Sivas: A tale of painful indifference

Sivas: A tale of painful indifference

I visited Sivas in 2008, 15 years after the massacre at the Madımak Hotel. I vividly remember the eerie feeling that came over me as I was walking by the site of arguably one of the most traumatic events in recent Turkish history. The building was back then a fully functional hotel.

There was a kebab house on the ground floor, which was frequented by the locals who had the stomach for it. What scared me the most was not the traumatic story of the place but rather the blatant indifference in the air. There was not a single monument, a single reminder of the event itself in sight; quite to the contrary, the hotel had a feeling of complete normalcy, as if nothing extraordinary happened there.

I could not bear the thought of people staying there overnight, fully knowing that 35 people had perished in that very building. Even worse, there were people who could still enjoy a kebab on that very spot. 
This was the place where 35 people were burned alive on July 2, 1993. The participants of the Pir Sultan Abdal Festival, which was hosted by the Alevi community, were staying at the Madımak Hotel.

The guests included intellectuals, poets, artists and students. The building and those inside were set on fire by an angry mob of 15,000 people. This was not a simple act of fury. The whole event escalated slowly and lasted for over eight hours. The hotel was literally taken under siege, the mob shouting death threats for hours as the security forces watched passively. At the end of the day, the hotel was torched, 35 people died, including nine teenagers. The survivors’ accounts of the day tell us an even more tragic story.

It appears that the whole event could have been stopped if the government had intervened at the right time. But the state officials at the time were indifferent. And that indifference caused 35 people to perish. 
In 2010, after constant demands from the Alevi community and its allies, the government decided to purchase the building and turn it into a cultural center.

The Alevi community wanted a museum of remembrance, to make sure such a tragedy would not happen again. Turning the space into a cultural center was not a perfect solution, but it was sure better than a hotel and much better than a kebap house. The opening day of this cultural center became yet another event that inflicted pain on the families of those who were killed. There was a remembrance plaque hung at the entrance.

On that single reminder of the tragedy that happened there, the names of those who were burned alive were written together with two of their attackers, who had also died as they were torching the place, in alphabetical order, so that the list started with the name of one of the assailants. This gesture is akin to including the names of Nazi soldiers on a Holocaust memorial plaque. The plaque still welcomes the visitors, and reminds us, among other things, the indifference of the state to the pain of those who lost their loved ones there. 

On the March 13, 2012, I was sitting in a courtroom filled with the wives, daughters, sons, fathers and mothers of those who were burned alive at the Madımak Hotel. The statute of limitations in the case was to end on that day. To be honest, the crowd in that courtroom did not have great expectations. We knew that a few days ago, a Republican People’s Party (CHP) bill which would have lifted the statute of limitations on such crimes against humanity was rejected by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). We were simply there to show our stance.

The case was dropped due to the tolling of the statute of limitations. The courtroom emptied slowly, and the families joined the people outside the courthouse who were there to show their support. Their protest was a peaceful but a painful one. The police, which didn’t dare intervene during the events of 1993 in Sivas, started tear-gassing the crowd. 

As those who lost their loved ones in the Sivas massacre were being attacked by the police, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan appeared on TV. He said, quite calmly, in regards to the court’s invocation of the statute of limitations in the Sivas massacre: “Let it be auspicious for our nation.”

Dr Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir is a lecturer in the graduate program of Architectural Histroy in the Middle East Technical University.