Kocgiri Kurdish Uprising

I am sure that you are all aware of the struggle and the need for a change within the Kurdish society. I have known of many people who devoted their selves to this cause. But little do they know about their past, their history, and their people. I am devoting this blog, this note to the very modestly covered history of Kurds in Turkey.

Many facts and events and their very existence was long denied by the Turkish official historians and politicians. Memory of Kurdish people and significant leaders are removed from the official records. Their memory of their very own lands, villages, records and names are expunged and wiped out from the very official records. Nothing in the history will change, unless, we decide to retell and recount the story from the perspective of the Kurds.

Treaty of Sevres, signed back in August 10, 1920. During this treaty, it was also discussed that in the Kurdistan region a referendum will be carried out to decide its fate, which also would include the Mosul Provonce.

Interestingly, there was not a single agreement amongst the Kurds with regards to the borders of Kurdistan. Section III, Articles 62–64allowed the institution of a Kurdish state. Article 64 allowed the independence of Kurdistan which also included the Mosul Vilayet.

The Kurt Terakki ve Teavun Cemiyeti (Kurdish Society for Progress and Mutual Aid) founded in 1908, was resurrected in 1918 as the Kurdistan Taali Cemiyeti (KTC, Society for the Rise of Kurdistan). This organization was based in Istanbul and gathered a few hundred members influenced by nationalist ideas, mainly from important Kurdish families, Kurdish intellectuals, the urban middle class, officers and some members from the tribes. Unfortunately things changed direction very drastically and swiftly as soon as Ataturk found out that KTC planed to remove their support and ask for the autonomy of Kurdistan. 

Two figures among the members of the Kurdistan Taali Cemiyeti were directly involved in the Kocgiri uprising: first, Haydar, a student in Istanbul at the time, the son of Mustafa Pasa, the leader of the Kocgiri tribe – the term Kocgiri designated at the same time a confederation of Kurdish (kurmanci)-speaking Alevi tribes, including tens of thousands of people settled in more than one hundred villages; the region to the east of Sivas where these tribes lived; and an administrative district in the midst of that region. The second person involved both in the KTC and the Kocgiri events, was Baytar Nuri, later known as Nuri Dersimi. 

Nuri Dersimi, after studying veterinary medicine in Istanbul, he was appointed as a vet to Sivas, probably with the help of the KTC, in order to set up the organization there. After he and Haydar arrived in 1918 or 1919, Aliser, Mustafa Pasa’s secretary, was also involved in the local organization of the Society for the Rise of Kurdistan that worked to spread nationalist propaganda. However, even if the KTC was influential at the beginning of the unrest, it then turned out to be totally cut off from the movement, and lost any influence it once held, mainly due to internal tensions, particularly between autonomists and people fighting for independence.

However, not only those associated with the KTC were involved in the unrest, where local dynamics were probably predominant. Other tribal leaders should also be mentioned, especially Alisan, Haydar’s brother, who was at the time district vice-governor in Refahiye. The Kocgiri tribal leader, Mustafa, had enjoyed the high administrative title of Paşa for a few decades, and many members of his family were local administrative officials. 

Nuri Dersimi took advantage of his appointment in Sivas to organize local tribes and to foster cooperation with some tribes in west Dersim, using his father, who provided contact with Seyyit Rıza, an important religious leader. Mustafa Kemal, learning about these initiatives after the Erzurum Congress – an assembly of the Turkish resistance movement that took place in July-August 1919 – arranged a meeting with Kocgiri tribal leaders. 

Alisan met him and explained their concerns about the future of the region. Mustafa Kemal argued that the Ottoman government would not be able to fulfill the conditions of the Sevres Treaty or the self-determination of Kurdistan and insisted that they should cooperate with his resistance movement instead, arguing that it was also in favor of the Kurds. Consequently, he proposed himself and Nuri Dersimi as candidates for a seat in the National Assembly. At first Alisan accepted, but under the influence of Nuri Dersimi, declined in the end. 

In February 1920, different Kurdish Alevi tribes from the region gathered in an Alevi Dervish lodge near Kangal. According to Dersimi, this is where the decision was made to take up arms in order to create an independent Kurdistan, including the regions of Diyarbakır, Van, Bitlis, Elazığ and Dersim-Koçgiri (Dersimi, 1997 [1952]: 139). Following this meeting, a period of tension and limited military troubles began and guerilla actions against civilians and villages intensified. In the summer, the rebels also began to target officials, especially police and gendarmerie stations and military convoys, seizing their munitions. 

On November 15, following a meeting between the main leaders of the movement and some tribes from western Dersim, the first memorandum was sent to the new Ankara government. It demanded clarifications about the official position regarding promises of Kurdish autonomy and requested less state penetration and coercion in the region. The Ankara government then sent a commission that promised that these demands would be accepted and tried to convince the rebels to cooperate with the government to liberate the country from the occupying forces; however, it was driven out of the region. 

The armed confrontation proper began in December 1920, when a local director of a post office was assassinated; new troops were sent to the area. The gendarmerie battalion was attacked by rebels en route, who took control of its arms and supplies. In January 1921, a colonel was sent to Sivas to recover the lost arms and to arrest deserters or rebels, especially the leader of the attack, whom the villagers were not willing to hand over. 

Encouraged by this success, new groups, mostly Alevi Kurds, joined the rebellion, although some tribes from more distant regions that had declared their support finally withdrew. 

Martial law was declared in the region in the first half of March 1921. 

Official sources estimate governmental forces to number 3,161 men and 1,350 animals (against about 3,000 rebels. Nuri Dersimi however argues that governmental forces encompassed about 6,000 cavalrymen, 25,000 infantrymen, plus some militias and gendarmerie forces, and evaluates the number of fighting rebels to be 6,185, including about 2,000 from Koçgiri, 2,000 from Dersim, and 2,000 from other tribes. The region’s governor’s demand for a peaceful solution, including an amnesty for the rebels, was rejected by the government. The counteroffensive took place in two stages: the first stage, beginning on April 11, lasted about ten days and was mobile, whereas the second period, more directed towards «cleansing», lasted for about two months (April 23 – June 17). 

In 1921, 400 imprisoned rebels were judged by the Sivas Martial Court. 

In 1922, the Sivas Martial Court was dissolved and most people condemned for having participated in the rebellion, even those condemned to death, were granted amnesty by Mustafa Kemal. Aliser and Nuri Dersimi were excluded from this amnesty.

 Some leaders were put under house arrest and Alisan and Haydar were forbidden from returning to the Koçgiri region. A later amnesty included Alisan and his followers. In 1931 they were allowed to go back to the region. 

Only Nurettin Pasa was punished because his violent methods were harshly condemned, especially in the Assembly. He was removed from command of the Central Army in November, 1921. The Assembly decided he should be judged, but Mustafa Kemal opposed this and vetoed this decision; as early as 1922, Nurettin Pasa was appointed as the Commander of the First Army, and in 1924, only three years after the repression of the Koçgiri rebellion, he was elected as an independent MP during a by-election. 

Koçgiri is given special significance because it is widely considered as the first expressly Kurdish nationalist rebellion in the emerging Turkish Republic, and because it marked an alliance between Kurmanci-speakers (Koçgiris) and Zaza-speakers (Dersimis), which proved to be very rare during the following Kurdish nationalist revolts. In this framework, the revolt also has a special place because it was supported almost exclusively by Alevis. Therefore, Kocgiri has mainly been studied together with the only other Kurdish nationalist rebellion supported by Alevis, Dersim (1937-1938), while all other Kurdish revolts were supported by Sunnis. 

Despite all this early turmoil and difference of opinion, Alevi Kurds shared a deep commitment to the unification of Kurds. They were inclined to interfere with the politics of the Young Republic. After years of maintaining defensive posture, once again, history is charging Alevi Kurds with higher responsibilities. Hopefull this time, their unyielding drive and aggressive approach will be calculated and planned well in advance.


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