The Big Cleansing (Introduction for The Pack)


This is the English translation of the Prologue of my book The Pack: Histories of dogs and humans in former Yugoslavia. The prologue tells a tale of early 20th century Istanbul, when the Young Turks cleansed the streets of stray dogs.


The Big Cleansing

(Istanbul, May 1910)


Order had to prevail in the streets. This was the twentieth century and from now on, problems would be dealt with differently. More thoroughly.

The dogs allowed themselves to be easily caught, these rough-haired strays, the keepers of the night. They were at home on the streets of Istanbul and felt, in spite of everything, safe. Of course, some of the locals used to beat them up, but that was not common. More often the other participants in the Ottoman street parade came up to them with a rib, a dried sucuk sausage, or scraps of minced dough.

The job had been outsourced to the Roma who did it for the money. In 1909, residents of Istanbul had protested in the streets, so this time the operation had to be orderly, without human screams or dog barks. That didn’t really work out. Some dog catchers set off in pursuit, and when the free dogs were swoosh-swoosh caught in the noose, their howls echoed through the streets.

The animals were brought on a cart to a remote neighborhood in the Topkapı district, where they were transferred to specially-prepared kennels. Everything had been arranged in advance. This is how the dogs fared in the first two weeks of May 1910. Until the kennels became increasingly full.

What was their fate? How long could they stay in Topkapı, and who would feed the quadrupeds, provide them with water, look them in the eye? Each new day, the air trembled with the heat and the swelling chorus of dogs. The residents of Topkapı had let the municipality know with an official letter that they would not be able to keep this up for long; the noise was getting on their nerves and keeping them from sleeping. Some dogs escaped and ran back to the streets of the Beyoğlu neighborhood where the smells were familiar, as were the sounds of shopkeepers and butchers, beggars and orphans, cats and rats.

The rest remained behind bars, waiting for what was to come.

On May 30, the time came. The first shipload went on a transport to the deserted island of Sivriada. The rock off the coast of Istanbul was also known in the city as Hayırsızada — the barren island. Whoever went there met with disaster. On Sivriada there was no food or drink available, no fresh water, no shade, no shelter. These dogs, the street dogs of Istanbul, were expected to die there.

A dog is often curious, but on Sivriada this quickly turned to agony. In the hot sun, the distraught animals sought coolness. They ran back and forth along the swaying waves that left stains on the stones that evaporated quickly. The dogs bent their heads and licked the salty water, flinched, tried again, whined. At their wits end, they again relied on their noses, which they bravely kept up sniffing in the sea air. Perhaps they could catch the scent of escape in the swirling wind.

Paul Remlinger, a French physician who worked for the Bacteriological Institute of Istanbul, considered it a “barbaric” solution. A year before, he had presented another plan—much more civilized as well as economically interesting. A dead dog could yield money, through its fat or fur. Remlinger therefore proposed a “clean” cleansing process using a sealed chamber in which the dog packs could be killed with gas. A French entrepreneur had expressed interest in buying up the furs for his glove business, but it never came to pass. The rulers did not care about these foreigners with their solutions; now it was it was their turn to act.

Every day boats arrived with about twenty new dogs that still had the strenght to run around. An indescribable stench of death, feces and decomposition hung in the air. The story goes that the hysterical chorus of dogs could be heard as far away as the streets of Istanbul. Some worried residents took a boat and tried to reach the island with some water or offal, but the dog mobs were too big and too hungry. On June 12, the French illustrator George Goursat Sem sailed to Sivriada and saw how the dogs tried to clamber higher and higher onto the rocks. “It looked like a gigantic pyramid of dogs.”

In the cleansing of 1910, more than 60,000 dogs disappeared from the streets of Istanbul. The initiative for this action came from the just-installed regime of the so-called Young Turks, who emerged from the Committee of Union and Progress. In 1908, these reformers had seized power of the Ottoman Empire—which had been in decline for decades, if not centuries—by means of a coup d’état. Change was coming. The Young Turks wanted to cleanse the huge, porous country where unworldly sultans tried to rule over a few dozen peoples who adhered to all kinds of religions in different versions and communicated with each other in many languages and in as many dialects. On three continents.

At the lyceums and academies of Paris and Geneva, they came to the bitter conclusion that the Ottoman Empire had indeed become the “Sick Man of Europe”. Things had to change. The Young Turks found their solutions in the ideas of the Enlightenment—which put an end to the “divine order”—and the French Revolution—which put an end to dynasties and aristocrats.

For decades, the Committee of Union and Progress had worked on a program to reform the empire from within. They wanted nothing less than a total clean-up, so that from now on the empire could compete with the European powerhouses of the day.

In light of these ideals, the cities, especially Istanbul, received a makeover. If the messy Ottoman capital was to become as grandiose, modern, impressive, and progressive as fin-de-siècle Paris, then clearing out the street dogs was a simple, first step.


The cleansing shocked many Istanbul residents, perhaps by its cold-hearted efficiency more than by its cruelty. After all, this was not the first time that reformers had emerged in the Ottoman Empire, but this time, the insurgents pushed rigorously ahead. When British diplomat Robert Sykes walked through the Ottoman capital in 1913, he believed that a new era had truly dawned: “The streets are cleaner, the roads smoother, the dogs have disappeared but the cholera has remained. There are fewer turbans to be seen, fewer horses, fewer soldiers, but more officers, more newspapers, more ruins.” Sykes observed and saw how the impending wars were reflected in this cleansing frenzy: “The dogs were killed with the same cruel fury, merciless and senseless stupidity with which the honest soldiers were discarded in 1912 [during the First Balkan War – GvH].”

He was right. The dog-cleansing heralded the grand finale of the Ottoman Empire. In 1912, an alliance of Slavic armies in the Balkans had inflicted a disastrous defeat on the weakened Ottoman Army, and during World War I (1914-1918) and subsequent wars in Asia Minor (Anatolia), the Ottoman Empire disappeared from the map forever. With its end, the region also lost its colorful, multicultural character. On the ruins of the bygone empire, new “modern” nation-states emerged, which were organized and designed according to the principles of nationalism: a people must speak the same language and share the same culture in order to function as a state.

In those confusing years, several purges were carried out to that end, both in the Balkans and in Asia Minor. Greeks, Bulgarians, and Kurds no longer felt at home in the areas where they had lived for centuries and sought refuge elsewhere. At the same time, Turks and other Muslims fled from the Balkans. In the spirit of these migrations and the division of territory, the Young Turks decided in 1915 to perform a “cleansing” on what they considered to be superfluous Armenians. In Istanbul, they went door to door and transported the Armenians from the capital to Anatolia, where they were then executed. In 1916, the Young Turks sent thousands and thousands of defenseless men, women, and children on a death march through the Syrian desert. The people, deprived of drinking water, were expected to die there.

This mass murder was the first genocide of the twentieth century in Europe. Many more would follow, until the 1990s, when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia fell apart.



The world is a messy place for humans and animals alike.

Indeed, after the 1910 “cleansing”, the stray dogs simply returned to the streets of Istanbul. And stayed. The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk spoke of them in his memoirs: “When I walked home from my office every night between 1975 and 1995 at around three or four o’clock, I was not afraid of the packs of dogs I met. At least I pretended not to be afraid, and like all Istanbul residents, I was good at it.” He immortalized the animals in several stories and wrote of them with compassion: “Since the sixteenth century, the dog packs have ruled the nocturnal city. The people of Istanbul are very fond of the dogs, who guard the place and also do some cleaning work by eating garbage. This affection has more to do with the fact that people are used to sharing the street with the dogs during the day than with religion.”

For Pamuk, the street dogs symbolized the Ottoman Empire. They were, he believed, the “last vestiges” of the “oriental” life of the past, which also consisted of harems, slave markets, Ottoman dress, Arabic script, the army units of the cruel Janissaries, the porters with their heavy burdens on their backs, and the Islamic graves and cemeteries. He contrasted them with the “Western” lapdogs, the pedigreed thoroughbreds and the domestic dogs who stay inside by the warm stove and the full dig bowl.

East and West.

The rawness of street life and the order of the living room.

Bastard dogs and animals with pedigrees.

These are bold oppositions, and there is much one could do to counter them, if only for the unmistaken (self-)orientalization. Yet Pamuk is right that street dogs are always more than just dogs, and they can quickly and frequently be politicized. This is also the case, to this day, in the other former Ottoman areas of the Balkans. Stray dogs in Serbia and Bosnia are regularly “cleared” as a part of the process of “Europeanization”, which in turn should lead to their joining the European Union. At the same time, the European Union urges these countries to respect animal rights and to treat stray dogs as fully-fledged creatures. In short: it is “European” not to have stray dogs on the streets, but if they are there, it is “European” not to do them any harm. This sometimes leads to confusion, especially among government officials in the region. Also, many citizens in countries like Serbia and Bosnia find it unsavoury that so much attention is paid to the rights of stray animals while people are struggling with extreme poverty. This applies not only to Serbia and Bosnia, but also for Bulgaria, Romania, and Albania.

The Great Dog Cleansing of 1910 in Istanbul tells the story of freedom and violence in the streets during the final days of the Ottoman Empire—a prelude to the twentieth century. Similarly, the street dogs in the Yugoslav successor states Bosnia and Serbia tell a story of freedom and violence—a conclusion to that same century. During the wars of succession in the 1990s, people abandoned their dogs on the streets, either because they had no food for themselves or because they had to flee the advancing armies coming down from the mountains. On the streets, the animals multiplied and grouped together in new packs. A loner would not survive. In Bosnia, “superfluous” human beings were persecuted, raped, and dumped in mass graves. The radical nationalists wanted to settle the last remnants of what they saw as the cultural chaos of Ottoman culture in the Balkans once and for all.

The new freedom for the street dogs was a violent one. In addition to the animal struggles on the streets—fights for territories with other packs—the dogs had to beware of bombs, gunfire, grenades, and poison. The dogs did not disappear from the streets with the end of the wars in 1995 and 1999. The transition to a liberal, capitalist democracy did not bring wealth—it brought quite the opposite, in fact. A clique of war veterans and their criminal friends kept themselves and each other in power, especially in the rump state of Yugoslavia, which was divided into the states of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. In the ethnically separated parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a political class that did not have the best interests of the population at heart developed. The poverty that followed the peace meant that people still left their superfluous dogs behind, in the dirt. These four-legged friends grew into walking symbols of the disrupted societies that took shape in the successor states of Yugoslavia.

These dogs—these free dogs—have a story to tell.



My first encounter with the “free dogs” was a pleasant one. In 2005, I was living as a student in the Belgrade neighborhood of Zvezdara. Around the large student complex, named after a Montenegrin-Bosniak partisan hero of World War II, dogs were begging for food. I liked them, precisely because they were off leash. That freedom gave them a certain kind of honesty. They didn’t have to bark to defend their fenced-in territories, they didn’t have to protect a boss, they didn’t have to do anything. They went where their noses took them, and lived in the freedom of the moment. The thing that appealed to me most in them was their habit of sleeping in the middle of the street—paws out to the side—at the bus stop or on the sidewalk.

Later on, in 2013 in Sarajevo, I got to know the flip side of the free dogs roaming the streets. At the time, the Bosnian capital was teeming with street dogs. Huge packs roamed the streets and they were threatening, especially at night. I was working on a different book at the time, but followed the heated discussions in the local media. The question of whether the dogs be put down en masse or not arose. And what the European Union think of that. And whether Bosnian law would allow it?

Then I took up the plan to write the story of these street dogs, and now there is this book: The Pack. It is a history at knee or hip level. A great deal has been written about the end of Yugoslavia, and countless books have been published on ethnicity, geopolitics, nationalism, populism, the distortion of history, and the expansion of the EU. Almost all of these studies explore the question of how the ethnic and religious identities of former Yugoslav peoples relate to one another. This book goes beyond the ethnic fixations of all those otherwise very instructive and insightful studies and tells the story of animals that are not troubled by ethnicity,  history, or a family tree. The narrative perspective is therefore also different. Dogs smell and listen. They sense violence and freedom. They defend themselves, attack, escape, and sleep on the streets. They have no knowledge of identity. Of glorious histories and historical traumas, they know even less. But they do know about territory and the drive of the pack.

I drew inspiration from the work of the cosmopolitan writer Elias Canetti and the Japanese street photographer Daidō Moriyama. Canetti presented animals as symbols of human masses, how they swarm, swell and disintegrate, how they make history and break it, how they’re barking and howling, destroying and shaping the world. According to Canetti, man is a ‘metamorphic animal’ and in a controversial essay he wrote that a writer ought to be ‘the dog of his time’ and must live accordingly: ‘he sticks his moist snout everywhere, he turns back, he starts again, he is insatiable’. I found something similar, though in photographs, in the work of Daidō Moriyama. In 1971, he made an iconic photo of a stray dog ​​in Misawa, north of Aomori, Japan. The photo captured the feelings of the culture of post-war Japan, as it was tainted by damage and disgrace. This dog became Moriyama’s alter ego, his totem. With his work Moriyama teaches people to look at their immediate environment like a stray dog, without a plan and without a goal. He shows the streets as they are, in all brutal beauty and raw elegance.

In the spirit of Canetti and Moriyama I went through matter like a stray dog: sniffing, associating and feeling. The stories of dogs and humans nevertheless begin in the past and end in the present. Geographically, the dogs roam the towns of Zenica, Bor, Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Tuzla, and spiritually they trip through the imaginations of writers and poets such as Milovan Djilas, Curzio Malaparte, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and Dubravka Ugrešić.

Hopefully, the reportages and histories in this book will provide food for thought about our relationship to all those human and non-human animals we share the streets with, inspiring us to wander and get lost.