‘No river, no life’: Alevi Kurds in Turkey battle to save Munzur River

For Alevi Kurds feature from Dersim, Munzur River, Munzur Valley

Turkey’s Alevi Kurds fear a series of dams and hydroelectric power plants on their sacred river will exterminate their culture. Following an Erdoğan win in the 2023 general elections, these fears have worsened. 

Sayifa strolls across an expansive meadow in the Munzur Valley, near the village of Ovacık in Turkey’s eastern Dersim region. Her small stature appears miniature compared to the mountains that protrude from behind her, cutting into the blue skies.  

A woman in loose trousers and a dark purple long sleeved top stands in the foreground holding a walking stick. Her hair is covered, she is elderly and smiling. In the background there are hills

Sayifa via Jaclynn Ashly

Shouting and whistling at her herd of cattle, Sayifa gently taps one cow’s bony back with a long, thin stick to keep her in line.  

The 70-year-old is on her way to the Munzur River, which winds across this grassy basin and through narrow corridors of massive canyons, eventually meeting with the Euphrates River, the longest and one of the oldest rivers in Western Asia.  

The Munzur river and valley are sacred to the Alevi Kurds, who are the majority in Dersim, which is officially referred to as “Tunceli” by the Turkish government. They are a unique minority population in Turkey, where the majority is Sunni Muslim.  

Their lands are equally rare, known for their untouched natural beauty and diversity of fauna and flora. Many endangered animals – uncommon in other parts of the country – can easily be spotted here. The Munzur River is their holiest site.  

“This river is the most beautiful thing in our lives,” says Sayifa (who did not want her last name to be published).

Sayifa converses in Zazaki, the indigenous language spoken by the Alevi Kurds, who are of the Zaza ethnic group. This language is considered endangered; yet it is the only language Sayifa understands.  

A blue river flows through a town. There are lush green trees which line the water and there are hills in the background

The Munzur River flowing through the town of Dersim via Jaclynn Ashly

Like many in Dersim, Sayifa survives on animal herding and small-scale farming. “We are a small community. There are not many jobs here,” she continues. “But this river gives us everything we need. It is the source of all of our lives.” 

But over the past decades, the Alevi Kurds have lived in fear of the government’s mega-infrastructure projects planned along the Munzur River and its tributaries – consisting of a series of dams and hydroelectric power plants – eating up their unique culture and identity, which are intricately tied to Dersim’s pristine natural environment.  

“We don’t want anyone to touch the river here,” Sayifa says. “We must leave it exactly the way it was created. If anything were to happen to the river there would be famine. Without the river, there’s no life.”  

Intergenerational revolts 

Many in Dersim were left disappointed following Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections in May, resulting in a win for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has already been in power for more than 20 years. Dersim’s residents overwhelmingly supported opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Kılıçdaroğlu himself is an Alevi Kurd from Dersim. 

Erdoğan, who critics accuse of being authoritarian and eroding democratic freedoms, has gutted environmental regulations over the years to make it easier for private Turkish and foreign companies to operate in the country, while allowing them to disregard much of the state regulations that remain, according to researchers. 

The Alevi Kurds believe these megaprojects planned on the Munzur River could exterminate their very existence.  

“Look at what they did to those people in Batman,” Sayifa says, referring to Hasankeyf, an ancient city that until recently sat on the banks of the Tigris River in the Batman Province in the country’s Kurdish-majority southeast. 

Landscape of Ovacık via Jaclynn Ashly

It was thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, dating as far back as 12,000 years. But it was submerged underwater as part of the Ilisu dam project, which forms a key part of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project, one of the largest and most controversial dam-building programs in the world. Twenty-two dams are slated to be constructed along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers near Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq. 

“They just drowned it all,” Sayifa says, grimacing. “Imagine what they will do to us?” 

Officials have long maintained that hydroelectric dams are needed to meet Turkey’s energy and water needs and reduce its dependency on energy imports. Many of those now being built were planned decades ago – and the Munzur River has long been eyed for its production potential. 

But for the historically rebellious Alevi Kurds in Dersim, who have faced decades of military interventions, forced assimilation policies, and state-sanctioned massacres, they believe these projects are a veil for something much more sinister.  

“It is another attempt by the government to destroy Alevi Kurdish culture and assimilate us into Turkish society,” says Ali Ekber Kaya, head of a local cultural association in Dersim. “The government knows that if they destroy our environment then they will destroy us.”  

Alevi Kurds and the Munzur Valley  

While Alevism is the largest minority religion in Turkey, the Alevism practiced in Dersim is unique to the Kurds there; they have their own local saints and their beliefs are intricately tied to Dersim’s unique landscape. The Alevi Kurds believe that all things in nature – people, animals, rivers, mountains, and plants – are sacred. The Munzur Valley is considered their spiritual heartland. 

Their religion is a convergence of the mystical teachings of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion that was long practiced in the region. 

The Alevi Kurds pride themselves on being ungovernable – and these peaceful mountains have intermittently transformed into bloodbaths over decades of local rebellions. 

One of the most painful parts of this tumultuous history occurred between 1937 and 1938, when a rebellion among Dersim’s residents resulted in the Turkish army brutally massacring them. The revolt came in response to a Turkish army takeover of the region and the expulsion of Alevi Kurds to other parts of the country.  

According to Turkish researchers, the country’s first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk purchased 20 tons of poisonous mustard gas and 24 twin-engine airplanes from Nazi Germany to use against the Kurdish and Armenian residents in Dersim. The thousands of Armenians living in Dersim at the time were survivors of the Armenian genocide, from 1915 until 1923, and had converted to Alevism to hide their identities.  

During the massacre, the Turkish army indiscriminately killed women and children. In the end, about 40,000 Alevi Kurds were killed. As part of the same operation, the Turkish government officially renamed Dersim “Tunceli,” which means “bronze fist” in Turkish. This violence continues to be etched onto Dersim’s landscapes.  

On the high cliffs of Halbori, located about 20 kilometers from Dersim’s city center, a bare circular imprint can be seen near the edge of the cliffs, bordering the Munzur River. According to elders, this was the site where a group of rebels was cornered by the Turkish army and forced to surrender or jump to their deaths. Locals say the waters of the Munzur River turned crimson red for days from the blood of those who jumped. 

Lush cliffs and trees surround a river. The sky is blue with scattered clouds

The high cliffs of Halbori, where elders say a group of Alevi Kurdish rebels was cornered by the Turkish army and forced to surrender or jump to their deaths via Jaclynn Ashly

The Munzur Valley, nestled between mountains and composed of deep ravines and narrow gorges, was declared a national park in 1971. The Munzur Valley National Park is the largest and most biodiverse national park in Turkey. This, however, did not stop the Turkish army from intentionally setting huge swathes of its forests on fire in the 1990s during its longstanding war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a bloody war for Kurdish autonomy in the east, and armed leftist organizations.  

The Turkish army set alight entire villages and displaced some 15,000 residents over suspicions they were collaborating with the PKK. This environmental destruction resumed in 2015 when a ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government collapsed and hundreds of PKK rebels returned to Dersim’s mountains.  

While the intensity of this conflict has subsided, there are still relics from these grim days. Army and police checkpoints continue to be scattered about the province. Helicopters still flutter loudly above residents’ heads and military watchtowers are perched on the mountaintops, with soldiers constantly surveilling them below.  

Refuge in nature 

Throughout this volatile history, “we have always sought refuge in nature,” explains 65-year-old Bahtiyar Çetin, an activist who lives in a small, wooden house right on the banks of the Munzur River.  

“We do not believe in this government or justice system. If we have problems, we consult with the water, mountains, rocks, and trees – not the state.”  

“This entire place is holy to us,” he continues. “Nature is something we will protect with our lives.” According to Çetin, the balance between the animals, earth, and people in Dersim is delicate – and various stories and practices passed down for generations are designed to maintain it. 

A tanned man in a blue tank top stands with his hands behind his back. He is staring off into the distance. The river flows behind him

Activist Bahtiyar Çetin next to the Munzur River via Jaclynn Ashly

The Alevi Kurds have fantastical legends of local saints that gave names to the mountains, rivers, and streams – animating their natural surroundings with almost human-like qualities. The Munzur River, for instance, is said to have gushed from the ground when Munzur, a local saint, accidentally spilled milk from a pail at the location of what became the source of the river.  

While these legends and myths may sound implausible to the younger generations today, they play an important role in preserving the Alevi Kurds’ connections to their immediate environment; remembering and perpetuating them is perceived as a form of resistance.  

But the government’s plans to harness the energy of the Munzur River through a series of dams threaten the very core of their traditional relationship to the surrounding nature and animals. Çetin believes the rebellious Alevi Kurds are facing their biggest war yet. 

Plans to dam the Munzur River began decades ago, in 1983, just before Turkey’s war would erupt with the PKK. The State Hydraulic Works (DSI), a state agency under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry which is responsible for the utilization of all the country’s water resources, developed a masterplan for the rivers in Dersim, which included six dams and eight hydroelectric power plants, the numbers of which have since risen to 10 and 16, respectively. 

Eight of these projects are located on the Munzur River and its tributaries, six of which were planned within the borders of the national park. In 2003, the first dam constructed within the national park was completed. It was built along the Mercan River, a tributary of the Munzur, capturing the whitewater and collecting it into a pool, blocked by a concrete wall. 

A white house sits in the distance near a shining river. The sky is deep blue and there are hills in the background. The river is lined with lush trees and foliage

Bahtiyar Çetin’s house next to the Munzur River via Jaclynn Ashly

According to 42-year-old Barış Yıldırım, a local Dersim lawyer who has led impressive legal battles against these developments, this dam was too small to flood any nearby villages. However, it decimated the native fish populations. With significantly less water flowing downstream, many fish were not able to survive.  

Soon after these effects were observed, local opposition grew over the project and eventually swelled into a popular resistance movement against all future developments planned around Dersim. 

“We don’t separate ourselves from nature,” Yıldırım explains. “The water from the rivers is no different than the blood in our veins. So when someone hurts the environment, we feel that pain as if it was done to us.” 

Protesters chanting slogans like “Munzur will flow freely!” often traverse across the province’s usually serene and quiet streets, as thousands march from the city center to the banks of the Munzur River, with onlookers applauding and drivers honking in support.  

The environmental impacts of damming have been long documented, causing the inundation of wildlife and forests, restricting the movement of animals, and decreasing the quality of downstream river plains that are often home to very diverse ecosystems. Large dams have led to the extinction of many fish and other aquatic species, the disappearance of birds in floodplains, huge losses of forest, wetland and farmland, and many other immitigable impacts. 

According to Laurent Dissard, a researcher at the University of Toulouse in France who has done extensive research on dams and hydroelectric power plants in Dersim, these developments “usually benefit large-scale irrigation farming in the plains and the electricity produced by their [hydroelectric power plants] is transferred to industries in the lowlands or cities located even further away.” 

“In Turkey and elsewhere across the world, the victims of dam construction are families usually living on subsistence agriculture and belonging to ethnic or religious minorities with very little political voice,” he adds. Livelihood strategies that have been sustained for generations, such as animal herding and beekeeping, would be rendered obsolete. 

According to residents, since the AKP came to power in 2002, things have worsened. 

The bright sun peeks over the hills in the distance as the Munzur River flows past rocks in the foreground.

Munzur Gözeleri, the source of the Munzur River via Jaclynn Ashly

Since the 1980s, Turkey has been liberalizing its economy to attract foreign investment and create jobs, shaped by policies of export subsidies, privatization, and deregulation. The AKP has furthered these policies dramatically, changing various laws regulating private companies and gutting the country’s environmental protections.  

The party has also been accused of modifying laws that regulate the process of private companies procuring state contracts and rewarding these contracts to companies that have ties to AKP party members. 

Around the country, residents who are dependent on their immediate environments say these policies have been devastating. Massive gold mines and infrastructural development projects, often operated jointly by private Turkish and foreign companies, have contaminated the environment and made people sick, with no accountability.  

“I want to see the river move freely” 

In 2009, when the Uzunçayır Dam’s construction was completed, the resistance against damming projects in Dersim mushroomed. Uzunçayır was constructed outside the national park along the Munzur River, blocking the waters near Dersim’s city center.  

According to Yıldırım, Limak Holding, a private Turkish conglomerate, was contracted by the DSI to construct the dam. Limak Holding has close ties to Erdoğan, who has been accused of unlawfully awarding the company public tenders.  

Following the dam’s completion, the water levels began to rise to concerning levels, despite the company having assured residents that the dam would not affect the surrounding localities. As the waters crept closer to Jara Gola Çetu, a holy place for the Alevi Kurds, residents’ anger spilled over.  

Jara Gola Çetu, located at the convergence of the Munzur and Pülümür rivers, is where the Alevi Kurds believe Hızır, another important saint in Dersim, had reconciled with Munzur following a prolonged fight between the two. It is believed that Hızır and Munzur turned into water and joined the sea together. Gola Çetu in the Zazaki language means “Where the waters meet.” 

More than 20,000 people showed up to protest the potential inundation of the site, marching along Dersim’s mountain roads. According to Yıldırım, while the protests were able to save most of the site, some of it was still submerged. The Uzunçayır Dam drowned a countless number of local plane and poplar trees, some of which were more than a hundred years old, residents say.  

Cows in a green field in Ovacik, Munzur Valley, with hills in the background

The landscape of Ovacık via Jaclynn Ashly

Residents say these dams have, together, wreaked havoc on the environment. According to Yıldırım, wild animals – such as mountain goats, bears, and wolves – that had once freely roamed the valleys are now sighted less often. The population of a Salmon species, endemic to the Munzur River, has been depleted.  

Dersim’s micro-climate has been greatly affected, locals say, with Dersim’s picturesque snow-tipped mountains receiving less snow each year. This melting snow feeds the Munzur River and its tributaries. Residents say the waters of the Munzur River have become depleted.  

The Dersim area sits on an intersection point of two seismic fault lines, which makes the region prone to earthquakes. Large dam reservoirs can trigger earthquakes by the weight of the water increasing stress on the earth or by decreasing the strength of the rock under the reservoir owing to groundwater pore pressure. 

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck central and southern Turkey last year, killing more than 50,000 people, has raised concerns over potential natural disasters among Dersim’s residents.  

Despite virtually unanimous opposition across Dersim to these damming projects, the Turkish government and its private contractors have continued to push them through. The Alevi Kurds, therefore, are forced to remain vigilant.  

Protest and resistance 

Dersim’s ongoing resistance has consisted of mostly nonviolent protests and international campaigns operating under the slogan “Save Munzur.” They also employ direct civil disobedience strategies.  

Activists have taken to camping near the river as soon as construction work on a dam begins, as well as standing in front of drilling machines where construction has commenced. 

These protests in the past have erupted into deadly clashes between demonstrators and the state gendarmerie and private security companies, in which gunshots have been exchanged and people wounded.  

An army watchtower perched on a mountain in Dersim via Jaclynn Ashly

Some have attempted to sabotage the projects. Members of the Liberation Army of Turkey’s Workers and Villagers (TIKKO), the guerilla arm of the Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist Leninist (TKP/ML), have over the years targeted dams and hydroelectric power plants throughout Dersim, including placing bombs inside control rooms of the plants and threatening to kill on-site engineers and guards if they continue working on the projects. 

In 2014, Yıldırım won in Turkey’s highest court to halt the construction of the Konaktepe dam, which was one of several projects formulated in 1998 in a deal between Turkey and the United States’ Department of Commerce. It was planned along the Munzur River and inside the national park.  

Despite this win, the government has continued to push forward with the project and expropriate land in the mountains where the Konaktepe dam was to be built, he says.  

Yıldırım has also been petitioning for the closure of Mercan and Uzunçayır for years now, but has not had the same success. “I hope one day we can close all of these dams on Munzur and her tributaries,” he tells me. “I want to see her move freely without any government or company trying to control her.” 

The river is life 

During a recent visit to Dersim, I accompanied residents to a traditional Alevi ceremony. They gathered at a mountain called Düzgün Baba and gave thanks to the earth, animals, and the local saint Düzgün, after whom the mountain is named. As we drove along the windy mountain roads, we were stopped at a flying police checkpoint, strategically situated at the entrance to the mountain.  

A man dressed in white with a grey vest and head scarf crouches with a woman in a yellow top, blue head scarf, and white trousers. The man is holding a stick. They appear to be atop a hill with mountains in the background

Attendees pray during a traditional Alevi ceremony at Düzgün Baba via Jaclynn Ashly

The Turkish officers stopped each car, checked everyone’s IDs, and asked them to open their trunks, causing a traffic jam on the way to the ceremony.  

“They are always trying to put themselves between us and nature,” one resident angrily quipped. “They want us to forget our connection to this land.” 

It is a sentiment that has traveled across generations – surviving on the tongues of elders who witnessed ghastly massacres and finding life again in the shouts of activists fighting against dams and hydroelectric power plants that threaten their way of life.  

On the way back from the ceremony, I came across Firdevis, an elderly Alevi woman who was seated outside her house, surrounded by her large family. Firdevis also requested her last name not be published. She says she has lost track of her age, but that she is “probably in her 70s.”  

Firdevis does not know much about the infrastructural projects planned around Dersim, but says she has noticed that the Munzur River’s waters are not as high as they used to be. One of her daughters quickly educates her on the adverse impacts of dams and hydroelectric power plants on the environment.  

Firdevis sits quietly, scrunching her face in seemingly deep thought, pondering on these consequences. “I want to go to the river and pray without anything or anyone between me and the river,” she finally says. 

A close-up of an elderly woman with a black and white patterned top. She is wearing a red head scarf lined with tassles framing her face. She looks directly at the camera with a deep, solemn expression

Firdevis outside of her home in Dersim via Jaclynn Ashly

“And what do you think will happen to us if these companies continue to disturb our rivers?” Firdevis’ daughter asks her. 

Firdevis turns her head in the direction of the Munzur River and says, simply: “If Munzur dies, then we die.” 

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