Remembering the victims of the Kurdish massacre of 1937

The fourth of May is a day of mourning for the Kurdish people.

"Two Locks of Hair: Missing Girls of Dersim"‏ (photo credit: PR)
"Two Locks of Hair: Missing Girls of Dersim"‏
(photo credit: PR)
The fourth of May is a day of mourning for the Kurdish people.
On that day, Kurds commemorate the victims of the massacre attempted against the Kurdish province of Dersim in 1937 and 1938. The Turkish armed forces bombed houses, forests and caves, using even poison gas, to kill people indiscriminately in an attempt to exterminate an entire community and its culture.
The next stage of the massacre was forced displacement and assimilation.
“The decision to annihilate the people of Dersim was made by the Turkish Council of Ministers on May 4, 1937,” said the press release of the Federation of Dersim Associations in Europe, and for that reason the Dersim Federation chose May 4 as the “Memorial Day for Commemorating the Victims of the Dersim Genocide.”
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“The Turkish government bombed the territory of Dersim on the same day, and they killed hundreds of women, men, children and elderly people. Some families were scattered and distributed one by one in distant villages, towns or provinces. The leading figures of Dersim were hanged abruptly and with no trial.
The relatives of those who were hanged are still looking for the remains of their ancestors today. Thousands of children were taken away by soldiers or sent to boarding schools in 1938. Newspapers are still filled with news reports concerning people looking for their missing siblings and relatives.”
Nezahat and Kazim Gundogan produced two ground-breaking documentaries about the massacre: Two Locks of Hair: The Missing Girls of Dersim (2010) and Unburied in the Past (2014). In 2012, the couple also published a historic book called The Missing Girls of Dersim, which contains more than a hundred stories as well as several documents detailing the painful experiences of the surviving children of Dersim, who were kidnapped by Turkish soldiers or bureaucrats following the massacre.
Unburied in the Past, the sequel to the first documentary, was premiered in Ankara last year. The documentary is based on the story of Emos Gulver. Like many children who survived the massacre, Gulver, who was born an Alevi Kurd and was about five during the massacre, was taken home by a Turkish soldier, who transformed her into a Sunni Turk.
In the documentary, she goes back to Dersim to search for her roots and meets Huseyin, her cousin, who still maintains his life as an Alevi Kurd.
The directors of the documentary also conducted interviews with four former soldiers who participated in the massacre.
One soldier called what was done in Dersim inhumane. “A regimental commander came to us and said: ‘There are four traitors in this world: rat, wolf, pig and Kurd.’ Then they killed five or six hundred people with heavy machine guns. They threw their dead bodies into the Harcik River. The river ran blood.”
The documentary reveals that chemical weapons were used on the civilians in the region and that the soldiers who participated in the military campaign had been trained in the use of poisonous and blistering gas for a month.
According to official figures, 13,000 people were killed and about 14,000 forcibly displaced to cities in western Turkey, but the researchers of the documentary disagree.
“The exact number of children and women who were killed or went missing during the massacre is not known; they were not registered,” said Kazim Gundogan, the writer of the documentaries.
“We have been doing research on Dersim and speaking with witnesses or their relatives since 2005, and we can say that the real number of the dead or forcibly displaced is at least three times higher than the official figures.”
The first motion about the killings, which was submitted in 1950 by Haydar Kank, an MP of the Democrat Party, also revealed the state policy on Dersim: “Haydar Kank’s mother, brother and three sisters had been burned to death in the massacre,” Gundogan said. “So he submitted a long motion describing how his family was massacred. To it the Turkish general staff replied that the names of his family members did not appear in their records. The general staff also said that the campaign was ‘committed for the sake of the people of Dersim so that they could be rid of marauders.’ “Another document of the general staff stated: ‘The houses of the people of Dersim are made of wood and soil. You need to dig the soil and set it alight with kerosene so that they will not be able to live in those houses again.’” The state policy on Dersim was not restricted to the massacres of 1937 and 1938. The assimilation process of the women and girls of Dersim started in 1926 and ended about 1950.
“The state had carried out another military campaign on Dersim in 1926,” said Gundogan. “Some of the men in the province were killed outright, some were hanged, and 83 girls and women were taken to the province of Kayseri to be distributed there.”
According to the information given in the first documentary, The Lost Girls of Dersim, government authorities including Sukru Kaya, the then interior minister, ordered that the girls who survived the massacre would either be taken to boarding schools or that the soldiers who participated in the massacre would take one or two into their homes in an attempt to assimilate them. Some of their parents threw their children into the river or suffocated them to save them from the soldiers, according to the witnesses’ statements.
“The first thing they did to all of the children who were forcibly displaced was to shave their hair,” said Gundogan.
“They did that to humiliate the children.
Shaving the girls’ hair was a way to alienate them from their roots.”
After the massacre, the surviving children were gathered into concentration camps in the provinces of Elazig and Dersim: “Boys and girls were segregated from one another. Girls between the ages of five and 10 and who were beautiful and healthy were given to soldiers.
Those who were neither beautiful nor healthy were put in black railroad carriages and distributed to the rich people or tradesmen in every station where the trains stopped.
“The families of the soldiers did not need those children; they had children of their own. So those children were taken as servants. They were not legally adopted as children, and they received no inheritance from their ‘parents.’ They were not even registered at birth registration offices. They were never equal with the other children at home. And 99 percent of the witnesses we spoke with said that they had not been allowed to go to schools.”
On the fourth of May, Kurds commemorate all these unspeakable crimes and the victims of this hideous massacre that was just one page in the long history of Kurdish ethnic cleansings in Turkey.
With all of the deaths, destruction, forced assimilation and forced displacements, the Dersim massacre manifestly demonstrates the treatment of Kurds at the hands of the Turkish state. The years following this massacre were not very much better for the Kurds in Turkey.
Let us never forget the terrible fourth of May.
The author is a Turkish journalist based in Ankara.