20 years ago today, 37 people were burned alive in Sivas, in Turkey. They were mere intellectuals who gathered in a Madimak hotel for a conference. Among them were bards, poets, novelists, artists, scientists, philosophers… Islamist extremists had protested their presence in the city of Sivas, saying there were people who had cited Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and spread atheist ideals among the crowd. While hundreds of intellectuals had decided to gather in the name of “Anatolian Peace and Welcoming” there, thousands surrounded them with absolute hatred. When police and gendarmerie forces did not intervene, over ten thousand extremists who had already come to the hotel area with flammable chemicals and other supplies for arson, set the hotel on fire when many were inside with very low chances of escape.
Dozens of people died, many others were saved, a nation was left traumatized, and the perpetrators were never punished. Over two decades, civil society called for recognition of this crime by the state, an official apology from those who were responsible for the police/gendarmerie/firefighter inaction, a guarantee that those who organized, carried out, and covered up this crime would be punished. None of those things happened. A massive literature piled up on the event from all artistic and academic fields.
Today, across the country, Gezi protesters continue their struggle and include the massacre of Sivas in 1993. Last year when the court decided not to investigate the massacre any longer, PM Erdogan commented about the perpetrators being freed without any punishment, saying “this is all the best for the country.” The lawyers who defended the case against the victims do not seem to resent the fact that they defended a massacre. Many others who were involved in this crime have been promoted to high positions over the years, including many of the lawyers from Islamist parties getting elected into parliament, including eight current AKP deputies.
As Erdogan keeps referring to his apology as head of government for the 1938 Dersim massacre, he still resists apologizing for the Sivas massacre or the Uludere air raid that left 35 people dead two years ago. The expectations are optimistic that someday there will be recognition of all the crimes committed against civilians while state officials organized/ordered/protected the perpetrators. Yet the chances that justice will prevail seem low. While this has been settled on as a demand of many millionsto see justice, many others, unofficially mobilized by AKP youth, continue glorifying the massacres and continue to threaten in the name of religion.
On the day when people were being burned alive, someone in the hotel Madimak asked “What happens if they hurt some of us?” and was answered by Metin Altiok – a poet who died as a result of the Sivas Massacre – “Survivors will write poems of the fallen…”
Rifat Ilgaz wrote:
“Pharaohs broke the clay tablets in Egypt. Hitler’s armies burned down libraries in Europe. Look here, intellectuals! For the first time in history they filled a building with intellectuals and set them on fire!”