On May 4, the intelligentsia of Turkey commemorates the day of the massacres of the population of Dersim. It was on this day in 1937 that the Turkish government made the final decision to suppress the alleged “uprising” of the Dersim population. In reality, the goal of the Turks was to subjugate the semi-independent Zaza tribes.
This event is important for us Armenians as well because many Armenians then lived in Dersim. For them, the area has become a refuge after the main stage of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923).
Dersim Province is located in the western part of High Armenia between Erzurum, Kharberd, and Tigranakert. According to statistical sources, on the eve of World War I, the local population reached 200 thousand people, 45% of them Armenians and the rest Kurds, Alevi, and Zaza who lived peacefully with the Armenians.
It should be noted that the choice of Dersim was not accidental – Dersim was one of the few provinces that during the 1915 genocide has sheltered thousands of Armenians who miraculously escaped from the Turkish scimitar. So the question of Dersim for the Turkish government also had an “Armenian component.”
As early as the spring of 1921, the Turkish government managed to suppress the first unrest in the province of Kochkiri-Dersim but failed to completely subjugate the Dersim tribes. In the early 1930s, in order to finally subjugate the Dersim people, the Turkish authorities decided to make use of the relocation law.
The people of Dersim were to be resettled to various western regions of Asia Minor, and Turkish elements brought from the Balkans were to be settled in their place. In addition, all the immovable property of the tribes was to be confiscated and divided between the arriving Turks. With this step, the government sought, on one hand, to populate the eastern regions of the country with “reliable Turkish elements” and on the other prevent new possible Kurdish uprisings.
This program in Dersim, or, as the Kemalists renamed it, in Tunzheli, gave rise to great unrest among locals. Soon, the entire Dersim was in rebel fire led by Seid Rza, the tribal leader of the Alevi who had great authority in the region.
In 1936, at the suggestion of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Dersim issue was included in the agenda of the closed meeting of the Turkish Grand National Assembly. On November 1, 1936, during the opening of the meeting, Atatürk said in his report on Dersim: “The most important problem of our internal affairs is Dersim. It is necessary at all costs to eradicate this terrible abscess. The government is vested with broad powers to take early action on this issue.”
In 1936, the command of the Turkish army concentrated its troops in the provinces of Dersim, Elazig (Kharberd), and Bingöl (Chapakhjur). In the early summer of 1937, the Turks launched military operations against the “Dersim rebels”, using aircraft, tanks, and even poisonous gas.
The Turkish army mercilessly killed not only the armed population but also peaceful villagers. To force the rebels to leave their mountain shelters, the Turkish command ordered the burning of forests in the vicinity of Dersim. Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü and Interior Minister Şükrü Kaya were present during the hostilities.
The 1938 Dersim uprising was suppressed with special cruelty. The leaders of the uprising were tricked into Kharberd and hanged. Bloody “retribution” began. In 1937, the Mejlis (Turkish parliament) adopted a law which determined that all property of the Dersim rebels was to be confiscated by the state. In 1938, Celâl Bayar who had just received the post of Prime Minister declared that “the Kurdish issue no longer existed in Turkey.”
It should be noted that until recently, this topic hasn’t been known to the modern public in Turkey. Even the topic of the Armenian Genocide has been better known.
The Dersim massacre was brought to the active political agenda by the ruling Justice and Development Party led by Erdoğan. The goal was not to restore justice but suppress the opposition People’s Democratic Party that Erdogan and his party members accused of “historical crime.”