Esma and M. mourn the Sivas Alevi massacre case verdict

Honoring the (mostly) Alevi people who died in the Sivas massacre on July 2, 1993. (Image thanks to this link)

“Have you heard the news?” M. asked quietly over the crackly phone line as I dashed out to the porch in search of better reception. “Have you read the Turkish papers yet today?” he asked, with intent. “There was a big riot in protest of the Sivas massacre case being dropped as a result of a statute of limitations. It is just awful, just terrible. This is one reason why I fear for the nation of my birth.”

In his comments, M. is referencing the Sivas massacre (in which 33 Alevi intellectuals were murdered in 1993). M has spoken about this massacre many times in the course of our years together. You can see the news he is reacting to here and here and you can read more about the massacre here.

According to, “The trials would have continued if the Sivas Massacre would have been accepted as a crime against humanity….at the hearing on 6 December 2011, (the) Prosecutor…put forward that after 15 years the statute of limitation had been reached…The plaintiff lawyers had demanded to handle the Sivas Massacre as a crime against humanity…the statute of limitations could not be applied to the case in the scope of a crime against humanity…Lawyer Mehdi Bektaş reiterated the same demand with regard to Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Lawyer Kazım Genç reminded verdicts given related to crimes against humanity and that it was a requirement of the jurisprudence to take these rulings into consideration. Lawyer Süleyman Ateş introduced himself as the nephew of Sehergül Ateş who died at the Madımak hotel in the course of the massacre. He urged the court, “Dismiss the request for the statute of limitation for the sake of the relief of the heart of sensitive people who have lost a relative and have been waiting for justice for 19 years”….Many people gathered in front of the courthouse upon the call of the Pır Sultan Culture and Solidarity Association. They were outraged about the court decision. Members of political parties, non-governmental organizations and trade unions carried photographs of the victims of the Sivas massacre and a banner reading “We did not make the massacre be forgotten and we will not forget”. The group chanted slogans like “No to statute of limitation, we want justice” and “The light of Sivas will not go out. ”

According to most reports, the Alevi who died had gathered for a cultural festival in honor of Alevi poet Pir Sultan Abdal (who you can read more about here, a fascinating person), two hotel employees and two members of the twenty-thousand-strong group of Sun’ni Islamists that allegedly set/celebrated the fire. It was a horrible instance of the dangerous and evil power of group think, if you ask me…

Occurring about a year before M. left Turkey for the U.S., this incident has clearly left its mark on my husband’s psyche. Clearly,the persecution of the Alevi as well as limitations on living as an atheist in Turkey had an indelible impact on his life. For example, once, when our niece asked him why he prefers the U.S. t0 Turkey, this massacre was the first thing he listed – stating that at least the civil rights movement has some power in this country. Although M. is not an Alevi, he is an ardent supporter of both the freedom of religion and freedom of expression – and worries at the increasing limitations on both he sees in Turkey over the decades – sometimes in the name of liberal to left causes. But that is a topic for another time.

Part of the reasoning behind the firesetting at the Sivas massacre, as I understand it, was the idea that one of the Alevi authors at the cultural celebration was allegedly promoting atheism. And this, in part, may be behind M.’s longstanding feelings about the Sivas massacre. Let me tell you a story about that. Once, M. tells me, as a young and naive 15 year-old student, he and his dear friend decided to take a stance with respect to their right to proclaim themselves as atheists in secular Turkey. They were, you see, essentially protesting the default listing of religion on their national identity cards. And the default listing was Sun’ni Muslim. In recounting the tale, M. channels the teenaged version of himself, who proclaimed “Why not test the secular-ness of our country, by changing our identity cards?”

Now before I go on, let me say that M. does come from Sun’ni roots, he was raised in a primarily secular family (his Bosnian grandmother was the only one who prayed 5 times a day while he was growing up), but explains with some sadness that while he desperately wanted to “feel God” the way others he knew did, God just never came to him. Coming into his adolescence in the 1970s, M. lived through news reports from Iran – and became fearful of the potentially negative power of religion. It seems that the Sivas massacre was the straw that broke the camel’s back for him.

Once he and his friend were in the belediye(that’s akin to a city hall, folks) requesting that their identity cards be changed, a generous and wise soul took pity on them. As M. tells it, the kindly amca (gentleman, uncle) at the identity card window encouraged them to reconsider their request. “Yes it is true,” he said, “you have the right to do this – but do you really think this is a wise decision? You will need to go to court for this. What would happen if you were stopped by the cops and they saw that you were atheists? Do you really want to test this out? Is it really worth it to you? There are times that standing on principle is not worth it, I ask you to consider this.” Uncharacteristically, my protest-oriented odd duck of a husband thought better of the move to test the limits of what is supposed to be a secular state – and left the Sun’ni Muslim marker on his identity card.

As I write this, Esma, the tiny hippie puppet, is sighing through a blue-grey funk. She is dejected today, not even able to continue her celebration of our win of the Liebster award I wrote about yesterday. Instead of her usual buoyant flitting about the house, she sits by the window, looking out at the rain on the water in Provincetown bay. Without even turning to face me, the words slip sadly out of her mouth, “it is a sad day when it comes to this Sivas massacre verdict, and I feel M.’s pain left over for years – the pain that made him let go of his right to proclaim his lack of religion” she says, her words are accompanied by sad, wilty white gladiolas, a traditional funeral flower in the United States. Esma, you see, emits flowers from her mouth and ears depending on her mood. If she is in a wicked mood, it’s usually the sharp-edged but boldly-colored ginger flower or birds-of-pardise whereas if she is joyful and light it is often soft and airy jasmine and rose petals. But today, it is those aforementioned wilty, white gladiolas, their soft plopping sound hitting the floor with a maudlin regularity.

“It is grey indeed today. It feels as though the sun is nowhere in the world,” Esma continues, sighing deeply, “and I remember all of the pain of July 2, 1993. What I have never told you, m’lady, is that my interest in Sufism is actually an offshoot of being raised as an Alevi. As you may know, Alevis are a minority group in Turkey, who have roots in Shi’ia Islam with a twinge of Sufism. We are a group of critical thinkers, who reject gender oppression and embrace social change. You can read more about us here

An horrific image of the seemingly celebratory protests outside of the hotel as 37 people died during the Sivas massacre. (Image thanks to this website) The wife in me worries that this image will bias views about all Turks in ways that will impact M. more than stereotypes already do.

“Allah, hallah,” Esma continued, using Turkish slang to indicate a big emotional sigh of surprise or intensity, “if I let myself think about it, I would think about the Sivas massacre and the Maraş massacre and so many others all the time – but although Wikipedia has a page devoted to “massacres in Turkey” this is not the spiritual or moral core of the majority of the home country I know…and I fear that people will not see that. I wish for peace on this matter, and resolution – and a more tolerant Turkiye.”

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11 Responses to Esma and M. mourn the Sivas Alevi massacre case verdict

  1. Alan says:

    . . dealing with the bureaucracy here has been an interesting and continuous battle. J and I insist that religion has no place on any form and we insist on ‘Nil’ – there is no place for nil, you must put something – “Nil!’ Very well, ‘Hiristian’. I am not an Hiristian – I’m a ‘Nil!’ In the end we have succeeded in being a right couple of ‘Nils’!
    It was the same in the UK census, I crossed out any question that I felt was non of their business, which was most of them. Prepared to go to jail, but the wouldn’t even fine me!

  2. Jack Scott says:

    The current Turkish Government has been reaching out to the Alevis in recent years. This, as with many other issues in Turkey, is contentious. As a foreigner, I rarely comment. What I would say is that too many issues are taboo. We’re supposed to learn from the past, not ignore it.

  3. Rosamond says:

    I Love Turkey with all its good and all its bad points. There is something to love and something to hate about every country and every country’s politics. I have great respect for the moderate Mr Erdogan and how far he has gone to try and create a modern, democratic, secular state. God help Turkey if Mr Gul gets in it will be back to 90% corruption instead of 45%

    This terrible case of the Sivas Alevi massacre is not the only case in the world of an unfair justice system and we have to remember that. e.g.atrocities in Iraq, Libiya,Afghanistan,Tibet etc etc where justice has not been served to name but a few.

    Liz…i will be honest with you. There will always be bias against your M just because he looks different and possibly speaks different (nobody will know he’s not Muslim) and the bias will be from ignorant people…that will never change.

  4. Rosamond says:

    Bureaucracy in Turkey, Morocco and Pakistan just to mention the 3 i know personally are enough to drive one crazy aggghhhh!! I do hear from friends in Spain and France that its just as bad there :-/

    As for the UK census i have recently learned that i can change my religion to Jeddi 🙂 i am waiting to see what happens next lol

  5. Have you changed your religion to Jeddi? 😉 That is AMAZING! I can’t wait to hear about the population prevalence count of that group! 🙂

  6. Dear Rosamond,

    Yes indeed, there is good and bad all over – what is most helpful to me is to just process both the good and the bad through my writing.

    On Mr. Erdogan, I respect your views. In many ways I do not feel able to comment. As the information I get is either in the English-language press (which sometimes seems to me to have a rose-colored set of lenses) or via Turkish friends who are mostly hard-core Kemalists or secularists and somewhat cautious if not paranoid about his alleged power-grabbing moves and potentially repressive tactics – it is hard to know where the balance of information lies. I am curious to know more about your views of Mr. Gul as different from Mr. Erdogan – I see them in more of a two-peas-in-a-pod mode? Would love to hear more if you would care to share, if not, no prob!

    Yes, Sivas is not a stand alone. Of course…having worked in one of the most unjust legal systems anywhere, I am the first to agree! For me, it is again about “processing” through these goings on as I figure things out (and as I re-edit the manuscript telling the story of this marriage through important goings on).

    And on to the topic of your honesty – which I very much appreciate. Yes, I do realize this. And I guess I am just “in process” on that as well – accepting that people may react to him some way – in some ways even worse given his lack of Islam.

    As ever, grateful for your comments.

  7. Interesting set of comments, Jack. I am aware of the reaching out – of Erdogan’s apology re: the Alevi massacre in the early 1900s, for example. You are likely very wise not to comment – it is easy to judge. I debated about commenting – but as it is a part of the narrative I am developing for the manuscript – and in some ways a key part – I took a careful plunge. Umm, as I write that, is it even possible to do that, take a careful plunge? Who knows.

    Here here on the “too many issues are taboo” and “we’re supposed to learn from the past” comments!

  8. Can you really be jailed for crossing out questions in the UK census? Wow.

    As a human being, I totally get it. M. feels the same way about the US census. As a researcher dependant in part on census-derived data files to do my research, I cringe at non-participation. It is a fine line!!!

    🙂 🙂

  9. Rosamond says:

    These are my opinions based on spending a lot of time over 15 years of having a home in Turkey and keeping up to date with Turkish news. Obviously it depends on what newspaper you read but i prefer the present secular system because i have seen great improvements in the economy, social system etc. He has admirers throughout the world and has made Turkey stand out as the most democratic amongst the Arab world.
    I believe Erdogan is honest and will not be bullied by the west. He stands up for his country and its principals. I think Erdogan has found a balance without Turkey losing too much of its identity and pride. However i do think he has to be a bit more carefull in future as i notice that he is becoming more autocratic and daring.
    Most of my friends in Turkey are Kemalists and i wont say too much there as it nearly got me into a war at one time lol.

    I wont say too much about Abdullah Gul because i might be wrong. Although the two are more or less on a par i dont like to think that if he got into power he would be swayed by the US more easily than Mr Erdogan.

    I don’t know if i am making sense and perhaps i should just keep quiet about things that i am not fully knowledgeable about :-/

  10. Thinner Addict says:

    “I have great respect for the moderate Mr Erdogan and how far he has gone to try and create a modern, democratic, secular state.”

    Is this a joke?

    “He has admirers throughout the world and has made Turkey stand out as the most democratic amongst the Arab world.”

    Since when is Turkey a part of the Arab world?

    “I don’t know if i am making sense and perhaps i should just keep quiet about things that i am not fully knowledgeable about :-/”

    I would have to agree with you on this one.

  11. Thanks for visiting Slowly-by-Slowly…

    All I have to say is that commentators on my blog have the right to express their opinions…I suppose realities differ significantly for different people.

    I would just ask that you engage in respectful debate with others here – especially when strong feelings are involved!


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