Wait for me, gallows
The story of Sivas.
John Albert Jansen
It was as if all the sounds in Sivas, the honking of dolmus taxis and the barking of dogs in the distance had swelled into a cacophony filtering through to our hotel rooms. Outside, the fundamentalists were screaming “Yak Ula Yak, Yak Ula Yak“ - “Burn those infidels “Allahu Ekber“ - “Allah is Great“.
“God has laid His finger on me, I thought, discreet as the approaching night.“
Every year in the month of July, Sivas, the town in Central Anatolia on the border with Turkish Kurdistan, serves as the centre for a political cultural festival in honour of the Alevitic poet and popular hero Pir Sultan Abdal. According to legend Pir Sultan Abdal was murdered six hundred years ago in Sivas after he had urged the people to rise against the ruling sultan. The sultan ordered the people to stone Pir Sultan Abdal. But the people refused and, instead of throwing stones at the poet, they threw roses. Ever since, Pir Sultan Abdal's act of resistance has been commemorated in an annual ceremony.
In the middle of the nineteen-nineties Sivas was reduced to a smouldering powder keg. The Turkish state's military campaign against the Kurdish Labour Party (PKK) was at its most violent. Daily, villages were evacuated and shootings and bombings were the order of the day. Critics who protested were thrown into jail or became the victims of bombings by muslim fundamentalists and secret paramilitary gangs with some of their strongholds in Sivas. At present, the worst of the violence has subsided but the core of the ethnic (between Kurds and Turks) and religious conflicts (between fundamentalists and more liberal muslims) continues to this day.
It was in the summer of 1993 that the Kurdish-Alevitic writer and journalist …zkan Gšlpinar set out to attend the Pir Sultan Abdal festivities, a day of commemoration increasingly symbolising resistance to Turkish religious and ethnic policy of repression. That evening Özkan Gölpinar was to stay at the Madimak hotel in the centre of Sivas. Writers and journalists, politicians and artists had gathered there for a congress as well as for the annual Pir Sultan Abdal commemoration ceremony. However, that very day Özkan Gölpinar has to leave because of family circumstances. When his plane takes off the hotel is ablaze in a fire raised by muslim fundamentalists.
The public verdict is that the Turkish police and fire fighters stood idly by. Only after ten hours did the authorities decide to take action. By that time viewers watching the live broadcast on local Turkish TV had witnessed how thirty-seven people burned to death alive, amongst them a number of well-known Kurdish Alevitic singers and writers. Others narrowly escaped death. These tragic events were more or less covered up subsequently. After considerable national and international pressure some of the culprits were arrested for appearance's sake, one of whom miraculously became a father while in prison.
The Sivas fire signaled a turning point in the history of the Alevites. As a result of protests in Europe and in Turkey itself the nineteen-nineties were marked by a revival of Alevitism, a liberal and humanistic interpretation of Islam. The event inspired the creation of new organisations and a renewed awareness of identity, also for the Alevitic communities in Europe.
After the attack, the number of Alevitic organisations in Turkey and Europe increased tenfold, in line with Pir Sultan Abdal's prophesy that “We die as one, but return in our thousands“.
Pir Sultan Abdal's statue in Banaz, the town of his birth, is symbolic. Against a backdrop of distant mountains he stands on his pedestal armed with a lute, to remind us that uprisings are not only fought with weapons. In the region of Sivas war is waged mainly through singing and dancing. Sivas is the land of the 'saz', the lute that sounds the charges of musical resistance and is the weapon of minorities, of those whose ethnic and religious identity has been repressed for centuries. A straight line runs from Pir Sultan Abdal and the thirty-seven Sivas dead. They include the Pir the Sultan Abdals of today. And, as always during the annual Sivas festival, today's events too are commemorated in new songs.
The Sivas events touch a highly sensitive political and religious nerve. Large contingents of Turks and Kurds live in Western Europe. Just a single reference to the events in Sivas is enough to set sparks flying. For the Alevites, what happened in Sivas marks no less important a watershed than what happened on the eleventh of September in the United States. Commemorative meetings are held annually for the thirty-seven who died in the Madimak attack on 2nd July 1993. At the end of June 2003 meetings took place in Nijmegen, Cologne and in Turkey, attended by survivors of the tragedy and relatives of the victims.
Because the subject is so sensitive, but also to highlight its epic character, we have chosen a cultural approach to the documentary. This obviates the need for a statement explaining that culture in these parts is invariably political as well. What we want to end up showing is that people may be killed, but that their songs live on. Or, as the great Turkish writer Yasher Kemal puts it: “Those who compose their countries' popular songs are more powerful than those who make the laws“.
We want the historical songs of resistance that reflect the soul of the Sivas region, as well as the songs that directly keep the memory of the Sivas tragedy alive, to be part of our documentary. Above all, our aim is to trace survivors and relatives of the dead in Europe and Turkey, in order to determine who can tell the story of Sivas and who we can travel with through the land of Anatolia, back to Sivas.
• Premiere: IDFA 2006
• Broadcasted: NMO (Dutch Muslim Broadcasting Company), november 16th 2008, april 2010, Ned. 2
• 1 hour 17 minutes
• Recorded on: XDCAM