ISTANBUL // When Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, visited the eastern Anatolian city of Tunceli last month, the trip triggered headlines nationwide. Although Turkish presidents are expected to leave Ankara every now and then to visit provincial towns, Tunceli had been shunned for a long time. Mr Gul was the first Turkish head of state to travel there in 19 years.
Most of the people of Tunceli, or Dersim, as the Kurdish city was called until 1936, are Alevis, followers of a liberal interpretation of Islam that is viewed with suspicion by some of Turkey's Sunni majority. In recent decades, the region was also known as a centre of Kurdish nationalism. At times, journalists were forbidden to enter the city. But after spending years in the shadows, Dersim is back in the national limelight. Shattering one of the last taboos of their country's history, Turks have started to question what was behind a military operation in Dersim in the 1930s, when thousands of civilians were killed.
Coming just a few months after an official commitment by Turkey to look into the massacres against Armenians in 1915, the Dersim debate marks another step of an often painful process of confronting the dark sides of the nation's past. It is a new development for a country that has long regarded accusations of wrongdoing by the state as tantamount to treason. "Turkey has started to face its own history," Hasan Saltik, the author of a forthcoming book about the Dersim operation and a native of the city, said earlier this month. "In the past, historians toed the state line. Now it is different for the first time."
In 1937, authorities of the then young Turkish republic decided to use military force against what they saw as an unruly region dominated by clans of Kurdish Alevis. Tens of thousands of soldiers were sent to fight against insurgents led by Said Riza, a local clan chief. Sabiha Gokcen, an adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic's founder, took part in the operation as the country's first female fighter pilot.
When the fighting ended in 1938, about 13,000 people out of a population of 100,000 were dead, Mr Saltik said. His figure, based on records of the time and interviews with soldiers who took part in the operation as well as with relatives of victims, is much higher than the military's official death toll of about 7,000, he said. Almost 12,000 people were forced to leave their homes. Officially, the Dersim operation was a campaign to break the power of armed clans that resisted the state's efforts to modernise the country. But Mr Saltik said the operation went much further, resembling an effort to wipe out whole parts of the population. Many women and children were killed. Children from Dersim were sent to other parts of Turkey for adoption, while young women were married off to men from outside the region. There were cases of rape and other atrocities, Mr Saltik said. "Some of the photographs I came across are too gruesome to be published," he said. Some representatives of Alevis also speak of the use of poison gas.
Mr Saltik, who runs an independent music label in Istanbul, said he spent several years looking for documents and trying to convince witnesses of the events to talk about what happened. Some of the soldiers who had taken part in the operation told him they had done "very bad things". In the years and decades that followed the fighting, the events in Dersim, renamed Tunceli, became a taboo. "There was so much fear and trauma that people spoke about it only with their children," Mr Saltik said. Later, the area became one of the hotspots in the fighting between the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a Kurdish rebel group, and the Turkish army.
Ironically, it was a politician arguing that the state had to use force from time to time who triggered the new openness surrounding Dersim. Onur Oymen, a leading member of the opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, recalled the Dersim operation in a speech in parliament last month, in which he criticised an initiative by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, to end the Kurdish conflict peacefully.
Referring to the government argument that Turkey should do everything it could so that mothers would no longer need to cry for sons killed in the fighting between the army and the PKK, Mr Oymen said that the state had never refrained from using force against rebels just because blood was spilled. One of the examples he used was the Dersim operation. "Did mothers not cry in the Dersim revolt?" Mr Oymen asked, according to a transcript of the speech posted on the website of the Turkish parliament. "Did one person in Turkey come up and say 'Let us stop the fighting so the mothers do not cry any more'?"