ANKARA (Hurriyet)—In the late 1930s, the nascent Turkish Republic massacred a village of Kurds and Armenian Genocide Survivors under the guise of an operation against a fabricated Kurdish rebellion, previously unseen photographs, historically important documents and eye-witness accounts reveal.
Hasan Saltuk the author of a new 600-page book said his research seeks to unravel the taboo of the Dersim Massacres.
Set to be released in May in both English and Turkish, the book will challenge the official history of the incident, using primary sources to reveal the government’s role in the brutal massacre of this Kurdish village in the formative years of the modern Turkish Republic.
“Over 13,000 people were killed by Turkish armed forces during the operation and 22,000 were exiled. Orphaned children were subjected to Turkification policies in orphanages,” Saltuk said.
The official historical sources say the 1938 operation in Dersim, now called Tunceli, was implemented to quash a Kurdish tribal rebellion. Saltuk’s research, however, reveals otherwise.
“We see in the documents that the Dersim operation was planned; the reports were prepared in 1920. The law related to the operation was passed in 1935 and action was taken in 1937. Seyit Rıza and his friends were hanged on grounds that they were leading a rebellion,” Saltuk said.
Although the government at the time labeled it a Kurdish tribal insurrection, Saltuk said the fundamental reason behind the operation was that the region was home to Tunceli Alevis who were merely Armenian Genocide survivors that had changed their identities.
“The official sources say Dersim residents were not paying taxes or performing military service and that they were always rebelling. However, we have documents proving the opposite. Ataturk led the Dersim operation himself,” he said.
“Historians here cannot go beyond the official ideology; they do not do any research. Those who do research and know the truth cannot raise a voice because they are afraid,” Saltuk said.
The book reprints the comments he found on the back of all the photographs he obtained. In many cases, the comments expressed remorse for the events in Dersim. “[Many] felt qualms of conscience for what was experienced. Some expressed their feelings with the words, ‘I have become a murderer.’ Others wrote, ‘I caused the deaths of 250 people,’” Saltuk said.
The project involved following the trails of surviving soldiers who participated in the operation, Saltuk said, adding that he saw many who were unable to adapt to social life. “Many soldiers we [interviewed] demanded their names be made public after their deaths. A few people did not mind having their names in the book; some said, ‘They ordered us to kill and we did,’” he said.
He obtained hundreds of original photos and maps alongside two dossiers of population records from the grandchild – whose name Saltuk withheld – of a high level civil servant from that era. “The invaluable documents and photographs in the dossiers reveal the operation in all its detail. However, it is without doubt that much more striking files are in the archives of the Turkish General Staff.”
Saltuk, who is the owner of the Kalan record label, a researcher and an ethnomusicologist, has spent nine years collecting previously unseen photographs, historically important documents and comments from soldiers who participated in the operation..
A member of one of the oldest families of Dersim, Saltuk said that even though he was from a Turkmen tribe on his father’s side, dozens of their relatives were murdered during the operation.
“My grandmother was pregnant with my mother but she saved herself from the firing squad at the last minute,” Saltuk said in an interview with the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review. “Dersim residents are still afraid to talk. The elderly still think somebody’s going to come and kill them.”
Saltuk said he believes that Turkey has entered an age of great change. “All the taboos of this country will be broken and, in the future, there will not be anything that cannot be spoken about.”