Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Maras 1978 (1): An Alevi genocide that is called a massacre
There is an endless discussion on how Turkey will become a true democracy, show respect for human rights, and incorporate the rule of law. If any of these are to be possible, Turkey must face its past wounds and atrocities whose perpetrators went unaccountable. With courage and honesty as our guides, we need to critically analyze the traumatic events in Turkish history.
When past atrocities are brought up, some inevitably say that history should be left as it is and that we should let sleeping dogs lie. These are not views I can agree with; I can see those old traumas are still alive, and they continue to affect our lives in many ways.
In this three-part series, I will tell the story of only one of our many “past traumas” which not only still lives on in the memories of the victims but also still affects society, the state, and its institutions in deeper ways than people might recognize.
The atrocity I am talking about is the Maras massacre of 1978 which paved the way for the 1980 coup. Even the naming of the massacre is worthy of debate. The Turkish right-wing calls the massacre an “event.” The “Maras events,” they say, as if it were nothing more than a fight between rival gangs that left its trace in the memory of the state. On the other hand, the Turkish left and the Alevi minority call it the “Maras massacre.”
Throughout this series, I will attempt to convey the magnitude and severity of these so-called “events” to show that the gruesome violence goes beyond a massacre, but actually constitutes a genocidal attempt.
The Maras massacre occurred in a series of escalating events. From December 19 to 26 in the year 1978, Alevis in Malatya, Turkey’s 18th largest city in the Mediterranean region, became targets of horrific attacks. Alevis are a significant religious minority in Turkey who can be classified along the axis of the Sunni-Shia division, though they tend to have more moderate stances and lifestyles than Shias in the general sense of the term. Also crucial to contextualizing the massacres is the fact that Alevis have a long history of participation in leftist political movements in Turkey.
According to official figures, more than 100 people, a majority of whom were Alevis, were murdered, hundreds of others were injured, and 210 homes and businesses were destroyed on the last days of December 1978. According to other estimates, however, the casualties were much higher and more than 500 people were killed. Some even put this figure at over one thousand.
The violence that would become the Maras Massacre began with a low-impact bomb thrown into the Cicek Theater on December 19, where a crowd of young ultranationalists, known as the Grey Wolves, were viewing the nationalist film “When Will the Sun Rise.” Later, investigations would reveal that it was a member of the Grey Wolves who had lobbed the bomb.
The next day, a coffee house frequented by Alevis was bombed. On December 21, two left-wing teachers were murdered. On December 22, the Grey Wolves attacked the funeral held for the teachers, then spread out to menace Maras’s Alevi neighborhoods. On December 23, mosques and municipal buildings used their speakers to broadcast provocative messaging, such as, “Alevi communists have poisoned the water,” “Alevis in Yoruk Selim (District) are slaughtering our brothers and sisters in faith; let the Muslims who love God be ready,” and “All our patriots and Muslim brothers must get into formation.” Soon after, masked men led mobs in a massacre that lasted four days.
Thousands of people armed with everything from shotguns, rifles, and pistols to gas cannisters and dynamite attacked the predominately Alevi Yoruk Selim district, breaking through military barricades and invading the district from all sides. The mobs stopped at nothing as they worked their way through Yoruk Selim, burning and destroying everything in their path and killing every resident they encountered. By the evening of December 23, most of the district’s homes were in flames. On December 24, Yoruk Selim was a ghost town.
The same violence was repeated in every part of the city which had a high density of Alevis. It was later revealed that Alevi homes had been marked in advance to allow the attackers to easily identify their victims.
The scale of violence inflicted upon the victims was incredible. As I write these lines, I find it difficult to reconcile my understanding of time with the reality that this unconscionable butchering of neighbors took place a mere 44 years ago.
Only four decades ago, Maras thus became one more Bosnia, and yet another Rwanda.