The Maraş Massacre of 1978

"The Maraş Massacre is one of the dark pages of history. No massacre or genocide should ever take place in the process of democratic nation-building. In no country in the world. The covert oppression and marginalization of peoples must end," writes Mihayel Rabo.

Originally published in Turkish on January 21, 2022, by Gazete Sabro. You can find the original here

By Mihayel Rabo

I was 11 years old when the Maraş Massacre took place. Since those events in 1978, 43 years have passed. At such a young age it was very difficult to hear about such a cruel act of violence and to understand its intensity. Technology had also not yet progressed that much back then.

My first encounter with an Alevi was during my high school days. We were in the same class and friends. He was very close and showed interest in me and my background. He knew well that I was Syriac. I did not know he was an Alevi. He never mentioned it. That is, until thirty years later. Yes, exactly thirty years later, I found out that my former classmate had an “Alev” (flame) in him. Social media revealed itself with all its wonderful properties. When I contacted him on social media, everything seemed clear now. After that we first re-encounter, we met a few times and talked about the common adversities we experienced from a young age, about our cultural longings and how to deal with them. We recognized a lot in each other’s lives.

My social encounter with Alevis coincided with my teaching years. I was appointed as a teacher in the Alevi village of Erzincan-Çayırlı. During the year I spent there, I learned about humanity from them. I witnessed the purity of their hearts filled with their perfect love for humankind. They opened their houses to me, opened their doors, let me sleep in their homes, gave me bread to eat and water to drink. During visits, weddings, funerals, and in their homes, they always sat in the corner. I was only 26 when I first got to meet their religious leaders, the Dedes.

This closeness, genuine love and instincts to protect me have touched me many times. They approached the teacher who worked in the village before me with the same interest and closeness, but he had never returned their affection and showed no interest in establishing a relationship with the villagers. He did not eat the bread and food that was sent to him by the villagers and throwed it away behind his lodging. On Fridays, he closed the school and went to the nearest provincial town and mosque to pray. The villagers were very upset about this situation, but they got used to it. They were of course very happy when they saw that I was eating their food.

I spent the second year of my teaching career in a village with a mixed Alevi-Sunni population. The Alevis were sincere and close, the Sunnis were very aloof. While the Sunni villagers did not even offer me a cup of tea, the Alevis shared their food and bread.

According to the stories the villagers told me, their relatives living in Europe used to send Deutsch Marks with their letters. Post officers found out, tore open the envelopes, took the money and threw away the letters.

The oppression and persecution of Alevis did not always involve massacres. Oppression has continued uninterrupted for centuries: the marking of their homes, their social exclusion, humiliation, marginalization in articles in the mass media continued for years. There is absolutely nothing to elaborate about the fact that they were burned while the perpetrators shouted religious slogans.

According to official figures, 120 people were killed during the Maraş Massacre organized by nationalists against the Alevis on December 19-26, 1978. However, the real number of people killed is estimated to reach a thousand people. More than 200 Alevi houses were burned and nearly 100 workplaces were destroyed.

After these violent events, a total of 804 people were prosecuted, mostly right-wing and far-right extremists. Cases filed in martial law courts continued until 1991. Sentences were reduced by applying a 1/6 reduction to those sentenced to a sentence of imprisonment other than death penalty or a life sentence. The death sentences imposed by the martial law court were overturned by the Turkish Supreme Court.

The book “Maraş Katliamı: Vahşet, Direniş ve İşkence” by researcher, writer, and lawyer Orhan Gazi Ertekin was published by Dipnot Publishing. In an interview with the Armenian newspaper Agos, Ertekin describes the Maraş Massacre as an unfinished crime, continuing today and pending legal punishment:

“This unfinished crime can be seen primarily as an offense that has not yet been punished, and therefore continues to occur today. During all these years, there was no factual legal interruption. The offender continues to commit crimes without interruption. The victim, on the other hand, is still waiting for justice and wishes the criminal attack to end while still being the ongoing subject of crime. The Maraş Massacre represents just such a collection of criminal acts. The massacre is not over. Immediately after the massacre, the victims were even held responsible for the massacre and declared perpetrators. This is one of the well-known structural features in Turkish history; victims of crime and oppression are made perpetrators of their own grievances. The massacre is said to have lasted 5 days. But starting right after the massacre, the victims were tortured for up to a year. Quite tragically, the victims, facing torture, were forced to defend themselves against their torturers for not having killed, wounded or looted their own homes in Maraş. The same ordeal continued in a process that lasted nearly a decade. It appears that the survivors of the Maraş Massacre had to spend the next few decades in survival mode. After feeling the breath of tens of thousands of attackers on their necks for five consecutive days on December 26, 1978, the victims were forced to keep fleeing and seek protection instead of feeling liberated. Tortures and trials continued and led to tens of thousands of people feeling compelled to emigrate from Maraş to all over the world. The perpetrators of the Maraş Massacre did not stop after December 19-26, 1978, but continued. We see and live with the consequences today. In this sense, the Maraş Massacre is an unfinished criminal act pending punishment.”

The Maraş Massacre is one of the dark pages of history. No massacre or genocide should ever take place in the process of democratic nation-building. In no country in the world. The covert oppression and marginalization of peoples must end.

Mihayel Rabo is a frequent contributor for Gazete Sabro, the Syriac newspaper published in Turkey.

The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.