Tatars fight for recognition in Crimea
* Benoît Hopquin
* Guardian Weekly, Friday 24 March 2006
Leman Ametov has spent his life repairing the injustice Stalin inflicted on his family and the Crimean Tatar community 60 years ago by banishing them to central Asia. Ametov, 59, returned to Crimea shortly before the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tens of thousands of others have made the same journey, determined to recover what they consider to be their rightful homes.More than 250,000 uprooted Tatars or their descendants have settled on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula; just as many are still waiting for an opportunity to return. Every day whole families arrive in the Crimean city of Simferopol with their scanty belongings. The Tatar community lives mainly in the poor quarters of towns or in remote valleys. With almost 60% unemployment, conditions are extremely difficult. During their exile others have taken their place, and the pro-Russian authorities in Crimea are doing little to facilitate integration. On the other hand the Ukrainian government in Kiev, which came to power after the "orange revolution" of December 2004, is encouraging their return, keen to change the balance of power in a largely hostile area. The Tatars are among the few supporters of change in Crimea, and their representative assembly, the majlis, belongs to the coalition formed by President Viktor Yuschenko, with two members of parliament. Ametov works as a caretaker at Yalta's Livadia palace, where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin carved up eastern Europe in February 1945. He chose this historic setting to tell us his story.
May 18, 1944, the kara gün, was a black day for the Tatars. Early in the morning officers of the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB) burst into their homes, giving them 20 minutes to collect their belongings. They pushed everybody on to lorries, shooting anyone who showed any sign of resistance, then loaded them into cattle trucks at the station, marking the start of a journey into the unknown that would last several weeks. Survivors recall that each time the train stopped, corpses were thrown from the trucks. Most of the Tatars ended up in Uzbekistan, 3,000km from home, but some were sent to Kazakhstan or the Urals. On May 20 a report to the Kremlin announced that 180,000 of the 218,000 Tatars registered as living in Crimea before the war had been deported. Tens of thousands died on the way or in the months that followed, the victims of malnutrition, ill-treatment, typhus or the firing squad. Some 11,000 Tatars ended up in labour camps. A message sent to Stalin's secret police chief, Beria, read: "Crimea has been cleansed."
No time had been wasted implementing decree 5859, signed by Stalin on May 11. It accused the Tatars of "collaborating with the German occupation authorities" and "betraying the motherland". About 20,000 deserters did join the German forces; Moscow banished the entire community as punishment. Iikia Mamoutov, Ametov's father, was no traitor. A party member, he believed in the Bolshevik revolution, duly joining the Red Army and fighting the Nazis. Yet the NKVD evicted him from his home in Bakhchisaray and deported him with his wife to a collective farm in Uzbekistan. "When they reached Samarkand, he built a little house on the plot of land he was allocated and became a carpenter. He lost all faith in communism," says Ametov.
They were not allowed to travel, a capital offence, and they had to report regularly to the police. Their Soviet passports were stamped "Tatar". As outcasts, their language was banned and every movement closely watched. Ametov was born in 1946. Although the history books omitted any mention of the sürgün (exile) of 1944, his family made sure he never forgot. They gave him an idealised picture of Crimea too. "My father would tell me how the grass grew so high, it came up to your chest, with huge flocks of sheep, superb wines and tobacco famous all over Europe. It was our land and our people knew all its secrets." After 1956 and Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's excesses, conditions improved. In 1964 Ametov's father obtained a special permit and they were able to visit the homeland. "He found his house, but Russians were living there. They called us enemies of the Soviet Union and slammed the door in our face," he says. Everything, even place names, had been Russianised, effacing seven centuries of Tatar presence in Crimea. He and his father went back to Uzbekistan disgusted. A slow rehabilitation process started in 1967. "Every day my father would look at the paper, hoping we could at last go home," says Ametov. But neither of his parents made it. He went to university, specialising in law, married and had two children. But he did not forget. "Uzbekistan never felt like home."
In 1989 the Tatars were finally allowed to return to Crimea, still part of the USSR. A year later Ametov dropped everything and took off for Simferopol with the equivalent of €1,000 in cash. He scraped a living, doing odd jobs, then joined a security firm. In 1991 he swapped his Soviet passport for a Ukrainian one. At the market in Orlinoye, a town of 3,000 people about 40km southeast of Sebastopol, Adem Mahmudov, 24, runs a small cafe selling Tatar specialities. "Some of [the local people] accept us, but the others reject us completely," he says. "Sometimes they shout at me, 'Go back to Tashkent. You don't belong here'." There is a climate of mutual distrust. The Russian and Tatar communities both have longstanding claims to the Crimean peninsula, which has often changed hands. The Tatars moved here after the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. They swore allegiance to the Ottoman empire, which granted them a degree of autonomy. In 1783 Catherine the Great annexed Crimea. The Russians, who now make up 60% of Crimea's population, claim that the Tatars, with their high birthrate, are trying to swamp them. Tatars account for 10% of the population (compared with only 0.1% in 1979). Religion also causes friction: the Tatars are Muslims, the Russians are Eastern Orthodox Christians. Tatar schools and a university have opened in Simferopol. The government in Kiev has allocated land and paid for housing, with scholarships and civil service jobs for Tatars. A recent agreement with Uzbekistan has simplified the formalities for exiles wanting to return. "Life is a bit easier now," Mahmudov agrees.
There remains the tricky question of confiscated property. Asan Lialibov, 30, whose family was deported to Samarkand in 1948 and returned only in 1990, says: "My grandparents owned land, a house and livestock, but they lost it all." It was given to people uprooted from other parts of the Soviet Union. Valeri Krylov's grandparents, for instance, arrived here in 1947 from Siberia. They moved into an abandoned house near Yalta. "It was a big, two-storey house, completely empty," says Krylov. Three generations of his family have occupied and improved it, and there is no question of giving it up now. "It's our heritage," he says.
As for Ametov, he would love to recover his father's house in Bakhchisaray. "I'd turn it into a palace," he says