CHP* leader Kılıçdaroğlu was praised this week for his parliamentary speech in which he promised to ‘helalleşmek’ historical crimes of the state. He mentioned torture in Diyarbakır Prison after the 1980 coup, he mentioned the Soma mine disaster, he mentioned İsmail Ali Korkmaz, he mentioned Roboskî – but he did not mention the Dersim massacres of the 1930s. This cannot be a coincidence.
Helalleşmek is a little hard to translate, but it means making right, with a religious connotation. Kılıçdaroğlu wants to deliver justice for the victims of all the crimes the state inflicted upon its citizens, in order to heal and to work towards a more democratic future. Wonderful – really, I’m not being cynical. He mentioned a wide range of crimes. The torture and murder in Diyarbakır Prison affected Kurds and quite a few early PKK members, and plays an important role in the Kurdish resistance. In the Soma coal mine disaster of 2014, no less than 301 miners were killed, the result of corruption and ruthless exploitation. Ali İsmail Korkmaz was beaten to death by police in Eskişehir during the Gezi protests of 2013. In the Roboskî massacre of 2011 the state bombed to death 34 Kurdish citizens who were engaged in cross border trade on the Turkish-Iraqi border, afterwards framed by the state as ‘terrorist auxiliaries’.
He mentioned ‘crimes from the CHP era’ as well, meaning the first decades of the Republic when Turkey was ruled by one party, the CHP, between 1923 and 1950. Maybe there were just too many to mention in that period of time, but I find it remarkable and a missed opportunity that he did not mention the Dersim massacres of 1937 and 1938, in which tens of thousands of Alevi Kurds were massacred by the state. It is the biggest massacre in the history of the Turkish Republic.
It’s remarkable because, firstly, Kılıçdaroğlu himself is from Dersim (called Tunceli since the early 1930s, a name change that was part of the year-long policy to break Dersim’s refusal to align with the state). Secondly, on 15 November, it was exactly 84 years ago that the leader of the Dersim resistance, Seyid Riza, was executed by the state. Atatürk, founder of the Turkish republic and the CHP, gave the order in 1937, a year before he died. This week, Kurds have repeated their call to the state to reveal where Seyid Riza’s body was buried. Imagine Kılıçdaroğlu would have referred to that justified call by stating that he would hellaleşmek with the next of kin of those who were massacred in Dersim, and that he would disclose where the remains of Seyid Riza are.
That Kılıçdaroğlu didn’t mention Dersim, shows once again what a complicated relation the party has with this particular massacre. Bombing Dersim into submission, and the whole legal framework and military infrastructure built in that part of the country since the early 1930s, was Atatürk’s project. Seyid Riza was executed a few days before Atatürk visited the province to inspect how the ‘bringing to civilization’ of Dersim was going. The victims of the massacres were Alevis. Most Alevis had strongly supported Atatürk and the CHP because they expected to have more religious freedom in his secular republic than they had had in the Caliphate. This historical connection was never broken, not even after the Dersim massacres.
Well, that needs nuance. Turkish Alevis in general kept supporting the CHP, while Kurdish Alevis, who were the main victims of the massacres, did not. When you visit different parts of Dersim, as I have done, you see that difference. In most parts, the HDP** is by far the strongest party, while elsewhere, the support for the CHP is very strong. On Twitter, a Kurdish women made an interesting analysis about this from a perspective of suppression. She said that suppressed communities often strongly hold on to the part of their identity that is closest to power. For Turkish Alevis, that’s their loyalty to Atatürk. Kurdish Alevis have no identity close to power, so they are the most critical to the state. This explains why there is a strong AKP base among Sunni Kurds: they hold on to their religious identity, which aligns with the religion the state prescribes.
Where does Kılıçdaroğlu stand? He’s Alevi, although he never mentions it. Is he a Kurd? Some say so, while he himself has said that he has Turkmen roots. He never talks about it. Like I said: it’s a very precarious subject in the CHP.
It wasn’t realistic to expect Kılıçdaroğlu to promise to helalleşmek with Dersim (even saying Dersim instead of Tunceli is problematic within any other party than the HDP!) explicitly or to vow to reveal where Seyid Riza is buried. But one day, this issue has to be addressed. As long as that doesn’t happen, there will be no justice, no healing, and no democracy in Turkey.
*CHP = Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party
** HDP = Peoples’ Democratic Party, the 2nd-largest opposition party