Martin van Bruinessen, ‘Genocide in Kurdistan? The Suppression of the Dersim
Rebellion in Turkey (1937-38) and the Chemical War Against the Iraqi Kurds (1988)’,
in George J. Andreopoulos (ed.), Conceptual and historical dimensions of genocide,
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994, pp. 141-70.
Genocide in Kurdistan?
The Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion in Turkey (1937-38)
and the Chemical War Against the Iraqi Kurds (1988)1
— For Ismail Besikçi
Even as these lines are being written, Kurdish leaders in Iraq are appealing to the United
Nations to prevent the genocide of their people at the hands of Saddam Hussein's army.
In the aftermath of the Iraqi defeat in the Gulf War ("Operation Desert Storm"), the
Kurdish population of northern Iraq had risen in rebellion against Saddam Hussein's
government, as had the Arab Shiite population of the south. The rebellion appears to
have been a largely spontaneous reaction to the rout of the army and to George Bush's
call upon the people of Iraq to overthrow their dictator. It even surprised the Kurdish
political organizations, which were relatively late in attempting to provide leadership for
the rebellion. The scope of the rising was unprecedented; the Kurds took control of all
towns and cities in the north, and the central government infrastructure collapsed. The
successes of the Kurds, and their hopes of helping establish another regime in Iraq,
lasted only a few weeks. Although the army had been severely beaten in the battle for
Kuwait, enough destructive power remained to suppress all internal unrest. After putting
down rebellions in the south, troops and helicopter gunships moved in on Kurdistan.
The lightly armed and ill-organized Kurds were no match for the well-equipped elite
troops, who proceeded with the utmost brutality. The cities were reoccupied at the cost
of enormous destruction and untold numbers of civilian casualties. Most of the
population fled into the mountains further north and east, where there is no
infrastructure to support them. They are being mercilessly pursued by the army and
pounded by helicopter gunships. Hundreds of thousands are massed along the borders of
Turkey and Iran, hoping to be let in, as yet in vain. If aid is not forthcoming
immediately, large numbers of Kurds will die of exposure and hunger, if they are not
killed by Saddam's troops.
The question whether the present atrocities against the Iraqi Shiites and the Kurds
warrant the term "genocide" is painfully irrelevant to them; what difference does it make
whether they are massacred "as such" or simply massacred?2 Genocide or not, the
1 [An early version of this article was presented at the conference “Genocide: the Theory — the
Reality”, held on 16 February 1991 at Yale Law School. It was rewritten for publication in March-April
1991; the Postscript was added in early 1993. I wish to thank George J. Andreopoulos and especially
Diane F. Orentlicher for their comments on the first version.]
2 The words "as such" refer to the definition of genocide according to the 1948 Convention: ". . .
genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a
national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing
serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group
conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing
measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to
international community has shown itself unwilling to actively intervene and stop the
killing; the best that may be hoped for is an international relief effort on behalf of the
survivors. We cannot evade the embarrassing question whether these massacres could
have been prevented or stopped before they assumed these massive dimensions. The
perpetrators, obviously, are Saddam Hussein and his regime, but responsibility lies also
with the anti-Saddam alliance, which called for rebellion and then looked on passively
while Saddam took his revenge. But even in the absence of direct involvement, does not
the international community have a moral responsibility to prevent such wholesale
slaughter? Can this responsibility possibly hinge on the legal nuance of a definition of
genocide? As long as nonintervention in any country's "internal affairs" remains a
sacrosanct principle without further qualification, attempts to revise the definition of the
term genocide are, I am afraid, bound to remain a futile intellectual exercise.
It is too early now to give a balanced account of the catastrophe brought upon the
Kurdish people in these recent days, the worst in its sorrowful history. In this chapter I
shall discuss two earlier massacres in Kurdistan that have by some been called genocide.
Both took place in the course of the suppression of Kurdish rebellions, the first in
Turkey, more than half a century ago, the other more recently in Iraq, where Saddam
Hussein bombed his disobedient Kurdish subjects with chemical warheads.
Both massacres are borderline cases. While there are those who argue that they
constitute genocide by the terms of the 1948 Convention, others (including, hesitantly,
myself) are reluctant to use that term. It will be hard, on the one hand, to prove that in
these two cases the state intended "to destroy, in whole or in part, [the Kurds] as such."
On the other hand, these were not simply punitive actions carried out against armed
insurgents. In fact, these massacres were only the tip of the iceberg and have to be
understood within the context of the two regimes' overall policies toward the Kurds.
These policies amount to variant forms of ethnocide — in the case of Turkey, deliberate
destruction of Kurdish ethnic identity by forced assimilation, and in Iraq destruction of
Kurdish social structure and its socio-economic base. Both regimes presented these
policies as fundamentally benevolent forms of engineered modernization, in the Turkish
case even as a civilizing mission.
The Kurds: Geographical and Political Situation
After the Arabs, Turks, and Persians, the Kurds are the fourth most numerous people of
the Middle East, numbering at present around twenty million. When after the First
World War the map of the Middle East was redrawn, the Kurds ended up divided over
four or five countries. About half of them now live in Turkey, some four million in Iraq,
five million in Iran, and almost a million in Syria, while there are smaller Kurdish
enclaves in the Soviet Union. Kurdistan, "the land of the Kurds," is not the name of a
state but of the mountainous region where the Kurds have for centuries lived. It had
long been a natural buffer zone between the two great Middle Eastern empires, the
Persian and the Ottoman; after the collapse of the latter it was divided up among the
successor states. Nationalism developed relatively late among the Kurds, which is one
reason why they failed to establish a state of their own.3 Islamic sentiment prevailed in
3 With the exception of the short-lived Republic of Mahabad, which existed for less than a year in a
part of Iranian Kurdistan in 1946.
and after the Great War, leading many of the Kurds to ally themselves with the Turks
against the Christian powers, and resulting in the incorporation of a large part of
Kurdistan into the new Turkey. Southern Kurdistan, occupied by the British, was added
by them to newly created Iraq while Iran consolidated its control of the eastern part.
In each of these states, the Kurds were soon in conflict with the central
governments. From the 1920s on, there were numerous Kurdish rebellions in Iran, Iraq,
and Turkey, all of limited geographical scope. In many cases these were primarily
reactions to the imposition of central government control or to concrete government
policies, but the rebellions had clear Kurdish nationalist overtones. The governments, in
turn, had recourse to increasingly repressive policies vis-à-vis the Kurds, aimed at
destroying their potential for separatism. The conflicts were most serious in Turkey and
in Republican Iraq, which were based on Turkish and Arab nationalism, respectively.
A general survey of the Kurdish movement and of the treatment of the Kurds by the
governments of these countries is beyond the scope of this chapter.4 I shall restrict
myself below to a discussion of only two cases of severe repression possibly constituting
genocide. In both cases I shall begin with a description of the physical violence first, and
then analyze the context of government policy and Kurdish activities in which it took
place. This will, I hope, allow me to throw light on the complex nexus of motivation and
intent to destroy.
An Almost Forgotten Massacre: Dersim, 1937-38
In 1990 a book was published in Turkey that by its very title accused Turkey's one-party
regime of the 1930s of having committed genocide in the Kurdish district of Dersim.5
The book was immediately banned and did not generate the debate its author, the
sociologist Ismail Beşikçi, had hoped for. Beşikçi was the first, and for a long time the
only, Turkish intellectual to publicly criticize Turkey's official ideology and policies
regarding the Kurds, beginning with his 1969 study of the socioeconomic conditions of
eastern Turkey through a whole series of increasingly polemical works. He paid a heavy
price for his moral and intellectual courage; all his books were banned, and he spent
more than ten years in prison for writing them. Although my conclusions may be slightly
different from his, I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to his committed scholarship,
and dedicate this chapter to him.
The massacres with which Beşikçi's book deals occurred in the course of Turkey's
pacification of the rebellious Kurdish district of Dersim (presently called Tunceli) in
1937 and 1938. The events represent one of the blackest pages in the history of
Republican Turkey, gracefully passed over in silence or deliberately misrepresented by
4 The best general historical surveys of the Kurdish national movement are: Wadie Jwaideh, The
Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Its Origins and Development (Ph.D. thesis, Syracuse University, 1960),
Chris Kutschera, Le mouvement national kurde (Paris: Flammarion,1979), and David MacDowall, A
modern history of the Kurds (London: I.B. Tauris 1996). Lucien Rambout, Les Kurdes et le droit: Des
textes, des faits (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1947), though dated, is still useful on the 1920s and 1930s, as
is Hassan Arfa, The Kurds: An Historical and Political Study (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).
The author of the last-named work, a retired Iranian general, took himself part in a punitive campaign
5 Ismail Beşikçi, Tunceli Kanunu (1935) ve Dersim Jenosidi [The 1935 law concerning Tunceli and the
genocide of Dersim] (Istanbul: Belge yayinlari,1990).
most historians, foreign as well as Turkish.6 As the campaign against Dersim went on,
the authorities made sure that little information about it reached the outside world.
Diplomatic observers in Ankara were aware that large military operations were taking
place, but had little idea of what was actually going on. After the events, however, the
British consul at Trebizond, the diplomatic post closest to Dersim, spoke of brutal and
indiscriminate violence and made an explicit comparison with the Armenian massacres of
1915. "Thousands of Kurds," he wrote, "including women and children, were slain;
others, mostly children, were thrown into the Euphrates; while thousands of others in
less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were
deported to vilayets (provinces) in Central Anatolia. It is now stated that the Kurdish
question no longer exists in Turkey."7
I shall first, using the few available sources, attempt to give an impression of the
situation in Dersim prior to the pacification campaign and sketch the events of 1937 and
1938. Then I shall attempt to show that what we are dealing with was not merely the
brutal suppression of an internal rebellion but part of a wider policy directed against the
Kurds as such.
Dersim is an inaccessible district of high, snowcapped mountains, narrow valleys,
and deep ravines in central Eastern Turkey. It was inhabited by a large number of small
tribes, eking out a marginal existence by animal husbandry, horticulture, and gathering
forest products. Their total numbers were, by the mid-1930s, estimated at 65,000 to
70,000.8 Dersim was a culturally distinct part of Kurdistan, partly due to ecological-
geographical factors, partly to a combination of linguistic and religious peculiarities.
Some of the tribes spoke Kurdish proper, but most spoke another, related language
known as Zaza. All adhered to the heterodox Alevi sect, which separated them socially
from the Sunni Kurds living to the east and south (among whom there were both Zaza
and Kurdish speakers). Although there are Alevis in many other parts of Turkey, those
of Dersim constitute a distinct group, with different beliefs and practices.9
6 There is not a single word about the events in the two standard texts, Bernard Lewis, The Emergence
of Modern Turkey (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), and Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural
Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and of Modern Turkey, vol. 2, The Rise of Modern Turkey 1808-
1975 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). Turkish authors referring to the Dersim
campaign prefer to gloss over the massacres. Thus, the retired general Muhsin Batur mentions in his
memoirs that he took part, as a young lieutenant, in the 1938 Dersim campaign but refuses to speak out:
"I beg my readers to be excused, I shall not write this page of my life" (Muhsin Batur, Anilar ve
görüşler: üç dönemin perde arkası [Memoirs and views: behind the scene in three periods] (Istanbul:
Milliyet, 1985), quoted in Musa Anter, Anılarım [My memoirs] (Istanbul: Doz, 1990), 44.
7 Report from the Consul in Trabzon, 27 September 1938 (Public Record Office, London, FO 371 files,
8 This figure was given in December 1935 by then minister of the interior Sükrü Kaya (quoted in
Beşikçi, Tunceli kanunu (1935), 10). It referred to the province of Tunceli. The historical district of
Dersim was in fact larger than Tunceli, and included parts of neighboring Sivas, Erzincan, and Elazıg
provinces. This may explain why another contemporary author gives the much higher population figure
of 150,000, apparently referring to larger Dersim (Naşit Ulug, Tunceli medeniyete açiliyor [Tunceli is
opened up for civilization] (Istanbul: Cumhuriyet Matbaasý, 1939, 144). The military campaigns were
mainly restricted to the province of Tunceli, and therefore I prefer the former figures.
9 Interestingly (and perhaps of some political significance), many of the Dersim Kurds are partly of
Armenian descent — Dersim used to have a large Armenian population. Even well before the
Armenian massacres, many local Armenians voluntarily assimilated, becoming Alevi Kurds (L.
Dersim was, by the mid-1930s, the last part of Turkey that had not been effectively
brought under central government control. The tribes of Dersim had never been subdued
by any previous government; the only law they recognized was traditional tribal law.
Tribal chieftains and religious leaders wielded great authority over the commoners,
whom they often exploited economically. They were not opposed to government as
such, as long as it did not interfere too much in their affairs. Many chieftains, in fact,
strengthened their position by establishing close relations with the military and police
officers appointed to the region. There was a tradition of refusing to pay taxes — but
then there was little that could be taxed, as the district was desperately poor. Young
men evaded military service when they could, but by 1935 a considerable proportion of
them did in fact serve in the Turkish army.
There were perpetual conflicts between the tribes, often taking the form of
protracted feuds. Many of the tribesmen carried arms, and raids against neighboring
tribes were not uncommon. The local military officials were often drawn into the tribal
conflicts too, as some chieftains accused their enemies of conspiring against the state. At
the same time there was Kurdish nationalist agitation among the tribes, carried out by
the educated sons of leading families.10 In 1936 Dersim was placed under military
government, with the express aim of pacifying and "civilizing" it. The tribes' response to
the modernization brought by the state, consisting of roads, bridges, and police posts,
was ambiguous. Some chieftains sought accommodation with the military authorities,
others resented this interference in their former independence. By early 1937, the
authorities believed, or had been led to believe, that a major rebellion was at hand, a
show of resistance against the pacification program, instigated by nationalists. The
person said to be the chief conspirator was a religious leader, Seyyit Riza. Five tribes
(out of around one hundred) were said to be involved in the conspiracy.
The military campaign against Dersim was mounted in response to a relatively minor
incident, and it would seem that the army had been waiting for a direct reason to punish
the tribes. One day in March 1937, a strategic wooden bridge was burned down and
telephone lines cut. Seyyit Riza and the tribes associated with him were suspected. The
army may have believed this to be the beginning of the expected rebellion. One Turkish
source mentions that there was around the same time another minor incident elsewhere
in Kurdistan and suggests coordination by Kurdish nationalists.11 The official history of
the military campaign, however, considers the incident as of a local nature only.12 It is
hard, in retrospect, to separate intertribal violence from deliberate rebellion against the
state. One pro-Turkish source in fact suggests that the suspicions against Seyyit Riza
Molyneux-Seel, "A Journey in Dersim," The Geographical Journal 44, no. 1 : 49-68). This has
left traces both in the local Zaza dialects and in popular belief.
10 According to a detailed military study of the events, Dersim-born Armenians, who had survived the
Armenian massacres and lived in Syria, returned to the area together with Kurdish nationalists and
successfully incited the tribes to rebellion. Reşat Hallı, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar (1924-
1938) [Rebellions in the Republic of Turkey, 1924-1938] (Ankara: T. C. Genelkurmay Başkanlıgı Harp
Tarihi Dairesi, 1972), 377.
11 Mahmut Gologlu, Tek-partili Cumhuriyet, 1931-1938 [The one-party republic, 1931-1938] (Ankara,
12 Hallı, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 379.
were based on denunciations by his local enemies.13 In any case, the army had its
warrant for intervention. The first troops, sent in to arrest the suspects, were stopped by
armed tribesmen. The confrontations soon escalated. When the tribes kept refusing to
surrender their leaders, a large campaign was mounted. Military operations to subdue
the region lasted throughout the summer of 1937. In September, Seyyit Riza and his
closest associates surrendered, but the next spring the operations were resumed with
even greater force. They must have been of unprecedented violence and brutality.
The few existing accounts of the events are necessarily partisan. One important book
was written by a local man, the veterinarian and nationalist activist Nuri Dersimi, who
was involved in the early stages of the rebellion, and who lost many relatives in the
military reprisals. The book he published fourteen years later in Syrian exile is obviously
colored by his nationalist views and may contain certain cosmetic corrections, but seems
on the whole reliable.14 The best I can do is to quote verbatim some passages.
When the Turkish troops began hunting down the rebellious tribes, the men gave
battle, while the women and children hid in deep caves. "Thousands of these women and
children perished," Dersimi writes, "because the army bricked up the entrances of the
caves. These caves are marked with numbers on the military maps of the area. At the
entrances of other caves, the military lit fires to cause those inside to suffocate. Those
who tried to escape from the caves were finished off with bayonets. A large proportion
of the women and girls of the Kureyshan and Bakhtiyar [two rebel tribes] threw
themselves from high cliffs into the Munzur and Parchik ravines, in order not to fall into
the Turks' hands."15
The Kirgan, a tribe that had opted for submission to the Turkish army and broken
with the rebels, was not treated with greater clemency: "Because the Kirgan trusted the
Turks they remained in their villages, while the rebel Bakhtiyar withdrew. As a result,
they were destroyed. Their chieftains were tortured and then shot dead. All who tried to
escape or sought refuge with the army were rounded up. The men were shot on the
spot, the women and children were locked into haysheds, that were set fire to."16
When winter approached and the army could not continue its operations, it offered a
cease-fire and a peaceful settlement with the rebels, while promising to leave the other
tribes in peace and to give compensation for the damage done.17 These promises served
to lure the chief rebel leader, Seyyit Riza, into the town of Erzincan (whose governor he
13 Hıdır Öztürk, Tarihimizde Tunceli ve Ermeni mezalimi [The place of Tunceli in our history and the
atrocities by the Armenians] (Ankara: Türk Kültürünü Araştırma Enstitüsü, 1984), 31-36.
14 M. Nuri Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim [Dersim in the history of Kurdistan] (Aleppo, 1952).
Dersimi left the area when it had become clear that the new military governor of Dersim considered
him to be the major instigator of the rebellion. This was before the military operations proper had
begun. Dersimi was therefore not an eyewitness of the massacres; on the whole his account seems
factually correct, although his figures may be somewhat exaggerated. Possible distortions in the book
concern Dersimi's own role, and his desire to depict the Dersim population as more nationalist than it
actually was. The Dersim rebellion shows more the signs of traditional tribal resistance to government
interference than anything so modern as the wish for a separate state.
15 Translated from Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim, 285-86. Among the girls who thus committed
suicide was the author's daughter Fato (ibid., 319).
16 Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim, 286-87.
17 According to Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim, 288, the army also pretended to acquiesce in the
rebels' demands, but he does not explain what these demands were.
knew and trusted). He was arrested, together with his retinue of some fifty men. They
were summarily tried and eleven of them, including Seyyit Riza, were immediately
In the spring of 1938 military operations resumed on an even larger scale. The
Karabal, Ferhad and Pilvank tribes, which surrendered, were annihilated. Women and
children of these tribes were locked into haysheds and burnt alive. Men and women of
the Pilvank and Aşagi Abbas tribes, that had always remained loyal to the government,
were lined up in the In and Inciga valleys and shot. The women and girls in Irgan village
were rounded up, sprinkled with kerosine and set alight. Khech, the chief village of the
Sheykh Mehmedan tribe, which had already surrendered, was attacked at night and all
inhabitants were killed by machine gun and artillery fire. The inhabitants of Hozat town
and the Karaca tribe, men, women and children, were brought near the military camp
outside Hozat and killed by machine gun. (...) Thousands of women and girls threw
themselves into the Munzur river. (...) The entire area was covered by a thick mist
caused by the artillery fire and air bombardments with poisonous gas. (...) Even young
men from Dersim who were doing their military service in the Turkish army were taken
from their regiments and shot.19
Another Dersim-born Kurdish nationalist, Sait Kirmizitoprak, published in 1970 under
the pseudonym of Dr. Sivan a history of the Kurdish movement, in which he devotes a
few pages to the Dersim massacres.20 Though clearly indebted to Dersimi's book, he
adds some information from oral sources. On the 1938 campaign he writes (in free
In the spring of 1938, the government offered amnesty to all who would
surrender their arms. The Karabal, Ferhad, Pilvank, Sheykh Mehmedan and
Karaca tribes, who responded to this call, were entirely annihilated. In a later
stage, they also killed most of the Kureyshan tribe of Mazgirt district, the
Yusufan and the Bakhtiyar tribes, not sparing women, old men and children.
They were killed en masse, in many cases by the bayonet. Towards the end of
summer, the Hormekan, Kureyshan and .Alan of Nazimiye district, and part of
the Bamasuran of Mazgirt were also annihilated, by poison gas bombs as well as
by bayonets. Their corpses were doused with kerosene and set alight.21
18 The trial and executions were carried out with great haste because all had to be settled before
President Atatürk, who was already on his way, visited the region. The officials in charge did not wish
to embarrass the president by having the local people petition him for mercy. The events are narrated,
with apparent feelings of shame, by the man who was ordered to organize the summary trial and
executions, the later foreign minister Ihsan Sabri Çaglayangil, in his memoirs, Anılarım (Istanbul:
Yılmaz, 1990), 45-55.
19 Dersimi, Kürdistan tarihinde Dersim, 318-20. Dersimi mentions especially his own brother, who
then had a clerical job at Diyarbakir air base, and who was taken away to be shot, together with two
20 Dr. Sivan, Kürt millet hareketleri ve Irak'ta Kürdistan ihtilali [Kurdish national movements and the
revolution of Kurdistan in Iraq] (Stockholm, 1975; previously published clandestinely in Turkey in
21 Sivan, Kürt millet hareketleri, 98.
Improbable though it may seem, these accounts are to a large extent confirmed by the
documents published in the official military history of the campaign.22 Only the claim
that the army used poison gas in the 1938 offensive, made by both Dersimi and Şivan,
cannot be substantiated. At several instances the reports mention the arrest of women
and children, but elsewhere we read of indiscriminate killing of humans and animals.
With professional pride, reports list how many "bandits" and dependents were
"annihilated," and how many villages and fields were burned. Groups who were hiding in
caves were entirely wiped out. The body count in these reports (in some engagements a
seemingly exact number like 76, in others "the entire band of Haydaran tribesmen and
part of the Demenan") adds up to something between three and seven thousand, while
tens of villages are reported destroyed. In seventeen days of the 1938 offensive alone,
7,954 persons were reported killed or caught alive;23 the latter were definitely a
minority. According to these official reports, then, almost 10 percent of the entire
population of Tunceli was killed. The Kurds claim that their losses were even higher.
Genocide or Ethnocide?
The killing in Dersim was undoubtedly massive, indiscriminate, and excessively brutal,
but was it genocide? Was the killing done "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part"
the Kurds (or only the people of Dersim) "as such"? Or was it only the suppression of an
armed rebellion, with considerable overkill? I shall try to show that it was neither. There
was never a policy of physically destroying the Kurds or part of them as such. There
was, however, in the Dersim campaign, a deliberate intent to destroy rebels and potential
rebels, and this was part of a general policy directed toward the Kurds as such. But this
policy is more appropriately termed ethnocide, the destruction of Kurdish ethnic
Intent to destroy may be inferred from the wording of the Secret Decision of the
Council of Ministers on the Punitive Expedition to Dersim of 4 May 1937.24 The
decision envisages a final solution to the perpetual rebellions in Dersim. "This time," it
reads, "the people in the rebellious districts will be rounded up and deported." But then
it orders the army to "render those who have used arms or are still using them once and
for all harmless on the spot, to completely, destroy their villages and to remove their
families." Given the fact that almost every man in Dersim was known to carry arms, this
reads like a brief to kill all men in the area.
It is not immediately obvious from official sources that the Dersim campaign was
directed against the Kurds as such. There are no explicit references to Kurds, because
the Kurds by that time had already been defined out of existence. The military reports
call all people of Dersim indiscriminately "bandits" (haydut). Interior Minister Şükrü
22 Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 365-480. This important source gives a detailed, day-
by-day account of the military operations, prepared by the War History Department attached to the
Turkish General Staff. The book is not publicly available; it was printed in a very limited edition, and
most of these few copies were moreover requested back and destroyed within a short time after
publication. Friends who prefer to remain anonymous provided me with photocopies of the section on
Dersim. Some of the key passages are also quoted verbatim in Besikçi, Tunceli kanunu.
23 Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 478.
24 Published in Besikçi, Tunceli kanunu, 67.
Kaya, however, had found it necessary to inform the National Assembly that the people
of Dersim were "authentic Turks," thereby implicitly mentioning the unmentionable
ethnic dimension of the Dersim question.25 The problem was, of course, that most
people in Dersim were not yet aware of their Turkishness. Many did not know any
Turkish at all, and the authorities had to communicate with them through interpreters;26
airplanes dropped leaflets "in the local language."27
Dersimi and Şivan, both local men, are at pains to show that the Dersim rebellion
was in fact a Kurdish nationalist rebellion, and that this was the reason for the brutality
of the campaign. But they appear to project too much of their own sentiments on the
rebels, who acted out of narrower interests and loyalties than lofty national ideals. The
rebellion seems to have been primarily a response to government interference in the
tribes' affairs, resistance to what the government saw as its "civilizing mission."
The regime presented this mission — begun well before the rebellion — as a
determined struggle against backwardness and the oppression of the people by feudal
lords, tribal chieftains, and reactionary religious leaders. One observer close to
government circles enthused, soon after the Dersim campaign, on its civilizing effects:
the tribal chieftains, the mischievous religious leaders and their accomplices have
been caught and deported to the west. The successful military operations have
once and for all uprooted any possibility for a future bandit movement in
Tunceli. Dersim is from now on liberated and saved. There remains no place in
Dersim now where the army has not set foot, where the officers and
commanders have not applied their intelligence and energies. Once again the
army has, in performing this great task, earned the eternal gratitude of the
In practice, however, the thrust of the government effort, including the operations in
Dersim, was not so much directed against "feudalism" and backwardness as against
Kurdish ethnic identity. The brutal Dersim campaign was but the culmination of a series
of measures taken in order to forcibly assimilate the Kurds, as I shall presently show.
The Kurdish Policies of Republican Turkey
The Republic of Turkey, proclaimed in 1923, owes its existence to the War of
Independence fought by Mustafa Kemal and his associates against the various other
nations claiming parts of the former Ottoman territories in the wake of the First World
25 When presenting a special law for Dersim in 1935, two years before the campaigns, the minister
(quoted in Besikçi, Tunceli kanunu, 10) declared that the people there were "a group originally
belonging to the Turkish race" (aslen Türk unsuruna mensup bir kitledir). Destruction of Kurdish ethnic
identity was paradoxically legitimated by the denial of its existence (see below).
26 Caglayangil, Anilarim, 47.
27 Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 390.
28 Ulug, Tunceli,159 (slightly abbreviated). Nasit Hakki Ulug was a deputy for the province of Kütahya
in the Grand National Assembly and had earlier written a journalistic account on "feudal" relations in
Dersim and the need for their abolishment. He shows no interest in the human cost of the "civilizing"
process, and mentions not a single killing.
War-notably Greeks, Armenians, French, and Italians. A "National Pact" defined the
extent of territory for which the independence movement fought as the former Ottoman
lands inhabited by non-Arab Muslims — in other words, by Turks and Kurds, for these
were the major non-Arab Muslim groups in the Empire. Kurds took part in this struggle
along with the Turks, and the movement's leaders in fact often spoke of a Turkish-
Kurdish brotherhood, and of the new state as being made up of Turks and Kurds. In
January 1923, Mustafa Kemal still suggested there might be local autonomy for Kurdish-
inhabited areas,29 but his policies soon changed drastically. The very fact that the new
republic was called "Turkey" (a borrowing from European languages) already indicated
that some citizens were going to be more equal than others.30
The new republican elite, careful to preserve their hard-won victory, were obsessed with
threats to territorial integrity and with imperialist ploys to sow division. In this regard,
the Kurds were perceived to be a serious risk. There was a Kurdish independence
movement, albeit a weak one, which had initially received some encouragement from the
British. The call for Muslim unity, sounded during the War of Independence, had been
more effective among the Kurds than Kurdish nationalist agitation, but when Turkey set
on a course of secularization the very basis of this unity disappeared. The Kemalists
attempted to replace Islam as the unifying factor by a Turkey-based nationalism. In so
doing, they provoked the Kurdish nationalist response that they feared.
Some policies caused grievances among much wider circles than those of committed
Kurdish nationalists alone. In the World War, numerous Kurds had fled to the west
when Russian armies occupied eastern Anatolia. As early as 1919, the government
decided to disperse them over the western provinces, in groups not larger than three
hundred each, so that they would not constitute more than 5 percent of the population in
any one locality. Some Kurds who wished to return to Kurdistan were prevented from
doing so.31 In the new Turkey, all modern education was henceforth to be in Turkish;
moreover, traditional Islamic schools (medrese) were closed down in 1924. These two
radical changes effectively denied the Kurds access to education. Other secularizing
measures (abolition of the caliphate, the office of shaikh al-islam, and the religious
courts; all in 1924) caused much resentment in traditional Muslim circles. Kurdish
29 When the Istanbul weekly Ikibin'e Dogru ("Towards 2000") published in its 6 November 1988 issue
the minutes of a press meeting where Mustafa Kemal had spoken of autonomy, it created a sensation in
Turkey. The magazine was immediately banned for "separatist propaganda," but a court decision later
lifted the ban.
30 At the time of the common struggle for national independence, the territory to be defended was not
called "Turkey" but "Anatolia and Rumeli" (the traditional names for the Asian and European parts of
the present country).
31 British intelligence report on the situation in Eastern Turkey after the war, Foreign Office files,
series FO 371, 1919, item 44A/112202/3050 (Public Record Office, London). FO 371, 1919:
44A/112202/3050 (Public Record Office, London); A. Yamulki, Kürdistan ve Kürd ihtilalleri
(Kurdistan and the Kurdish rebellions) (Baghdad, 1946), 70-71. The latter author mentions the case of
a tribal chieftain who wished to collect his tribespeople and return with them to Kurdistan, and was
prevented from doing so. Such cases were later mentioned among the major grievances leading to the
first large Kurdish rebellion; see Martin van Bruinessen, "Vom Osmanismus zum Separatismus:
religiöse und ethnische Hintergründe der Rebellion des Scheich Said," in Islam und Politik in der
Türkei, ed. Jochen Blaschke and Martin van Bruinessen (Berlin: Express Edition,1985),109-65, at 143-
nationalist intellectuals and army officers then joined forces with disaffected religious
leaders, resulting in the first great Kurdish rebellion, led by Shaikh Said in 1925.32
The rebellion was put down with a great show of military force. The leaders were
caught and hanged, and severe reprisals were taken in those districts which had
participated in the uprising. According to a Kurdish nationalist source, the military
operations resulted in the pillaging of more than two hundred villages, the destruction of
well over eight thousand houses, and fifteen thousand deaths.33 Shaikh Said's rebellion
did not pose a serious military threat to Turkey, but it constitutes a watershed in the
history of the republic. It accelerated the trend toward authoritarian government and
ushered in policies which deliberately aimed at destroying Kurdish ethnicity.
Immediately after the outbreak of the rebellion, the relatively liberal prime minister Fethi
Okyar was deposed and replaced with the grim Ismet Inönü. By way of defining his
position on the Kurds, Inönü publicly stated, "We are openly nationalist. Nationalism is
the only cause that keeps us together. Besides the Turkish majority, none of the other
[ethnic] elements shall have any impact. We shall, at any price, turkicize those who live
in our country, and destroy those who rise up against the Turks and Turkdom."34
Several other local rebellions followed, the largest of which took place in 1928-30 in the
area around Mount Ararat. This was the most purely nationalist of all rebellions,
organized and coordinated by a Kurdish political party in exile. In all these rebellions,
however, tribes played the major part, acting under their own aghas (chieftains) and
sometimes coordinated by shaikhs, religious leaders of wide-ranging authority. (Hence
the emphasis, in Turkish public discourse, on the need to abolish "feudalism," tribalism,
and religious reaction.) The government, perceiving this, responded by executing some
shaikhs and aghas and separating the others from their tribes by deporting them to other
parts of the country. Some entire tribes (notably those that had taken part in the Ararat
rebellion) were deported and dispersed over western Turkey.
The first deportations were simply reprisals against rebellious tribes. In later years,
deportations became part of the concerted effort to assimilate the Kurds. The
turkification program announced by Inönü was embarked upon with characteristic vigor.
The Kurdish language, Kurdish dress, Kurdish folklore, even the very word "Kurd" were
banned. Scholars provided "proof" that the "tribes of the East" were of pure Turkish
stock, and that their language was Turkish, though somewhat corrupted due to their
close proximity to Iran. Henceforth they were to be called "Mountain Turks." It goes
without saying that there was no place for dissenting views in academic or public life.
Another historical theory developed under government sponsorship in those days held
that all great civilizations — Chinese, Indian, Muslim, even ancient Egyptian and
Etruscan — were of Turkish origin. Turkification, even when by force, was therefore by
definition a civilizing process. The embarrassing question why it was necessary to turkify
people who were said to be Turks already was never addressed.
32 Van Bruinessen, "Vom Osmanismus zum Separatismus"; Robert Olson, The Emergence of Kurdish
Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion, 1920-1925 (Austin: University of Texas Press,1989).
33 Bletch Chirguh, La question kurde (Le Caire, 1930), 52.
34 Address to the Türk Ocaklari in Ankara, 21 April 1925. Quoted in Güney Aslan, Üniformali
kasaplar (Butchers in uniform) (Istanbul: Pencere Yayinlari, 1990), 14, after the popular history
magazine Yakin Tarihimiz.
Massive population resettlement was one measure by which the authorities hoped to
strengthen the territorial integrity of the country and speed up the process of
assimilation. Kurds were to be deported to western Turkey and widely dispersed, while
Turks were to be settled in their place. The most important policy document, the Law
on Resettlement of 1934, shows quite explicitly that turkification was the primary
objective of resettlement. The law defined three categories of (re)settlement zones:
— one consisting of those districts "whose evacuation is desirable for health, economic,
cultural, political and security reasons and where settlement has been forbidden,"
— the second of districts "designated for transfer and resettlement of the population
whose assimilation to Turkish culture is desired,"
— and the third of "places where an increase of the population of Turkish culture is
In other words, certain Kurdish districts (to be designated later) were to be depopulated
completely, while in the other Kurdish districts the Kurdish element was to be diluted by
the resettlement there of Turks (and possibly deportations of local Kurds). The
deportees were to be resettled in Turkish districts, where they could be assimilated.
The intent of breaking up Kurdish society so as to assimilate it more rapidly is also
evident from several other passages in the law. Article 11, for instance, precludes
attempts by non-Turkish people to preserve their cultures by sticking together in
ethnically homogeneous villages or trade guilds. "Those whose mother tongue is not
Turkish will not be allowed to establish as a group new villages or wards, workers' or
artisans' associations, nor will such persons be allowed to reserve an existing village,
ward, enterprise or workshop for members of the same race."36 This is clearly more than
just legal discrimination; the Law on Resettlement provides the legal framework for a
policy of ethnocide.
It is against the background of this law that the pacification of Dersim has to be
considered. Dersim was one of the first regions where it was to be applied. A year after
the Law on Resettlement, in December 1935, the Grand National Assembly passed a
special law on Dersim. The district was constituted into a separate province and placed
under a military governor, who was given extraordinary powers to arrest and deport
individuals and families. The Minister of the Interior of the day, Şükrü Kaya, explained
the need for this law with references to its backwardness and the unruliness of the tribes.
The district was in a state of lawlessness, caused by ignorance and poverty. The tribes
35 The assignment of specific areas to these three categories (of which I have reversed the order for the
sake of clarity) was to be made by the Ministry of the Interior, in accordance with the spirit of this law.
The law itself, its political context and implications are extensively discussed in Ismail Besikçi,
Kürtlerin "mecburi iskan"i (The "forced resettlement" of the Kurds) (Ankara: Komal,1977); the quoted
passages from article 2 are at 133. There is a French summary of the law in Rambout, Les Kurdes, 32-
33. The partial translation in Ute Baran, "Deportations: Tunceli Kanunlari," in Documentation of the
International Conference on Human Rights in Kurdistan (Bremen, 1989), 110-16, is unfortunately
marred by serious errors. No serious study of the implementation of the law seems to have been made; a
geographer who visited Kurdistan in the late 1930s, however, observed numerous recent Turkish
settlements in the area (J. Frödin, "Neuere kulturgeografische Wandlungen in der östlichen Türkei,"
Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde 79, no.1-2 [ 1944]:1-20). Many of those settlers, feeling less
than welcome, have migrated back to western Turkey since then.
36 Besikçi, Kürtlerin "mecburi iskan"i, 142.
settled all legal affairs, civil as well as criminal, according to their own primitive tribal
law, with complete disregard of the state. The minister termed the situation a disease,
and added that eleven earlier military campaigns, under the ancien régime, had failed to
cure it. A radical treatment was needed, he said, and the law was part of a reform
program (with "civilized methods," he insisted) that would make these people also share
in the blessings of the republic.37
The minister's metaphor of disease and treatment appears to be borrowed from a
report on Dersim that was prepared ten years earlier for the same ministry. This
document was reproduced in the official history of the military campaign, as a guideline
for military policy. The author, Hamdi Bey, called Dersim "an abscess [that) the
Republican government. . . would have to operate upon in order to prevent worse pain."
He was more explicit than Şükrü Kaya about the nature of Dersim's malady: it was the
growing Kurdish ethnic awareness.38
The treatment began with the construction of roads and bridges, and of police posts
and government mansions in every large village. The unrest resulting from this
imposition of government control provided the direct reason for the pacification
campaign of 1937-38, which at the same time served to carry out the first large-scale
deportations under the 1934 law.39 After the Dersim rebellion had been suppressed,
other Kurdish regions being "civilized" from above knew better than to resist.
The Kemalist enterprise was a grandiose attempt to create a new world. Mustafa Kemal
and his associates had created a vigorous new state out of the ruins of the Ottoman
Empire, the Sick Man of Europe. By banning the Arabic script they destroyed all
memory of the past and were free to rewrite history as they felt it should have been. The
Kemalists set out to create a modern, progressive, unitary nation out of what was once a
patchwork of distinct ethnic communities. Whatever appeared to undermine national
unity, be it ethnic or class divisions, was at once denied and brutally suppressed. In the
Kemalists' eyes, this was a process of liberation, an assertion of human dignity and
"The people of Ankara, Diyarbakir, Trabzon and Macedonia," Mustafa Kemal
proclaimed, "are all children of the same race, jewels cut out of the same precious
stone." Reality often turned out to be less equalitarian. Even today, a person whose
identity card shows that he was born in Tunceli will be treated with suspicion and
37 Kaya's speech before the Grand National Assembly, 25 December 1935 (quoted in Besikçi, Tunceli
kanunu, 10, after the parliamentary minutes).
38 Report on the situation in Dersim by Hamdi Bey, inspector of the civil service, dated 2 February
1926, reprinted in Halli, Türkiye Cumhuriyetinde ayaklanmalar, 375-76. This study speaks of a long-
term policy of the General Staff based on the ideas in the report, suggesting that the military campaign
was not simply a response to an unforeseen incident in 1937. In 1926, when Hamdi Bey wrote his
report, it was still possible to mention Kurds and Kurdish political sentiment; in the 1930s, they could
only be referred to in oblique terms like "tribal," "uncivilized" (i.e., lacking in modern Turkish
civilization) or "originally Turkish."
39 The only figure on deportations from Dersim in the 1930s that I have seen is given by the retired
general Esengin, according to whom, 3,470 persons, belonging to many different tribes, were deported
to western Turkey. See Kenan Esengin, Kürtçülük sorunu (The problem of Kurdish nationalism) (Istan-
bul: Su Yayinlari, 1976), 145. The actual number may well have been higher.
antipathy by officials and will not easily find employment, even if he is quite turkicized.40
Another famous saying of Mustafa Kemal, inscribed on official buildings and statues
throughout the country, is subtly ambiguous: "how fortunate is he who calls himself a
Turk!" — implying little good for those who don't. Justice Minister Mahmut Esat was
less subtle but robustly straightforward when he proclaimed in 1930, "The Turks are the
only lords of this country, its only owners. Those who are not of pure Turkish stock
have in this country only one right, that of being servants, of being slaves. Let friend and
foe, and even the mountains know this truth!"41
The ambivalence, or internal contradiction, inherent in the Kemalist position on the
Kurds has persisted for over half a century. The Kemalist concept of Turkishness is not
based on a biological definition of race. Everyone in Turkey (apart from, perhaps, the
Christian minorities) is a Turk, and many are the Kurds who have made brilliant political
careers once they adopted Turkish identity. Both President Turgut Özal and opposition
leader Erdal Inönü are of (partially) Kurdish descent. But there is also a sense of Turkish
racial superiority that occasionally comes to the surface. Mutually contradictory though
these attitudes are, they have reinforced one another in the suppression of Kurdish
The democratization of Turkey, which began after World War II, brought a resurgence
of Kurdish ethnic awareness, along with an upsurge of left- and right-wing radicalism.
Military coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 sought to restore Kemalist purity, and resulted
in renewed efforts at forced assimilation of the Kurds. Tunceli, the old Dersim, has come
in for more than its share of repression. No longer a "den of ignorance and primitive
tribalism," it has for the past few decades been considered a hotbed of communism,
besides remaining ineradicably Kurdish. A few years ago, new plans were made to
evacuate large parts of Tunceli and to resettle the inhabitants in the west, ostensibly for
the sake of reforestation.42 The majority of the people of Dersim now live in the
diaspora, either in western Turkey or abroad. Not much is left of Dersim's distinctive
The Chemical War Against the Iraqi Kurds
The other case of alleged genocide in Kurdistan that I wish to discuss took place in Iraq,
fifty years after the Dersim massacres. Iraq had become a one-party state, ruled by the
Arab nationalist Baath party; the regime was modernization-oriented, authoritarian, and
increasingly totalitarian. The country had been at war with Iran since 1980. A guerrilla
war fought by Kurdish nationalists against the central government had been going on for
much longer but had received a new impetus during the Iran-Iraq War. The Kurdish
40 Cf. Peter Bumke, "Kizilbas-Kurden in Dersim (Tunceli, Türkei): Marginalität und Häresie,"
Anthropos 74 (1979): 530-48.
41 Daily Milliyet, 19 September 1930.
42 In January 1987, the inhabitants of 233 villages in Tunceli (out of a total of 434) were notified by
the district forestry department that they had to evacuate their villages and were to be resettled in
western or southwestern Turkey. See the special report in the Istanbul weekly Ikibin'e Dogru, 15-21
February 1987. Widespread protest occasioned by this report has apparently delayed the implementation
of the evacuations.
parties of Iraq had contracted a tactical alliance with the Iranian regime, based on per-
ceived common interests.
In mid-March 1988, Iraqi planes dropped chemical warheads on the Kurdish town of
Halabja, close to the Iranian border, which had recently been conquered by the Iranian
army with essential support from Iraqi Kurdish guerrilla fighters. The number of
casualties given by different sources varies, but a figure of around five thousand dead
has become widely accepted. Iran invited foreign journalists to witness the carnage and
show the world some gruesome pictures. It was obvious that many of the victims were
non-belligerents. Photos of parents lying dead with babies still clenched in their arms are
among the most moving images that the Iran-Iraq War has burned into our visual
Even then, there were initially doubts as to whether Iraq had actually used chemical
arms; the Iraqi government routinely denied it. The use of chemical agents, however,
was established beyond doubt by a Belgian toxicological expert who visited Halabja a
few weeks after the event. He interviewed surviving victims and took blood, urine, and
hair samples. His conclusion was that at least three different types of poison gases had
been used in combination: mustard gas, cyanide or derivatives, and tabun or similar
nerve gases.43 This was the first widely publicized case of chemical warfare against the
Kurds, but by then Iraq had been using gas in Kurdistan for almost a year.
The first chemical attacks on the Kurds reportedly took place in April 1987, when
areas controlled by Kurdish guerrilla fighters (peshmergas) were bombed. The targets
were a peshmerga base and a number of villages. In one attack, on the Balisan Valley
northeast of Arbil, more than a hundred casualties were reported, half of them civilians.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), against which these attacks had been mainly
directed, attempted to draw world attention to them but met with great skepticism. Very
few news media ever reported on them.44 Immediately after the bombing of Balisan
Valley, ground troops attacked and captured several dozen wounded. These were
allegedly taken to a military hospital near Arbil, where they were filmed and
43 A. Heyndrickx, "Clinical Toxologic Reports and Conclusions Concerning the Biological and
Environmental Samples Brought to the Department of Toxicology at the State University of Ghent for
Toxicologic Investigation," in Documentation of the International Conference on Human Rights in
Kurdistan (Bremen, 1989), 210-25. I quote the conclusion of this report: "The results of blood and urine
analysis of men and of environmental samples (bird, sand, stone, water and rice) confirm that at least
three war gases in combination have been used: mustard gas (YPERITE), an organic phosphate which
inhibits the human plasma acetylcholinesterase (Tabun, Soman, Sarin, VX or analogues) and cyanide
or derivatives (cyanogen chloride, CN- or analogues). (...) The amounts found are toxic. There is no
scientific doubt that the patients were injured by chemical war agents" (p. 225). The fact that cyanide
was also used led a U.S. Department of Defense study later to conclude, somewhat surprisingly, that
many of the Kurds killed in Halabja were in fact victims of an Iranian gas attack, since the Iranians had
cyanide (Washington Post, 3 May 1990).
44 One exception was the Dutch daily Volkskrant of 25 April 1987. Middle East Watch, Human Rights
in Iraq (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 83, relates the events after a news bulletin of the
New York-based Kurdish Program, dated 15 June 1987. An appeal by the PUK to the United Nations
secretary-general dated 17 April 1987 gives the names of villages and districts attacked with chemical
bombs. These reports differ in details; interviews with persons who were in the area at that time have
convinced me that they are substantially correct, although the number of casualties remains unclear.
photographed as being victims of an Iranian attack. Thereupon they were allegedly all
The most dramatic gas attacks, however, took place in August 1988 in northernmost
Iraq. Valleys controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP, the other major
Kurdish organization in Iraq), which had been under attack with conventional arms for
some time, were bombed with a variety of chemical agents. Tens of thousands, civilians
and peshmergas, fled in panic across the Turkish border.46 The KDP later published a
list of seventy-seven villages that had been hit; it estimates that some three thousand
were killed in these attacks.
Genocide by the Iraqi Regime?
I am reluctant to use the term genocide for the Iraqi regime's chemical warfare against
the Kurds, although it has been argued that this case appears to fit the definition of the
1948 Convention.47 The final verdict will probably hinge on the question of intent. There
are no indications that the Iraqi regime intended, by its use of chemical arms, to phys-
ically destroy the Kurds as such. The ultimate aim was the elimination of the Kurdish
movement as a political problem; the gas killings were purely instrumental to that
purpose. The Halabja bombing was apparently meant as both reprisal and warning, a
deterrent against further rebellion. This is also apparent from later Iraqi references to
it.48 The August offensive apparently served a more ambitious dual aim: to break the
Kurdish armed resistance and to enforce a massive resettlement program by frightening
the civilian population into leaving their villages. This resettlement program was itself
meant to impede future Kurdish guerrilla movements.
The horrors of chemical warfare are spectacular, especially when there are cameras
to record them. It is not surprising that Iraq's use of chemical arms against the Kurds has
drawn more international attention than other aspects of its Kurdish policies. It would be
a mistake, however, to assume that these gas attacks represent the pinnacle of violent
repression of the Kurds in Iraq. In terms of sheer numbers of casualties, the everyday
disappearances and summary executions have demanded a much higher toll, not to
mention conventional counterinsurgency operations. All this violence should be seen in
the context of Iraq's overall Kurdish policies. The gas attacks are only the tip of the
iceberg and are part of a more horrible strategy of overall destruction of Kurdish
Let me quote just one example that has, in spite of Kurdish efforts, received much less
attention than the gas attacks but is in my eyes more unambiguously a case of genocide.
45 Middle East Watch, Human Rights in Iraq, 83. According to one of my informants, who was in
Kurdistan at the time, the source of this report was a doctor at the military hospital, who witnessed the
executions and was so disgusted that he then fled to the peshmerga-held area.
46 Cf. Peter W. Galbraith and Christopher Van Hollen, Jr., "Chemical Weapons Use in Kurdistan:
Iraq's Final Offensive" (Staffreport to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, October 1988).
47 E.g., Middle East Watch, Human Rights in Iraq, 92-94.
48 On the eve of the Kuwait war, the vice president of Iraq's ruling Revolutionary Command Council,
Izzat Ibrahim, visited the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya and warned its inhabitants not to rebel during the
coming war or their city would face a fate worse than Halabja.
I mean the disappearance without trace of eight thousand Barzani Kurds — about the
same number as were killed in the gas attacks. In August 1983, Iraqi security troops
rounded up the men of the Barzani tribe from four resettlement camps near Arbil. These
people were not engaged in any antigovernment activities. The name of the tribe, of
course, is associated with the legendary Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani (around
whose family this tribe had initially come into existence). Two of Barzani's sons at that
time led the Kurdistan Democratic Party and were engaged in guerrilla activities against
the Baghdad government, but only a part of the tribe was with them. The entire area of
Barzan had, along with many other parts of Kurdistan, been evacuated by the
government, and the Barzanis who had opted no longer to oppose the government had
been moved to resettlement camps. All eight thousand men of this group, then, were
taken from their families and transported to southern Iraq. Thereafter they disappeared.
All efforts to find out what happened to them or where they had gone, including
diplomatic inquiries by several European countries, failed. It is feared that they are dead.
The KDP has received consistent reports from sources within the military that at least
part of this group has been used as guinea pigs to test the effects of various chemical
agents.49 Insofar as the Barzanis constitute a very distinct group among the Kurds, the
obliteration of a significant part of them (if this is true, as I fear) is an act of genocide by
anyone's definition. They were killed because they were Barzanis.
Iraq's Kurdish Policies
The most. striking aspect of Iraq's Kurdish policies, apart from the bloody violence
generally characteristic of Baath politics, has been the deliberate transformation of
Kurdish society by the destruction of villages and massive deportations. This is
reminiscent of Turkey's policies of the 1930s, although Iraq's deportations are if
anything more radical and more brutal. A major difference with Turkey, however, is that
the Kurds are not only recognized as a separate ethnic group but that they enjoy more
cultural rights in Iraq than in any neighbor country. Iraq has not sought to obliterate
Kurdish language, folklore, music, and an awareness of Kurdish history, as Turkey has,
but it has deliberately destroyed Kurdish culture in another sense, by annihilating almost
all traditional villages and the way of life associated with them. The chief motive for this
policy of destruction was to deprive the Kurdish guerrilla movement of its social
support. At times, the government has sought to present it as a policy of modernization
When the Baath party came to power in 1968, its initial attitude toward the Kurds
was one of accommodation. In 1970 the government concluded a peace treaty with
Barzani's KDP, granting the Kurds both autonomy and a share in the central
government. A new constitution promulgated the same year also promised equal rights:
"[t)he people of Iraq is formed of two principal nationalities, the Arab nationality and the
Kurdish nationality. This Constitution shall recognize the national rights of the Kurdish
49 Personal communication from Hoshyar Zibari, the representative of the KDP in Europe. See also his
earlier article on this case, "The Missing Barzani K