The Massacres and Oppression of the Kurds in 20th Century Turkey

By Helin Newroz Boztosun:

The 20th century was one of the most destructive eras in Kurdish history. While you may be aware of the current Kurdish-Turkish conflict, such as Turkey’s recent attacks on Afrin, Syria, most of you probably don’t know of their historical campaigns against the Kurds, and other minorities for that matter, until now. Although my focus here is the brutality that Kurds have suffered since the birth of modern Turkey, especially during the Zeylân and Dersim massacres, it’s worth mentioning that the Kurdish-Turkish conflict actually emerged during the Ottoman Empire. I’ve also put together a brief introduction below containing some background information about the post-World War I situation of the Kurds, which you may find helpful.

After the end of World War I, a pact was created in 1920, known as the Treaty of Sèvres, between the Allies and the representatives of the now collapsed Ottoman Empire. As part of the settlements within this treaty, an autonomous Kurdish state was to be established, with the possibility of future independence, in some of the predominantly Kurdish regions of the Middle East which the Kurds have belonged to for thousands of years. This included regions in south-east Turkey, also known as Northern Kurdistan.

However, Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, soon rejected the treaty, triggering the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). During this war, Turkish leaders had recruited Kurdish forces, promising them autonomy in exchange for their assistance. Unfortunately, once the Turks gained their independence they ignored this promise. The original Sèvres treaty was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, and it made no mention of an independent Kurdish state. Instead, it divided Kurdish territories between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq – much of the Middle East as we know it today. The problem was that Atatürk had a very specific vision of a unified Turkey that conflicted with the proposal of Kurdish autonomy. Rather than accepting the Kurds as a separate ethnic group, Atatürk’s government denied their existence – labelling them ‘mountain Turks’ instead – and sought to systematically ‘Turkify’ the Kurds through forced assimilation and official prohibition of their culture, such as the banning of Kurdish schools, organisations and publications in 1924. It is perhaps these words of Turkey’s Minister of Justice, Mahmut Bozkurt, reported in the Milliyet newspaper dated 19th September 1930, that best reflects the attitude of the government towards Kurds and other minorities:

‘The Turks are the only lords of this country, its only owners. Those who are not of pure Turkish stock have in this country only one right, that of being servants, of being slaves. Let friend and foe, and even the mountains know this truth.’

In the 1920’s and 30’s, numerous Kurdish rebellions occurred in response to the government’s ethnocidal schemes. As you will see, this defiance was harshly dealt with by Turkish authorities.

Zeylân Massacre (1930)

Among the uprisings that occurred in the Kurdish regions, the Ararat Rebellion (1927-1930) was one of the most significant. In those few years, Kurdish rebels had declared independence and established the (short-lived) Kurdish Republic of Ararat in the Ağri province, bordering Iran to the east. In response to the Ararat Rebellion, the government issued a law (No. 1850) that declared:

‘Murders and other actions committed individually or collectively, from June 20, 1930 to December 10, 1930, by the representatives of the state or the province, by the military or civil authorities, by the local authorities, by guards or militia-men, or by any civilian having helped the above or acted on their behalf, during the pursuit and extermination of the revolts … will not be considered as crimes.’

Essentially, this law ensured that there would be no prosecution of Turks who were involved in slaughtering countless Kurds. The government’s objective was to ‘clean’ Kurdish areas of their inhabitants, and the Zeylân massacre is an example of this.

In July 1930, Turkish forces began their ethnic cleansing of the Zeylân valley, targeting not only rebels but all Kurds. The region was showered with firebombs by air forces and surrounded by thousands of Turkish soldiers, trapping the Kurds there. Men, women and children were all slaughtered, regardless of age. The government’s intentions were made clear beyond doubt in a report by the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, dated 13th July 1930:

‘Cleaning started: those in the Zeylân valley have been completely exterminated. Not one of them survived. The operation in Ağri continues.’

There are various eyewitness accounts of the massacre from surviving Kurds and Turkish soldiers who were involved. Collectively, these accounts detail how the soldiers had shot, stabbed, beaten, and burnt to death thousands of Kurds; how they had cut open pregnant women and removed their unborn babies; how they had skinned villagers alive; and how thousands more were killed by machine gun fire, causing blood to flow out of the valley for days. Many of the surviving Kurds had hidden under corpses during the massacre. At least 44 villages had been burned to the ground and between 15,000 and 47,000 Kurds had been killed or disappeared, according to local and official sources. At the end of the massacre, the Zeylân valley was ‘filled to the mouth with corpses,’ as the Cumhuriyet announced on 16th July 1930. By mid-September that year, the Ararat Rebellion had been crushed and the young Kurdish Republic of Ararat was disbanded.

More recently in 2007, journalists from the pro-Kurdish news agency, Dijle Haber, published their interview of eyewitness Kakil Erdem, who was 17 years old when the Zeylân massacre took place. Below is an extract from the interview (translated from Turkish):

‘…thousands of soldiers came to the villages … They killed all the children, women, men they found in these villages … while they were killing people, we had to run and hide. Some of us hid in wheat fields and under things. Later on, we ran away to the mountains. For days we were stuck and hungry in the mountains. After the soldiers left we returned to the village. They had killed 35 members of my family … Many of the people killed in this massacre had fought in the War of Independence. They fought for this country … We fought the enemy together with the same people who later came and killed us.’

This interview obviously ruffled some feathers in the government as the journalists were later jailed for 18 months for ‘inciting hatred and hostility.’

Dersim Massacres (1937-38)

As I mentioned in the intro, it was the Turkish government’s aim to assimilate (Turkify) the Kurds, as well as other minorities, into Turkish culture and entirely destroy the Kurdish identity. To that end, Kurdish language, folklore and dress had been banned, along with the words ‘Kurd’ and ‘Kurdistan.’ On top of this, the government passed the Resettlement Law and the Surname Law in June 1934. Essentially, the Resettlement Law allowed for the destruction of Kurdish villages and migration of their inhabitants to areas of the country in which Turkish culture and language was predominant, where they would be forced to integrate; the Surname Law banned the use of non-Turkish surnames and demanded that the Kurds adopt Turkish surnames. Dispersing millions of Kurds as the government saw fit was an ambitious plan, and one that mostly failed because it was unrealistic in practice. The collective measures that were employed for the purpose of Turkification were, as can be expected, met with much resistance. The most defiant region was Dersim, an area that the government had previously failed to exert greater control over on several occasions. It had, by now, attracted most of the their attention.

At the end of 1935, the region’s name was changed from Dersim to the Turkish name of Tunceli. In 1936, roads and bridges were built in Dersim for military access, and military stations were installed in tactical locations. Dersim had been placed under martial law. However, military action did not properly begin until 1937, when authorities were certain that a rebellion led by Kurdish leader Seyîd Riza was imminent. In March, the army began its offensive after telephone lines were cut and a bridge was burned by rebels. Troops were sent in to arrest suspected Kurdish leaders but they were faced with prolonged resistance from armed tribesmen who refused to give up their leaders, resulting in a subsequent increase in the army’s efforts. Kurdish leaders sent emissaries to plead with the military governor to leave Dersim alone, and to let them manage themselves, but the governor refused and had the emissaries executed.

The Turkish army, with over 50,000 troops, slaughtered men, women and children indiscriminately yet again. Bombs were dropped from the skies and entire villages were burned down and destroyed. The grounds where homes once stood were burnt with kerosene so that they could not be returned to. Families that escaped and hid in caves were killed en masse with chemical weapons, or with the burning of wood at cave entrances to suffocate them. If these measures didn’t work, the caves were demolished with explosives or sealed up, leaving those trapped in there to die. Many girls and women were tortured and raped, and others had avoided capture by throwing themselves off of cliffs. Those who surrendered were gathered together; the men were shot on the spot while women and children were locked in hay sheds that were then set on fire. Even young men from Dersim who were off doing their military service in the Turkish army were killed.

When winter arrived, the army was unable to continue due to the harsh weather. The rebels were offered a ceasefire and peaceful settlement, including compensation for Dersim. The monumental damage that Dersim and its people had suffered, coupled with the weather conditions, led to Seyîd Riza’s surrender. Riza was arrested and executed along with other rebels, yet this was not the end of the bloodshed. Once spring came and the weather cleared, the army resumed its operations, and they were even more devastating than before due to their use of poison gas. When the government announced that they’d pardon all Kurds who gave up their weapons, several tribes did so but they were killed anyway.

At the time, the British Ambassador to Turkey, Sir Percy Loraine, was stationed in Trebizond, the closest diplomatic post to Dersim. Loraine was surprised that the Turkish government would allow such excessive ill-treatment of the Kurds, even comparing Dersim to the Armenian Genocide, during which Turkish forces had massacred over a million Armenians:

‘…the military authorities have used methods similar to those used against the Armenians during the Great War: thousands of Kurds including women and children were slain; others, mostly children, were thrown in the Euphrates; while thousands of others in less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were deported…’

According to current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, over 13,000 people had been killed in Dersim, though this number is undoubtedly too low as most other sources collectively report between 40,000 – 70,000 deaths and disappearances. Furthermore, between 3,000 – 14,000 people were forced to migrate from their homes in Dersim. Many Kurdish children who survived the massacres were sent to boarding schools or given to Turkish soldiers and bureaucrats to be Turkified.

So why is it that Zeylân, Dersim and other Kurdish massacres are not more widely known? There are a number of reasons for this; cover-ups by the government and inaccessible official historical records are largely to blame. In an effort to keep these damning events concealed from the outside world, foreigners were banned from travelling to the Kurdish regions until 1965, which of course greatly contributed to the lack of international publicity.

Unsurprisingly, the Kurds continued to be tyrannised after Dersim, with Kurdish-Turkish relations remaining volatile to this day. From World War II onwards, a lot of the Kurds persecuted, imprisoned and often tortured to death were intellectuals, artists, political activists and parliamentarians, who’d done nothing more than express their Kurdish identity. The Turkish government didn’t tolerate anyone who opposed or defied them. Further massacres, destruction of Kurdish lands and forced resettlements occurred later in the 20th and 21st centuries, and until 1991, Kurds continued to be officially classed as ‘mountain Turks.’ At a session of the Council of Europe in 1986, Turkey’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Turan Güneş, warned the Kurds:

‘If you have the courage, then claim independence. And we’ll fight. If you think you can defeat the most powerful army in Europe – the Turkish Army – go ahead. And allow me to add that if a number of countries like West Germany, France and England exhibit a little tolerance towards us, we won’t have any trouble liquidating a few million Kurds.’

After many decades of state-sponsored ethnocide and, at times, genocide, is it really difficult to see why the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – more commonly known as the PKK – was formed in the late 1970s? Turkey has always condemned the PKK as a terrorist organisation, which I find quite ridiculous coming from a nation that has brutally oppressed and massacred its minorities since the very beginning. The PKK arose in retaliation to the government’s cruel policies with the initial goal of establishing an independent Kurdistan, though this later changed to securing equal rights and autonomy in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. This is why they have been fighting the state for decades.

In my experience, although most people are aware of the current Kurdish-Turkish conflict, they don’t know why or how it began. This is mainly why I created this post. By familiarising yourself with the history of Kurds in Turkey, you are in a better position to understand and have an informed opinion on the conflict today.

Helin Newroz Boztosun is a 23-year-old history and English graduate living in London. This article was first published on her Haus of Helin blog

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