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The Massacre in Dersim Still Haunts Kurds in Turkey

A reporter for Jacobin traveled to the Kurdish province of Dersim to investigate the recent discovery of a mass grave from a 1937 massacre. But far from being forgotten, it's an atrocity that still haunts the region today, with millions of Kurds in Turkey struggling for freedom against Erdoğan's latest crackdown.

Turkey’s suppression of the Dersim rebellion was likely used as a warning to other Kurdish areas of what would happen to them if they resisted Turkey’s assimilation policies. (Photo: The Federation of Dersim Associations)

A Turkish police official waves his arms at our vehicle, gesturing for us to stop and pull over for a routine security check at one of the numerous police checkpoints scattered throughout Dersim, a predominantly Alevi Kurdish province in the eastern region of Turkey.

Metin Albaslan, thirty-one, immediately steps out of the car after the officer asks for our IDs. He knows the routine. The officer quickly becomes fixated on Metin’s ID. He looks up and shouts “Metin, come here!”

In Turkey, army conscription is compulsory. Metin is a former guerrilla fighter for the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a militant group that has fought a bloody campaign for Kurdish autonomy in the east for decades and which Turkey, the United States, and the European Union consider to be a terrorist organization. Metin was just released from a two-year prison stint for his affiliation with the group six months earlier.

Predictably, he refuses to join the Turkish army.

The only way for an able-bodied citizen to get exempted from this national duty is to pay around thirty-one thousand Turkish liras ($5,380), and even then you still have to serve a month. “We don’t want to serve at all,” Kerem, another friend in the car who requested I not use his real name, tells me while we watch Metin outside being questioned by the police. “Even if it’s only a month, we don’t want to be in their army at all.”

Kerem, like many of the politically engaged youth in Dersim, is continuing his education with a master’s in sociology, largely because it temporarily exempts him from military duty.

Metin, after sitting down with three police officials under a makeshift blue tarp for several minutes, is told to sign a piece of paper promising he will report for his national duty. He is then led to a police jeep where he is told to get in so the officials can transport him to a military compound where he will sign a pledge to join the same army that he spent years fighting against.

We follow behind the jeep carrying Metin as it weaves around the roads in Dersim, passing the seemingly uninhabited, lush green mountains where the only visible structures are Turkish military watchtowers in the distance that peer over the province from the mountaintops.

Metin’s tattoo.

Images of Seyid Riza, a leader of a local uprising in Dersim more than eighty years ago — which resulted in the Turkish army carrying out a brutal massacre on Derism’s residents — flash past our windows as we pass a stone wall in the city center built during the rebellion and now adorned with framed photographic images of the uprising and the massacre that ensued.

In Dersim, the ancestors are alive.

We pass a mountain that has a natural imprint on its length that resembles the shape of a Kalashnikov. Locals, naturally, nickname it “Kalash Mountain.” Metin’s entire back is marked with an unfinished Kalashnikov tattoo, inspired by the natural design of Dersim’s landscape.

After waiting for about fifteen minutes outside the military compound, Metin emerges. “I’m free!” he shouts, smiling and waving a copy of the signed military pledge in his hand. His right arm has a tattoo written in Chinese characters. When I asked him what it meant, he shrugged and said: “I have no idea. One day someone from China will visit Dersim and then they can tell me.”

Metin jumps into the back seat and we resume our journey to Munzur Gozeleri, the source of the Munzur River in Dersim — a sacred place for Dersim’s Alevi Kurds and the site of one of the Turkish government’s most harrowing campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

“It’s Too Painful to Think About”

“It’s too painful to think about. What’s the point of talking about it anymore?” Bego says. The ninety-year-old’s voice sounds quiet and emotionless. With the help of a translator, he speaks to me in the Kurdish dialect of Zazaki, having no knowledge of Turkish. “The massacre took everything from us. Whatever we say it doesn’t matter. The government doesn’t care. No one listens to us. We are just talking to ourselves. It’s all just the past now.”

Bego was just nine years old in 1938. It’s a year that painfully gave birth to the identity of the Alevi Kurds in Dersim, descending deep below the earth where their ancestors’ bones snuggle into the contorted roots of the oak trees dotting the length of the mountains.

The historical lands of Kurdistan span throughout areas of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Following the defeat of the Central Powers in World War I, the 1920 Sèvres Treaty was signed between the defeated powers and the Allied Powers. In the treaty, Armenians were promised full statehood in the territories of the former Ottoman Empire, and interim autonomy with the possibility of obtaining full independence  was envisaged for the Kurdish areas of Turkey — to be determined by a referendum.

Bego.

However, these promises never materialized. Instead, the Turkish nationalist movement took hold, under the leadership of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who led a rebellion against the foreign powers. Atatürk had stated that in areas of Turkey where Kurds constituted the majority, they would be permitted to govern themselves. Most Kurds assumed their fight would result in a multiethnic Turkish-Kurdish state.

Instead, however, Kurds in Turkey, who now make up about 20 percent of the country’s population, found themselves among the victims of a nationalist program aimed at “Turkifying” the country’s minorities by forcibly severing them from their cultures and attempting to assimilate them into a monolithic Turkish identity.

İsmet İnönü, Atatürk’s successor, expressed the country’s nationalist position in 1925, two years after the official founding of the Turkish state. “In the face of a Turkish majority other elements have no kind of influence,” he said. “We must turkify the inhabitants of our land at any price, and we will annihilate those who oppose the Turks.”

The Kurdish language, dress, folklore, and Kurdish names were all banned for decades. Even the words “Kurds,” “Kurdistan,” and “Kurdish” were banned by the government. Up until 1991, the Turkish government only referred to Kurds as “Mountain Turks,” alleging that they were actually Turks whose language had been corrupted over the years.

In 1934, the government introduced the Law of Resettlement, providing a legal avenue to deport Kurds and other non-Turks from their communities and resettle them into Turkish communities in the west.

According to Martin van Bruinessen, a Dutch anthropologist and author, the Turkish government’s aim was to completely depopulate certain Kurdish districts, while “diluting the Kurdish element” in other Kurdish areas by deporting Kurds from their communities and replacing them with Turks.

The following year, in December 1935, the Turkish government issued a special law on Dersim, which had already gained a reputation among Turkish officials for being a particularly rebellious area in the eastern region. The law designated the district into a separate province and placed the communities under direct military control. Dersim was one of the first districts in Turkey the government applied the Law of Resettlement, and residents began being expelled from the province.

The law also officially renamed the province to “Tunceli,” which means “bronze fist” in Turkish; to this day, Tunceli is still Turkey’s official name for the Dersim province. Bruinessen noted that Dersim’s military governor was given “extraordinary powers to arrest and deport individuals and families.”

Not surprisingly, in 1937 Turkey’s military operation caused a rebellion to break out, partly led by Seyid Riza, an Alevi Kurdish chief of one of the numerous tribes that inhabited Dersim. In response, the Turkish army unleashed a campaign of unfathomable brutalities, which included aerial bombardments and alleged poison gas attacks. According to various sources, the Turkish army indiscriminately slaughtered women and children, which included burning them alive.

In September that year, Riza surrendered to the Turkish army in the Erzincan district, which borders Dersim. Two months later, he was executed by hanging, along with his son and several of his closest associates. His body was buried in an undisclosed location — still secret to this day.

Seyid Riza.

Attacks on Turkish security forces continued into 1938. According to the historian Hans-Lukas Kieser, at that time many residents in Dersim believed that if they did not resist, Turkish forces would ultimately exterminate them. In 1938, Turkey’s military campaign took on a “new and comprehensive character,” Kieser wrote in an article on the massacre, and embarked on a “general cleansing” of the province.

Turkish soldiers hunted down members of certain tribes and residents of particular villages suspected of supporting the rebellion. Nuri Dersimi, Riza’s friend, was a local veterinarian and activist in Dersim who lost many family members in the massacre. He was involved in the rebellion for several months before going into exile in Syria. He wrote a book fourteen years later that detailed the heinous practices of the Turkish army.

According to Dersimi, when the men would race to the mountains to fight in the rebellion, the women and children would hide themselves in caves. When the Turkish army discovered them, they would block the entrances of the caves and light fires that would cause the women and children inside to suffocate. Anyone who tried to escape was stabbed to death with bayonets. Dersimi noted that the caves in Dersim were marked with numbers on the military maps of the area, showing that this was not a practice of some rogue force in the army, but a strategic policy.

Some of the women and girls opted to throw themselves from cliffs overlooking the Munzur and Harcik rivers that traverse the province, so as to avoid facing the brutality of the Turkish soldiers. Even the tribes who were loyal to the Turkish government, and worked as collaborators, were not spared.

The collaborating tribes would often remain in their villages during the operation, assuming they were safe from the army’s aggressions. But the Turkish army eventually raided the villages, according to Dersimi. The chiefs were tortured and shot. Anyone trying to escape was taken and shot to death; women and children were locked inside hay sheds and burned alive.

Turkey’s military campaign only ended toward the end of 1938. According to Bruinessen, Turkey’s suppression of the Dersim rebellion was likely used as a warning to other Kurdish areas of what would happen to them if they resisted Turkey’s assimilation policies.

According to the Turkish government, 13,160 civilians in Dersim were killed during the massacre; however, Dersim’s residents have long contested this number. In his book, A Modern History of the Kurds, author David McDowall puts the number of deaths closer to 40,000. Dersim’s residents allege that the death count is even higher. At least 11,818 residents were also forced into exile at the time.

The Turkish government has long downplayed the extent of the army’s brutality in Dersim, alleging that the bloody campaign was necessary to quell the rebellion. In 1938, the estimated population in Dersim was about 65,000–70,000.

If McDowall’s number is correct, at least 57 percent of Dersim’s population was wiped out from the massacre.

“The Massacre Was Just the Beginning”

Bego’s wife Gulizar, now eighty-four, was about three years old at the time of the massacre. Most of her memories are second-hand — donated trauma from the adults who were lucky enough to survive. Almost all of Gulizar’s male relatives had taken up arms at the time, disappearing into the dense forests on the surrounding mountains to fight in the rebellion.

But her father remained behind in the town center of Dersim to protect the family. One day, the soldiers came to her family’s home and took her father. He was never heard from again and they never found his body. According to Gulizar, on that same day, Turkish soldiers lined up twenty-five Alevi Kurds in the town and released bullets into their trembling bodies — a heinous harbinger of the likely fate that befell her father.

Gulizar was with her mother and aunts at the time in a nearby village. “That’s the only reason we survived,” she says. Gulizar speaks in broken Turkish; her first language is also Zazaki and she only learned to speak Turkish during her adult years.

Gulizar, however, does have one original memory that has followed her like a tightly knotted leash stretching back eighty-two years. It does not run in a continuous motion, but it flickers — distorted and deformed.

“There was a Turkish military commander who gathered all of the women and children into a pen outside where the animals were kept,” she says. Her eyes are fixated on an empty space in front of her.

“The man had a stick. He was screaming at us to take off our traditional clothes. He walked around and threw western-style clothes at us — shirts, pants, and skirts. In our culture, the women wear fez hats. The commander came around and hit the women with the stick and demanded they take off the hat.”

“Once we changed our clothes, the soldiers allowed us to go back to our homes.”

“But the massacre was just the beginning,” Gulizar adds. Turkish soldiers also slaughtered the residents’ animals and scorched their farms. For the residents who relied almost entirely on agriculture, the famine that swept over the land — brushing past the dead bodies and bullets — was at the very least predictable and at the very most strategically planned.

“Before the massacre we lived a normal life,” she continues. “We were farming and earning our own income. But after the massacre we had nothing. No one was planting or growing anything and we couldn’t afford to buy food. I remember being so hungry and trying to find food on the streets.”

Gulizar recounts the routine police and army raids on her house throughout the decades “They used to always come to our home,” Gulizar says. “I used to be so scared of the soldiers. Whenever I saw them I would hide. But now I’m not so afraid of them. I have gotten used to them.”

Gulizar.

In 1974, following decades of persecution in Turkey, the PKK was formed under the leadership of Turkish-born Kurdish activist Abdullah Öcalan, who has been held as the sole prisoner on a remote island prison in Turkey for the past two decades. While authorities initially did not take the group seriously, by 1984 the PKK, originally built on Marxist-Leninist ideologies, launched a full-on guerrilla insurgency in Turkey with the goal of creating an independent Kurdish state. In the 1990s, however, the PKK changed their goal from fighting for an independent state to demand equal rights and Kurdish autonomy within the Turkish state.

The armed conflict has continued to this day. Around thirty to forty thousand people, which includes thousands of civilians, have been killed since 1984, according to the International Crisis Group. In the 1990s, as part of its attempts to root out the PKK, the Turkish government and security forces were accused of expelling hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their villages in the eastern provinces, along with killing thousands of civilians, including more than a dozen journalists, destroying hundreds of Kurdish villages, and carrying out enforced disappearances, according to Human Rights Watch.

Rights groups have noted that the Turkish army has systematically targeted Kurdish civilians as retribution for PKK attacks, which includes raiding homes, carrying out mass arrests, destroying property, and indiscriminately shooting and throwing hand grenades at the homes of civilians.

In 1992, for instance, following clashes between the PKK and Turkish security forces in the town of Kulp, a district in Turkey’s Diyarbakır province, at least five Kurdish civilians were killed and four wounded after Turkish forces opened fire and shot randomly at houses, shops, and vehicles for days. One of the wounded was reportedly killed after Turkish security forces soaked him with kerosene and set him on fire.

The PKK has also been accused of committing serious human rights abuses, such as killing civilians, including women and children, and other Kurds who are suspected of collaborating with the Turkish army — and even targeting PKK defectors.

Members of the village guard, or koy korucalar — predominantly Kurdish militias who assist in Turkey’s military operations against the PKK and its various offshoots — have been a particular target for PKK fighters. Many villagers were given a choice to either join the village guard, and henceforth become collaborators for the Turkish state, or be entirely expelled from their villages. Villagers have also reported facing torture and abuse from Turkish authorities if they refused.

Members of the koy korucalar have been accused of carrying out summary executions, enforced disappearances, sexual assaults, and seizing the lands and homes of displaced villagers — at times disguising themselves as PKK militants in order to shift the blame onto the PKK.

The fighting was temporarily abated following the arrest of Öcalan in 1999, who called on the PKK fighters to put down their weapons and cease the militant insurgency. But the unilateral ceasefire only maintained for a few years before the fighting resumed.

“After the massacre, life continued in the same way,” Gulizar says. Her snow white hair is partly blanketed by a thin, white scarf. Her body remains completely inert; the only movement I can detect is the subtle opening and closing of her mouth as she speaks. “In the 1930s and ’40s, they massacred us. In the ’70s and ’80s they tortured us. In the ’90s they destroyed our villages. Now they continue to imprison us. Nothing has changed.”

“I Avoid Looking at the Mountains”

When Bego finally begins to speak, he takes a moment to unlock his eyes from the empty space in front of him, lift his arm, and point to the mountaintop beside us. “I fled to a village on that mountain with my mother, brother, and two sisters,” he says.

Bego and his family were part of the Demanan tribe, who the Turkish army partly blamed for burning a bridge between Dersim and Erzincan at the start of the rebellion. Bego’s family fled their village after receiving news that Turkish soldiers were approaching. They hid themselves in another village called Hopik — located on a mountain adjacent to Bego’s current home.

According to Bego, soldiers had made it to nearby villages and began interrogating locals about the whereabouts of members of the Demanan tribe — many of whom were active in the rebellion. “One man told the soldiers that my family was from the Demanan tribe and then told them where we were hiding,” Bego says.

The soldiers quickly found them and rounded all of them up. “They brought us beside the Harcik River. They told us to line up. My younger sister was so scared. She was shaking and crying. So I put my hand on her head to try to console her.”

The soldiers began to shoot; one of the bullets was aimed at his sister’s head. When the bullet entered her head, it also sliced through Bego’s fingers. Bego pauses from his story and raises his right arm to show me his deformed hand that has just three fingers remaining on it.

The pain caused Bego to faint. The soldiers, assuming he was dead, threw his body into the Harcik River, along with the bodies of his family members — all of whom were shot to death. But when Bego’s body plunged into the ice cold water, he was shaken awake.

“I drifted for several kilometers and then pulled myself out of the river,” Bego recounts. “I walked to my aunt’s house and one of my uncles came and brought me into the mountains to hide.”

Bego’s voice continues, uninterrupted; still staring into space — not producing even a flicker of a reaction to his own words or memories. He describes the brutality of the Turkish soldiers. During the rebellion, men would often go into the mountains to fight the Turkish army, leaving the women, elderly, and children behind in the villages, Bego says.

In the Rovaik village, now known locally to be the site of a mass grave, Turkish soldiers indiscriminately killed the residents left behind. “We always thought that women, children, and the elderly should never be part of war,” Bego says. “War is between men and men; soldiers and soldiers. But they came to Rovaik and they killed everyone. They didn’t leave anyone alive.”

“When the men returned from the mountains, they found the bodies of all of their loved ones scattered on the ground,” he continues. “They were just left there by the soldiers.” The Alevi Kurdish fighters were then forced to bury their parents, grandparents, wives, and children. According to Bego, there were so many bodies that they had no choice but to bury them all together — in one mass grave.

Bego’s wound.

“I try to avoid looking at the mountains,” Bego says. “Every time I look at them I remember my family being killed. I feel the pain over and over again. I have never been able to forget this pain.”

In 2011, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized for the Dersim massacre. “If there is a need for an apology on behalf of the state, if there is such a practice in the books, I would apologize and I am apologizing,” he said in a televised statement. He called the massacre the “most tragic event in our recent history” and called on the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the party of Atatürk which was in power at the time of the massacre, to “face up” to its history.

However, many Kurds scoffed at Erdoğan’s apology, which they viewed as a political stunt to turn Kurdish voters away from CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party.

When I ask Bego his thoughts on Erdoğan’s apology, I expect him to respond angrily, but his voice continues in that same low, monotonous tone.

“They are still killing us. They are still arresting us and torturing us. They just recently massacred us in Sur,” he says, referring to the 2016 siege of the Sur district in Diyarbakır, when more than two hundred Kurds, most of whom were civilians, were killed by the Turkish army and police in a span of about three months during confrontations with PKK militants.

“If he wants to apologize then he should stop killing us first,” Bego says.

“It’s Like the Bones Were Calling Me”

Huseyin Baran’s depression has lasted for years — haunted by a past that lurks like a relentless shadow creeping behind the tired gait of Dersim’s elders. Huseyin’s mother, Zarife, was born in the year 1938 — her first breath and cries joined the last breath and screams of her ancestors.

Like all residents in Dersim, Huseyin learned the stories of the resistance and massacres before he was old enough to attend school. In 1938, Turkish soldiers killed every single member they could find of the Canan family, Zarife’s uncle’s family — along with the Baran family. Locals say there were twenty-four victims in total.

The Turkish soldiers gathered them inside a house sitting on a hilltop located several kilometers from Huseyin’s home in Hozat. According to the story passed down from the elders, all of the victims, which included children, were shot to death before the soldiers burned the house down.

Huseyin.

Huseyin has always felt a “spiritual burden” to his ancestors, and has long wanted to build memorials for them. “I grew up with these narratives of the massacres,” Huseyin says, sitting on a couch in his living room with his hands gently clasped together. His spirit seems soft and kind.

“I felt like I had some responsibility to them — to at least create a space where we could go and show our respect to them.”

However, building a memorial for Dersim’s ancestors could have landed Huseyin in a Turkish prison. Even publicly mentioning the name “Dersim” would likely attract the state’s “bronze fist.” But Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) began liberalizing its policies on the Kurds over the last decade in order to attract Kurdish voters and revive stalled peace talks with the PKK, which had resumed its operations against the government in 2004.

In March 2013, after negotiations between Öcalan and Erdoğan, Öcalan announced a ceasefire, which included a withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkish soil, while Erdoğan promised to expand Kurdish cultural rights in Turkey.

For the first time in Turkey’s history, Kurdish schools began popping up in the region and dozens of Kurdish language TV channels, newspapers, and associations were established; the printing of Kurdish language books more than doubled.

Kurdish municipalities also began constructing memorials for slain Kurdish leaders and civilians killed by Turkish security forces. Riza’s statue was erected in Dersim in 2010 and three years later a memorial was built in Diyarbakır to memorialize the victims of the Roboski massacre, when in 2011 Turkish fighter jets bombed and killed thirty-four Kurds, most of whom were minors, from the village of Roboski in Turkey’s Sirnak province as they were returning from the Iraqi border where they had collected supplies to sell at the market.

Huseyin finally found himself with a political opening to construct a memorial for his massacred ancestors. In April 2014, Huseyin and three hired workers, armed with shovels, began their hike to the site of the massacre — about a forty-five minute walk from Huseyin’s home.

“I was digging in the area and I suddenly struck a large rock with my shovel,” Huseyin says. “I lifted the rock and under it I saw bones. There were skulls, arm and leg bones, a jaw, and what looked like ribs.”

“I knew immediately that these were the bones of my ancestors.”

Huseyin collapsed and began to uncontrollably sob. “I can’t explain to you what I was feeling,” he says. When he found the strength to continue uncovering the bones, he was barraged with powerful flashes of scenes and images from more than eight decades ago.

“I could feel what they felt. I could see them being burned. I could hear the gunshots and the children crying,” he says. “It was like the bones were calling me to this exact spot.”

Huseyin immediately scrambled to contact lawyers who could help him. For twenty days, he watched over the bones of his ancestors — only leaving the site to eat and sleep. He feared that Turkish officials would hear about his discovery and come to damage the bones.

Two and a half weeks later, Cihan Soylemez, a lawyer in Dersim, arrived at the site. This was not the first time a resident had discovered skeletal remains hiding under the earth in Dersim. In 2012, Soylemez had also worked on a case in which villagers had uncovered bones in a mountainous area of Erzincan, where elders say at least a hundred five people were gathered and shot to death by the Turkish army. However, the case, which requested an investigation into the deaths, was rejected by the courts and Soylemez never got any further.

Many other residents in Dersim have also stumbled upon bones; other times they peek out from their hiding places under the soil when the earth becomes eroded. But the crushing fear of the Turkish state — inherited from their ancestors still stacked below their feet — restrained most residents into silence.

“In 1938, the army was marching from village to village massacring people,” Soylemez says, seated in a chair behind a large desk in his office in Dersim’s city center. “People went into hiding in the mountains and the forests. When they returned they found people slaughtered.”

“They tried to cover the graves as best they could,” he continues. “It was the people of Dersim who buried the dead, so they remember exactly where the graves are located. Most of them were mass graves because people were too scared to bury the victims individually; they thought they would be targeted by the army. Other times there were just too many bodies.”

According to locals, there are at least three hundred mass graves located around the Dersim province. Dersim’s residents often visit these mass grave sites, lighting candles and praying for the souls of their ancestors beneath them.

When Soylemez arrived at the site in Hozat, he brought the media with him. Once the discovery had been documented, Huseyin finally felt at ease. Soylemez took the findings to the public prosecution’s office in Hozat to demand that the Turkish government assist in excavating the site.

But the public prosecutor rejected the case. Soylemez then took the case to the criminal court in Erzincan, which overturned the public prosecutor’s decision. But during the initial investigation, the public prosecutor sent officials from the gendarmerie to the site without informing the community in Hozat. When the officials arrived, the bones had been covered by Huseyin to protect them from wild animals. They concluded there were no bones at the site; they left and the case was rejected once again.

Soylemez was forced to take the case to Dersim’s magistrate court. He pulled examples from a European Union Court of Human Rights decision that held Turkey responsible for various violations during its 1974 invasion and occupation of Cyprus. Most notably, the court found that Turkey had continuously failed to carry out effective investigations into the circumstances around the disappearances of 1,485 Greek Cypriots at the time.

“The issue here is that the right to life has been violated,” Soylemez says. “The bones could be from the 1970s, of people who were tortured by the military. Even if they did not belong to those who died in 1938, they belong to someone. And that should be investigated according to the law.”

The court ruled in favor of Soylemez, and ordered that the site be excavated and an investigation be carried out. In April 2015, the Turkish government sent in forensic experts from Istanbul University who had been involved with excavating mass graves in Bosnia.

During the excavation, which took two days to complete, Huseyin stood by and watched the team digging through the dirt that for decades had muffled the souls of his ancestors — and, again, he heard their voices.

“It happened to me when I found them and then it happened again during the excavations,” Huseyin says. “The bushes and the wind were crying; they sounded like children. They were saying, ‘We are here. We are still here.’”

The findings of the excavation echoed the hollow and distant voices of Dersim’s elders.

“They found eleven skulls. Some of the skulls were piled in the same place; others were spread around the area,” Soylemez explains. “They found remnants of ashes, thirteen bullets, and jewelry — like rings, necklaces and bracelets.”

The bones were then sent to Istanbul to be examined. In February 2016, the full forensic report was released. According to Soylemez, the forensic team concluded that seven of the eleven skulls belonged to children; the oldest was fourteen-years-old and the youngest was just four. All of the thirteen bullets were those used by the Turkish military.

“Come here and take a look,” Soylemez says, gesturing for me to join him behind his desk. He clicks his mouse and displays photographs, one after the other, of various bones excavated at the site. In one photo, hands wrapped in blue surgical gloves are holding onto one of the skulls, as another set of hands measure it with a tool.

“Look at this one,” he adds, as his finger clicks the mouse once again. I cannot deduce what is happening in the photo; it looks like brittle rocks are coming to the surface from deep in the ground. “These are skeletons we found of two children who were trying to cover each other when the Turkish soldiers began shooting.”

Dersim’s Missing Daughters

The sparkling water at Munzur Gozeleri gushes over rocks and splashes into the basin below as we walk along the Munzur River’s banks. The river is a tributary of the Euphrates River, which flows through Syria and Iraq to the Shatt al-Arab in the Basra governorate of southern Iraq. “You can easily ride this river to Iraq. No problem!” — as Metin put it.

Around the water, smiling Alevi Kurdish women wearing loosely fitted, colorful head scarves sell gozleme, a flatbread and pastry dish common throughout Turkey. A gift shop sells keychains bedecked with Imam Husayn’s image, the son of Ali — the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad whose mystical teachings the Alevi follow.

While Alevism is the largest minority religion in Turkey, the Alevism practiced in Dersim is unique to the Kurds there; they have their own saints and their beliefs are intricately tied to Dersim’s natural landscape. It is also heavily influenced by Armenian Christian beliefs, as many Armenians in Dersim converted to Alevism to hide their identities from Turkish authorities during the Armenian genocide, and then later during the Dersim massacre.

Higher up on the rocks, people are lighting candles and praying as the water runs down the stones and crashes around them. Others are dipping their hands under the cascading water, lifting their arms, and sipping from the small pool they collected on their palms. The water from Munzur Gozeleri is considered sacred to the Alevi Kurds in Dersim, who believe that its holiness can make wishes come true.

The Missing Girls of Dersim memorial at Munzur Gozeleri.

A woman is stooped over one of the lagoons at the site, which collects the water from the river into a pool; she hikes up her pants and splashes the holy river onto her feet and legs. Beside her stands a plague with a poem written on it, authored by Fecire (Kocer) Buke, one of Dersim’s missing daughters.

Following the 1938 massacre, hundreds of Alevi Kurdish girls were stolen from their families and given up for adoption to Turkish military officers. Scores of children were also taken by soldiers and sent to Turkish boarding schools. To this day, many are still searching for their missing relatives from Dersim. Fecire was taken when she was about three years old and given to a Turkish military officer. She wrote this poem many years later from Istanbul.

In the poem, written in Turkish, Fecire expresses her yearning for the Munzur River. My translator told me that the poem would “lose all its meaning in English,” but still tried to translate its meaning as best he could:

You are my soul and heart

And the tears in my eyes

You are my gravestone

And the crown on my head

My dearest Munzur

“I shared my blood with you

I shared my life with you

Have you not witnessed it all?

My dearest Munzur.

Helicopters Over Dersim

Emre and Metin invite me to go fishing with them and their friends. Emre is a serious fisherman. He stands for hours with a net beside the Harcik River — throwing it into the glistening water and patiently letting it wade until he feels a catch.

Meanwhile, Metin and I sit to the side and drink beer. They run into more friends and we congregate to swim at a pool in the river. In Dersim, everyone seems to know each other. The laughing and splashing of people swimming, jumping off rocks, swinging from a thick rope, and plunging into the ice cold water, is periodically interrupted by the sound of helicopters flying above us.

Metin Albaslan.

“It’s OK,” Emre says, after he notices me looking up in curiosity. “It’s just the Turkish government making sure we’re not terrorists.”

In 2015, the ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK collapsed. Kurdish activists had accused the Turkish government of assisting the Islamic State, or ISIS, in their attack on the Kurdish city of Kobanî in Syria. A few weeks later, Kurdish activists alleged that the Turkish state was responsible for an ISIS suicide attack in the border town of Suruç in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa province, which killed thirty-two people, most of whom were university students who were planning on traveling across the border to assist in rebuilding efforts in Kobanî.

Dersim’s mountains once again became home for hundreds of male and female PKK guerrilla fighters. The killings of civilians, displacement of hundreds of thousands, and the widespread destruction of property resumed. In a little more than a year, the Turkish army drove up to half a million people from their homes, according to the UN, and put dozens of Kurdish cities, towns, and neighborhoods under strict curfews, in which movement was not allowed unless with special permission. During the curfews, Turkish officials reportedly cut off water, electricity, and food supplies to entire cities.

Since July 2015, at least 5,123 people have been killed in the fighting, including hundreds of civilians. PKK militants make up more than half of the fatalities. In a 2017 report, the UN documented the Turkish army’s practice of torturing detainees and its use of sexual violence, including rape. Reports also emerged of Turkish officials taking nude photographs of detainees to use for potential blackmail.

The Turkish army carried out aerial bombardments of PKK bases in Dersim’s mountains and declared large swathes of land in the province “closed security zones,” where, according to locals, if anyone is caught treading through they risk being shot by the helicopters hovering above.

While the intensity of the conflict has subsided, locals say there are still a few dozen dedicated guerrilla fighters who have remained in the mountains. Turkish helicopters have become the loudest birds in Dersim, periodically fluttering through the sky, surveilling the canvas of oak trees below. Residents are so used to their presence they do not even look up anymore.

A New Crackdown Against the Kurds Begins

Back in Hozat, Huseyin finally received his ancestors’ remains from the labs in Istanbul after months of waiting. They were delicately wrapped in fabric bags. He gently laid the remains on a couch at his home, placed a veil over them, and kept them there for twenty days — the same amount of time he stayed by their side when he first discovered them in the ground.

“I would speak to them every day,” Huseyin says. “I talked to them about all of the pain they experienced. I made sure they knew that someone was listening and what happened to them would never be forgotten.”

Huseyin returned the bones to the hilltop, which he had transformed into a memorial — with large plagues listing the names of all of the victims, including an Alevi Kurdish family that was massacred on that very same hilltop during the Ottoman era. He placed the skulls and bones inside a tomb that he positioned in the center of the memorial.

The memorial constructed by Huseyn for his massacred ancestors on a mountain near his house.

“I have felt so depressed since I found the bones,” he says, his large, somber eyes glued to the floor of his living room. “It has lasted for years. All of it continues to haunt me.”

Huseyin had plans to expand the excavations and follow the geography of his elders’ memories. “We know how many people were massacred on that hill and it was more than the people they found,” he explains. He also wanted to create a single cemetery to collect all the remains of the victims found in the excavations, where the dead would be given proper burials and graves.

However, following the coup attempt in July 2016, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency, enabling him and the AKP government to bypass parliament and rule by decree. Erdoğan came down hard on the Kurdish region, shuttering dozens of Kurdish TV channels, newspapers, and associations. He arrested thousands of members of the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which Erdoğan has frequently accused of having ties to the PKK, and dismissed dozens of their elected officials, replacing them with state-appointed trustees.

The state trustees immediately began overturning the cultural gains the municipalities had achieved during the peace period, including closing down Kurdish schools and destroying public monuments and memorials. The memorial for the victims of the Roboski massacre, which consisted of the names of all thirty-four victims and a sculpture of a woman on her knees, mourning the victims, with her hands raised to the sky and missiles surrounding her, was swiftly removed.

Kurds in Turkey were once again thrown into the silencing shadows of fear; any whisper of dissent could easily lead to a terrorism-related charge. Dersim’s HDP co-mayors, part of a system adopted by HDP in which both a female and male mayor are elected to promote gender equality, were arrested. Dersim co-mayor Nurhayat Altun, who was arrested in 2016, is still in prison and facing more than twenty-two years on charges of being an “administrator in a terrorist organization.”

As the people fell back into silence, their ancestors also cowered back into the soil. Following Huseyin’s discovery, more bones had appeared. According to Soylemez, he worked on an additional case for a family in a village called Nazmir, who were demanding the Turkish government help in excavating a site where their ancestors were massacred and thrown into a pit. But following the attempted coup and the subsequent state of emergency, the case was suspended.

Today, Huseyin is too nervous to continue with building memorials for the massacre victims. “I don’t search for the bones anymore. If I found them it wouldn’t be possible to determine who they were or what happened to them, because the political situation wouldn’t allow it,” Huseyin says.

Zarife, his elderly mother, dressed in her traditional clothes with long, red braids falling over her chest, sits across from him — quiet and intently listening. “It’s better to leave them in the earth until the political atmosphere changes in Turkey.” But he continues to visit the memorial and other mass grave sites to light candles, pray for them, and console them until it is finally time to help them to the surface.

Huseyin’s mother Zarife.

For Huseyin, his fight has never been about justice. “You can’t find justice in this country. So there’s no point in looking for it,” he says. “I don’t want financial reparations either. All I want is confirmation from the government. I want the government to admit that all of these children and elders were massacred and burned alive just because they were Alevi Kurds.”

“I can feel it deep in my conscience. It keeps me up at night. What the government did here was genocide. I want them to admit to their crimes.”

“If the Turkish government finally takes responsibility for what it did here, would that really be enough?” I ask Huseyin.

He pauses for a moment. “At least our conscience would be relieved,” he finally says. “We want their names to be written. We want our dead to be remembered. I want the world to know that these people existed and I want the world to know what the Turkish government did to them.”

“All of Dersim is a place of memory,” Huseyin continues. “All of our history lies in these mountains. Everywhere I go, I see my ancestors’ footsteps. I can hear their screams. I cry for them each time I visit the mass graves. I can see the children playing together on top of where all of their bodies were buried.”

“A Lineage of Pain”

Metin lives in a modest, two-room wooden house deep in Dersim’s mountains. One day he leads me to a location beside the Munzur River. The night is dark and icy. The air and wind get colder and stronger as we approach the river. We are here to meet with another former PKK fighter. For fear of reprisal, he asked that I use a pseudonym to protect his identity. I will call him Ali — one of the most popular names in Turkey, according to a quick Google search.

Ali, like all the residents in Dersim I met, seems gentle and kind. He is twenty-four and took up arms against the Turkish government when he was just twenty. According to Ali, in 2015 there were about three hundred male and female PKK guerrilla fighters and a smaller number of communist rebels fighting the Turkish army in the mountains. They marched over their ancestors and hid in the same caves and shrubbery where their grandparents had many decades before attempted to find refuge from the Turkish soldiers.

Both Metin and Ali speak in a cautious, low tone. Even subtle murmurs of support for the PKK could easily lead you into a set of handcuffs in Turkey. “We were not fighting for ourselves, but for our people and our culture,” Ali says, his voice entangling into the soothing movements of the Munzur River. “We are not from Iran, Iraq, or Syria — or anywhere else. We are the children of these lands. We are the children of Dersim.”

Ali and Metin watched many of their comrades shot to death by Turkish soldiers — desperately clinging to that last breath before joining their ancestors. “When you see their faces… their eyes… it’s not possible to explain the feeling. It’s terrible,” Metin says. He slowly lowers his head, seemingly in search for words that could describe the indescribable. “We all stayed together in the forest. We became like brothers and sisters.”

Metin’s heart is tightly enveloped by the Kurdish struggle. He is a principled man who believes bullets and jail cells are necessary if he is fighting for what is right. He also has high expectations of others; he expects everyone to sacrifice for the movement like he does. However, for most people the fear of landing in a Turkish prison is enough to keep them in line. For many other Kurds, Turkey’s forced assimilation has proved successful; therefore, Metin is often left disappointed.

Munzur Gozeleri.

In the mountains, when their comrades were killed, the PKK fighters would quickly carry them off and bury them. “We were scared the Turkish soldiers would find them and mutilate their bodies,” Metin says. He mentions the name Barin Kobani, a female fighter in the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a predominantly Kurdish militia in Syria, whose dead body was filmed and mocked by Turkish-backed forces during the 2018 invasion of the Syrian city Afrin.

After burying their comrades, the PKK fighters would keep track of the exact locations of the graves. The fighters would lead grieving families through Dersim’s treacherous terrain to visit the sites where their sons and daughters were buried. In 2015, the fighters decided to retrace their steps and collect all the bodies of their comrades buried around Dersim over the years and provide them a proper burial in a cemetery — which they referred to as the “Martyrs’ cemetery.”

“It was important for us to make sure our friends were remembered after their death,” Metin recalls. “But we also wanted to make it easier for the families to visit their children’s graves.” With the help of villagers in the area, they dug graves and constructed the cemetery, and, according to Metin, collected the remains of two hundred seventy fighters and buried them there.

But in Dersim, the earth’s rivers and the people’s veins coalesce together in 1938.

Soon after constructing the cemetery, the PKK fighters decided to build a memorial beside the cemetery for their ancestors massacred on these mountains just fifteen years after the establishment of the Turkish state.

About fifty fighters traced the memories of their elders and began searching for the bones of their ancestors. “We spoke to our elders and villagers around the areas where we knew there were mass graves,” Ali says. “The places where the resistance was strong were usually where massacres took place.”

Both Metin and Ali went to an area in a village called Alacik. According to the villagers in Alacik, about fifty years ago, the bones came to the surface and the villagers threw soil on top of them — scared that Turkish officials would target them or try to dispose of their ancestors’ ghosts by destroying the evidence.

It was not time yet for the bones to come out from hiding; so they were sent back into the soil. But stories are steadfast in Dersim, and it did not take long for Metin and Ali to stumble upon the bones. “We found parts of a finger, ribs, and a hip bone,” Metin says. Based on the stories of their elders and the villagers, they concluded that the bones were the remains of their massacred ancestors.

The fighters also found skeletal remains, presumed to be from 1938, in two other villages in Dersim: Bor and Lac. They brought the bones to the site of the memorial beside the Martyrs’ cemetery, where they had placed a plague that stated that the bones were the remains of Alevi Kurds killed in 1938 and the locations where they had found them. They then placed the bones in a glass display case they erected at the memorial.

“We wanted to show that the pain we’re experiencing from 1938 until now is similar,” Metin explains. “There’s a lineage of pain here. This was not the first or last massacre in Turkey’s history.”

The memorial was also meant to remind the people of Dersim, who were visiting the cemetery to mourn their slain sons and daughters, of their history. According to Metin, Turkey’s most destructive policies in Dersim were not its bombing campaigns or its physical military operations, it was the army’s attempts at creating a wedge between the PKK fighters and the civilians in Dersim.

“They have tried their best to turn our own people against us,” Metin says. “We wanted the memorial to help our people come back to their roots — to remember our culture and history so that we can protect it.”

But the memorial only lasted for a few months before the Turkish army bombed it in an aerial attack, destroying the memorial and the cemetery. Nowadays, this area is part of the closed security zone where Dersim’s residents are forbidden from entering.

“There are thousands of bones beneath us,” Metin says. His breath comes out of his mouth like smoke. The cold has gripped us. “And we still have not even had the chance to properly bury them.”

“If we forget what happened here, these massacres will continue to happen. This could be the fate of my children. We follow and protect our ancestors because their stories will protect our children in the future.” Metin’s voice shakes as he fights through shivers. The Munzur River’s murmurs become louder; it sounds like she is roaring.

“It has been decades of massacres and wars. But we are still here. The rivers of Dersim run through our blood. We will never leave. I believe if we continue to resist, no matter the obstacles, one day the Turkish government will have no choice but to finally leave us alone.”