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Military documents to shine light on 'Dersim massacre'

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 11/18/2009 12:00:00 AM | Vercihan Ziflioğlu

A new book on the 1938 Dersim Operation aims to challenge the official Republican history on the event with previously unseen photographs, historically important documents and eye-witness accounts. Hasan Saltuk’s 600-page book will be released in May in both English and Turkish

Another taboo of Turkey’s Republican history is about to be broken with the publication of a book by Hasan Saltuk on the 1938 Dersim Operation.

Saltuk, who is the owner of record label Kalan, a researcher and an ethnomusicologist, has spent nine years collecting previously unseen photographs, historically important documents and comments from soldiers who participated in the operation. He plans to present his findings in a new 600-page book to be published in both Turkish and English in May.

He criticized the present state of research in Turkey. “Historians here cannot go beyond the official ideology; they do not do any research. Those who do research and know the truth cannot raise a voice because they are afraid.”

Saltuk, who is from one of the oldest families of Dersim, said that even though he was from a Turkmen tribe on his father’s side, dozens of their relatives were murdered during the operation.

“My grandmother was pregnant with my mother but she saved herself from the firing squad at the last minute,” Saltuk said in an interview with the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. “Dersim residents are still afraid to talk. The elderly still think somebody’s going to come and kill them.”

[HH] Was the operation planned?

The official historical sources say the 1938 operation in Dersim, now called Tunceli, was implemented to quash a Kurdish tribal rebellion. Saltuk, however, performed his research in largely international archives, especially English and Armenian ones, collecting documents of historical importance.

“We see in the documents that the Dersim operation was planned; the reports were prepared in 1920. The law related to the operation was passed in 1935 and action was taken in 1937. Seyit Rıza and his friends were hanged on grounds that they were leading a rebellion,” Saltuk said.

Although the rebellion was labeled a Kurdish tribal insurrection, Saltuk said the fundamental reason behind the operation was that the region was home to Tunceli Alevis and that they were merely Armenians who had changed their identities.

“The official sources say Dersim residents were not paying taxes or performing military service and that they were always rebelling. However, we have documents proving the opposite. Atatürk led the Dersim operation himself,” he said.

“Over 13,000 people were killed during the operation and 22,000 were exiled. Orphaned children were subjected to Turkification policies in orphanages,” Saltuk said.

[HH] Soldiers regretful

The book would reprint the comments he found on the back of all the photographs he obtained. In many cases, the comments expressed remorse for the events in Dersim. “[Many] felt qualms of conscience for what was experienced. Some expressed their feelings with the words, ‘I have become a murderer.’ Others wrote, ‘I caused the deaths of 250 people,’” Saltuk said.

The project involved following the trails of surviving soldiers who participated in the operation, Saltuk said, adding that he saw many who were unable to adapt to social life. “Many soldiers we [interviewed] demanded their names be made public after their deaths. A few people did not mind having their names in the book; some said, ‘They ordered us to kill and we did,’” he said.

He obtained hundreds of original photos and maps alongside two dossiers of population records from the grandchild – whose name Saltuk withheld – of a high level civil servant from that era. “The invaluable documents and photographs in the dossiers reveal the operation in all its detail. However, it is without doubt that much more striking files are in the archives of the Turkish General Staff.”

[HH] ‘Taboos will be broken in Turkey’

Touching on the storm of controversy Republican People’s Party, or CHP, deputy leader Onur Öymen has caused with comments on the Dersim Operation, Saltuk said, “Actually, Öymen should be congratulated. He did what the residents of Dersim could not do for years by putting the subject on the public agenda.”

Saltuk said he believes that Turkey has entered an age of great change. “All the taboos of this country will be broken and, in the future, there will not be anything that cannot be spoken about.”

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