Postscript one: the June 2015 general election and its aftermath.

What eventually proved to be Turkey’s first of two general elections in 2015 took place on 7th June. At stake were the 550 seats of the Grand National Assembly. It was the twenty-fourth general election in the history of the Turkish Republic. Amid speculation that no party would win enough seats to govern alone, the result created the first hung parliament since the 1999 general election.

The Justice and Development Party  (AKP), which has governed Turkey since the 2002 election, lost its parliamentary majority, but remained the largest party in parliament with 258 seats and 40.9% of the vote. The AKP failed to win the 330 seats it needed to submit constitutional changes to a referendum and fell well short of President Erdogan’s personal target of 400 MPs. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) also fared worse than in the previous, 2011, general election winning 132 seats with 25.0% of the vote. Having been projected to win over many disaffected AKP supporters, the Nationalist Movement Party  (MHP) improved on its 2011 performance by winning 80 seats with 16.3% of the vote. The new People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose candidates had contested past elections as independents in order to bypass the 10% election threshold, fought the election as a party despite concerns that it might fall below the threshold and lose all its parliamentary representation. The HDP fared better than expected by winning 80 seats, the same as the MHP, with 13.1% of the vote. The indecisive result raised the prospect of an early snap general election.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

Campaigning before the election focused mainly on the declining economy, the ongoing Solution Process between the government and Kurdish rebels, the ongoing political conflict with the Gulen Movement and Turkish involvement (or, until July 2015 at least, the apparent lack of such involvement) in the Syrian civil war. Allegations of government corruption and authoritarianism, mainly originating from a 2013 scandal and the 2013 Gezi Park protests respectively, were also some of the issues raised during the opposition campaigns. The vote was seen by some as a referendum on Erdogan’s call for an executive presidency.

Accusations of electoral fraud and political violence also caused controversy during the election process. Candidates, activists, offices and motor vehicles were subject to politically motivated acts of violence and vandalism, culminating in the death of five HDP supporters after two bombs exploded during a rally in Diyarbakir on 5th June. The interference of President Erdogan, who was accused of covertly campaigning for the AKP under the guise of “public opening” rallies, was also controversial because the president is constitutionally required to exercise political neutrality. Despite fraud claims dating back to the hugely controversial 2014 local elections and numerous claims of misconduct in many provinces on polling day, the election was largely praised by the OSCE for being carefully organised, and was declared free and fair by the European Parliament.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The uplifting article below (sadly, the next post will reveal that the optimism was misplaced) appeared recently in “The Guardian” newspaper along with a photo saying that Feleknas Uca could be the first HDP member of parliament from the Yazidi community. Feleknas Uca is a woman:

The election result brought forth an embryonic new Turkey, but not the one the president wanted. It produced what is tantamount to a cultural revolution in Turkish political life. Women will pour (?!?) into parliament in Ankara in unprecedented numbers, 98 up from 79. Openly gay candidates won seats for the HDP. Most of all, the long-repressed Kurdish minority (one in five citizens) will be properly represented in the parliament for the first time with 80 seats.

“This is the first time that feminists in Turkey actively supported a political party,” said feminist activist Mehtap Dogan. “Up until now we have always done politics on our own, away from parliament. But this time we ran a campaign supporting the HDP because we believed in their sincerity when it comes to defending the rights of women, LGBTs and ethnic minorities.”

The HDP is the first party to introduce a quota of 50% female politicians, and all party offices and HDP-run municipalities are chaired by both a man and a woman. The party’s successful attempt to break out of ethnic identity politics and broaden its appeal well beyond the Kurdish issue owes much to leader Selahattin Demirtas’ magnetism and his message of outreach. But the mass protest movement, born in a central Istanbul park two years ago and which mushroomed into national protests that Erdogan crushed mercilessly, also fed into the HDP’s support.

“During the Gezi Park protests, many got an idea of what Kurds had to go through for years: the violence, the repression, the unjust arrests. It opened our eyes to the Kurdish suffering,” said Dogan. “At the same time, we saw how the pro-government press tried to turn our legitimate, peaceful protests into acts of terrorism.”

Just as Erdogan branded the protesters two years ago “riff-raff”, “terrorists” and “foreign agents”, in the election campaign he stoked division and malice by repeatedly smearing his HDP opponents as “terrorists, marginals, gays and atheists”. He asked religiously conservative voters not to cast their ballots for “such people who have nothing to do with Islam”. The tactic backfired as many religiously conservative Kurds shifted their votes from the AKP to a party that promised to represent everyone’s interests.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

A chart on the “Hurriyet Daily News” website about the June election result revealed the following about provinces in eastern Turkey. The HDP was the largest single party in Agri (79% of the vote), Ardahan (31%), Batman (73%), Bitlis (61%), Diyarbakir (80%), Hakkari (88%), Igdir (57%), Kars (45%), Mardin (74%), Mus (71%), Siirt (66%), Sirnak (85%), Tunceli (61%) and Van (78%). Of the provinces in which I spent time not already mentioned, the AKP was the largest party with 47% of the votes in Bingol, 54% in Elazig, 49% in Erzincan, 54% in Giresun and 59% in Sivas (Divrigi is in Sivas province). I was surprised to see that the AKP was the most popular party in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, but not surprised that it was in Malatya, given how Sunni Islam has impacted so detrimentally on the provincial capital in recent years. Our many friends in Balikesir must have been livid that the AKP was the most popular party in that province in the west, and I was shocked to see that Rize had a higher percentage voting AKP (67%) than profoundly conservative and pious Konya (65%). In only one province, Osmaniye, did the MHP emerge as the most popular party, so Osmaniye is somewhere I shall avoid for a while. The AKP remained the most popular party in all three of Istanbul’s electoral districts and both of Ankara’s, but the CHP was the most popular party in Izmir’s two electoral districts.

By common consent, the AKP was seen as the most obvious loser and the HDP the most obvious winner. However, as the largest party in parliament, the AKP had the opportunity to form a coalition with one of the other parties, but it was doubtful it would wish to do so. The AKP had forty-five days following the declaration of the election result in which to form a government. If it could not form a government, or if the coalition collapsed sometime thereafter, the president could call another election.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The difficulties the AKP had in forming a coalition government were as follows (although we now know that the AKP never seriously wanted to form such a government). The CHP was reluctant to enter a coalition with the AKP because the CHP remains Kemalist in outlook; its uncompromisingly secular inclinations render it almost impossible to contemplate collaboration with a religious party. The MHP would have loved to form a coalition with the AKP, but such a coalition, one including a Turkish nationalist party with links to shadowy extremist groups of a very violent nature, would definitely have derailed the AKP’s progress in recent years to woo the Kurds, a process which has made it very unlikely that civil war will begin again. The AKP would have found it impossible to work with the HDP because the HDP is as uncompromising in its commitment to secularism as the CHP and far more supportive of minority rights (ethnic, religious, sexual, etc.) than any mainstream party. Moreover, the HDP was now the leading representative of Kurdish interests in the Turkish Republic. However, the AKP believes (and I think the AKP is correct in its belief) that most ethnic Turks are not yet prepared to see Kurds in government, given that Kurds are still viewed by a majority of ethnic Turks as second class citizens who want to create from within the Turkish Republic a nation state of their own. There was also the legacy of the civil war and the fact that most ethnic Turks believe that blame for the war lies with the Kurds alone, and not with the decades of repression, discrimination and blatant denial of human rights predicated on government policies shaped by Turkish nationalism dating from the birth of the republic itself.

A remarkable thirty-two HDP members of parliament were women. The only party that did little to ensure women entered parliament in significant numbers was the MHP, which now had four women MPs. This said, women now made up 18% of parliamentarians, up from 14% before the election.

Filiz Kerestecioglu, who entered parliament for the HDP, is a lawyer and a women’s rights’ activist. Twenty-five years ago, she helped set up Turkey’s first shelter for women suffering domestic violence. The shelter soon emerged as the home of Turkey’s feminist movement. Filiz Kerestecioglu is reported to have said to the BBC that the increase in the overall number of women parliamentarians was “not satisfactory, but still, it is important”.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

Farewell, Diyarbakir.

My four companions had an appointment with other friends in a distant suburb, so we went our separate ways. I spent more time in the narrow streets around the church, then went to examine the fortifications along the west side of the old city.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I had just finished walking along some of the wall, when I heard people playing drums and a wind instrument that may have been a qernete. I walked toward the music where a group of Kurdish men and women had linked fingers to dance in a circle. They were supporters of the HDP and it was not long before I was added to the circle and photos were taken. About fifty people had gathered to look on. The pious Sunni women wore solemn expressions that betrayed contempt for what was going on or regret that they could not join in. Most or all of those taking part in the dance were secular in inclination. Dancing proved a delightful thing to do as the shadows lengthened with the approach of evening.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I waved goodbye to everyone and went quickly to Gazi Caddesi to buy some lokum, then, returning to the hotel, called at a supermarket to buy a large piece of kasar cheese and orange juice. After a quick shower and a change of clothes, I left for my last proper meal in Turkey itself, an Adana kebap at somewhere I had eaten in when last in the city, Nasir Usta Lokanta just outside the old city on Ali Emiri Caddesi.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I ordered a one and a half portion of Adana kebap and ayran knowing that water and salads would be brought as free extras. In fact, six free dishes arrived, one with slices of lemon and coriander, one with pulped tomatoes, one with tomatoes and lettuce, one with fresh onion, pepper and coriander, one with yoghurt and bulgar, and one with three portions of cig kofte. The lokanta was busy inside and out with many customers decidedly middle class in appearance. Based on the appearance of the children and women alone, most customers were secular in outlook or very relaxed about their commitment to Islam. With time to spare I delayed departure, not least because I was given a glass of tea to end the meal.

Nasir Usta Lokanta proved a fitting place to end the trip in terms of the quality of the food provided and the crisp and clean, female-friendly surroundings. It was not quite the best meal of the trip – my first evening meal in Sebinkarahisar and the late lunch in Solhan were better, partly because of the novelty of some of the food available – but I was delighted with what I had.

Nasir Usta Lokanta, Diyarbakir.

Nasir Usta Lokanta, Diyarbakir.

I went for one last walk around the old city concentrating on the area near the Ulu Camii and Nebi Camii, the latter mosque being where, even on a Sunday evening, about a dozen men sat among their boxes, tins and other necessities to polish or repair shoes.

It would soon be dark, but quite a lot of young women still walked around, albeit in the company of male relatives or friends. A more liberal air prevails in Diyarbakir than in cities such as Elazig and Erzincan, even though Sunni Islam is the dominant expression of religious faith. This said, especially in the parts of the old city where some of Diyarbakir’s poorest families live, women are often dressed from head to toe in loose-fitting black garments and they often cover their faces. Older women who do not routinely cover their faces pull their headscarf over their mouth and nose when unknown men come into view.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I was reluctant to extract myself from the streets where lots of businesses remained open, people were milling around and there was so much to enjoy (although a lot of police were walking around and armoured motor vehicles had been parked at street corners). I would miss the lifestyle, the opportunities to engage with friendly people, the unusual destinations and the rarely visited monuments, but, in particular, I would miss engaging with some intelligent, forthright and assertive women who confound the stereotypes of women in overwhelmingly Muslim nation states.

It was now dark so I returned to the hotel. I arranged everything for the last time in my bags to spread the weight as best I could; read some of Gerard Russell’s “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: journeys into the disappearing religions of the Middle East”, the ideal book for the sort of trip that was about to conclude; showered again; finished the orange juice; and went to reception to pay my bill. I then walked the short distance to the taxi rank where I noted that it cost 20TL to get to the otogar because the otogar is further from the city centre than the airport! The insanity of it all.

A growing number of police and armoured motor vehicles had been coming onto the streets as nightfall approached. By 8.00pm helicopters were flying overhead. On the way to the airport armed police officers in cars and armoured vehicles had blocked some roads to traffic or were guarding important intersections. Diyarbakir felt like an occupied city. And the reason for the massive police presence? Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, was in the city attending a pre-election rally on behalf of the AKP. Because the AKP had become so unpopular in Diyarbakir, an extremely expensive and disruptive police operation had to be undertaken to guarantee his safety. Other than confirming that the AKP was the political party of government and could therefore demand that such a police operation be mounted, it was difficult to imagine what use the rally would serve because the vast majority of Diyarbakir’s population will vote HDP. Still, a few shots of Davutoglu in newspapers the following morning speaking to supports of the AKP in the HDP heartland will be good for AKP morale.

The taxi driver could not take me all the way to the terminal. I paid my fare before walking through a temporary barrier staffed by police who confirmed that people had a right to access the airport. It was obvious that disruption to normal routines would persist until Davutoglu returned to Ankara by plane later that night.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

After getting my boarding ticket for the flight to Istanbul and confirming that my big bag would not be seen again until I arrived in Manchester, I settled down in the departure area. My flight was delayed for about an hour because Davutoglu’s movements took priority. I read some more of Russell’s book concentrating on the Yazidis, a community I would have liked very much to have encountered, but would probably have encountered only if allowed access to a refugee camp (a refugee camp near Diyarbakir is said to contain many Yazidis, but, even if I had gone to the camp south of the city, I doubt the Turkish authorities would have let me in. I had been turned away from a refugee camp two or three years earlier simply because I wished to visit a nearby village).

I examined my wallet and found about 60TL. The Turkish lira was slowly dropping in value against major world currencies and the trend was likely to persist for at least a few months, so keeping the liras was unwise. Turkish and Kurdish passengers were enthusiastically buying boxes of baklava from the airport’s branch of Saim, one of Diyarbakir’s best sweet manufacturers, so it seemed the obvious thing to buy. I asked for half kilos of two different kinds of baklava to fill a kilo box, but was not given the sweets until I had had one to eat. It tasted excellent and, back home, Hilary and I agreed that it was some of the best baklava we have ever consumed.

I looked around at my fellow passengers and noticed something that had been confirmed earlier during the trip: more Turks and Kurds are overweight now than ever before. A product of growing prosperity and a more sedentary lifestyle, excessive weight has led to an interest among the better-off in jogging, gyms, organic food and experiments with celebrity-endorsed diets. Men are more prone to being overweight than women, and young women, whether pious or not, are the people least likely to have weight problems. In fact, some young women are painfully thin. I, in common with many others, blame this problem on the adverts and photos of actors, models and other celebrities with ludicrously slim bodies for inspiring in young women wholly unrealistic images of what constitutes desirability in appearance.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

P.S. Partly because Diyarbakir had such a large Armenian population at the time, and partly because even more Armenians lived in the surrounding towns and villages, Diyarbakir became one of the cities where the number of Armenians murdered in 1915 and thereafter was the largest during the genocide. Christopher Walker describes Diyarbakir at the time as “an inferno of torture and murder”. In 2006, David Gaunt estimated that almost 70,000 Armenians met their deaths in Diyarbakir province and only 3,000 of the province’s Armenians remained alive after world war one. Some scholars put the figure for Armenians murdered in Diyarbakir province even higher than this.

P.P.S. On 23rd April 2015, the Armenian Apostolic Church canonised all the victims of the Armenian genocide in what is believed to be the largest canonisation service in history. It was the first canonisation conducted by the Armenian Apostolic Church in four hundred years.‪

The Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin, Diyarbakir.

I resumed my walk through the neglected streets of the old city before coming across a cultural centre arranged around a large courtyard. The cultural centre had once been a large house and must have been built by a wealthy family. An elderly man with a large salt and pepper moustache invited me into the courtyard.

About forty males and females sat on chairs facing six elderly men, and one of the elderly men recited from memory what I soon understood to be an epic from the distant past important to the Kurdish people. The story was told in Kurmanji, which, until a few years ago, would have been an unlawful act. It is only for the last few years that Kurds have been allowed to give public expression to their cultural identity through the use of Kurmanji.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I stayed until the end of the recital, which concluded with rhythmic clapping by everyone present. After I had thanked the man who had invited me into the courtyard and the man responsible for the recital itself – the latter was delighted that the audience had responded so positively to his admirable efforts – I chatted with four young women, at least three of whom were Kurdish. All four were university students. Three of the women, all from Diyarbakir itself, did not wear headscarves. Two wore jeans and tee-shirts and the third a long skirt and a tee-shirt. One of the three women without headscarves – she was training to be a teacher – had a tee-shirt that revealed her arms and more of her chest than is conventional in Turkey. She was the most extrovert and self-confident of the four and, when I said I was a teacher and part-time university lecturer, she interrogated me about educational matters. The fourth woman in the group was from Adiyaman and was spending a few days with her friends in Diyarbakir. She dressed as a conventionally pious young Sunni woman revealing nothing of her body except her hands and face. She may have been Turkish rather than Kurdish.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I was asked what I intended to do and I said, “I will walk to the Syriac Orthodox church to see how things are. I have not visited the church for a few years.” The young women had some spare time and, to my amazement, decided to come as well. It turned out that none of them had been to the church before. As we meandered toward the church, we chatted about the forthcoming election. The women living in Diyarbakir intended to vote for the HDP. She did not say how she would vote, but I suspected that the woman from Adiyaman would vote for the AKP.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

We arrived at the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin where coin-operated barriers now lead to the entrance. The entry fee is very small, of course (however, I was not allowed to pay the 2TL), but in many respects the barriers are indicators of optimism. The Belediye is now helping to look after the church (hence the barriers and a uniformed attendant) and the church is firmly on the city’s rapidly expanding tourist trail. Inside were some tourists, Turkish and otherwise, and about thirty Syriac Christians. The Syriac Christians had stayed on following the end of mass earlier in the day. Among the milling people was Abouna (Father) Yusuf Akbulut, whom I had first met in 2009. Yusuf was very busy, but we managed to briefly chat. I was amazed that he recalled the visit I had made with Hilary one rainy day in October almost six years earlier.

The Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin.

The Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin.

Sinclair says that the church:

Originally built in the 6th century, was a large construction most of which has been lost. The main body had three lobes to n., w. and s. From the would-be lobe in the e. extended the chancel, which survives, as does the apse in which it ends. Chancel and apse have been converted into the present church. The lost part… lay on the site of the present ample courtyard to the w. of the church… The house to the n. is the former bishop’s residence…

The Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin.

The Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin.

From the portico the church is now entered beneath a gallery, and the rest of the former chancel is covered by a shallow dome. The apse is now decorated crowdedly… but if one looks high up on the e. walls to either side of the apse, two excellent wall capitals with garlanded acanthus from the original church can be made out…

The Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin.

The Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin.

The nave is now domed: the eight supporting piers, two set against each of the n. and s. walls, shoulder arches and pendentives. Beneath the original capitals in the e. wall doors lead to chambers either side of the apse, but these chambers are late. The n. door’s heavy, rectangular external frame was probably part of the original church. 

The Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin.

The Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin.

At the end of our tour of the church (we were shown around by a young Syriac male studying at one of Ankara’s universities), the young woman exposing more of her flesh than is usual in Turkey said that she had Muslim parents, but she herself did not practice Islam “because religion causes so many problems.” To confirm that what she said might be true, I told her about the problems Yusuf had encountered in 2000 and 2001 when he spoke out about the massacres Syriac Orthodox Christians suffered at the hands of Turks and Kurds at the same time Armenians were subjected to genocide. She nodded her head slowly and said, “Yes, the Turks and the Kurds will have been Muslims. The Syriac Christians will have been killed because they were Christian. It is wrong. It is sad.”

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos was very busy, as you might expect because it was Sunday, but, because the morning service had concluded an hour or two before my arrival, it was primarily busy with people eating large meals in the courtyard (although every now and again small groups of Armenians or Kurds entered the still-open church to look around). Most of those eating appeared to be Kurds, but in a smaller courtyard to the north of the church about forty Armenians (foreign-born? A bus group from Istanbul?) were finishing a meal with two or three priests of the Apostolic Church. The joyful atmosphere was enhanced because the adults had consumed at least a dozen bottles of red wine made by the Syriac Orthodox Christians of Tur Abdin.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

I chatted with a few Armenians who had finished their meal, and with a young Armenian woman responsible for some of the informative displays that enlighten visitors about the church in particular and Diyarbakir’s once-substantial Armenian population in general. It was wonderful to be back and to see the church so popular with Armenians and local Kurds.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

The church that has been so carefully restored (it was badly damaged in the 1915 genocide, but restored in the 1960s when about a thousand Armenians still lived in the city and its immediate surroundings. However, as Armenians left the city in the years that followed, the church had to close. It was a ruin once again by the mid-1980s) dates from the first half of the 19th century, but Armenian sources suggest an Armenian church has been on the site of Surp Giragos since the 15th century. The complex is unusual in that it has no fewer than seven altars (five are in the church alone). Around the church itself are buildings that once included a school, chapels, storage space and accommodation for priests. Sinclair refers to a baptistery and says that the raised gallery at the west end of the nave is where women used to worship separately from men, but nowadays men and women worship together in the nave among the columns supporting the roof.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

One of the altars is in a room separate from the church itself and is dominated by a picture of Mary with the infant Jesus. An attractive rug covers the stone floor in front of the altar. Nearby is an ornately carved wooden chair painted gold; the upholstery is ruby-coloured. The chair looks very much like a throne for a bishop or the Patriarch of Constantinople/ Istanbul himself.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Surp Giragos Church, Diyarbakir.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

One of the most notable features of the church is the slim bell tower that rises above the entrance. Pictures of the church dating from the 19th century suggest that the church once had a bell tower taller than the one that exists today, and the taller bell tower appears to be what existed at the time of the genocide itself.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church from the roof of the pansiyon.

View of the bell tower, Surp Giragos Armenian Church.

Next, I walked east of the church to part of the old city where some of Diyarbakir’s poorest families live. Most men were at work, despite it being a Sunday, or with friends in tea houses or barber’s shops, so the residential streets were dominated by women and children. In many parts of the old city buildings private, religious or civil have been constructed with the same dark-coloured stone found in the walls and gates that encircle the district, but along the streets which I walked most old structures have been replaced by houses and small apartment blocks made with breeze blocks covered with plaster. As a consequence, the walls are painted many eye-catching colours that look their best in the late afternoon sunshine. It proved a wonderful time to be walking around.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

To Solhan.

It was very quiet in and around the ogretmen evi, so I slept very well. I got up just after 6.00am to find that someone had been in the bathroom before me, but the only other person I saw was a man using a mop to clean the floor of the entrance to the building. It was good to see that male and female teachers shared the ogretmen evi during term time, but I suspect that all the small number of people who stayed overnight were male.

I had a walk around the pazar where only a few businesses had opened, then saw a clean lokanta on a street corner where a middle-aged man and his son, the latter aged about fourteen, were preparing food for the day. I went in and ordered a bowl of soup, which had to be heated up because I was the day’s first customer. The soup arrived with two salads and a large portion of bread. A man walked in for his breakfast as I was paying my bill. Palu was slowly coming to life on what promised to be another warm and sun-drenched day in late May. A few boys and girls with rucksacks on their backs gathered on the main street waiting for their friends so they could walk to school together.

I returned to the ogretmen evi, filled my bottle with water in the kitchen, packed my last few things and looked around for someone to give the key to, but the man with the mop had disappeared and no one was in the offices. I left the key on a book on the arm of a sofa in the room with the pool table, then left to catch a minibus to Kovancilar from where I knew I could get transport to Solhan, my destination for the day. I was directed to a side street from where a minibus soon left with about five passengers. Kovancilar is only 8 or 10 kilometres from Palu, but the driver tried to charge me 5TL for a trip that should have cost much less, given journeys of a similar length elsewhere in eastern Turkey. I stood my ground and gave him 2TL, which was what someone else had given him for the same journey. Yes: one or two villains live in Palu, but they are easily managed.

Kovancilar, a rapidly expanding town of modest delights that nonetheless stands in pretty upland scenery, benefits from being on the main road from Elazig to Bingol, Mus, Tatvan and Van, with the result that many long distance buses pass through. I walked east a short way along the main street until arriving at a point where about fifteen men and women had gathered beside the road waiting for transport to Bingol and beyond. One man insisted I had to buy a ticket for Solhan from the office of a bus company nearby that had not yet opened, but another said I had to wait beside the road and a seat on something suitable would be found as soon as passengers before me had got away. Someone arrived to open the bus company office and he explained that I did not need a ticket; he would simply stop a passing long distance bus with a spare seat to get me aboard it. Fifteen minutes later I was on my way. I thought back to the transport problem I had had at Susehri. This was just like the old days!

I had never been to Solhan before, but had passed through it on a number of occasions. Consequently, the road from Kovancilar to my destination should have looked familiar. However, because it was late May and the conditions so much greener than during the hottest times of the year when journeys in the past had been undertaken, and because it was still so early in the morning that the visibility was excellent, it felt as if I was seeing the upland scenery for the first time. I could sense almost as soon as we left Kovancilar that my last full day in the mountains of eastern Turkey would be memorable, so much so that, by nightfall, I would regret not having at least one more day in the region (I would regret in particular not being able to visit Kigi, a remote town with very few facilities said to have surrounding it the ruins of about fifteen Armenian churches).

I was in a Best Van Tur bus destined for Van itself. The bus was so full that I, and one other passenger who got aboard in Kovancilar, had to sit beside the driver. I did not mind in the least because I was at the front of the bus where the views are the best.

The journey began in quite modest fashion. The road snakes its way along a wide, gently undulating valley with rounded hills to the north and the south. Wheat fields and pasture occupy most of the valley floor, both of which indicated in their appearance that much drier and hotter conditions lay ahead for the next three or four months.

Just at the point where the road branches off for Kigi a considerable distance to the north-east, the scenery improves significantly. For quite a long way there are mountains, forests, pasture, patches of snow on rock faces sheltered from the sun, flocks of sheep and tented camps where shepherds and their families live during the summer months. The road ascends steadily to a pass at about 1,800 metres above sea level. Along the way are villages with recently built mosques larger than the local population would seem to justify and the jandarma has a presence almost as substantial as in Dersim. Some armoured vehicles made their way along the excellent road, which is a dual carriageway for long stretches. Very few old houses remain in the villages themselves, which means that they are less attractive and interesting than many villages seen earlier on the trip.

We entered the westernmost suburbs of Bingol (the city’s name means “a thousand lakes”. Many lakes exist around Bingol, but the total number is far fewer than a thousand), a rapidly expanding, overwhelmingly modern provincial capital that seems intent on looking indistinguishable from most other Turkish cities as quickly as it possibly can. I was surprised to see how large some of the most recent structures are, whether they are hotels, office blocks, apartment blocks, shopping malls, buildings associated with the city or the provincial government, or buildings associated with the university (every provincial capital in Turkey has, or is intent on having, a university. In so far as a commitment to higher education is enviable, this has to be a good thing). Bingol’s newest structures are box-like and clunky in appearance. Although extensive use of steel, glass, brightly coloured cladding and imaginatively painted plaster walls create districts with a clean and crisp appearance, Bingol is not a beautiful place. I also doubt that many monuments from the past have survived. This said, Bingol lies in very pretty upland surroundings and many attractive places can easily be accessed nearby.

One of Bingol’s most in-your-face indicators of modernity is the recently completed luxury Binkap Resort Hotel, a large cube clad in darkened glass that no doubt utilises vast amounts of marble internally to add a touch of class. Of course, modernity is usually equated with progressive ideas, but it was very apparent that a majority of Bingol’s women, whether young or old, are encouraged to dress in a manner in sympathy with the norms of Sunni piety. In fact, girls as young as fourteen and fifteen wear loose-fitting clothes, including lightweight coats, and cover their hair and ears with a headscarf. The clothes and headscarves of the younger women are often as brightly coloured as the buildings among which they walk, but it is obvious that Bingol has a pulse that is religiously conservative.

At the point where a road branches to the north for Erzurum, the bus stopped at a roadside lokanta for a break of about twenty minutes, which was long enough for some people to get food to eat from a tempting selection of hot plates, and for other people to drink glasses of tea, buy snacks at a shop or use the loos. I spent most of the time watching two men wash the buses that had parked in front of the lokanta. Across the road were an elevator and silos for storing some of the region’s wheat harvest later in the year. Suddenly six armoured vehicles came along the road from Bingol and turned off to the left, their destination Karliova or Erzurum.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Erzurum has on its eastern outskirts perhaps the largest army camp in all of eastern Turkey. Such a camp has existed in the city since at least the late 18th century, its main purpose originally being to protect the border regions of the Ottoman Empire from the military might of the Russian Empire and, thereafter, the Turkish Republic from the Soviet Union. Of course, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither Georgia nor Armenia presented the Turkish Republic with serious territorial threats, but governments in Ankara have sometimes been so concerned about Shia-dominated Iran following the Islamic revolution that they have sustained a vast military presence in Erzurum. Inevitably, once the civil war with the PKK began in the early 1980s, Erzurum provided Ankara with a secure military resource far enough from the main conflict zones to prepare retaliatory attacks that invariably proved disproportionate. The consequences of such retaliatory attacks still poison relations between millions of Turks and Kurds (perhaps a third of Turkey’s Kurds had relations or friends who died or were wounded during the war and millions of Kurds were displaced from their homes. On returning to their homes, thousands of Kurds found that their villages had been destroyed by the army) and, to this day, are exploited by some Kurds as justification for resuming the conflict (although, if the conflict did resume, the majority of victims would be innocent Kurds of very modest means who want nothing but peaceful conditions in which to rebuild their lives).

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Many of the young males on the bus looked decidedly disreputable as they walked around the car park sucking on cigarettes and bottles of fizzy pop as they slyly examined the young women who were their fellow passengers. They wore tight-fitting jeans, shirts and tee-shirts to look as fashionable and as westernised as they possibly could and most had haircuts reflecting the most hip styles that barbers in Istanbul could provide their customers (some such haircuts looked as if they had been fashioned with the assistance of electric razors, small hedge trimmers and pots of very heavy axle grease). In contrast, all the women but one, no matter their age, wore a headscarf and a majority of such women wore modern versions of traditional clothes that covered everything but their face and hands. Some women wore black tights (which, for obvious reasons, could be seen only near the ankle) and most had flat, slip-on shoes that my mother might have called her comfortable pair for wearing around the house. While the peacocks swaggered around as if they owned the car park, albeit temporarily, the women tried to make as little an impact on the public domain as they could.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

Between Bingol and Solhan.

The Best Van Tur bus had come all the way from Istanbul, but the bus boy kept it clean internally even though he served refreshments quite regularly. I was content to consume nothing but water.

The attractive scenery persisted from the road junction to Karliova and Erzurum all the way to Solhan, a distance of about 50 kilometres. The villages along the last stretch of the journey had a higher proportion of old houses than the villages on the section from Kovancilar to the pass west of Bingol and they looked pretty among the rounded hills and patches of woodland. A narrow stream meandered across the valley floor with trees and pasture along both banks.

Solhan.

Solhan.

Solhan.

Solhan.

Solhan is an overwhelmingly modern town that stretches in linear fashion along the main road. It lies beside a river with hills and forest providing pretty views in many directions. Solhan is large enough to have a thriving commercial centre and is no doubt a focal point for shopping and the provision of many other services for lots of villages in the surrounding hills and mountains. When I got off the bus in the town centre that Friday morning, I could feel a pleasant buzz, one no doubt enhanced by the fact that the weekend lay ahead. A few people said hello or good morning, and a man directed me toward the hotel in which I hoped to stay. A modest hotel exists in the town centre, but a better one lies along the main road near where the last of the town’s building are found on the way toward Mus. It took me only five minutes to walk to the hotel.

Grand Konak Hotel, Solhan.

Grand Konak Hotel, Solhan.

I arrived at the Grand Konak Hotel, a glass, concrete and steel girder box of medium size set a little back from the main road with facilities beside it to repair burst tyres and malfunctioning motor vehicle engines. I ascended a flight of stairs to reception, which exists in a female-friendly café. The manager offered me a room with en suite facilities and breakfast for 50TL, which I was delighted to pay given how cheap the ogretmen evi had been the night before, and I was led to a clean and comfortable room with views of the main road. A young couple with two children were in a nearby room, but it was not until late that night that other guests arrived to book in. Three such late arrivals were men driving an old and heavily laden open-topped lorry from Van to Ankara and another a white goods’ salesman from near the capital who was visiting actual or potential clients in the Lake Van region.

Grand Konak Hotel, Solhan.

Grand Konak Hotel, Solhan.

Solhan.

Solhan.

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 on 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 can be 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. After 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 parliament 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 parliament 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 Çaglayangil, 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 Rıza 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 articulate 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 parliament 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 about them in Dersim that is 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 otherwise they would 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 incline this way already, and many more will do the same as official documents are accessed by scholars.

By the way, note above 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 he is 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, subjected to massacre. However the soldier regarded the Dersimis at the time of the massacres, he lacked empathic understanding for people with whom who differed. Hmmm. Does a similar lack of empathic understanding prevail among some or all of the brutal Islamist groups, the vast majority of which are Sunni Muslim, currently operating 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? I think it does.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Although it was a Sunday, some of the shops in the pazar were open, so I bought a few things to eat a light meal 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 clearly think it is wonderful that a foreign male is daft enough to visit 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, tried to remember 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 human voices and the occasional car engine firing up.

Before going to sleep I thought briefly about two women (neither wore a headscarf) in their late twenties or early thirties who sat in a posh pastane near the otogar and rather flirtatiously waved and smiled when I walked past them that evening, of the 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 earlier in the day 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 me 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 around the globe 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 some 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.

To Tunceli.

The hotel bed was extremely comfortable, so, although I was awake by 5.30am, I felt very 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 as far as 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 not far from 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 passed 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 on its journey. 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 their 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 recall 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 some cattle grazed on the pasture. Not long after we arrived in Pulumur, an overwhelmingly modern town with houses and small apartment blocks dispersed along the valley and over the surrounding slopes in a few distinct mahalles. 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 will be necessary to conduct certain types of business or secure 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 existed 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, but perhaps most obviously 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 (which, from now on, I shall call 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 even though they are not formally recognised as such by the government in Ankara) was excellent. However, every so often the road entered short tunnels not driven through the rock, but built from concrete to protect it from avalanches or rock falling from the slopes of 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. Because the bus had not stopped once for the police, the army or the jandarma to check passengers’ ID suggested 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 that reminded me 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 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 they 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 were supportive of 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 revealed 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. Tunceli is a town largely shaped by a very liberal and progressive outlook by Turkish standards, 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, of course. 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!

One 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 quite a lot of time taking photos and chatting with HDP members and supporters. A large statue of Ataturk stands 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 picture of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya, “Partizan”, wearing a cloth cap and resembling a working class hero of the Soviet Union, circa the 1930s. In the picture Kaypakkaya looked like a young Robert de Niro around the time he starred in “Taxi Driver”.

Ibrahim Kaypakkaya lived from 1949 to 1973. He was an important figure in the

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

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 him some writings that offer a critique of kemalism, the political ideology that Ataturk developed and which shaped Turkish political thinking until at least the end of the 1980s, and that reflect 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.