Ninety years ago, Turkish soldiers sought to silence Kurdish rebellion in eastern Turkey by carrying out a massacre. As punishment for Kurdish refusal to bow to the assimilationist policies of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s new Republic, thousands of men, women, and children were killed in the scenic Zilan Valley, Van province.
Memories of the massacre remain all too clear to the aged survivors. Interviewed by Rudaw between September 2014 and June 2015, they vividly recalled horrific violence at the hands of Turkish soldiers, and the deep sacrifices made by villagers desperate to escape their wrath. The interviews formed part of a documentary called The red sky: Zilan Massacre, aired by Rudaw in September 2020.
Crushing Kurdish rebellion
To create a culturally and socially homogenous Turkey, Ataturk’s government banished and displaced non-Muslim ethnic minorities. For the Muslim-majority Kurds, the Turkish government’s plan was forced assimilation.
A number of Kurdish rebellions against the policy were summarily crushed by Turkish forces. In 1927, Turkish Kurds exiled in Lebanon established the Xoybun (Khoybun) Association, a Kurdish nationalist organization that sought to unify and galvanise Kurds to act against the Turkish state.
The next year, Xoybun sent Ihsan Nuri Pasha – a Kurdish former officer for the Turkish army and the Ottoman Empire – to Sarhad (Sarhat), a predominantly Kurdish stretch of eastern Turkey that includes the provinces of Bingol, Erzurum, Mus, Agri, Van and Kars. Led by Nuri Pasha, a Kurdish force undertook a stubborn rebellion.
By the end of 1929, a decision was made by President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his cabinet to deploy thousands of soldiers to Sarhad to reinforce the contingent of soldiers already taking on the Kurdish rebels.
On July 8, 1930, two Turkish army corps and 80 aircraft were sent east to silence the Kurdish rebellion. The Kurdish rebels were “eradicated” in four days, according to Ankara University research that cites a report from the time by state-owned Anadolu Agency.
The next morning’s edition of Cumhuriyet, then a state-linked newspaper, described the outcome of the operation in no uncertain terms. “The sweeping began. All those in the Zilan Valley were exterminated, and none of them survived,” the front page read.
The newspaper put the number of deaths at more than 15,000; survivors told Rudaw that they estimate the death toll to stand three times higher, at 45,000.
Lots of Kurds had no affiliation with the rebellion; some had no idea it was even happening. But the army saw all of the Zilan Valley’s Kurdish inhabitants as enemies, and undertook acts of indiscriminate violence to exact its revenge.
Graphic horror, deep sacrifice
Zilan Valley local Abdulbaki Celebi was told the story of the village of Burhan by friend Haji Hamid. Hamid had run to Burhan to seek safety from Turkish soldiers; instead, he was welcomed by horror.
Burhan had been set alight by Turkish soldiers, its residents locked in their homes and left to burn to death, Hamid told Abdulbaki. The village was filled with “‘the stench of burned bodies’” and the “‘sound of people burning’”.
Massacre survivor Osman Ileri told Rudaw that he saw Turkish soldiers enact untold pain on a pregnant Kurdish woman, all for the sake of a gruesome bet.
“The soldiers were betting among themselves on the sex of the baby… so they ripped the baby out of her body, just to figure out if it was a boy or a girl,” Osman said.
While playing dead in a pile of unarmed corpses, massacre survivor Tahir Nas saw Turkish soldiers come back to assess the damage – and to claim some of the spoils of their war.
“With my own eyes, I saw a young woman lying dead on her back. A soldier approached the body and lifted up her hand. He did all he could to take the ring off of her finger, but he couldn't do it,” Tahir said. “I clearly remember him breaking her finger to take the ring off.”
Survivor Abdulbaki Celebi recounted the story of a woman, Rabia, who sought escape from the village of Sarko in Ercis (Erdis), baby in her arms, by following a fleeing family.
Rabia’s restless child cried as they attempted to break out of Sarko, a vocal alert to any Turkish soldier close by. A man in the family guiding Rabia to freedom warned they would abandon her if she could not keep the infant quiet.
“I blocked the child's mouth tightly with my stomach,” Rabia told Abdulbaki. “After a short while, I saw that my child had suffocated.”
“We left him under a tree, and then we were on the move again.
After slaughtering thousands of Kurds, the government finally announced an amnesty – saving some of the more fortunate Kurds from the firing line in the nick of time, as survivor Riza Sargut recounted.
“They placed all of us up against a wall. They lined us up with heavy weapons, pointing them at us to kill us with rounds of live ammunition. We noticed a horseman approaching us, carrying a letter and handing it to the commander. The commander said, 'An amnesty has been issued for you',” Riza said.
“When we heard we'd been pardoned, we were as joyful as lambs and kids when they're together. We ran around in sheer happiness, thanking God that our lives had been spared.”
After the massacre, Turkey banned survivors from returning to their homes, even though they had official documents proving ownership.
Instead, the government would move hundreds of Kyrgyz people into what were once the homes of Kurds; these Kyrgyz settlers would take up arms for the Turkish government in the 1980s in its war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that continues to struggle for Kurdish cultural and political rights in Turkey.
So many decades later, pain persists among the few remaining survivors.
”Is this justice? Is this justice? Must these things happen?” survivor Abdulrahman Gurbuz asked of the massacre.
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