Orhan Kemal Cengiz

Orhan Kemal Cengiz

Maras 1978 (2): An Alevi genocide that is called a massacre

No matter the public debate on the topic, there is no doubt that the intention of the perpetrators was genocide.

The stories from the survivors of the Maraş massacre are terrifying, shocking, and distressing. At first hearing them, one may think that they are exaggerated, but survivors’ accounts of the events are both credible and consistent. What these accounts reveal about what happened in Maras between December 19 and 26 in 1978 is blood-chilling. Author Orhan Tuleylioglu describes that the brutality was not limited to the murder of whoever happened to be in the way of the assailants, but also took the form of sadistic violence: setting young children and the elderly on fire, cutting off women’s breasts, shooting infants and children, hacking off the heads of victims with axes, raping women, slitting open the wombs of pregnant women to nail the bodies of their unborn children to trees.

Lawyer Orhan Gazi Ertekin in his recent book on the Maras massacre reports that the casualties could have been much higher and could have reached the tens of thousands if a handful of leftist militants were not there to protect the Alevis. Ertekin tells the story of a dozen revolutionary leftists who put their lives on the line to protect the Yoruk Selim district against the blood-thirsty mobs who destroyed everything in their path. A pocket of resistance armed only with a handful of pistols and a single rifle projected an image of resistance much larger than it was in truth, which slowed down the perpetrators and prevented them from taking many more lives.

Ertekin also calls attention to the fact that the perpetrators consisted not only of the right-wing Grey Wolves members, but also of ordinary people, some who were even middle-aged women. So, in a sense, the Maras massacre was one in which neighbors murdered neighbors.

I have always had difficulty understanding how the perpetrators could have harbored enough hatred leading to the indiscriminate murder of women, children, and the elderly. There is no doubt that “deep state elements” were involved in the preparation of the groundwork for this genocide, but nevertheless, it was the civilians who carried out the torture and killings.

The Maraş Massacre is one of the most horrific of the 20th century. Yet, it is not regularly mentioned alongside Rwanda, Cambodia, and Yugoslavia when crimes against humanity are discussed, due to the relatively lower number of casualties. However, this is not a factor when determining crimes against humanity.

In Turkey, the Maraş Massacre is often discussed as if it was a tragedy in which two groups of civilians fought and killed each other. However, the imbalance of power between the parties was so great that this view is disingenuous.

Given the horrific atrocities committed in the Maraş Massacre and the systematic targeting of one group, it is obvious that what happened in Maraş in 1978 was a crime against humanity and constitutes genocide under international human rights law. If we focus on the “intention” and “purpose” of the perpetrators rather than the number of casualties, it is clear to see that the massacre was committed with “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, […] a national […] or religious group” as described in Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on Genocide. No matter the public debate on the topic, at least with regard to the legal standard, there is no doubt that the intention of the perpetrators was genocide.

I emphasize genocide and crimes against humanity for two reasons. First, this massacre, which in Turkey has been downplayed as an “incident,” a “conflict,” and so on, is a horrific crime against humanity in its execution, its objectives, and its consequences.

Secondly, many Alevis retain the view that the massacre has never been properly and diligently investigated. Although some perpetrators were convicted and given lengthy sentences, they were released early on parole while all the prime suspects were acquitted. That the Maras Massacre was undoubtedly a crime against humanity opens the possibility of investigation even today as there is no statute of limitations on such crimes.

It is also worth noting that the perpetrators were not tried under civilian law, but instead by the military courts which had jurisdiction after Turkey’s 1980 coup. Moreover, three lawyers participating in the trials on the victims’ behalf are known to have been murdered.

Ertekin tells us that a dozen leftist militants saved the lives of tens of thousands of people in Maras. Later, these militants were tortured for months and held in custody for up to a year to extract statements confessing that they were the ones who paved the way for this massacre by killing two teachers to provoke the masses, and so on.

There is no doubt that this genocide left an indelible mark on the consciousness of Alevis in Turkey. But what happened to the perpetrators? How could they resume their regular lives after participating in this savagery? How could any society go about its existence as if the violence never occurred? There are many other questions to ask in this vein, but the simple fact that the right-wing in Turkey still recall the year 1978 by the name “Maras events” is proof enough that they see no blame on the part of society itself or the system that enabled the butchery.

As I will try to explain in the third and last piece of this series, it is still not possible to commemorate the victims of this unbelievable violence that took place just 44 years ago. When Alevis go to Maras to remember the victims, they are confronted by threatening counterdemonstrations. The commemoration of the “Maras events” is also forbidden by the governorship of Maras. In the next piece, I will contextualize this refusal to remember with Turkey’s problems concerning memory and identity.

Earlier article in this series: Maras 1978 (1): An Alevi genocide that is called a massacre

Previus and Next Posts