The Daughter of True Path, Sakine Cansiz
Years ago my professor in the History of Religions department was giving a lecture about the history of Islam. He was giving an account of the tragedy of Kerbela, where Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammed was slain by Yezid ibn Mu’awia, the second caliph of the Omayyad Dynasty. “The common sense would argue against such a stupid military enterprise, in which you will meet 5000 well-armed army when the number of your troop is about 72 ill-armed individuals”, was the way he described Hussein’s military adventurism against Yezid.
In that moment I could hear the indignant murmurings of the Shiite students. “But”, Hedin added “although Hussein lost the battle in Kerbela, he won the battle of legitimacy; millions of Shiites consider his cause as a just one, hence Hussein became the source of inspiration for the Shiites throughout the history.”
Hussein lost on the battleground that day but in the eyes of Shiites and Alevites he won the moral battle. The Kurdish Alevites of Dersim used to conduct their pilgrimage to Kerbela in previous centuries before Iraq was carved out of the Ottoman Empire. But Imam Hussein remained a source of inspiration for resistance and endurance in the hearts and minds of the people of Dersim. Imam Hussein’s righteousness and courage to oppose tyranny has inspired Dersimis to identify themselves as the “Children of (right) Path” or in Turkish as they call it “Yol Usagi”.
It is the native designation of their religion, although Turks designate them as the Kizilbash (Red Heads), pointing to their red headdress that they used to wear. Dersim was one of the last places to come under Turkish suzerainty. It probably became nominally, or rather geographically, a part of the Ottoman dominions at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Kurdistan and the province of Diyarbakir were subjected and annexed by Sultan Selim I.
Subsequently, the Kurds who had always enjoyed special privileges became practically independent and very turbulent, and in 1834 an Ottoman army was sent to pacify the country. No attempt was then made, however, to enter the mountain fastness of Dersim, and its tribes remained wholly independent, paying no taxes or tribute and recognizing in no way the Ottoman authority. In 1848 Dersim became a Kaza, with the seat of government being at Khozat, but the Ottoman Government still exercised no effective authority over the Dersimis.
Resolved to put an end to this state of affairs, the Turks, in 1874-75, sent a military expedition into Dersim. Though the troops completely failed to subjugate the tribesmen and suffered severe losses, a footing was obtained in the country and governorships were established at Mazgird, Ovacik, Kizil Kilise, and Chemishgezek. In these places the Turks constructed barracks and government buildings, utilizing for this purpose the stones of the then numerous but halfruined Armenian churches. The garrisons of these towns sufficed merely to maintain at their posts the governors, whose authority did not extend beyond their immediate environs.
The Dersimis continued to defy the Government. They paid no taxes and contributed little. This state of affairs continued until 1908, when a second expedition, under the command of Ibrahim Pasha, Mushir of the 4th Army Corps, was sent to complete the subjugation of Dersim. The troops penetrated into the mountains simultaneously from Khozat, Pulumur, and Kizil Kilise. The Dersimis, though they offered a stout resistance, as reflected in the testimonies by the graves of the fallen Turkish soldiers seen in various parts of the country, were in the end reduced to complete submission. Their villages were destroyed, their flocks seized, and they were left in a state of wretched poverty. Yet there were still pockets of areas that the Turkish government could not control.
The Kurdish revolts of 1925 led by Sheikh Said and the Mount Ararat Independence War against Turkish occupation in 1926-1938 were clear evidence that the Kurds had not been subdued. The two uprisings were provoked by the Turkish republic. However, suppressing the Kurdish resistance was not without Turkish losses. In 1937, the Turks turned their gaze once more to the untamed Dersim. Without any provocation, the Turks used all their forces to demoralize the Kurdish population of Dersim. Thousands of civilians were burnt in caves, the Turkish Air Force bombed the entire plains of Dersim and children of massacred parents were taken as servants to the homes of Turkish officers.
The assassinated Sakine Cansiz, a female co-founder of PKK was born in this very Dersim in 1958, only 20 years after the Genocide of Dersim. Her parents must have been eyewitnesses to the massacres. And no doubt, Sakine must have inherited the memories of her parents, because as a young woman, around the age of only 20, she was one the two female founders of PKK. She was arrested short after the military Junta of 1980 and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment but was released in 1991. Her Turkish torturer was not able to break down her will and desire for freedom. She did not let herself become subdued to the violence of Turkish nationalism and instead spat in the face of her torturer. The spirit of Dersim and Dersimis was there in her mind - she was the daughter of the true path.
Even within PKK she believed in the truth, she opposed the PKK leadership’s Stalinist approach. Her prison comrade Mehmet Şener was eventually assassinated by the PKK. She could flee and become a so called “itirafci” or confessor, former PKK militants who changed side and worked together with Turkish counter-guerilla forces against the PKK. But she chose to stay the course. However, Sakine’s spirit for freedom and truth hunted her throughout her life. Even after the PKK’s Stalin-like trial shows against her, she never gave up, Sakine remained as an uncomfortable individual within the PKK. Though a founder of the organization, she was sent to different missions across the world, she did not get any key positions, yet she was used as courier for dangerous tasks. These tasks may have been humiliating for her, but her loyalty and humbleness was far greater than her desire for recognition.
Sakine’s cause was just, she was a “yol ushagi”, the child of the true path. Those who assassinated her knew that although PKK itself may not have paid so much attention to her existence, she had a place in the hearts and minds of the Kurds and the Dersimis. Dark forces, be it Turkish extreme nationalists, Syrian Intelligence Service, Iranian Ettelaat or even PKK’s dark side knew that Sakine was the brave daughter of Dersim with special place in the mind of Carducians who resisted foreign intruders millennia ago.
Sakine will go to our minds as the heroine of Dersim; the cry of the Dersim’s lost daughters, the spirit of drowned Dersimi women in Munzur in 1938 Genocide. Sakine was the proud daughter of Kurdistan.
Kurds mourn for the three female activists shot Thursday in Paris. One of them, Sakine Cansiz, was legendary as a founder of the separatist movement.