians had learned that the state was not trustworthy. At the same time, as colonization and state-making go, many Dersim leaders began to work for the new state after being offered riches and power. This, of course, divides communities.
Armenians lived in the Dersim region as well. When the state began their anti-Armenian pogroms in the 19th century, which were in addition to earlier anti-Christian and anti-Armenian massacres and riots in the Ottoman Empire, the Dersimians who were not involved with the domination of Sunni Islamic principles of governance, protected the Armenians. There were also rising tides of Armenian militarism to protect themselves from the Turkish state. The Dersimians were considered ‘friends’ of the Armenians, due to their having lived side-by-side on their lands for centuries. These events intensified the state’s fury against the Dersimians when the Turkish state began their horrific genocidal extinguishing of the Armenian presence in Turkey. Some of the Dersimians, along with the Christian missionaries from the Protestant schools in the United States who lived in the Dersim area at the time in order to convert, set-up a secret safe passageway to save as many Armenians as they could in the rugged terrain of Dersim through to Russia.
In 1925, already Turkey had set-up laws that would split the eastern Turkish regions, fragmenting families and jailing or assassinating the leadership of Kurdish and Dersimian and other groups who had been there for centuries, even before the arrival of the Seljuk Turkish tribes from the East. Yes, the Kurdish tribes and Dersimians were indigenous to that area, as far as historians at present, could tell. But this does not matter, of course. So in 1937, some leaders of Dersim, who always wanted a peaceful co-existence, were framed and publicly hung in the city square and a genocidal program begun. However, not without stiff resistance for about a full year. But the modern machinery and strategies co-authored by German officers who had close ties with that particular elite group in the Turkish state at the time, were too much for the poor and tribal armies of Dersim. The hunt had already began. Women and children were burned out of the caves they were hiding in. Some were lit afire, others shot. Some fled being captured and jumped to their deaths into ravines, wanting to die through their own initiative rather than to be captured by the Turkish state. Village houses burned, along with the possessions. There were rapes and mutilations. Those caught were rounded up and were taken to different points in Turkey according to the plans drawn up in the 1920s. When I spoke with an elder who lived during these times as a child, and was visiting Dersim during the summer of 2009 from his new home in Germany, he spoke of their Holy Munzur river flowing red with blood and with floating bodies.
Today, many young Dersimians are just beginning to even know that their families were from Dersim. Others know, but did not ever know of a genocide. There was tremendous trauma and silence was the main course. Turkish state education does not tell of this event in their textbooks. Any mention of it was illegal. For most, it was traumatic and they knew that they needed to keep silent in order to survive. Still, for others who worked for the Turkish state, they may have somehow wanted it as a need for change from some of their own ways. For most Dersim families, however, these stories were passed down to the present day and the young take up the cause, even as they had not experienced that first genocidal event.
In the 1990s, the Turkish government began a village destruction program and deforestation along with it. Deforestation has long been a tactic of burning people out their homes, disguised either as counter-terrorism, or environmental causes. For many young Dersimians who, of course, live in Istanbul or Ankara or Berlin or Paris or Belfast, or New Jersey, these memories are fresh and were confirmations of the ongoing state attitudes towards them. Coupled with this however, is that most of the people in the western half of Turkey, who only know of Dersim (Tunceli in their mind and on our maps today) as a dangerous place full of rebels and degenerates. In addition, right-wing student groups and clubs, as well as the policemen and teachers in schools who ‘protect’ the integrity of the hardline Turkish unification philosophy, would traumatized anyone who spoke out about being from the Tunceli region or for being Kurdish or to even support those ideas. The language was illegal and many were jailed simply because they spoke it and no other reason. For those who spoke Turkish fluently, with no accents, they could pass and hide and kept quiet. Others boldly protested and sometimes were tortured or killed. At schools, the bullies would get a hold of them.
So Dersim’s memory is now an explosive debate in Turkey. After Hrant Dink, a prominent Armenian writer/journalist in Turkey, was assassinated in broad daylight on January 19, 2007 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hrant_Dink ) , many of the Turkish population, regardless of ethnicity or region, became more vocal about their anger about the repetition of violence in the streets and the closed-mindedness of people in Turkey. Alevi religion, which the people of the Dersim region practices in their own unique forms, was also a way Dersim was marginalized and terms like ‘degenerate’ were used against them. There had been several anti-Alevi massacres throughout history as well, in the Ottoman Empire and in Turkey. The Alevi religious leaders became more bold as the Turkish culture began to want peace and democracy more than ever before. Many in the state official offices wanted the same. But things are slow to change.
But in 2008, some brave journalists were able to put in the newspapers some articles on Dersim. Most of the educated people in Turkey had never known of Dersim and what had happened in 1937-38. Now the pandora’s box was open. What is most important is the healing, however, of the traumatized population. Silences and obedience and assimilation were the ways in which they had survived, as much as perishing in prisons or torture chambers or assassinations for speaking out. They had also been in continuance fight, alongside the Kurdish resistance movements and the leftist movements. The disappearing of smaller, lesser known communities such as Dersim, are the ones that most of us do not pay attention to. Everyone knows more about the Armenians or the Kurdish people today. But there are thousands of smaller communities that have been disappeared for larger causes.
I am very honored to have been able to study with Dersim people about the Dersim history and culture alongside the Kurdish struggle. The differences between the Kurds and Dersimians are many, but there are many similarities. But in order to survive, military might could not be a tactic the Dersimians could rely on by themselves. They are too few.
People such as the Dersimians, practiced a culture of community. Their community practiced differently from the dominant norm. The way they wanted to handle their problems were to be with each other and discuss and mediate, not go to a court to have a stranger solve them. But in the modern system, that is how it is done. This is just one small example of why peoples such as the Dersimians, feel they want self-determination. For some, this may play out as wanting to a separate state. For most, it is more about the freedom to practice self-governance which includes their own traditional systems. At the same time, some of the old ways needed to change. There needs to be freedom in order to re-think. The current way forces an assimilation, a dieing.
There are not many books on the Dersim culture and history printed in the English language. There are some that mention its overall history, however. I recommend two books to start with: David McDowall’s “The Modern History of the Kurds” (http://www.amazon.com/Modern-History-Kurds-Third/dp/1850434166) and Joost Jongerden’s research of Dersim in the 1990s: “The Settlement Issue in Turkey and the Kurds” ( http://www.amazon.com/Settlement-Turkey-Economic-Political-Studies/dp/9004155570)