Discovery of mass grave unearths bitter legacy of Dersim massacres

Discovery of mass grave unearths bitter legacy of Dersim massacres

The existence of a mass grave containing the bones of 95 victims of the Dersim massacres was announced Saturday by an Alevi activist in Erzincan province, a discovery the activist says should be followed by the opening of "the many mass graves of Dersim", Today's Zaman reported

The grave, which had remained unknown to locals of Erzincan province's Zini Gedigi district for 73 years, was documented by lawyer and Alevi advocate Cihan Soylemez last week after the topsoil that had covered it for decades washed away.

The exposed bones serve as testimony to one of the darkest chapters of the Turkish Republic's history, the 1937-38 military campaign that was approved by leading members of the state and saw the deaths of over 13,000 semi-autonomous Zaza and Kurdish-Alevi tribesmen.

The Zini Gedigi district is located on the border between Erzincan and the province historically known as Dersim, renamed Tunceli in the years following the massacres, and is only miles from the epicenter of the 1937-38 violence. Upon discovery of the grave, Soylemez called for a search for the many more unmarked mass graves that remain hidden in the hills of Dersim.

Soylemez stated to the press over the weekend: "There are many alive today who had loved ones, mothers, fathers who were buried in mass graves in the aftermath of the 1937-1938 military operation. Today, they expect the places where there are mass graves, the caves [villagers hid in] that became the scenes of massacres, to be made known by witnesses [of the massacre] and to be unearthed."
Progress significant, more needed

Activists like Soylemez have praised progress made by the government in recognizing the collective wrongs done to the country's 10 million Alevis, but also say that the state's continued dedication to unearthing bitter truths is vital.

A formerly taboo subject that stirred little but state denial or indifference, the massacres were brought into the spotlight in November of last year when Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy Huseyin Aygun told Today's Zaman that the government -- including Turkish founder Kemal Ataturk -- was responsible for planning the 1937 Dersim operation. Aygun's comments sparked widespread public debate and earned an unprecedented apology from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on behalf of the state.

"Dersim is among the most tragic events in our recent history. It is a disaster that should now be questioned with courage," the prime minister stated at the time.

If such questioning is to help reconcile the woes of the past, however, Soylemez says that it must now be followed up by answers. "At the very least, DNA tests could be run on the bodies in order to return them to the families," Soylemez stated.

So far, it is unknown if the state will make any promises, said Soylemez. "We applied to the prosecutors office [for the DNA tests], but unfortunately we have not heard any definitive reply."

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