The impact of this memorial site has been quite limited since its primary purpose is not to fulfill core principles of a memorial intended to contribute to the democratization process by confronting past human rights violations. Victims’ families gain no sense of healing as a result of the project; more importantly, some of them have said that their feelings were hurt by the commemoration of their family members side by side with the perpetrators. Hüseyin Karababa, the brother of Gülsüm Karababa, one of the victims, sued to have his sisters’ name removed from the memorial area of the building. The court rejected his demand, claiming that making no distinction between the perpetrator and the victims took into account the general interests of society. NGOs advocating Alevi rights have repeatedly raised the demand that the Madımak Hotel be turned into a museum of shame, and that they should be part of the design and implementation processes. The current state-sponsored memorialization project has fueled the anger of pro-democracy forces in Turkey, rather than creating an environment in which past wrongdoings can be genuinely confronted.
The Fourth Pir Sultan Abdal Festival was held in Sivas in 1993. This gathering has been a crucial event for Alevis, who represent one of the largest ethnoreligious groups in Turkey but are not recognized by the state. The festival consists of conferences, discussions, speeches and religious rituals and brings various pro-Alevi NGOs and individuals together. On July 2, 1993, participants staying at the Madımak Hotel in the city center were subjected to a bloody event that is known as the “Sivas Massacre.” Following continuing protests against the gathering by reactionaries in Sivas, the Madımak Hotel was set on fire and 33 poets, intellectuals, and young participants, as well as two members of the hotel staff, were killed. Two of the perpetrators also lost their lives in the course of the incident. The massacre occurred as a result of mob violence led by reactionaries, while security forces deliberately did nothing to stop the violent attacks—although it would have been possible for the soldiers who were present to prevent the violence. The tacit approval of the Turkish military resulted from its desire to criminalize the rising Islamist movement in Turkey. That movement had established a coalition government in 1995 after winning general elections, and was overthrown by the military in 1997 through the so-called post-modern military coup.
Most of the perpetrators went unpunished, and the victims’ families did not believe that justice had been done. For example, Cafer Çakmak, who was thought to be one of the organizers of this massacre, was released with eight other suspects in the course of the judicial proceedings and fled abroad in 1997. Currently, the main demand by lawyers for victims’ families has been the legal classification of this massacre as a “crime against humanity,” so that judicial proceedings can proceed and judges cannot apply the statute of limitations to the case. The court has not accepted this request, and the court has applied the statute of limitations. Another demand by victims’ families and NGOs advocating for Alevi rights has been the transformation of the Madımak Hotel into a site of conscience. In the last ten years, the successive Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments have resisted the idea of collective rights for the Alevi population. Thus it would be optimistic to expect that an AKP-sponsored memorialization project would allow the site of the massacre to be used by Alevi victims to acknowledge the nature of the Sivas massacre as one targeted specifically against Alevis. The restaurant in the hotel, which had continued to operate normally after the massacre, to the distress of many Alevis, was finally closed down in 2009 as a result of pressure from the Alevi community. While demands to turn the Madımak Hotel into a museum of shame have grown stronger each year, the AKP government has followed a different path, nationalizing the Madımak Hotel in November 2010. As described below, the newly renovated building was designed to be a multi-functional space in which one area would be used as a memorial site, while the remaining parts of the building would be used for other purposes.
The main purpose of this project seems to be to block the demands of victim families and NGOs advocating Alevi rights by appropriating the site where the massacre took place. The lobby of the building is conceived as a place to commemorate the people who died during the Sivas massacre. Photos and basic information about victims are located in this section. Thirty-seven fountains are arrayed in alphabetical order according to the names of the victims. However, surprisingly, the state authorities also included the names of the two perpetrators who died that day. In other words, the perpetrators are commemorated along with the victims. Moreover, a bust of Mustafa Kemal, the founding father of the Turkish Republic, is included in the memorial area with one of his aphorisms: “No matter how different the thoughts and beliefs that exist in a society, this can be no obstacle to a nation that is aware of how to act in unity and solidarity.” Other aphorisms by Islamic and Alevi medieval scholars such as Pir Sultan Abdal, Aşık Veysel, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi and Yunus Emre that promote unity and solidarity have also been included in the memorial section of the building. After viewing the memorial, visitors can express their thoughts in a guestbook. In addition to the memorial area, the part of the building that was a restaurant has been turned into a library for children. The first floor of the building is now a science and art center that can be used by students or children. There have been no serious plans for the upper floors of the building so far. The entire design process was conducted by the state, and a great effort was made to insulate the project from criticism by instrumentalizing the cult of Mustafa Kemal. Victims’ families were not involved in either the design or the implementation process. However, since 1993, demonstrations and dynamic memorialization efforts have taken place on the anniversary of the Sivas massacre in almost all the major cities of Turkey and Europe. This suggests significant popular support for turning the massacre site into a museum of shame.
The main challenge to this project has been the demands of victims’ families and NGOs advocating Alevi rights that a site of conscience be created. The current memorial project seems to aim to subdue such demands. In addition, the state also seems to be interested in narrowing the opportunities for turning the entire district in which the massacre occurred into a dynamic memorialization site. During the anniversary of the massacre in 2011, a majority of NGOs advocating Alevi rights gathered in Sivas to commemorate the victims, along with other political forces that consider the massacre a serious matter that hinders the democratization process in Turkey. They faced the brutality of the Turkish police and were exposed to tear gas and violence, which kept them away from the massacre site. Thus in addition to granting impunity to the perpetrators, the state authorities have also appropriated the massacre site in order to prevent the pro-democracy movement from demanding justice for and the truth about the massacre. During commemoration organized by the Governorate in 2018 for the 25th anniversary of the Massacre, Governor Davut Gül in his talk stated the following: “After 25 years, we have a better understanding of this incident. During that time period, in both Sivas and Başbağlar,* this was part of a plan organized by dark forces trying to drag our country into a civil-war.” With these words, once again a responsible authority denied state responsibility and delegated it to dark forces. While the struggle to turn the Madımak Hotel into a site of conscience continues, victims’ families pursuing this cause continue to encounter hardships. For example, Zeynep Altıok, daughter of Metin Altıok, a famous poet killed in the massacre, lost her job after becoming a public figure in the campaign to turn the hotel into a museum of shame.
* The Başbağlar massacre is the name given to the 5 July 1993 event in which 33 civilians were killed, and the village of Başbağlar Turkey near Erzincan burnt down. The attack was attributed to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, ex-special forces soldier Ayhan Çarkin claimed that the deep state was behind the massacre.