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Diary of a Turkish soldier sheds light on Dersim genocide’s obscured history

A Turkish historian recently discovered the diary of a Turkish soldier who took part in the 1937-38 genocide in the Kurdish-majority province of Dersim, eastern Turkey.

When Dersim’s population rebelled against the Turkish military’s increasing presence in the area, a brutal crackdown was instigated by Ankara.

Thousands of Zaza Kurds, as well as Armenians, were killed or internally displaced by the Turkish military campaign. Rebellion leader Seyid Riza and his son were hanged on November 15, 1937, in Dersim’s Elazig Bugday Square.

Turkish historian Zainab Turkilmaz is a university instructor who has long been working on Ottoman and modern Turkish history.

In August 2019, while searching the Ataturk Internet Archive, she discovered the diary of Turkish soldier named Yousif Kanaan Akim, who tells of the brutal Turkish army campaign through his own lens.

“I was searching among the online archives of Ataturk. One of the key words I was searching was Dersim. While searching, I came across the diary of the Turkish soldier,” Turkilmaz told Rudaw.

Turkilmaz, who has been working on a book on the Dersim massacre since 1999, “immediately downloaded the document.”

“This document is one of the most precise and important sources, full of information with plenty of details concerning the massacre,” she said.

She told her friends about the document, and they too tried to find it. However, it then “appears to have been deleted from the archive or re-saved under a different file name,” she said.

Soldier Akim was a native of the northern Turkish coastal city of Samsun. He appears to have written in his diary on a daily basis while his unit moved from Dersim province village to village, town to town, massacring Kurds and Armenians.

“Some of the diary’s pages cannot be read due to the smudging of pen ink among the pages,” Turkilmaz told Rudaw on Monday.

Akim details his free time habits, including trips to the cinema and reading novels. He also talks about his lover, Nadima, who says she sent messages to him while he was on the battlefield.

The Turkish government has repeatedly put the Dersim massacre’s official toll at over 13,000 dead; Kurdish sources put the number closer to 60,000.

In 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized for the massacre, describing it as “one of the most tragic events in our recent history.”

After Erdogan’s apology, Turkish parliament formed a committee to document the massacre, she said.

“Many documents were collected. But unfortunately, they were kept in a secret place, and work was stopped. Nothing was done for the massacre expect a single apology from Erdogan,” she added.

After Turkilmanz spread news that she has found the diary, she received mixed messages of appreciation and criticism from the public.

“Some people warmly welcomed the efforts I have put in to document the Dersim massacre and to find this diary, while others criticized [it]… saying that I must pay the price of antagonizing the state,” she added.

Some of the daily activities the soldier had noted in his diary include:

August 11: Earlier today, we stormed the village of Yalan Dagi, but there was no one there. We have brought tools with us and are waiting for orders to demolish the village.

As we continued our raid, we managed to discover ten Kurds. Two of them were killed by our unit, some others were wounded and taken hostage. At 11:30 am we burned down Zozoloja, another village.

August 12: It was early in the morning when we heard mortar shells and planes. The Kurds have been besieged. They are in a terrible situation. We discovered a cow, three sheep and 15 goats in the forests. We butchered and ate them all.

August 13: Our unit discovered 20,000 sheep at a valley and captured 50 Kurds.

August 19: We are right behind Ziyarat hill, waiting to receive reinforcement. We were very hungry, so we searched a few caves and discovered flour, and made bread from it. It is very cold here. The snowfall is well above the knee.

August 18: At 7:30 am in the morning, we advanced from Zazawa farm towards the villages of Pulur and Cevizli. We burned all the villages on our way. We discovered a cave with 100 goats in it. We spotted a strange scene; a Kurdish woman had hanged herself to death. We returned at 9 pm to a village called Karaoglan, spending the night there.

September 3: We have reached the outskirts of the town of Cevizi. At midnight we packed our tents, left, and stopped by the shore of a river at 7 am. We almost died of thirst, but could not drink the river water because of the dead bodies that had contaminated it. My legs were almost broken, as we had come a long way. Oh God, please get me out of here. Enough with all the pain and suffering that I have endured.

September 5:  With my officer, we went to Hozat Bath. We were very exhausted. Taking a shower restored our energy.

September 7:  We reached a village today. The soldiers looted homes, discovered beehives. The bees stung the faces of some of the soldiers. On the night of the same date, we climbed the mountains to stand guard until early in the morning. We could see the sheep and the dead bodies down the mountain. I was very sleepy while standing guard.

September 10: Today, we raided all the forests and the open terrain. Our units brought with them the skulls of the rebels. A soldier in our unit named Rushan is in charge of the beheadings. He beheads anyone when ordered to do so.

September 11: Today, we will raid all the mountains. We cannot go into the valleys, due to the multiple dead bodies. The weather is very cold and we are about to freeze to death. In the nighttime, we are all loudly screaming, crying for our mothers.

September 12: We woke up early in the morning. Once again, we are ordered to raid the mountains. In the daytime, we are busy with beheadings. Today we discovered some oil, so we will cook rice…. I no longer feel I am a human being. I am a shambles.

September 15: Today, we stormed the village of Soyotlo. We mobilized all the suspects. We shot dead Ibrahim Agha, the son of the head of Koch tribe.

From September 25, the soldier takes a break for a few days.

October 7: Today I weighed myself. I was 61 kilograms. Dersim made me fat.

Until the end of 1938, the soldier continues to write his diary on Dersim. He writes no toll for the number of massacred people. From the beginning of 1939, he no longer writes about Dersim; the reason is unclear.

On August 31, 1939, however, he writes a note to whoever discovers his diary: Please do not read this diary, just return it to this address: Yousif Kanaan Akim in the Dersim mountains.

Translation by Zhelwan Z. Wali


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