When forefathers become murderers

Why is it so hard to face up to the past? There are many reasons, no doubt. But I believe that one of the most important reasons is the jolt given to a person’s sense of identity that can be caused by this facing up to the past.

Today, as Turkey is busy debating exactly what occurred in Dersim (called Tunceli nowadays) between the years of 1937-1938, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is experiencing great turbulence. Those were the years in which the CHP was in power, and during which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was at the helm of both the CHP and all of Turkey. The photographs and documents emerging today lent clarity to everything from those years. What took place in Dersim was a large massacre, and the orders for that massacre were given by the people running the government in those years, among whom was of course Atatürk.

The CHP is being shaken to the core because it is unable to place its forefathers anywhere in this photograph of the past; as a result, its entire sense of identity is in question. And when Turkey begins to face up to the events of 1915, we will experience similar sensations, not as a political party, but as society as a whole.

It is never easy for people to accept that their forefathers might have committed such serious crimes, and to thus face up to such realities. The letter below, written by the daughter of a policeman who was doing his military service in Dersim when he participated in the massacre there gives us a good sense of the feelings involved here. If you were to find out your father was part of a massacre, how would you view him, and how would you interpret your past, your own identity? Where in your own life would you place the memory of those massacred people? The man named Seyid Rıza who is mentioned by Sema Vural, the writer of the letter, in her 2007 publicly shared piece of documentation was a man who had been hung for supposedly leading the Dersim uprising. But today we have learned that there was actually no such uprising, and that this was just a scenario created to justify the punishment of the people in Dersim.

Towards the end of the letter, one learns where Vural places Seyid Rıza within the greater scope of her own life, and it is very surprising, as well as touching. Here, then, is this emotional letter:

A lost photograph…

I was a child… My father was like my right arm, my childhood friend. The person I trusted most in life was my father, in addition to the fact that I loved him the most too. Whatever he did was the right thing; he taught me all the various aspects of life, as well as how to be strong. He explained his views of life and what was right to me in his own wonderful story-like style.

I was a child… I worshipped my father…

… I wanted to spend all my time with him. It was almost as though I had wished to be a copy of his past, his present, his future. I was a child. Everything he said was, for me, an incontrovertible truth. My father was honest, a patriot, a just man — which is why he was such a “good policeman,” you know!

… One day, my father and I sat down to create a family album. I was so happy. He and I were putting together a visual history of our family together. There were photographs of my grandmother’s neighbors, my mother’s younger years, relatives, photos from when my father had been in the military, from when my older brothers and I had been babies, from my parents’ marriage, and so on and so forth. I was so excited. I had questions about every photograph, and he answered them all. We were busy pasting the images onto various pages.

I was so happy and excited as we prepared this visual chronology. He would talk about the past as I pasted, and I would ask more questions, and he continued answering them.

This went on and on, until we came to some photographs of some strange men in the mountains, and I asked him, “Father, who are these people?” He replied: “These are some photos from when I was a soldier. Look, here I am in this one.” And then I asked: “But father, why are you dressed like these in military photographs? These people don’t even look like soldiers. And where are these mountains? Who is that man, father? Who is that old man with the beard?” It was at that moment that everything froze, and the joyful atmosphere was broken. He replied: “Those photographs are from Tunceli, and I was a soldier, and we were hunting for eşkıya [brigands]. That’s why we were dressed like that, and that man was the leader of a band of brigands. We were carrying him off to be executed. To be hung, in other words.” I said: “But father, what does ‘brigand’ mean, and why did they hang that man? Isn’t it bad to hang someone?” I wasn’t able to ask any more than that.

My father looked at me, but it was a look I didn’t recognize, as though he was looking at me for the first time. What he said next he uttered as though he were a stranger: “Our nation, our republic, a threat” and so on. I tried later to ask about this all, but it was no use. The pasting of images for that page was over, and he turned the page. My questions were left hanging in the air, though most of them were imprinted in my memory. My father turned to me and said, “You’ll understand when you get older.” I felt great pain on the inside, realizing that my father was from now on going to be my father, as well as some other man for me. I felt pain for that old man in the photograph, but I didn’t know why. And I couldn’t understand why I felt such a pain. I wished that I could grow up immediately so I could ask. When was I supposed to grow up?

Now I am the same age as my father was when we made that album together. I really did grow up, and when I did, my father became for me not only my father but another man. But the truth is, I have a debt which I really don’t want to have hanging on me. At the very least I would like settle my accounts through an apology, or an expression of gratitude.

I was just a child, and my father told me about memories from his military service, though only that much. And when I grew older, he wouldn’t tell me much more. I understood what he told me when I got older, but I did not approve. He never tried to tell me again what he had done, but there was no need for him to anyway…because I can guess by now.

When my father died, that photograph was all I wanted, but my oldest brother tore it up. Why? Because apparently his friends used to ask him, “Is that man your grandfather?” But I experienced my childhood and all those questions I had about that bearded older man. And yes, I suppose I could say he was my grandfather. And I want my own children to know this memory. And I want that moment from history that my father tried to hide to accompany my past childhood. He — and I struggle for breath as I say this — he is Seyid Rıza!

Orhan Kemal Cengiz