Sivas massacre victims commemorated on 25th anniversary

Large crowds gathered in Sivas, central Turkey, on Monday to commemorate the victims of the Madımak massacre, in which a mob of Islamic fundamentalists burned a hotel where a convention was being held, killing 35 in the hotel and two from among the mob.

Monday’s event, marking the 25th anniversary of the massacres, was attended by activists and civil society group members from around Turkey, who had gathered to remember a horrific episode from Turkey’s recent history that is still seen by many as an open wound.

Intellectuals and artists from the Alevi faith, a heterodox Islamic tradition that is the second most widely held belief in Turkey after Sunni Islam, had gathered in the Madımak hotel in July, 1993, to attend a cultural festival in the city.

The group included Aziz Nesin, a left-wing intellectual who had recently translated British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” a novel that evoked a great deal of anger in Muslim countries on its release for its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.

On Jul. 2, a crowd of thousands of local Sunni Muslims, furious at Nesin’s presence, surrounded the Madımak hotel after Friday prayers and set fire to the building. Thirty-five died in the blaze, among them two hotel staff and Alevi artists and musicians attending the festival.

Aziz Nesin escaped with his life when the crowd outside failed to recognise him, but never recovered from his grief at the event, and died three years later.

The massacre illustrated deep polarisation in Turkish society, with Alevis and many secularist Turks aghast at the lack of police intervention and apparent premeditation of the attack, which occurred under the administration of Islamist former mayor of Sivas and leader of today’s Felicity Party Temel Karamollaoğlu.

Meanwhile, many of the lawyers representing the perpetrators of the attack have gone on to hold influential positions in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Yeni Akit, a Turkish pro-AKP Islamist daily newspaper, sparked further controversy in 2015 when it proclaimed in a headline piece that Madımak meant “oppression for Muslims,” declaring the massacres and their families to be the true victims of the episode.

Last Monday’s event was held under the watchful eye of police helicopters and teams called in from the surrounding areas of Sivas, numbering around 2,600.

It was attended by deputies from the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and included a wreath-laying ceremony by the AKP-government appointed Governor of the province.