The dark history in the caves

The dark history in the caves

This week, two startling discoveries were made in two separate caves in southeastern Turkey. And both presented clues about a not-so-bight-bright era in the history of this county.

The first discovery was in an area near Tunceli, which used to be a “forbidden zone” for the past 76 years. Journalists, headed by a group of villagers, entered the zone and headed to the caves in the Leç Stream valley. Soon, in one of the caves, they found many human bones, skulls and empty cartridge shells. Apparently, some people had been executed here.

One of the villagers who headed the excavation, Hıdır Çiçek, said to the press that these findings confirmed what he had heard from his late father: During the “Dersim uprising” of 1935-38, thousands of civilians, besides the rebels themselves, were killed by government troops. Even some of those who found shelter in caves were massacred, either by firing squads or poison gas.

“My father had described to me the places of these caves and told me to go there one day,” said Çiçek. “That day is today.”

The story will probably be highlighted more when the prosecutors, who have taken the remains for examination, use forensics methods to figure out the details. But it is safe to assume even now that the bones in the caves of Tunceli indeed confirm the horrific stories of Dersim.

Tunceli and Dersim are the exact same place, by the way. Dersim is the real traditional name of the province, but it was turned into “Tunceli” in 1935 by law. Ironically enough, the term “Tunceli” means “bronze hand,” and it was initially the name of the military operation planned for the region by the regime. Certain areas near Tunceli have remained forbidden zones for decades, but as the quasi-military regime in Turkey turns into full civilian rule, they are being opened up.

The second cave discovery came a few days after the Tunceli findings and from somewhere a little south: an area near Silvan, a county within Diyarbakır province. This time, the cave presented not bones and skulls, though; it presented copies of the Quran and other Arabic-language religious books. Apparently, these Islamic texts were hidden in such caves in the 1930s, when the regime banned all material written with the Arabic alphabet, a prohibition which in some areas even led to the destruction of the copies of the Quran.

One of the natives of Silvan, Sevim Çiçekli, who is now 95, said the following to daily Zaman in remembrance of her teenage years:

“It was a time that the gendarmerie was raiding our villages. There was a scholar in our village, Hacı Muhammed. He told everybody to hide their Qurans. Some hid them in caves; others buried them in their crop fields.”

Another local, Mehmet Emin Taş, 85, noted the following:

“We would be afraid to death when the gendarmerie came to the village on their horses. They would look for an excuse to beat us. The reason could be a copy of the Quran. I also saw many times that old men who wore our traditional headgear, the puşi, were also beaten.”

It is safe to assume that as Turkey opens up, similar stories from its darkest days (the “single party” dictatorship of 1925-50, and the later military coups) will be unearthed. And those who have praised these eras simply for their “secularism” will be embarrassed. What really liberates a country is not mere secularism, after all. It is liberalism, democracy and human rights.