Serhildan: The story of Bakur’s first people’s uprising

The early 1990s in northern Kurdistan/southeast Turkey (Bakur) were marked by several mass rebellions in the Botan region. Serhildan, ser (head) hildan (lifting or raising) – “raising one’s head” – is the Kurdish term for popular uprising. The serhildan of Botan, which began a few years after the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched guerrilla warfare, were the long silenced and pacified Kurdish people’s collective response to the Turkish state’s policy of mass murder and annihilation. Sparked at a funeral of guerrilla fighters, the serhildan organically and rapidly spread to the entire region within days. In the process, the decades-long silence of the Kurdish people in Bakur was broken. For the first time, women entered the public sphere as agents of resistance and rebellion. The state responded to the popular base of the guerrillas by establishing the so-called village guard system to finance and arm traditional feudal collaborators, as well as destroying close to 5.000 villages in the area. The state policy backfired, when after the serhildan and the village destructions, thousands of young women and men joined the guerrillas in the mountains en masse. The serhildan spirit is a constant phenomenon in the politicized society of the area. The people of the same area mobilized rebellions against the Turkish state’s complicity during the ISIS siege of Kobanê. The cities where the serhildan were sparked also constitute the same districts and towns that were brutally assaulted and razed to the ground by the Turkish army since the end of the peace process in mid-2015. Cizîr, a symbol of the serhildan, is where the Turkish state committed a genocidal massacre in 2016. Below is an account of the beginning of the first serhildan.

 

There is a vital connection between grief and rebellion, whenever people emerge amidst death. If the only right that such people know is the “right to die”, their only chance to reach the collective -and within that, the individual- “right to live” is by upsetting their state of non-existence that is built on death. In the eyes of those, who create hierarchical orders of life and death, the physical death of their disposable subjects is not the ultimate end, but merely the final stage of a process not of being, but of non-being that begins at birth. Those who die never existed to begin with.

But whenever those, whose lives are not considered worth registering, break the chains of death imposed by the oppressors, the order is upset. Even when death is involved in the process, death no longer comes to define such existence. For, grief gets turned into rebellion. Grief kills, if it is deprived of rebellion. But rebellious grief animates, it creates and revives. That is why for peoples, who are born from death, funeral ceremonies constitute moments of creation. This is not a matter of choice that can be “romanticized”. On the contrary, defending life while carrying the dead on one’s shoulders is the most pristine, plane, concrete and at the same time symbolic state of the struggle for existence.

Grief satisfies and pleases the murderer. The victim’s suffering evokes joy in the killer. Rebellious lamenting however terrifies the killer. This is because each rebellion that is built on suffering inflicted by the killer is a sign of his defeat and inability. That is why the state will always try to suppress the spirit of rebellion and to increase pain and grief instead. Any means to this end is considered legitimate. Attacking the dead, mutilating corpses and similar practices are attempts to kill the un-killable a second time. With this comes the attempt to inflict further pain on those, who mourn their dead, to tear their hearts into pieces. The purpose is to drown the people in pain so that it becomes impossible for them to rebel.

In the recent years, we have seen the Turkish state’s seemingly absurd attacks on funeral ceremonies as well as graveyards of Kurdish guerrillas. These are conscious attempts by the state to prevent collective grieving and rage and their implications for people’s insurgent action. The state hopes to suppress uprising and to leave only the grief behind. The people however historically responded to those, who want to suffocate their rebellious spirit, with resistance. They defeated their killers by turning rebellion into resistance.

The simultaneous phenomena of grief and rebellion in Kurdistan cannot be considered in isolation from the serhildan reality that came to life in this geography. In fact, it would not be wrong to speak of a dialectical relationship between the two aspects. In northern Kurdistan (Bakur), the tradition of collective funeral ceremonies and the revolts that they often unleash began with the serhildan in the early 1990s.

The first collective funeral

On March 13, 1990, near the Sürgücü village of Stewr (Savun) district of Mardin, 13 guerrillas of the PKK lost their lives. Among the killed guerrillas were Süleyman Arslan (Sarı Hüseyin) and Abdullah Avcı (Salah), as well as Kamuran Dündar from Nisêbîn (Nusaybin). As soon as these news reached the district, preparations started. The Revolutionary Patriotic Youth Union called on the people to join the funeral ceremony in a collective manner. Not a single person opened their shop’s shutters on March 15th in Nisêbîn. After the corpse of Kamuran Dündar was picked up from the Mardin State Hospital and brought to Nisêbîn, more than 10 thousand people Kurdistanî people attended the burial.

Upon returning from the cemetery, the masses decided to pay a collective visit to the family of Ömer Kavak, who lost his life in the same clashes. They wanted to go through the town centre to reach the family’s village. Their fearlessness increased the horror of the state forces that waited with their fingers ready to pull the trigger. The state forces made bullets rain on the people and tried to run over the crowds with tanks. That day, two people, including one child were murdered by the state, while 700 people were detained.

The serhildan was born and grew so fast that the state not only prevented entrance and exit to the affected towns, but even cut telephone lines. But the uprising was already sprouting. In a similar vein, in the binxet, “underneath the (border) line” [translator’s note: the Botan region is called “serxet” -above the line- among Kurds in the region] the Qamishlo uprising of March 16th, 2004, where 50 thousand people took to the streets, echoed the desire of the people to resist colonialism by rendering states’ artificial borders and their weapons meaningless.

On March 19th, the serhildan spread to Cizîr (Cizre). Not only in Nisêbîn, but also in Cizîr, where the Newroz preparations were ongoing, people kept their shops’ shutters down.  Thus, at the heart of the Botan region, Newroz returned to its resistance spirit on March 20th. More than ten thousand Kurds took to the streets to welcome their “new day” with festive fires to which the state’s special forces responded with gunfire. Salih Elçioğlu, Mehmet Yılmaz, Yusuf Şahin and Emin Gün were murdered that day, while 100 people were wounded and approximately 350 people detained.

One of the fundamental messages that were declared at the serhildan was that the colonizing and occupying state had no legitimacy in Kurdistan. Several state institutions, including the Turkish Coal Enterprises (TKI), State Hydraulic (DSI) and Agricultural Equipment Institution (ZDK), as well as the police station were set on fire. The Turkish flag was taken down and replaced by the flag of the PKK-linked National Front for the Liberation of Kurdistan (ERNK). The second fundamental message was that the repressive walls of fear had finally been destroyed. Thus, despite the imposed curfew, the actions in Cizîr continued on Newroz day. Newroz fires were lit on top of the hills of the district.

Twelve-year-old Abidin Tuncer, who was ran over by a tank and heavily injured on the first day of the serhildan, lost his life on March 23 in the Diyarbakir Medical Faculty Hospital. Thus, the number of dead increased to five. The bodies of the four others had been hastily taken away by the state without handing them over to the families. This was the day when the oppressor’s fear of the dead became obvious for the first time.

After Friday prayer, nearly one thousand people started chanting slogans as they marched towards the cemetery where the murdered people had been buried. The crowd increased in size so rapidly that it counted up to 10 or even 15 thousand people when it reached the city center. It seemed as though all of Cizîr was assembled to respond to the gun-wielding state, which held its finger on the trigger, with the slogan “The PKK is the people and the people are here!” despite the immediate threat of another massacre. The burial ceremony that was much feared by the state and therefore had to be prevented, thus began even before the coffins were heaved onto the shoulders of the masses, becoming one of the greatest symbols of the serhildan.

The “painful” coverage of Günaydin newspaper

For the colonizer and those who share and maintain the colonizer’s mentality, the images that emerged from the cemetery of Cizîr were nothing less than a nightmare. The coverage of one of the main daily newspapers, Günaydin, on March 24, 1990 [see picture below] is rather exemplary to understand how these mentality codes were reflected or publicized in the mainstream Turkish public. The sub-header of the article titled “Was republican Turkey to see such marches? Oh God, how painful” stated the following:

“Yesterday, we grieved nationally… For the first time in our republic’s history, we heard thousands of our citizens chant separatist slogans in one of our districts. Wriggling with worry, we felt that we were stabbed in our heart in Cizre. No matter how painful it may be, it is high time to recognize the realities…”

There is no need to comment further on the content of this “heart-breaking” item printed in the newspaper along with two photographs of the crowds marching and assembling at the grave. Reading it is enough to understand the state’s mentality and policy. The following is the translation of the Günaydin newspaper’s front page on the following day:

“Worse than a nightmare

23 March 1990, Cizre… A painful day, a painful event in our republic’s history… 15 thousand citizens, march with victory signs and slogans… Even tiny children do the same signs at the graves of Salih Elçioğlu and Mehmet Yılmaz, who died during the incidents… These children will grow up tomorrow… and then? The images of the incidents that took place in Cizre yesterday are worse than a nightmare. Who is guilty of these events? What are the factors that compelled the citizen to take to the streets? Did 15 thousand people suddenly become part of the PKK? Why are the upset with the state? One must seriously consider these issues. Otherwise, nobody will be able to recover from the blame…

After Friday prayer…

Yesterday in Cizre, the number of the people at the demonstration after Friday prayer, who protested the fact that those, who had died four days earlier, were buried before being handed over to them, suddenly increased. The size of the crowd of two thousand people that returned from the cemetery visit increased to 15 thousand at once.

Heart-breaking slogans…

The security forces had received the order to “refrain from any kind of intervention”, but some groups incited the people by chanting hair-raising slogans like “Long live Kurdistan”, “Long live the PKK”, “Long live independence” or “Down with the state”. The events resembled an uprising.

Shutters closed in 6 districts…

While the number of detained people in Cizre increased to 205, a march took place in Kızıltepe. 70 people were detained. The shutter closing actions continue in Cizre, Kızıltepe, Derik, Silopi, Midyat and İdil.”

 

Günaydin newspaper on March 24th, 1990 on the events in Cizîr