Nearly after a century, still the 1925 Kurdish uprising inspires-Lazghine Atteh

It is exactly 97 years to the day on which the body of Sheikh Sa'id Effendi of Piran dangled from gibbets installed in front of the Mountain Gate in Amed.

The 1925 Kurdish Uprising, commonly referred to as the Sheikh Sa'id Uprising, was the tipping point for Kurdish nationalist struggle in Turkey after World War I.

Although ostensibly religious, the Sheikh Sa'id Uprising aimed at the establishment of an independent Kurdish State proper.

The incident marked a turning point in the sense that it was the beginning of Turkey's plan to eliminate Kurdish identity in favor of Turkish one. Ethnic identification prepared the ground for the uprising.

Delving into the past, the international post-war policy, despite some hopes soon to be crushed, only succeeded in making the position of the Kurds more complicated. Whereas before 1914 the Kurds lived in only two countries- Turkey and Persia- they were henceforth divided between four different countries.

In the yearlong Paris Peace Conference 1919- 1920, the Kurds were represented formally in the Versailles Palace by General Mohamed Sharif Pasha, and the Kurdish Question was negotiated and, more significantly, recognized in an international arena for the very first time.

The Kurdish Pasha in Versailles presented a pamphlet with a map depicting a future independent Kurdistan, which was the very first Kurdish inspired representation of its kind.

However, though the subsequent Treaty of Sevres- 10 August 1920- imposed on Turkey by the victorious Allies recognized- though partially- the right of the Kurdish people to a Kurdish state, nevertheless, the situation on the ground, changing world policies and interests of Great Powers prior and leading to the signing of the Lausanne Treaty of 24 July 1923 all contributed to invalidate the Kurdish aspirations for independence and reduced the future Kurdish state to the mere 'preservation of Kurdish cultural rights and administrative issues' namely in the Vilayet of Mosul- which up to 1925 was still a heated debate between Turkey from one hand and Great Britain and Iraq from another- and which eventually was 'awarded' to the latter in December 1925.

The Treaty of Lausanne overturned previous international recognition of the right to autonomy. In one stroke the Kurdish people was made stateless.

It was clear therefore that the idea of an independent Kurdish state was shelved and became something of the past, and, when discussed it was merely for bargaining.

The text of Sevres contained two Articles affecting the Kurds (62 and 64). The Treaty of Sevres was stillborn, but this dream of an independent Kurdistan remained on record in an international document and was not forgotten.

The establishment of the new Middle East made Kurds gerrymandered into minorities, disconnected and dismembered. This unfairness and partition could not be accepted; due to the failure to recognize Kurdish interests, and in pursuit of a doomed opportunity, many Kurdish nationalist uprisings ensued. The one under discussion is notably a case in point.

One of the important factors that contributed to the 1925 uprising was the activities of the Kurdish Freedom Society (Civata Azadiya Kurd) commonly referred to as Azadi.

Founded in Erzurum in 1923? by an urban elite, Azadi sought to create an independent Kurdistan. In a meeting held in 1924- allegedly in the city of Aleppo- the Azadi leading members resolved on a rise. Ali Riza, son of Sheikh Sa'id, attended the meeting.

Azadi was dominated by experienced Kurdish military officers who served in the Ottoman army during World War I or those who had served previously in the Hamidian Cavalry Regiments, and some religious figures as well as Kurdish politicians and notables.

In 1924, Law for the Unification of Education was passed. It stipulated ''the mother tongue of all Turkish citizens is Turkish''. The law was passed on the very same day the Caliphate was abolished.

More than 90 percent of the names of Kurdish villages were to be converted to Turkish. Kurdish officials serving in Kurdistan were replaced with new unwelcomed Turkish ones.

The Kurdish identity was denied. To serve this end, the Turkish Republic embraced an aggressive and assimilationist policy towards the Kurds. The two words 'Kurd' and 'Kurdistan', were outlawed, and later replaced with 'Mountains Turks' and 'Southern Anatolia' respectively.  

However, this assimilation meant a strict Turkification, in the sense that transforming the Kurds not only legally and politically into Turks, but also integrating them culturally and socially.

The date set for the rise was the Kurdish National Day of Newroz; 21 March. Nonetheless, things took a different course. The uprising was launched prematurely by nearly 40 days.

Early in February (mostly 8) a local incident occurred in the village of Piran- very close to the ancient town of Egil (known as the City of Prophets)- when Turkish Police looking for a group of deserters who had entered the village seeking protection run into hostile and collided with residents.

Despite efforts exerted to hold back, and solve the issue on cordial terms the Turkish officer in charge of the force refused all offers. Consequently, some 4/5 Turkish soldiers were killed in the village. Disorders spread quickly and- to his dismay- Sheikh Sa'id was compelled to raise the banner of revolt.

In the course of few days the uprising made considerable progress in securing most of the area in the Bitlis- Amed- Kharput triangle.

The first Turkish official assessment of the revolt was neither religious nor nationalist. It was first Mohamed Jamil Bey, Minister of Internal Affairs, who described the rebellion as the activities of brigands headed by Sheikh Sa'id.

Prime Minister, Ali Fathi Bey, after assessing the urgency of the rebellion based on the telegrams he irregularly received (due to the rebels cutting off of the telegram lines), said the rebellion was local and declared on 35 February a one-month- long state of emergency in the 'rebellion territories'. However, Mustafa Kemal Pasha was not satisfied with Fathi's approach.

In the east, thousands of Kurds- who displayed great militancy- under the leadership of Sheikh Sa'id took arms against the recently founded Ankara Government. With a force of 5000 men, the rebels attacked and laid siege to the city from all sides in the night of 6-7 March 1925.

Being the most important sign of the dictatorial spirit of the infant Republic, the law virtually eliminated all opposition to the new regime. Newspapers and publications, which were opposed to the regime were closed. Many Turkish daily papers began to described the 'rebellion' as a both Kurdish nationalist and an Islamist reactionary one.  

When the Turkish press alleged that the British were behind the Kurdish uprising, Turkish officials- from behind the scenes- assured the British Foreign Office that they did not believe the press. Nonetheless, Turkish official version maintained that the rebellion was incited by the British in order to get concessions on the Mosul Vilayet.

Foreign observers seemed to agree that the government in Ankara was trying to exaggerate the revolt. However, for what purpose was a question that remained unanswered but for a limited period of time.

Draconian measures were taken; two 'Independence Tribunals' with extraordinary authorities for immediate act were reinstated, one in the east and the other in Ankara. The one in the east 'Rebellion Region' was empowered to apply capital punishment without reference to Ankara. People were sent to the gallows on the least pretence.

Kurdistan's rugged terrain, remoteness and lack of infrastructure prohibited Turkish forces from rapid deployment. However, that was solved when France consented to the Turkish request to the use of the Berlin –Baghdad Railway portions running through its territories in Syria to move some of the forces to the scene; the French Mandatory authorities in Syria allowed the Turkish forces to move into the Taurus Mountains via Syria. French authorities in Aleppo reported Turkey was exaggerating.

On the battle field, though a penetration to the ancient walled city was made via the sewage canals and water conduits, however, rebels were soon forced to push back. Another attempt was undertaken on 11 March where fierce battles and heavy engagements took place day and night but the walled city proved impenetrable to the Kurds. Upon the failure of the second attempt the siege was lifted.

Towards the end of March regular military forces engaged in fighting. Counter offensive was undertaken forcing the men of Sheikh Sa'id to retreat. The railway proved essential and vital in moving and transporting materiale and personnel.  

On 15 April, Sheikh Sa'id and his comrades were arrested and taken the notorious Amed prison. 

By the middle of April, the Kurds lacked supplies against the better-equipped Turkish army. With ground and air forces deployed, the Turkish authorities crushed the revolt with continual aerial bombardment and massive concentration of forces. The uprising which caused considerable military and political problems for the government was suppressed on 27 April proper.

The committee assigned to prosecuting Sheikh Sa'id and his colleagues decided that all harmful persons that could become leaders in Kurdistan should absolutely not be pardoned. The trial of the leaders of the uprising took place in Amed in April, May and June 1925.  

On 21 May, Sheikh Sa'id appeared before the court. On the reason behind his revolt he declared that this movement emerged as a reaction to the replacement of religion. After the long hearings and debate he was sentenced to death on 28 June. The next day, 29 June, and early in the morning, Sheikh Sa'id was taken to the Mountain Gate. There, his body dangled from the gibbets. Low profile and lesser rebels were sentenced to hard labor terms.

However, none of this precluded the old man and the Sheikh of Piran from becoming a Kurdish nationalist legend. In the Kurdish collective memory, the year 1925 is always evocative of the uprising led by Sheikh Sa'id.

On 29 June 1999, a Turkish court passed the death penalty on leader Abdullah Ocalan on charges of ''treason and separatism''. However, the sentence was commuted later to life imprisonment.

The 1925 Uprising was used as a pretext after which a campaign or reprisals and deportation was undertaken in eastern Turkey. Under 'reactionary' and 'religious' movement the government was afforded the opportunity of seeking out under the cover of martial law of its opponents of whatever colour and of dealing with them.

All in all, a total of 5010 people were prosecuted by 'Independence Tribunals' of whom 2779 were acquitted and 420 sentenced to the death penalty, of whom some 150 ones were Alawites from Dersim. Around 5000 government troops and 4000 rebels were reported killed in action.

However, the actual number of people put to death was much higher than this figure due to the many extralegal and summary executions that followed in the months after.

Trials in the 'Rebellion Region' developed into a travesty of justice as people who had no connection with the Uprising- mostly intellectuals and notables- were brought to Amed and elsewhere and sentenced to death. On 14 April, Yusuf Ziya Bey and Khaild Bey Jibran, who had been in detention since September and October 1924, were hanged.

Dr. Riza Nur, a former Deputy for Sinope, and second in command to Inonu at the Lausanne Conference, and a one-time close associate and later opponent of Mustafa Kemal, described the revolt as 'god-sent' to eradicate the opposition.

When the violence halted in summer, the body count was considerable. Precise data is lacking, but altogether, 206 villages had been destroyed, 8758 houses burnt, and 15,200 people killed. Ankara used the revolt as a pretext to silence opponents.

A British diplomat who travelled in the region after the uprising was quelled noted:

''No doubt, the repression of the 1925 rising was accomplished with a brutality  which was not exceeded in any Armenian massacres. Whole villages were burnt or razed to the ground, and men, women and children killed. Turkish officers have recounted how they were repelled by such proceedings and yet felt obliged to do their duty. No doubt also that whenever there is any further attempt at rebellion it is repressed with an equally heavy hand.''

No consensus have been reached on the causes of the uprising. According to some scholars, it emerged against the abolition of the Caliphate. Others- mainly Turkish officials and nationalists-  attribute it to the British interference in the area to make a rift between the Turks and the Kurds. They saw in the 1925 Uprising the hand of Great Britain, for the uprising favoured her designs on the vilayet of Mosul.

In fact, while it is claimed that the British supported the uprising in order to reduce the fighting capability of the Turks, and to influence the studies of the Mosul Commission and of the League of Nations, there is not enough evidence to prove these assertions. However, British diplomatic documents captured during the suppression of the uprising indicated that even if Great Britain did not support the uprising, it approved it.

However, in Nutuk, Mustafa Kemal said the revolt was a counter-revolution to the newly founded regime he engineered.

Under the clock of restoring the recently annulled Caliphate the revolt essentially aimed at an independent Kurdistan; this became evident when, during the suppression of this revolt, some written documents such as 'Kurdistan Ministry of War', 'Government of Kurdistan', and the 'President of Kurdistan' were discovered.

In his Memoirs published in 1957, Prosecutor Ahmed Sureyya Bey who conducted the investigation of Sheikh Sa'id, unveiled:

''It was only a religious and follower of Sharia in terms of appearance. But in terms of its real identity, internal structure, spirit, and purpose of its organizers, it was nothing but a complete Kurdish nationalism and the desire for a Kurdish state and government! ''