Tunceli (and the Dersim massacres of 1937-1938).

Back in Tunceli I quickly freshened up at the hotel, then went for a walk through the town centre, along the river and to the otogar to check whether minibuses left the following morning to Mazgirt (they did, but not at a time convenient for me). After ascending from the river through a park where many large snails crossed a stone footpath, thereby risking death under shoes worn by careless or vindictive humans, I came across two large plaques set into a stone wall reminding people about “Dersim 1938”. On both plaques males wore loosely tied turbans.

Perhaps the best of the easily accessed accounts of the Dersim massacres that began in 1937 and ended in 1938 is found in the “Online Encyclopaedia of Mass Violence”, which has a case study entitled “Dersim Massacre, 1937-1938” last modified in 2012. Because so little is known about the massacre outside Turkey, I quote at length from the case study. As you will see, it has very obvious links with the Armenian genocide and its aftermath:

In 1937 and 1938, a military campaign took place in parts of the Turkish province of Tunceli, formerly Dersim, that had not been brought under the control of the state. It lasted from March 1937 to September 1938 and resulted in a particularly high death toll: many thousands of civilian victims. Contemporary officers called it a “disciplinary campaign”, politicians and the press, a “Kemalist civilising mission”. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, however, in a November 2009 speech, referred to it as a “massacre”, which can be considered an historically appropriate term. It took place when the Republic of Turkey was consolidated – in contrast with the repression of the Kurdish Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925 or the Kocgiri uprising in 1921. The campaign in Dersim was prepared well in advance and therefore was not a short-term reaction to a specific uprising. President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stood personally behind it and died shortly after its end.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

After the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne had recognised the Turkish nationalist movement as the sole legitimate representative of Turkey and admitted its victory in Asia Minor, the Republic of Turkey was founded. The nationalist movement implemented revolutionary changes from above, such as the abolition of the caliphate in 1924, and the introduction of the Swiss civil code in 1926 and the Latin alphabet in 1928. Broadly acclaimed as a successful modern nation state, the Turkish Republic rebuilt its international relations in the 1930s and succeeded, in a deal with France and the League of Nations (of which it became a member in 1932), in incorporating the Syrian region of Alexandretta into its national territory in 1938 and 1939. However, radical Turkism (Turkish ethno-nationalism) with racist undertones marked the ideological climate of the 1930s, while cosmopolitan Ottomanism and Islam were radically evacuated from the political sphere and intellectual life. Kemalist Turkism – the ideology of the new political elite tied to the one-party regime – albeit triumphalist, expressed the need for a connection to deeper roots and made a huge effort to legitimise Anatolia as the national home of the Turks by means of historical physical anthropology.

The region of Dersim, renamed Tunceli in 1935, stood markedly at odds with the politico-cultural landscape of 1930s’ Turkey. In a 1926 report, Hamdi Bey, a senior official, called the area an abscess that needed an urgent surgeon from the republic. In 1932, the journalist and deputy Nasit Ulug published a booklet with the title “The Feudal Lords and Dersim”; it asked at the end how a “Dersim system” marked by feudalism and banditry could be destroyed. Hamdi Bey, General Inspector Ibrahim Tali, Marshal Fevzi Cakmak and Minister of the Interior Sukru Kaya collected information on the ground and wrote reports concluding the necessity of introducing “reforms” in the region. The need for reforms for Dersim, together with military campaigns to effect them, had been a postulate since the Ottoman reforms, the Tanzimat, of the 19th century. Several military campaigns had taken place, but had brought only limited successes. In parts of Dersim and other eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire, in which Kurdish lords had reigned autonomously since the 16th century, the state had established its direct rule only in the second third of the 19th century, though it depended still in the republican era on the co-option of local lords to maintain its rule. The central parts of Dersim, by contrast, resisted both co-option and direct rule until the 1930s. Nevertheless, Dersim had been represented by a few deputies in the Ottoman parliament in Istanbul and, since 1920, in the national assembly in Ankara.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Dersim is a mountainous region between Sivas, Erzincan and Elazig (renamed from Elaziz in 1937. Turkification of local names began during world war one). It covers an area of 90 kilometres from east to west and 70 kilometres from north to south, and had, according to official estimates in the 1930s, a population of nearly 80,000, of which one-fifth were considered men able to bear arms. Dersim’s topography allowed cattle breeding, but only little agriculture. It offered many places for refuge and hiding: valleys, caves, forests and mountains. These had been vital for the survival of Dersim’s Alevi population. The Alevis venerated Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. They refused to conform with sharia and remained attached to unorthodox Sufi beliefs and practices widespread in Anatolia before the 16th century, when the Ottoman state embraced Sunni orthodoxy. Their beliefs were mostly linked to Anatolian saint Haci Bektash (13th century). Since many Alevis had sympathises with Safavid (and Shia) Persia in the 16th century, they were lastingly stigmatised as heretics and traitors.

The first language of the Dersim Kurds, as they were called by contemporary observers, was not Turkish but Zazaki (the main language) or Kurmanji. Kurdish nationalism had had an impact on a few Dersim leaders and intellectuals since the early 20th century. They supported President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination after world war one and linked an articulated ideology to Kurdish activism, as General Fevzi Cakmak complained in his 1930 report. Cakmak therefore demanded the removal of functionaries of “Kurdish race” in Erzincan. The Kocgiri uprising in 1921 had been the first rebellion marked by overt Kurdish nationalism; it, too, had taken place in an Alevi region at the western boundary of Dersim.

Though the declaration of a secular republic and the abolition of the caliphate in early 1924 won over many Anatolian Alevis, most Alevis in eastern Anatolia remained distrustful. This divide coincided by and large with that of Turkish- and/or Kurdish-speaking “eastern Alevis” outside the organisation of the Bektashis on the one hand, and “western Alevis” reached by the reformed Bektashi order of the 16th century and thus domesticated by the Ottoman state on the other. Dersim had important places of religious pilgrimage, some of which were shared with local Armenians. Its seyyids claimed descent from Ali and entertained a network of dependent communities in and outside Dersim. The Young Turks and the leaders of the Turkish national movement after 1918 had co-opted the Bektashis, of which a leader had in vain tried to win over the chiefs of Dersim to fight alongside the Ottoman army against the invading Russians in 1916. Two limited rebellions then broke out and armed groups harassed the Ottoman army. Dersim was the only place more or less safe for Armenian refugees during and after the genocide of 1915, which mainly took place in the eastern provinces.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

After the establishment of the new state in Ankara and the repression of the Kurdish uprisings of the 1920s, the attention of the government turned more and more to Dersim, described as a place of reactionary evil forces, of interior and exterior intrigues, and hostage to tribal chiefs and religious leaders. Dersim could, in fact, be described as a pre-modern, tribally split society; it became increasingly isolated after 1920. At the same time, according to Hamdi Bey who visited Dersim in 1926, it was growing more politicised – to the point of adopting openly anti-Kemalist Kurdish positions. Sustained contacts with Hoybun, the Kurdish and Armenian organisation founded in Syria in 1927, were not, however, possible.

Economic problems and banditry had a long history in Dersim; they became more acute due to the region’s isolation and the bad economic conditions after world war one. Yet, in the late Ottoman era, new currents had begun to permeate Dersim and the areas adjacent to it. These included labour migration, emulation of quickly modernising Armenian neighbours, the desire for education and attendance at new – Armenian, missionary, or state – schools, as well as the spread of medical services. Compared with the situation in the early republic, late Ottoman eastern Anatolia had been pluralist and culturally and economically much more dynamic.

The 1934 Law of Settlement legitimised in general terms the depopulation of regions in Turkey for cultural, political or military reasons, with the intent to create, as Minister of the Interior Kaya stated, “a country with one language, one mentality and unity of feelings”. The law was conceived in order to complete the Turkification of Anatolia in the context of the new focus on Dersim in interior politics.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

In October 1935, Italy began a brutal invasion of Ethiopia during which it used chemical weapons and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. For the prominent theorist of Kemalism at the time, deputy and former minister Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, Mussolini’s fascism was nothing other than a version of Kemalism, even though Turkey’s and Italy’s foreign policies contrasted. In 1930 Bozkurt had spoken of a war between two races, the Kurds and the Turks, and had gone so far as to say, “All, friends, enemies and the mountains, shall know that the Turk is the master of this country. All those who are not pure Turks have only one right in the Turkish homeland: the right to be servants, the right to be slaves.”

These elements formed the context when, in December 1935, Minister of the Interior Kaya presented a draft law, commonly known as the Tunceli Law, that once more labelled the region a zone of illness that needed surgery. In terms of national security there was no urgency; non-military officials of the state were not molested on entering Dersim, e.g., for the population census of every village in 1935. The law passed without opposition in the national assembly or the press, both being controlled by the Kemalist People’s Republican Party. Dersim, formerly part of the province of Elazig, was established as a separate province, renamed Tunceli and ruled in a state of emergency by the military governor, Abdullah Alpdogan, the head of the Fourth General Inspectorate…

Hamdi Bey’s 1926 report had already called for strong measures and labelled the attempt at a peaceful penetration of Dersim by schools, infrastructure and industry an illusion. Against this background, actors on both sides were separated by a rift and unable to find a common language, albeit in an unbalanced dialogue. Seyyid Riza, perhaps the most important tribal chief, in addition to being a religious figure, insisted on autonomy and the revocation of the 1935 Tunceli Law. He seemed to have believed initially that Dersim could not be subdued militarily. He had worked for years, partly successfully, to unite the tribes.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

After several incidents in March 1937 which included attacks by tribal groups against the new infrastructure in Pah and a police station in Sin, the military campaign was launched. With 8,623 men, artillery and an air force at its disposal, Ankara possessed superiority in numbers and materiel. On 4th May 1937, the Council of Ministers, including Ataturk and Fevzi Cakmak, the Chief of General Staff, decided secretly on a forceful attack against western central Dersim, an attack to kill all who used or had used arms and to remove the population settled between Nazimiye and Sin. The same day, planes dropped pamphlets saying that, in the case of surrender, “no harm at all would be done to you, dear compatriots. If not, entirely against our will, the [military] forces will act and destroy you. One must obey the state.”

In the following months, the army successfully advanced against fierce resistance and changing tribal coalitions led by Riza, allied tribal chiefs and Aliser, a talented poet and activist. Unity among the rebels was far from achieved; only a few tribes formed the hard core of the resistance. On 9th July, Aliser and his wife were killed by their own people and their heads sent to Alpdogan. Also in July, Riza sent a letter to the Prime Minister in which he vividly described what he saw as anti-Kurdish policies of assimilation, removal and a war of destruction. Via his friend Nuri Dersimi, who had gone into exile in Syria in September 1937, he also sent a despairing letter to the League of Nations and the foreign ministries of the United Kingdom, France and the United States, none of which answered. On 10th September he surrendered to the army in Erzincan. Messages of congratulation were sent to Alpdogan by Ataturk, Minister of the Interior Sukru Kaya and Prime Minister Inonu, who had visited Elazig in June. Shortly before Ataturk visited Elazig, Riza was executed in the city together with his son, Resik Huseyin, tribal leader Seyit Haso and a few sons of tribal chiefs. The executions were hastily organised by Ihsan Sabri Çaglayangil, later the Foreign Minister.

Despite the setbacks of 1937, Dersimi groups resumed attacks against the security forces in early 1938, saying that they would all perish if they did not resist. The military campaign took on a new and comprehensive character as the government embarked on a general cleansing in order “to eradicate once and for all this (Dersim) problem”, in the words of Prime Minister Celal Bayar in the national assembly on 29th June 1938. Also in June 1938, military units began to penetrate those parts of Dersim that did not surrender between Pulur (Ovacik), Danzik and Pah. On 10th August, a large campaign of “cleansing and scouring” started. It ended in early September and cost the lives of many thousands of men, women and children, even of tribes that co-operated with the government.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

According to official statements, the military campaign of 1937 targeted bandits and reactionary tribal and religious leaders who misled innocent people. On a secret level, however, right from the beginning – in particular, with the decision of the Council of Ministers of 4th May 1937 – groups of the people of Dersim as a whole were targeted, at least for relocation as allowed for by the 1934 Law of Settlement. Those targeted feared, as in Kocgiri in 1921, that they would perish like the Armenians if they did not resist. The campaign in spring 1937 concerned the regions in which most clashes occurred, between Pah and Hozat. Villages were to be disarmed and people removed, but the main violence targeted armed groups.

Halli, who amply cites military documents, scarcely uses the word “imha” (annihilation, destruction or obliteration) for this period. This changed with the summer 1938 campaign, which employed massive violence against the whole population, even beyond the parts of Dersim that did not surrender and that had been declared prohibited zones under the Law of Settlement. The Council of Ministers decided on 6th August 1938 that 5,000 to 7,000 Dersimis had to be removed from the prohibited zones to the west. “Thousands of persons, whose names the Fourth General Inspectorate (under Alpdogan) had listed, were arrested and sent in convoys to the regions where they were ordered to go,” wrote Halli in 1972.

Also targeted for relocation were numerous families living outside these zones or in areas neighbouring Dersim, if they were considered members of Dersimi tribes. Notables living outside Dersim were killed in summer 1938, as were some young Dersimis doing service in the army. For the killing of surviving “bandits”, an order by the Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior, the Minister of Defence and the Military Inspectorate proposed to use the Special Organisation, known for its role in the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 and 1916 and the murder of targeted individuals.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

According to Halli, “thousands of bandits” were killed in the first week of “cleansing and scouring” from 10th to 17th August 1938, but he mentions no comprehensive number for all those killed during the whole campaign. From his detailed narrative, however, which gives precise numbers or mentions a “big number” of killed persons for dozens of incidents, deaths likely totalled considerably higher than 10,000. An unpublished report by Alpdogan’s Inspectorate, recently quoted in Turkish newspapers, mentions 13,160 civilian dead and 11,818 deportees. The high number of deaths and ample written evidence prove that the killings were not limited to the insurgent tribes alone. A comparison of the censuses for 1935 and 1940 shows that the district of Hozat, with a loss of more than 10,000 people, was the most seriously affected part of Dersim. A proposed number of 40,000 victims seems, however, implausibly high.

According to Caglayangil, the army used poison gas to kill people who hid in caves. Many others were burned alive, whether in houses or by spraying individuals with fuel. Even if people surrendered they were killed. In order “not to fall into the hands of the Turks”, girls and women jumped into abysses, as many Armenians had in 1915. The suspicion of having lodged “bandits” or, according to witness accounts by soldiers, military units’ desire for vengeance, sufficed as justification to kill whole villages. Soldiers confirm that they were ordered to kill women and children. One has to bear in mind that the Dersimis were seen – and declared so by officers – as Alevi heretics, sometimes as crypto-Armenians. When jandarma posts were established in the 1930s, jandarma even investigated whether local young men were circumcised. Uncircumcised men were thought to be Armenians.

“It is understood from various sources that, in clearing the area occupied by the Kurds, 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 into the Euphrates; while thousands of others in less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were deported to vilayets in Central Anatolia,” reported the British Vice-Consul in Trabzon on 27th September 1938. His report is the exception to the rule that there exist no reports by foreign observers in or near the theatre of events because Dersim and the whole of eastern Turkey was generally closed to foreigners.

Documents and testimonies relating to the massacres do exist… They all agree that systematic massacres took place. Soldiers and survivors add that targets included civilians, women and children.

Accustomed to looking up to the state and army as omnipotent entities, most soldiers feared even decades afterwards to speak about their experiences. However, in 1991 Halil Colat, an ex-soldier, said, “When we came to the headquarters, we learned that discussions had taken place between the officers. A few said that these people (women and children in Hozat who had not given information on the whereabouts of the men) had to be annihilated, but others said that this was a sin… They (finally) ordered us: ‘Annihilate all you can apprehend…’ And that day we soldiers, in a horrific savageness and craziness, gathered the women, girls and children in a mosque – it was in fact not like a mosque, but rather like a church – closed it, sprayed kerosene and easily burnt them alive.”

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Dersimis themselves have collected an important number of private documents, conducted interviews and built up internet sites. Recent work has added important material. A scholarly “1937 to 1938 Dersim Oral History Project” was launched in 2010. However, a main archive or centre of documentation for the Dersim massacre does not yet exist. The only nearly contemporary Kurdish history of the event is a chapter in Nuri Dersimi’s book of 1952, which includes testimonies. The author himself had left Dersim before the campaign.

Documentary novels and memoirs of the period have been written since the 1980s, e.g., by Sukru Lacin, a founder of the Turkish Workers’ Party in 1963 and not a sympathiser with Riza or Kurdish nationalism… Lacin confirms that the campaign of 1938, and the forced removal of populations, covered parts of Dersim such as Mazgirt, Pertek and Nazimiye that did not refuse to pay taxes or enlist people in the army. He confirms that villages in Erzincan province in the districts of Refahiye, Cayirli, Uzumlu, Kemah and Tercan, where relatives of Lacin lived, were also targeted because their inhabitants were Alevi Kurds and were said to have relations with Dersim.

In the years after 1938, the one-party state and its press continued to maintain the image and memory of a necessary and fully successful campaign of pacification followed by sustained efforts at reconstruction. This is also the content of the book entitled “Tunceli is made accessible to civilisation” published in 1939 by Nasit Ulug, then the director of “Ulus”, a daily newspaper. Ulug described the punishment of “bandits”, but made no reference to mass killings. He provided a panegyric to the Turkish army, to which the Turkish nation had once again to be infinitely thankful… The Western and the Soviet press largely followed the Kemalist narrative of a civilising mission against reactionary conservatives. Only the press in the USA seemed to voice criticism of both the violent campaign and its undemocratic political framework. Like the European press, however, it lacked independent sources of information.

Heroic reports that recounted Kurdish exploits, resistance and the foundation of an independent Kurdish government appeared in the Armenian press in 1937. A simultaneously tragic and heroic memory of Dersim in 1937 to 1938 is to be found in the 1952 book and the memoirs of the Kurdish nationalist Nuri Dersimi, who was in contact with Armenians since the beginning of his exile. Dersimi’s texts, which underlined the barbaric aspects of the campaign, were seminal for the memory of the Kurdish nationalists, but he was also criticised by Dersimis as an instigator who left the country when it became dangerous.

The one-party regime met its end in the years after 1945. In 1947 the government repealed the Tunceli Law and relocated people were allowed to return to their villages. The state of emergency was lifted in 1948. Henceforth, memories dissenting from those promoted by the former one-party regime as well as on-going realities in Tunceli – poverty, the absence of schools and health services, etc. – could be acknowledged, though not freely. The army, the main actor on the ground, as well as the state and its founder, Ataturk, who had stood behind the Tunceli campaign, could never be openly criticised. The memory of the Dersim campaign as at least partly ruthless and misguided can also be found in letters of pious soldiers to the spiritual father of the Nurculuk, Said-i Nursi.

After 1945, Turkey stood under the shadow of the Cold War. Right and left claimed Ataturk’s heritage and did not question dark sides of the Kemalist “civilising mission”… The memory of the Dersim campaign as mass violence by the state and its army was nevertheless articulated in leftist circles, in particular among leftists from Tunceli, but also more generally among those with Alevi and Kurdish backgrounds.

The military putsch of 1980 crushed the Turkish left. After this experience, leftist circles critical of the state began to be more open to the Kurdish perspective that the Turkish state had always reacted with mass violence and denial against even moderate Kurdish claims. More detailed memories, detached from the Kemalist state and ideologies of progress and civilisation, have been recounted since the late 20th century. A “renaissance” of long-suppressed ethnic and religious identities and histories took place at the dawn of the post-Cold War era. Turkey’s EU candidature in 1999 and the AKP government since 2002 contributed to a more liberal context in which the military, the main actor of the campaign of 1937 to 1938, partly lost for the first time its hitherto sacrosanct, unchecked position at the top of the state.

During the so-called Kurdish or democratic opening of autumn 2009, on 17th November Prime Minister Erdogan called the events of 1937 to 1938 a massacre. For the first time, the memory of the Tunceli campaign as one of pacification and a mission of civilisation was publicly challenged at the governmental level, whereas the Republican People’s Party, that ruled Turkey when only one political party existed, had trouble in defending what for seventy years had been the official version of history. The latter version is nowadays widely seen as unacceptable, as is evident in media discussions from autumn 2009 onwards. It appears today as the position only of Turkish ultra-nationalists.

In contrast with the aftermath of the Kocgiri revolt in 1921, there were neither critical discussions in the Turkish national assembly nor legal claims that officers responsible for brutality and mass killing of civilians should be put on trial. This is even less the case for Dersim because the Law of Settlement and the Tunceli Law had prepared the legal framework for the campaign and the removal of the Dersimis in advance… Legalism disguised the breach of law against citizens, as in other authoritarian or fascist regimes of the 1930s…

Historical sociologist Ismail Besikci was the first scholar to research the Dersim campaign; to emphasise the legalist but illegitimate, anti-constitutional framework in which it took place; and to call it, in a book of 1990, a genocide. Anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen proposed, in an article of 1994, the label “ethnocide”, arguing that the destruction of Dersim’s autonomous ethnic culture, not of its population, had been the campaign’s main intention. Though declared as a Turkifying mission of civilisation, the intent “to destroy, in whole or in part” – according to article 2 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – the Dersimis, as a distinct ethno-religious group, then labelled as Alevi Kurd and partly as crypto-Armenian, and of “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is manifest. This is well documented. In a comparative legal perspective, Besikci’s position may be supported by later jurisdiction based on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

A restrictive historiographical use may, however, reserve the term genocide for mass killings of the 20th century in which a higher proportion of a larger ethno-religious group was killed and the future of the whole group in its habitat was destroyed, as in the case of the Ottoman Armenians or the European Jews. In both latter cases, those responsible considered the targeted groups to be inassimilable to the nation. The Dersim massacre concerned parts of the Dersim population, whereas other parts were removed and the main part could remain in place. As a result, the area’s informal autonomy and, in part, its ethno-religious habitat were suppressed. Extermination in 1938 had targeted first those whose tribes and families were involved in the resistance. But it also included others, among them relatives who were not in the resistance, and even people living outside Dersim. Principally, however, the Kemalists who were responsible for the campaign considered that the Dersimis could be assimilated into the nation state.

In studies on Turkey across all disciplines, the Dersim campaign remained under-researched until the late 20th century. One scarcely finds mention of it in the major university textbooks on Turkish history. To this day there still do not exist monographs or detailed research articles in Western languages, except the translation of Besikci’s book and a few articles or book chapters. The dark sides of Turkey’s foundation and early history, from the Young Turks’ one-party regime to the Dersim campaign and later pogroms against non-Muslims, have long been under-researched both inside and outside Turkey for political reasons and because of simplistic notions of progress versus religious reaction in Western scholarship on Turkey.

In recent years, a fresh look at these topics and the Dersim campaign has finally emerged. The fresh look includes the particularly silenced Armenian aspects of Dersim – a dimension that Western scholarship long failed to grasp. The lack of access to the military archives, however, said to be in the process of classification, seriously hampers comprehensive research on the Dersim campaign. The military archives could answer questions such as the hierarchical level at which the order was given to massacre people, women and children included; to what extent poison gas was used against people in caves; and whether there were, as it seems, absolutely no orders against or punishments for widespread brutalities such as burning alive, slashing open pregnant women and stabbing babies.

In contrast to state-centred rightist or leftist traditions – which explained the high number of civilian dead to be collateral damage of a necessary campaign against reactionary rebels – recent scholarship elaborates on the problematic aspects and the victims of the Dersim campaign. It puts it in the context of the Republican People’s Party’s suppression of any opposition. It frames it as an ethnocide, the “deliberate destruction of Kurdish ethnic identity by forced assimilation”. It also sees it as a genocide committed against the backdrop of a colonialist enterprise, bearing in mind that the Turkish political elite did not know “Kurdistan” any better than 19th century European elites had known their overseas colonies. Another interpretation stresses the logical and chronological coincidence with the Turkish History thesis that claimed Anatolia to have been for thousands of years the home of the Turks (utter nonsense, of course) – a racial speculation that revealed an aporia of legitimacy and a dead-end of ultra-Turkist Kemalism. It implied the wish to make disappear all remaining vestiges of non-Turkish presence and heterogeneous Ottoman co-existence. These vestiges reminded state-centred elites of a period for which they felt distress and shame; a period marked by the tedious Oriental Question, in particular the Armenian Question, and by the lack of governmental sovereignty. It involved a deep-seated fear of de-legitimisation.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Once back home and in possession of the information above, a lot of what I saw and heard in Dersim made more sense. I understood far better why so many Kurds, whether Alevis or not, call Ataturk a dictator and/or a fascist; why Alevis in particular have such strong distrust for Sunni Muslims, Turkish nationalists and uniformed representatives of the state; and why almost all Dersimis lack confidence in the government in Ankara, which only in the last decade or so has sought to provide the people of Dersim with the services, facilities and opportunities accessible to Turkish citizens almost everywhere else in the vast republic. But I also understood far better why the expressions of friendship between Armenians and non-Armenians have a sincerity in Dersim greater and more convincing than in any other region of Turkey I have visited in recent years. Note that Armenians and Alevis shared some sites of religious pilgrimage; that “Dersim was the only place more or less safe for Armenian refugees during and after the genocide of 1915”; that “crypto-Armenians” lived in Dersim in the 1930s (and still do, but in reduced numbers); that Armenians and Kurds worked together to further matters of mutual concern and/or interest; that Dersimis felt they had to resist state oppression in the 1930s if they did not want to perish in the same way as the Armenians had perished in 1915 and thereafter; and that, in order “not to fall into the hands of the Turks”, Kurdish girls and women “jumped into abysses, as many Armenians had in 1915”.

But the above also begs the following question: Did the people of Dersim in 1937 and 1938 suffer an act of genocide just as the Armenians had in 1915 and thereafter? Despite far fewer Dersimis being massacred in 1937 and 1938 than Armenians in 1915 and thereafter, the evidence above is, I would suggest, extremely persuasive. If events in Srebrinica in 1995 can be declared (correctly) an act of genocide, those in Dersim and elsewhere in 1937 and 1938 must also be genocide. What is interesting is that a growing number of Turkish nationals who are not Kurdish or Alevi believe that genocide took place, and many more will believe the same when scholars can access official documents in greater quantity.

By the way, note the intriguing reference above to “a mosque – it was in fact not like a mosque but rather like a church” in the quote attributed to a soldier involved in a particularly brutal, upsetting and wholly unjustifiable massacre. I think we can safely assume that the soldier refers to a cemevi. If referring to a cemevi, his ignorance about Alevis is telling. Perhaps he was a conventionally pious Sunni Muslim who had never shown the least interest in Alevis because they were regarded as heretical in the extreme, or perhaps he was so imbued with the radical atheism of the Turkish Republic of the 1930s that he distrusted anyone with religious convictions. Alternatively, he may have bought completely into the Turkish nationalism of the time, which, while admitting that Kurds existed, regarded Kurds as an inferior race of people who needed “civilising” by assimilation or, if averse to assimilation, extermination. However the soldier regarded the Dersimis at the time of the massacres, he lacked empathic understanding for people with whom he differed. Hmmm. Does a similar lack of empathic understanding prevail among members of some or all of today’s brutal Islamist groups, the vast majority or which are Sunni Muslim? I think it does. Such groups currently operate around the globe with a blood-lust that cannot fail to shock the vast majority or people, whether they have a religious commitment or not.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Although it was Sunday, some of the shops in the pazar were open, so I bought a few things to eat on my balcony (I did not feel like a full meal, despite not eating much during the day, but resolved that I would have a treat in a lokanta the following evening to bring to an end my brief stay in Tunceli, a town that by now I was slightly in love with, not least for the wonderfully forthright and friendly women who thought it was wonderful that a foreign male was daft enough to stay in their infrequently visited home town). I bought a small pot of honey from Ovacik still in its comb, a large pot of yoghurt (which I could keep chilled in the fridge in my room if it remained unfinished) and a bottle of Efes Malt, the latter for the very reasonable price of 4.5TL. I sat on the balcony and, as I ate and wrote, remembered all the things I had done in the day. Not long before nightfall the wind picked up, dark clouds hung over the mountains to the south-west and thunder and lightning added a sense of drama before rain fell with heavy droplets. Businesses that had opened for the day shut and the streets began to empty. By 9.00pm I could hear only the rain, a few muffled human voices and the occasional car engine firing up.

Before going to sleep I thought about two women (neither wore a headscarf) in their late twenties or early thirties who sat in a posh pastane near the otogar and flirtatiously waved and smiled when I walked past them, of a woman (with a headscarf) who played backgammon with a male friend in one of the tea houses in the pazar, and of the encounter I had had with the two female high school students on the minibus that dropped me at Asagitorunoba. I also thought of the women in Asagitorunoba who smoked cigarettes and chatted with exactly the same relaxed informality as their male companions.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

What is it that so many Sunni Muslims find threatening about such interactions between males and females? Moreover, segregation of the sexes does not mean that girls and women are less prone to violent assault, sexual included, than in nation states where segregation of the sexes is absent. In fact, evidence from many nation states where de jure or de facto segregation of the sexes exists suggests that women suffer more violence at the hands of males, not less. There are also indications that the sexual abuse of boys and young males is much higher in nation states where segregation of the sexes prevails. A dreadful case of large-scale child sexual abuse in Pervari a few years ago led to revelations that such abuse is widespread in Turkey. Indeed, statistics suggest that child sexual abuse in Turkey is far greater than child sexual abuse in the UK.

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To Ovacik.

I wanted to travel through the Munzur Vadisi Milli Parki to Ovacik, but the next minibus was not until 11.30am. This gave me just enough time to visit the car park of the very large hotel mentioned earlier from where there are excellent views of the river below and the hills and mountains to the east, then I went to the small park with the statue of the local notable wearing a turban to admire the views of the hills and mountains to the north and west. From near the statue delightful views lead the eye along the valley that eventually leads to Ovacik. I could tell I was in for a wonderful treat.

The small office from where minibuses departed for Ovacik very helpfully had a timetable printed on the door, and the timetable revealed that services to and from Ovacik ran roughly every hour until early evening, so I knew that, as long as I stayed on or close to the main road, I could easily return to Tunceli.

The minibus left just over half full, but we picked up three extra passengers along the way. About 10 kilometres into the journey we stopped while large earthmovers engaged in some road improvements, but the delay was only fifteen minutes. A male passenger aged about twenty-five clambered up a hillside to pick a plant that had a very strong smell and a peppery taste. The plant looked like clover or cress with very large leaves. The man handed out stems to every passenger. The man and his travelling companion got off the minibus about 20 kilometres before Ovacik to walk along the river.

The road to Ovacik.

The road to Ovacik.

The road to Ovacik is about 60 kilometres in length. It goes through scenery of exceptional beauty, so much so that the road immediately became one of my all-time favourite short hops in Turkey, a country with dozens of excellent similar short hops. At first the road hugs the Munzur Cayi in a narrow valley with steep walls on both sides, and in May the trees, grass, scrub and herbs are many shades of green. In the grass and among the trees are many wild flowers, and the inaccessibility of some of the mountains suggested to me that many wild animals must prosper, especially given that where there are villages the villages are small. Back home I read that the Munzur Vadisi Milli Parki is the most bio-diverse park in Turkey.

Every so often the valley widens and the hills and mountains can therefore be better appreciated from the minibus. Where the valley widens a small settlement might overlook some fields, orchards and lots of beehives. Asagitorunoba is one such settlement where fields, orchards and beehives prosper and, because it looked so pretty with the hills and mountains around it, I resolved to visit it properly, provided I did not spend too much time in Ovacik.

The road ascends quite gradually all the way, then it crosses a wide upland pasture (“ova” means “grassy plain” or “meadow”) with snow-smudged mountains to the north and the south. The small town of Ovacik lay ahead. Ovacik has a population of only 3,000, but it spreads some distance to the east of the small central business district. Its situation is outstanding, but in winter it must be frequently cut off from surrounding towns by snow.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik has acquired some fame and, in some circles at least, notoriety in recent times because its mayor, Fatih Macoglu, is a communist and no other town or city in Turkey has a communist mayor. When Ovacik’s citizens voted for their mayor the result was close. The TKP, or Turkish Communist Party, got 36% of the vote, the Kemalist CHP 33.4% and the AKP 15.4%. It is said that Macoglu’s success owes a lot to the support of the DHF, the Federation of Democratic Rights, a leftist organisation founded in 2002 that has deep roots in Dersim.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Alevi inclinations toward secularism and leftist politics (in Tunceli, a shop in the pazar sells books and magazines analysing the world solely from liberal, socialist, communist or anarchist perspectives) made for a refreshing change from the many parts of Turkey shaped by mainstream Sunni piety. By the end of the day I had conversations about politics with eight local people, male and female. All the people with whom I interacted said that it was the “Sunni Muslims” who were “the problem” because they “never stop talking about religion and religious orthodoxy”, and because they think that “the fascist dictator” Erdogan is “wonderful”. To call Erdogan a fascist is unfair, in my opinion at least, but he is increasingly a problem, not least for dictatorial inclinations that Ataturk would no doubt have approved of, despite such dictatorial inclinations being utilised to further Sunni Muslim interests, which Ataturk would never have tolerated.

View south from Ovacik.

View south from Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

In Ovacik I went briefly mad with the camera because the visibility was sublime, the surroundings were exceptionally attractive (puffs of white cloud clung to the highest peaks) and the town itself was a delightful mixture of old and new with plenty that was overtly eccentric. There was a large police and jandarma presence, the latter in a fortified compound, which meant I had to point my camera with some care. At least three hotels looked more than adequate for a short stay, and there were plenty of shops. Bars and lokantas sold good food and alcohol, and an ogretmen evi was just north of the road to Tunceli. The oldest surviving buildings in the town were houses, some of which were timber-framed while others were made with stone, and a lot of buildings old and new utilised corrugated iron and flat metal sheeting to excellent visual effect. I chatted with a teacher who emerged from the ogretmen evi and called at a small but very modern supermarket for an ice cream. Being an overwhelmingly Alevi town, men and women were very friendly and spoke to me without any embarrassment. Some of the grassy plain around the town had been turned into fields, but most of it remained pasture for sheep and cattle. Inevitably, lots of wild flowers prospered in late spring and early summer. Ovacik was an absolute gem and one year I would love to stay in it overnight, although at present it had one minor short-coming. Roads led to Yesilyaza to the west and Hozat to the south (the latter is a town I planned to visit later on the trip to access an unusual Armenian church), but public transport to both settlements appeared to be non-existent.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

At the eastern extremity of Ovacik, about 1.5 kilometres from the centre of town, is a modern cemevi much larger than the one I had visited at Onar. I decided to have a look at it although the chance of getting inside was very small. The walk was delightful. I admired the mountains around the grassy plain and, just to the west and north of the cemevi itself, examined what looked like shanty houses that had been constructed from waste material by some very poor families.

View north from Ovacik.

View north from Ovacik.

Between the town centre and the cemevi, Ovacik.

Between the town centre and the cemevi, Ovacik.

I could not establish whether the shanty houses are lived in permanently or only during the summer, although the latter seemed more likely. I therefore inclined toward the view that the houses are used by families who look after flocks of sheep and goats grazing on the grassy plain and the slopes of the nearby mountains. This said, a large number of such houses exist and, despite being in poor condition, have a semi-permanent appearance. When I saw men and women salvaging waste items to recycle from rubbish dumped on the ground, I wondered if the houses belonged to Gypsies. Gypsies are a relatively small community in Turkey today, but one that lives, as almost everywhere in the world, on the margins of society and suffers extreme discrimination and disadvantage. If Gypsies lived in them, the houses may qualify as gekecondu, or houses built overnight by families laying claim as squatters to a small plot of state-owned land. However, if they are gecekondu they are at a very early stage of evolution into more permanent and substantial housing.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

In everyday understanding, gecekondu refers to the low cost houses or apartment blocks that were constructed in a very short time by people migrating from rural areas to the outskirts of large Turkish cities. Robert Neuwirth writes in his book “Shadow Cities” that squatters are exploiting a legal loophole which states that if people start building after dusk and move into a completed house before dawn the next day without being noticed by the authorities, then the next day the authorities are not permitted to tear the building down, but instead must begin legal proceedings in court to secure a right to evict (and, because of the requirement to begin such legal proceedings, it is more likely that the squatters can remain indefinitely).

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi is a large rectangular building with a dome made of lightweight materials rising above what is the meeting or gathering room at the west end of the upper storey. When I first arrived, all the doors leading inside were locked and I had to content myself with a walk around the exterior, which is not very exciting because the cemevi resembles a small office block or school. This said, the exterior has been painted a fetching shade of pink and has some white detailing.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

By the time I got back to the main door facing south it had been opened by people who had just arrived in a motor vehicle. I went inside and, in the reception area from where a corridor and stairs lie to the right, I examined the pictures of Ali and other notable Alevi figures from the past. I then heard voices the other side of double doors to the left and walked into a refectory and large kitchen. Two women and a man were cleaning up following a gathering the day before. Chairs and tables were washed with a soapy rag, the floor was mopped and some large pans were scrubbed in the kitchen. We chatted with each other as equals and the women were more communicative than the man, although all three encouraged me to look around. The chairs, tables and equipment in the kitchen looked very new. I estimated that the cemevi was no more than two or three years old, but it probably replaced a smaller and much older building.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

I walked up the stairs and entered the large room with the dome. More pictures of Ali and other important male figures were on the walls, and carpets covered the floor where ritual practices took place. Nearby was the pir’s odasi, or the pir’s room, complete with sofas for extra comfort.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The name “pir” is sometimes translated to mean “patron saint”, but it is better to think of a pir as one of the socio-religious leaders encountered among the Alevis and the Bektashis. Other socio-religious leaders are called murshids and rehbers, and all three types of leader are known collectively as dedes. According to the books of the Buyruk, which include the basic principles of the Alevi faith, a dede must be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, operate as an educator and a moral guide for the community, be knowledgeable and exemplary in his character and manners, and follow the principles contained in the Buyruk. A dede must also adhere rigidly to the established traditions of Alevism. Traditionally, the main functions of the dedes can be summarised as follows. They guided and enlightened the community in social and religious matters; led the religious rituals; punished criminals; served as arbiters between conflicting sides; led ceremonies during occasions such as a wedding or a funeral; fulfilled certain legal and educational functions; organised healthcare; provided socio-political leadership; and, in some exceptional cases such as in Dersim, shared the leadership position with the agas, or large landowners. In the modern era, of course, some of the functions just listed have been usurped by the state, but, especially in terms of ceremonial responsibilities, providing spiritual and other guidance to the community, resolving disputes between individuals, families or communities, and providing socio-political leadership, dedes such as pirs still have considerable influence.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

On both floors are other rooms, both large and small, and some rooms have toilets and washing facilities. By the time I was ready to leave I was inclined to conclude that, of all the houses of worship of which I am familiar, the cemevi most resembles a Sikh gurdwara, especially a gurdwara that might be built outside India where Sikhs are a small but respected and valued minority. All such gurdwaras have a diwan, or worship hall, about the size of the room in the cemevi with the dome above it, and a langar, a dining room with a kitchen where food is served to everyone, Sikh or non-Sikh, who visits the gurdwara. Other rooms exist for a multiplicity of purposes such as meetings, language classes or day-to-day administration. There are also toilets and washing facilities and, in more cases than not, pictures or paintings of some or all of the human gurus, who are all male even though Sikhs are very much in favour of gender equality, in much the same way as the Alevis and the Bektashis. I found it quite odd to be so far from home, but in a building used for religious purposes that felt so very much like home (because, in recent months, I have spent an unusual amount of time in gurdwaras).

View west with the cemevi, Ovacik.

View west with the cemevi, Ovacik.

To Tunceli.

The hotel bed was extremely comfortable, so, although I was awake by 5.30am, I felt thoroughly rested. I packed everything I could, showered, dressed and was downstairs by 6.15 because I had been led to believe that breakfast was served from 6.00am, even though it was a Sunday. The buffet had, indeed, been spread out so I began to eat. I had already paid my bill on arrival the day before and thought that, with luck, I might catch the 7.30am departure for Tunceli. I had two cheeses, black and green olives, tomatoes, sliced meat, bread, jam (cherry and strawberry), chocolate and hazelnut spread, honey, a boiled egg, helva and lots of tea.

The breakfast room in the Gulistan Hotel, Erzincan.

The breakfast room in the Gulistan Hotel, Erzincan.

I rushed upstairs and was on the street just after 7.00am. Roadworks had forced all traffic to take a detour, but with the help of an elderly man I found the correct stop for buses to the otogar. I needed the number one and the timetable suggested that, even on a Sunday, services began just before 7.00am and ran every ten to fifteen minutes. A number one arrived on time, set off and got me to the otogar by 7.25. I ran to the office of the company operating buses to Tunceli to find I was not the last passenger buying a ticket. The bus was going all the way to Diyarbakir.

The day had started in perfect fashion and, to add to my pleasure, the sun shone brightly from a sky with very few clouds. The mountains enclosing Erzincan to the south and the north looked all the better for the patches of snow on their slopes.

For the first 50 kilometres of the journey we went east along the valley of the Euphrates as if destined for Erzurum. The valley floor for most of the way is flat and quite wide with some trees, fields and pasture, the latter supporting herds of cattle. The mountains, albeit mostly rounded rather than with rock faces and peaks, remained north and south of the road, those to the south having extensive patches of snow on their north-facing slopes. Any sense of sadness or solemnity I may have had at times the day before (because of the poverty, the rundown streets near the pazar, the many building sites and road improvement projects designed to enhance an economically challenged city, the ill-equipped zoo where the welfare of the animals came second to entertaining human visitors, the large number of dogs roaming freely, the oppressive air of Sunni piety that encouraged many women to dress completely in black and cover their whole body except for their eyes and the top of their nose, and the almost complete lack of opportunity to interact with women) had completely gone. Turkey was working its magic yet again.

For part of the way east the railway was in view from the road, but no trains passed us. As we approached Tanyeri the valley began to narrow and the river, the road and the railway became close companions. However, the valley floor was still flat enough for the Euphrates to be quite wide and at one point it had burst its banks flooding nearby pasture. We drove beside a pretty railway station with a water crane in very good condition, a water crane similar to one I had seen the day before at Erzincan station (steam locomotives must occasionally travel the line, perhaps pulling trains for railway enthusiasts). A little later we turned right off the main road and headed south to Tunceli via Pulumur. We crossed the Euphrates and went under an admirably built stone bridge that carries the railway further east. A sign beside the road informed people that they were entering Tunceli province and, very close to the sign, we drove beside an old jandarma post. I was reminded that, when last travelling along the road, Tunceli province in general and Tunceli town in particular felt like occupied territory. The fact no jandarma occupied the post near the road sign suggested that things were now more relaxed. Thankfully, the next few days confirmed that they were.

The bus boy walked along the aisle providing passengers with tea, coffee, fruit juice, water and a squirt of kolonya.

As soon as we entered Tunceli province we began to ascend a gorge-like valley with rugged rock walls which soon had us at the highest point on the road from where very pretty views of rounded hills, pasture, wild flowers and trees with new leaves led the eye toward villages and snow-smudged mountains, the latter in the distance. Cattle gave way to sheep. At one point it looked as if we were almost as high as the highest mountains to the south, but this was not, obviously, the case. Why? Because one of the mountains was almost completely covered in snow.

We reached the pass where a large, shabby building is used to store motor vehicles and other equipment so that maintenance workers can keep the road open during heavy snowfalls. The views from the pass of forest, snow-capped mountains and pasture with wild flowers on rounded hills were sublime and small villages nestled in the folds of the undulating terrain. The road was far more beautiful than I recalled it from trips in the middle of summer when the high temperatures have melted all the snow and the absence of rain has bleached from the land the strong colours that persist until very early June.

We began to descend and cattle grazed on the pasture. We arrived in Pulumur, an overwhelmingly modern town with houses and small apartment blocks dispersed along the valley and in a few self-contained mahalles on the surrounding slopes. Pulumur’s commercial heart, decorated that day and for at least another week with lots of bunting for the different political parties, is very small, so much so that, for many people, trips to Tunceli, Erzincan or even Tercan are necessary to conduct certain types of business or access supplies, food items included if they are a little out of the ordinary. This said, Pulumur’s situation cannot not be faulted and I suspect that roads to nearby villages in the hills and mountains lead to interesting destinations.

As soon as we left the centre of Pulumur the road enters a meandering valley with a river that tumbles over rocks little and large. Small orchards exist where the land flattens, but for most of the time the road is enclosed by rock walls, small patches of pasture on the slopes and trees that grow wild. We drove beside an old stone bridge with a single high arch, but it is in poor condition, and a large but abandoned army or jandarma camp. Some of the buildings in the camp had been trashed, no doubt by local Alevi males who regard the camp as a symbol of the government in Ankara that has always discriminated against them, not least during the period when the AKP has dominated Turkish politics. This said, even worse oppression than that of the AKP prevailed in the 1930s. More about this later.

Gradually the valley widened and, in the process, so did the river as it flowed less vigorously. The road could now take a straighter and more level course. Isolated houses existed near the road with a few fields and an orchard nearby, and the trees looked a delight as their new crop of pale green leaves seemed to flutter in the gentle breeze like the wings of small birds. But still in the distance were the snow-smudged mountains and, with luck, I would be among them later in the day. What an entry to Tunceli province, still better known locally by its old name of Dersim, the only province in Turkey with an Alevi majority. I was more excited with each kilometre that lay behind us.

About 40 or so kilometres from the town of Tunceli we drove through a small village in a beautiful situation, but in the centre of the village was a large apartment block within a compound heavily protected with walls, barbed wire and razor wire. This was another army or jandarma camp. Although unoccupied, it could very quickly be brought back into use should unrest among the local people recur. It felt almost like the good old, bad old days.

By now, the road to the town of Tunceli was excellent (from now on, I shall call the town Tunceli. When referring to the province of Tunceli, I shall use instead the preferred local name of Dersim. There will be times when I use Dersim to describe more than merely the province of Tunceli. In this case I will include areas of provinces that share borders with Tunceli province that have large or majority Alevi populations and are therefore thought by local people to be part of Tunceli province/Dersim, although they are not formally recognised as such by the government in Ankara). However, every so often the road entered short tunnels, tunnels not driven through the rock, but built from concrete to protect the road from avalanches or rock falling from the surrounding hills and mountains. There were also a few short tunnels driven through the rock and, because one such tunnel had neither a concrete lining nor an archway at each end, it looked like a natural feature. Some trees were in blossom and many beehives had been arranged in lines along the edge of pasture full of wild flowers.

It was 9.15am and the digital clock in the bus suggested the temperature outside was 18 degrees centigrade. Passengers bored with the scenery (?!?!) could operate screens attached to the back of the seat in front them to access free films, TV channels or radio stations. Hmmm. I thought about many of the buses we have in the UK that cost so much more to travel on, but do not have services comparable to those in the bus in which I was travelling through eastern Turkey from Erzincan to Tunceli. Such services included free liquid refreshments and the occasional small snack, as well as the entertainment just listed.

Water tumbled down a rock face creating a cascade about 25 metres long, but the stream and the waterfall would dry up completely in a few weeks when all the snow had melted from the surrounding slopes. Because the valley remained quite narrow villages were rarely encountered, but isolated houses with fields and orchards persisted. This said, a lot of houses had been abandoned and/or trashed. It was quite likely that such vandalism is directly attributable to the army or the jandarma who destroyed the houses of people suspected of, or known to be in, sympathy with political or terrorist groups that sought an end to discrimination against minority groups such as the Alevis and the Kurds.

A road led to the east for about 12 kilometres to Nazimiye. The road ascended a side valley along which a river flowed before adding more water to the Pulumur Cayi that we had been following for many kilometres. Near the point at which the two rivers met the Pulumur Cayi spread quite wide and a few small but low-lying islands broke the surface with scrub and patches of grass. The river then narrowed once more so it was about 20 metres wide and, not long after, we passed a spot where local people liked to come for picnics at the weekend or during public holidays. High above the road the army had built low, turret-like gun emplacements from where soldiers could survey the surrounding countryside from positions of relative safety and security. The gun emplacements looked abandoned. The bus had not stopped once for the police, the army or the jandarma to check passengers’ ID, which seemed to confirm that the gun emplacements were empty.

About 20 kilometres from Tunceli the valley widened to an extent greater than since we had left Pulumur. The river was about 30 metres wide, rounded hills lay along both valley walls and, although the land looked a little drier and hotter than further north, there were lots of fields, meadows, orchards, beehives, cattle, horses and mules. A man cut long grass with a scythe attached to a long wooden handle. A rock wall above the river was slowly eroding into pinnacles reminiscent of some of the landscapes in Cappadocia.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

We arrived in Tunceli, a relatively small provincial capital in terms of population, the centre of which lies on the slopes where the Munzur and the Pulumur rivers join. True, the suburbs seem to stretch for many kilometres, especially to the south leading to the rapidly expanding campus of the provincial university, but the town centre is compact and clearly defined and the otogar centrally located. At first sight Tunceli looks overwhelmingly modern and nothing you find or see later will lead to that first impression being radically altered. However, because of the two rivers just mentioned, the surrounding hills and mountains, the good road links with nearby towns and villages, the unusually attractive apartment blocks painted bright colours, a small but lively pazar and, as I would soon find out, remarkably friendly people with a refreshingly liberal outlook on life, there is much to admire. In fact, by the time I had to leave Tunceli less than forty-eight hours after arriving, the town had emerged as one of my all-time favourite Turkish provincial capitals despite the absence of major monuments. The two most important reasons for this? The people and the surrounding area. Even the substantial town centre presence of the police and the army did not compromise my enjoyment of the place because, although armoured vehicles were parked on or sometimes patrolled the streets, for most of the time the police and the soldiers remained in their heavily fortified compounds.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

I walked from the otogar to an open space overlooking the Munzur Cayi below. A small park, some benches and the statue of a turbaned male who must have lived some time ago create a very attractive setting for views up the Munzur Cayi and the mountains to the north. A very large hotel that appears quite expensive overlooks the Munzur Cayi to the south of the park, but I wanted somewhere not so posh. I asked a woman without a headscarf and her male companion about other hotels and they directed me to one in the town’s nearby pazar. I arrived at the hotel to find a man reading a book about Che Guevara who seemed to share ownership of the business with a friend. The man put down his book and said the room with en suite facilities and breakfast cost 50TL a night. This seemed a good price, especially for somewhere so centrally located, so I agreed to stay two nights (I had a lot to see around Tunceli). The room had a balcony providing views over part of the pazar, which enhanced the benefits of staying.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

I unpacked a few things, but was out very quickly. I had a walk around the central business district noting immediately that only a very few women wore a headscarf, none covered their faces and none dressed in black from head to toe. Most women dressed in clothes similar to those that women might wear in Europe or North America and walked around on their own or with friends or relations, and shopped or called at cafes or pastanes with the same freedom enjoyed by men. They chatted with me, an unknown male, without embarrassment or fear that they were contravening unnecessarily restrictive codes of social convention, and it was obvious that a majority of local men supported the more relaxed and integrated relations that existed between the sexes. Moreover, by the end of the day I saw more women driving cars than the whole of the week that had just ended. Add to this that bunting and posters around the town confirmed that left-wing political sentiments were very much to the fore and support for the AKP almost non-existent and my admiration for Tunceli rose another half dozen notches. By Turkish standards, Tunceli is a town largely shaped by a very liberal and progressive outlook, a liberal and progressive outlook that only prevails elsewhere in large urban centres in the west such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa (but a liberal and progressive outlook does not prevail in all districts in the cities just listed. Some districts suffer from a very oppressive Sunni Muslim outlook that has a particularly detrimental effect on gender equality and relations between the sexes).

View east from Tunceli.

View east from Tunceli.

Oh yes: alcohol was on sale in many shops and lokantas, and one small shop in the pazar (where about only half the businesses bothered to open because it was Sunday) sold large bottles of Efes Malt for a very reasonable 4.5TL. Tunceli was very much my kinda town!

A tea garden beside the town’s main square had been taken over as the local headquarters for the HDP and groups associated with it, and its display of bunting was so spectacular that I spent some time taking photos and chatting with HDP members and supporters. A large statue of Ataturk stood on a stone plinth in the middle of the square. If the great dictator were alive today and saw that a party such as the HDP, representing in particular the interests of the Kurds whose existence he would not even acknowledge, was so popular in the east of the country, he would have gone apoplectic. Moreover, only a few glasses of raki would have calmed him down.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

Ataturk's statue, Tunceli.

Ataturk’s statue, Tunceli.

It was in Tunceli where I first saw posters with a photo of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya, “Partizan”, wearing a cloth cap and resembling a working class hero of the Soviet Union, circa the 1930s. In the photo Kaypakkaya also looked like a young Robert de Niro around the time he starred in “Taxi Driver”.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

Ibrahim Kaypakkaya lived from 1949 to 1973. He was an important figure in the communist movement in Turkey. He was the founder of the Communist Party of Turkey (Marxist-Leninist) and its armed wing carried out fatal attacks in Tunceli, Malatya and Gaziantep. At least one such attack led to the murder of a village muhtar whose information to the security forces had resulted in a gunfight during which some of Kaypakkaya’s allies had met their deaths.

On 24th January 1973, Turkish military forces attacked Kaypakkaya and some of his supporters in the mountains near Tunceli. Kaypakkaya was badly wounded and left for dead, but he managed to shelter in a cave before making his way to a village where he asked a teacher to shelter him. The teacher provided him with a room to recuperate in, but he then locked the door and reported Kaypakkaya’s whereabouts to the army. Kaypakkaya was taken to the prison in Diyarbakir, notorious at the time for the brutal treatment of its inmates, interrogated and tortured. On 18th May he died from gunshot wounds and, so it is said, his body was mutilated and cut into many pieces.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

After his death, Kaypakkaya became a martyr for the Turkish communist movement because he “chose to die rather than give information”. Leftists in Turkey more generally remember him as a symbol of resistance to tyranny in all its forms. He left behind some writings that offer a critique of Kemalism, the ideology that Ataturk developed and which shaped Turkish political thinking until at least the end of the 1980s. He also reflected on Kurdish identity in a nation state which, in the 1960s and early 1970s, preferred to pretend that the Kurds did not exist.

As I took photos of the posters, three or four men walked past and gave me the thumbs-up sign to show their solidarity with what Kaypakkaya represents.