On the anniversary of a massacre that led to a declaration of a state of emergency in Turkey 43 years ago and paved the way to the 1980 military coup, a judge spoke at a meeting on Sunday, organised in commemoration of the victims of the massacre.
While the true number of victims is still believed to be concealed by the authorities, official figures put the number of fatalities at 111 and the injured at a few hundred during a week of atrocities between 19-26 December 1978, as buildings were torched and whole neighbourhoods were razed to the ground.
The incidents had started after a bomb went off in a movie theatre where a film with anti-communist agitation was shown, and as the members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) spread the rumour that the place was bombed by communist militants.
Two days later, two teachers of leftist political identities were assassinated in the street, and the next day, as a huge crowd of tens of thousands of people gathered for the funeral procession, the crowd was attacked with sticks and stones by an equally large one led by MHP members.
In clashes between armed groups on both sides, three right-wing militants were killed on 22 December.
Mobs armed with guns and blades started attacking the neighbourhoods of the Alevi and Kurdish Alevi communities in the city on the 23rd while neither the police nor the army units would intervene for days.
Most of the people killed were those massacred by the mobs, although there were also some fatalities on the side of the assailants as a small group armed with a few light weapons managed to organise a resistance in one of the neighbourhoods and prevented an even greater massacre.
As there has been no effective investigation and trial over the massacre, most of the assailants went totally unpunished, and one Ökkeş Şendiller, one of the people who lit the match of provocation after the theatre bombing, would even enter the Turkish parliament in 1991 as an MP for the Nationalist Task Party, the descendant of the MHP that was banned at the time.
Judge Orhan Gazi Ertekin, who is also the co-author of the book ‘Maraş Massacre: Brutality, Resistance and Torture,’ published in 2020, underlined that it was important to observe that the massacre had been carried out by large groups of civilians living in the area.
“The massacre was carried out by people we knew and spoke to: by our own neighbours. They were the people we used to have tea with. They weren’t particularly bad people. At least, they normally weren’t,” he said, and continued: “The Maraş Massacre had been the acting stage of the most specific forms of violence witnessed within the last 150 years.
“One hundred and eleven people had been said to have been killed, over 200 injured, and nearly 500 houses and office buildings destroyed. This is a complete lie. While initial reports indicated that 300 to 400 had been killed, the state TV dropped the figure down to 110 over time. I interviewed many witnesses of the atrocities. According to these witnesses, close to 700 people were killed.”
Ertekin also pointed out that the course of the trial was reversed after the 1980 coup and a number of individuals who had participated in organising the resistance in one of the neighbourhoods were portrayed as representing elements that were responsible for the massacre.
“Those who’d taken part in the resistance against the massacre later faced court as the perpetrators of their own mischief: A typical chapter in the history of the Turkish legal system.”
Ertekin emphasised that it was actually not correct to categorise the mass atrocities in Maraş simply as a massacre. “The Maraş Massacre is actually not just a massacre, but a pogrom, the term signifying a slaughter under the surveillance of the state.”