Sixteen years ago today, a shameful and horrific thing happened in the central Anatolian city of Sivas. A group of Turkish intellectuals, writers and poets were honouring the city with their presence, but instead of being celebrated, they were burned alive.
One of the few survivors was Aziz Nesin; 78 years-old at the time, one of the greatest Turkish writers who was refreshing, amusing and outspoken to the extreme by Turkish standards. He was an atheist and he did not hide that fact. He’d recently translated The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
The congress was there as part of celebrations of 16th century Alevi poet, Pir Sultan Abdal. Alevism is a sect of Islam that is widely disowned by the more unreasonable Muslims. Their community, which numbers above 10 million in Turkey, have been ignored and bullied by officials. Alevism is a softer version of Islam that allows men and women to worship together, includes elements of dance and singing and doesn’t command that a woman should cover her face or head. In short, Alevism, just like all sects in all religions, is an indicator of the contradictions and tribalism within religion. But that was not the issue on 2 July 1993.
Even though an atheist, Nesin was there in Sivas, which has a large Alevi community, to respect and celebrate a more peaceful and embracing philosophy. But what he was doing was walking into an inferno, where fiery eyed fundamentalist zombies had been fuelled with hatred towards him, motivated by a provocative statement being circulated around the city. The statement included the passage, “today is the day to call blasphemy to account”. The attack was planned and the massacre was intended.
There was even more provocation. A local paper called Hakikat, originally an Arabic word associated with Islam, meaning “the truth”, quoted Nesin’s words: “What should I believe of the Quran that was written a thousand years ago?”
It was a Friday. This is the day that hundreds of men gather in mosques across the world to convince themselves they’re good people – and also to gather courage. It’s basic group psychology, and that day in Sivas, violence beckoned.
Groups left mosques after their prayers and took to the centre of town, hurling for Sharia rule, and shouting “damn secularism”, “Sivas will be Nesin’s grave”. They were fuelled to the brim with hatred. As they gathered in pacts, the smell of their backwardness would make any human ashamed of being one. What none of these so called men (among them were children tagging along with their fathers and uncles) would have the courage to do on their own, they could do together. The cowards gathered around Madımak Hotel and started throwing objects through its windows.
The police made lame efforts to stop them and they were poorly directed – on purpose. The head of the Municipality of Sivas, Temel Karamollaoğlu, was a hardline Islamist. This disgusting human being was called by the Minister of Interior Affairs for a report on the escalating situation. He said there was nothing to worry about and that the mayor of Sivas, who was asking for military intervention, was exaggerating. It is also quite likely that Karamollaoğlu supplied the tools for and gave logistical backup to the massacre. Namely these tools were the so-called reconstruction work outside the hotel, which meant there were many loose pieces of concrete, ready to throw, and how Islamists that came from other cities to take their part in this bloody massacre were accommodated at municipality owned boarding houses.
The bearded municipal was told to address the Muslim crowd and calm them down. Instead, he provoked them further. He said: “Let’s first start with a fatiha [the opening to a prayer] and say el-fatiha to their [the intellectuals that were about to be killed] souls.” He then asked other officials to gain immediate permission to remove the statue of historical Alevi figure Alevi Hajj Bektaş, known as Ozanlar Anıtı (The Minstrels Memorial). No one clever enough was around to prevent this from happening, and the statue was removed with a crane, virtually rewarding the jihadists and succumbing to the words that came out of their crying, saliva showering mouths.
Soldiers arrived outside the hotel, extremely late, and the crowds jeered them, shouting that they should be in Bosnia [protecting Muslims]. Then, in front of television cameras, the armed forces were ordered to retreat and stop blocking the people-turned-terrorists. Instantly the blood thirsty crowd changed their tune; “our soldier is the greatest”. Cars were set alight and the forces, so called protectors of secular Turkey were just watching.
Then the hotel was set on fire. The fire brigade arrived, late, unwilling to rescue, without any space to manoeuvre and managed to rescue only one person. The rest suffocated, trapped inside burning rooms, where these “animals” had firstly tried to break in and beat these people to death.
Nesin was beaten on the rescue ladder on his way down to the ground. He was hit whilst on the ladder by Cafer Erçakmak, the Sivas MP of the now defunct religious Welfare Party (Refah Partisi). Karamollaoğlu was of the same party. Both stood in front of the hundreds of fanatics, their beards as their symbol of allegiance to them, shouting and damning the scared and innocent souls in the hotel.
Since that day, Erçakmak and Karamollaoğlu have not even been questioned in the investigations on the Sivas Massacre. Erçakmak’s allegedly missing, but a number of reports through the years have shown that since 1993 he’s completed his national service, got a driving license and had a son.
Debates, if there is even a need for one, have gone on for years on whether or not to turn the Madımak Hotel into a museum to commemorate the dead. The ground floor of that hotel was, sickeningly, a kebab shop for over a decade.
Nesin, even whilst in a toxic room awaiting his death, was thinking like a true bright: “I was thinking that I should die in such a way that I shouldn’t be found dead as a scared man, which was impossible because we were curling up because of the smoke.” Writer Lütfi Kaleli, who was in the same room, said Nesin had asked him to put him on the bed, not wanting to give this crowd a bad corpse.
An investigation committee was later set up, but many findings were simply brushed under the carpet. An unnamed man claiming to be from Turkey’s intelligence organisation, MIT, had even told the head of the committee that they as the MIT were aware of the fanatics’ plans but they wanted to see the real force of these groups and gather information on them. This and other pieces of vital information surrounding the massacre have not been pursued and the real murderers have not been brought to justice.
The involvement of intelligence organisations, Turkish or foreign, is certainly a major possibility given that the mobilisation, provocation and resulting behaviour of the hundreds that carried out the massacre are very familiar to other Islamic riots in the Middle East. Such attacks in the name of Islam have killed thousands and have overthrown governments. The Sivas Massacre shows similar signs to the overthrow of Iranian president Mohammed Mossadeq, where the CIA fabricated violent anti-Islamic notions on behalf of Mossadeq’s supporters towards Muslim leaders, which was the first instance that western espionage used the term “blowback” to define these agent manufactured uprisings.
Religious fanatics will kill and burn for many years to come, the mellowly religious will continue to lay the breeding ground for the killers, but the enlightened who put the brave and universal questions to humanity will continue to live on with their words, ideas and art. These are the real flames. Flames that are eternal. Flames that spread light.army, Aziz Nesin, murder, religion, Sivas Massacre