Dersim Massacre


After the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, centralization and Turkification became the two main aims of the Turkish political elites. The existence of Kurds and their identity started to be denied and in the following years, military operations were launched against the Kurdish groups which were resistant to the politics of the government. Most of the Kurdish provinces were brought under control of Ankara during the 1920s. While there were attempts to control the Dersim region, located in Eastern Anatolian during the last years of Ottoman Empire, Dersim still had partial autonomy until the mid-1930s due to its mountainous, difficult-to-access geography. The region was (and is still) overwhelmingly populated by Kurdish Alevis, who were perceived as “the others” throughout the centuries both by the central governments and by its Sunni neighbors.   

The Turkish military campaign against Dersim began in 1937 with the official aim of “pacifying” the region. Thousands of people were killed in the course of the first military operation, while the tribal and religious Alevi leader Seyid Riza was captured and executed. Another military operation, backed by military aircraft, was carried out between December 1937 and August 1938. The remaining population of Dersim was forced to migrate to the western parts of Anatolia, and the name of the region was changed to Tunceli (‘the bronze hand’ referring to the heavy attacks of the government). Sabiha Gökçen, the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal and the first Turkish female combat pilot became a symbol of the operations due to her prominent role in the bombardments. While the violent military campaign officially targeted bandits and rebels, it was actually directed against the whole population, using bombing from the air and poison gas against the villagers who hid in caves. Up to 60,000 people were killed, most of whom were civilians. Three years later, after the state had established a security infrastructure in Dersim, the deported population was permitted to return. However, in the following decades the Turkish state pursued its assimilation policies targeting Alevi Kurds.

It took until 2011 for the Turkish political leadership to formally apologize for the massacre. “If there is 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," stated the then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a broadcasted program in November 2011. Some considered this as an attempt to discredit Erdogan’s Kemalist opponents rather than a sincere attempt to come to terms with this historical human rights violation. Nevertheless, this was the first public apology ever made by a Turkish leader for a past atrocity committed by Turkish state authorities. Recent academic works have shed new light on the Dersim campaign, with some critical scholars framing it as an “ethnocide” (Bruinessen) or even a “genocide”, aiming at the destruction of Kurdish identity. 


A family standing against ruined building
A family standing against ruined building,Mezopotamya Agency,Cizre