The Dersim region, overwhelmingly populated by Alevi Kurds, resisted the centralization policies of the Ottoman Empire for many decades. While the Alevi Kurds wanted to continue their indigenous cultural and political autonomy, this was considered a threat to the sovereignty of the newly established Turkish Republic (1923). Seyit Riza was one of the most prominent figures in the region, not only as the leader of the Hesenan tribe; he was also seen as a religious figure by the Alevi Kurds in Dersim. In 1937-38, the Turkish military started two major military operations targeting the Dersim region, with the aim of breaking the armed resistance organized by local militias. Gross human rights violations took place in Dersim during these military operations. Although the exact number is still unknown, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that state documents indicate 13,806 people were killed in the campaign. In January 1937, Seyit Riza sent his son to Aptullah Alpdogan (the commander of a military division in the region governed by emergency law) to find a way to end the armed clashes and mass killings. But Riza’s son was killed, and clashes continued relentlessly. At the end of the year, after Alpdogan promised to spare his life, Riza turned himself in to prevent further killings. We know what happened to Riza through the testimony of Ihsan Sabri, a state official who witnessed his execution (Çaglayangil later became Minister of Foreign Affairs). A quick trial was held, and the verdict read to Riza; he could not understand it, as he was unable to speak Turkish. Riza was sentenced to death and executed immediately.
Military operations did not stop or lose momentum and gross human rights violations continued, including air bombardment. Ultimately, the remaining Alevi Kurds were forced to migrate to the western regions of Turkey. Since the archives of the Turkish military are not yet accessible, it is not known what happened to Seyit Riza’s body or where he was buried. Therefore, Seyit Riza’s grandchildren have demanded to be told where his body was taken or buried. Discussions about the Dersim massacre intensified in the mainstream media after a speech by Onur Oymen, a deputy for the Republican People’s Party, in the National Assembly in 2009 in which he called the state policy of killings in Dersim “legitimate.” Since then, Riza’s grandchildren have become more vocal in their demands. But there has been no legal resolution to the questions surrounding his death as yet, and military officials have remained silent.
2009 — 2010
Scope and Purpose
The Tunceli municipality’s memorial effort involves a statue of Seyit Riza located in a public park, also named Seyit Riza Park. An address by Tunceli Mayor Edibe Sahin in July 2010, when Seyit Riza Park and its statue were opened to the public for the first time, suggests the purpose behind this memorial site. She explained the underlying idea of the memorial as a call for the state and political parties to come to terms with past wrongdoings. She also said that the memorial could serve as a lesson to the Turkish state that violent methods will not resolve the Kurdish question, and ended with the hope that it would someday no longer be necessary to erect statues of the dead.
Discussions of past atrocities, or anything symbolizing human rights violations committed by the state, in the context of the Kurdish question were frozen and deliberately kept out of the public sphere for many decades. The residents of Dersim have long sought recognition of their ethnic identity and of the suffering caused by the state in conjunction with the Turkish government’s denial and assimilation policies. The symbolic meaning of Seyit Riza for the Alevi Kurds thus goes far beyond his status as an ancestral figure. Since he is considered a religious leader killed by the state, and also symbolizes the collective suffering of the Kurds, the opportunity to finally commemorate Seyit Riza in public has had many positive impacts for the Alevi Kurds. One of these is a sense of healing coming from the wider recognition of their past suffering. This remains constrained, however, since the process of recognition and public apology by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not currently progressing. One of the collective demands of the Alevi Kurds–disclosure of the place where Riza was buried—has yet to be met. However, most recently, the government has promised to release documents relating to the Dersim events.
Most memorial efforts involving political and cultural figures who were historically condemned by the state have created tensions between the individuals or institutions initiating the memorialization process and the Turkish state authorities in the particular region. Erecting a statue of Seyit Riza and giving his name to a park in Dersim for the purpose of commemoration generated widespread debate, as well as a trial. Just after the opening of the memorial site, the Tunceli governor sued the Tunceli municipality for illegally praising a criminal, since the state narrative portrays Seyit Riza as an insurgent who led a rebellion against the state. Nevertheless, current political divisions in the Dersim region between the Peace and Democracy Party, which controls the municipality, and other political groups created tension among the Alevi Kurds. This raised obstacles to collaboration and the encouragement of public involvement, and limited participation in the design process of the memorial to the municipality and civil society organizations with similar political views.