Armenian identity Dersim (Chapter Four)

  • by Western Armenia, March 16, 2023 in Society

Although according to the Turkish constitution there are no nationalities in the modern Turkish state, the Turkish state is in fact the most ethnically diverse country in the world. But the problem is not only that the country is multi-ethnic. To this day, there is disagreement about who many ethnic groups are, when they appeared on the stage of history, what their origins are... The history of occupied Western Armenia seems to be well researched, both culturally and ethnically, but the problems that have emerged suggest the need for more comprehensive research.  In this regard, it is important to study the genealogies, customs, lifestyles and lives of Alevis, as they live in the historical homeland of Armenians and the hypothesis of the Armenian origin of Alevis is perhaps the closest to the truth. 

Surprisingly, the pro-Turkish Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Ateshian, made a bold statement about the Armenian origin of Alevis, saying that 90 percent of Alevis in Turkey are Armenian. This had a political context and was made under pressure and at the behest of the Turkish authorities, in order to raise a new hysteria among Turkish nationalists against Alevis. There are conflicting data on the number of Alevis: 3 million to 20 million. Even with the most vivid imagination, it is hard to imagine that a quarter of the population of the modern Turkish state is Alevi. 

Many see them as a separate ethnic group and believe that they are a newly formed people made up of Armenians, Kurds and Turks. Alevis, on the other hand, divide themselves into the following groups: Zaza Alevi, Turkish Alevi, Kurdish Alevi, Armenian Alevi. Today, the Turkish authorities use repression and violence against Alevis, carrying out a policy of national cleansing that does not go unanswered. 

This is not going unanswered, Alevis are rebelling. The contradictions between Alevis and Sunni Turks, which have repeatedly led to bloody clashes, are obvious. Especially in the 70s of the XX century, there were a series of bloody clashes, and the Turkish authorities even openly encouraged the Sunni Turks by provoking such clashes. In particular, in 1978 there were serious clashes in Malatya, Maraş and Sivas, hundreds of Alevis were killed and hundreds of people were injured.

In Turkish mosques, mullahs called for jihad, a holy war against Alevis. This state repression forced the Alevis to unite more, to act not only as a community but also as a political union, and this forced the Turkish authorities to face reality. Especially today, the outlines of an Alevi-Kurdish alliance are becoming clearer. It is noteworthy that Alevis do not have the necessary components of their national unity: they speak different languages. But the number of people who consider themselves Alevis is growing. Researchers do not see Alevis as a nationality, but as a religious community. Hence the claim that the absolute majority of Alevis are of Turkish origin. The error stems from the fact that according to the Turkish constitution there are no national minorities in the country, but religious communities. In the meantime, if the Alevis have carried their struggle forward by putting the idea of socialism on an ideological basis, they are now openly struggling to become a separate community and to act as a separate national-religious unit. At the beginning of the last century, in the 1920s and 30s, when the Dersim rebellion broke out under the leadership of Seyit Rıza, religious issues were not discussed. Moreover, Alevis, Kurds and Armenians fought together against Turkish rule. As a result, about 70,000 people from Dersim fell victim to the yataghan.

But why did they die?

Dersim Province is located in the west of High Hayk, between Erzurum, Kharberd and Tigranakert. According to statistical sources, on the eve of the First World War, the population reached 200,000 inhabitants, of which 45% were Armenians and the rest were Alevi Kurds and Zazas who lived peacefully with Armenians. It should not be forgotten that the targeting of Dersim is not accidental, Dersim was one of the few regions that provided refuge to thousands of Armenians fleeing the Turkish sword during the 1915 genocide. Therefore, for the Turkish government, the Dersim issue also had an "Armenian element". In the spring of 1921, the Turkish government succeeded in suppressing the first rebellion in the Koçgiri-Dersim region, but failed to completely subjugate the people of Dersim. At the beginning of the 1930s, the Turkish authorities finally decided to use the resettlement law to subjugate the people of Dersim. The people of Dersim were to be displaced and resettled in various western regions of Asia Minor, and the Turkish element migrating from the Balkans was to settle in the "Kurdish-free" areas. In addition, all immovable property of the tribes was to be confiscated and distributed to the Turks migrating from the Balkans. With this step, the government was trying to fill the eastern regions of the country with a "reliable Turkish element" and to prevent new Kurdish uprisings. This plan caused great turmoil in Dersim, or Tunceli as the Kemalists called it. Soon the whole of Dersim was engulfed in the flames of rebellion. Seyid Riza, one of the region's most respected Alevi tribes, was at its head. In 1936, at the suggestion of Kemal Atatürk, the issue of Dersim was placed on the closed session agenda of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. On November 1, 1936, at the opening of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, Atatürk stated the following in his report on Dersim: "The Dersim problem is the most important of our internal affairs. It is necessary to eradicate that terrible inflammation at all costs. The government has wide powers to take immediate action in this regard."

In early 1936, the Turkish military command concentrated its troops in Dersim, Elazig (Kharberd), Capaghjur and Bingol (Burakn). In early summer 1937, the Turks launched military operations against the "Dersim rebels" using aviation, tanks and even poison gas. The Turkish army ruthlessly exterminated not only the armed population, but also peaceful peasants. The Turkish command ordered the forests around Dersim to be set on fire in order to drive the rebels out of their mountain hideouts. The then Prime Minister İsmet İnönü and Minister of Interior Shukru Kaya were present during the operations. In 1938, the Dersim Uprising was brutally crushed. The leaders of the rebellion were lured to Kharberd and executed. Bloody reprisals began. In 1937, Parliament passed a law confiscating all Dersim rebels' property in favor of the state. In 1938, Celal Bayar, who had assumed the post of Prime Minister, declared, "There is no longer an Alevi problem in Turkey." 

Incidentally, until recently this issue was virtually unknown to the public in the modern Turkish state (even the genocide of Armenians was known to more people than this). The issue of the Dersim massacre has brought the ruling Justice and Development Party, led by Erdogan, to the active political agenda. The aim is not to bring justice, but to suppress the main opposition Republican People's Party, which Erdoğan and his party members accuse of "historical crimes".

To be continued....

Ashkhen Virabyan

journalist-analyst Western Armenia Tv