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“Trees can’t be ripped up by the root and replanted in new soil”: stories of Crimean Tatars who survived the deportation

At dawn on May 18, 1944, with a maximum of 15 minutes to gather their belongings, under pressure and coercion from the USSR security services, nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatars were forced to leave their homes. Most of them never returned.

This marked the onset of the genocide of the Crimean Tatar people orchestrated by the Soviet authorities. 67 train echelons with freight wagons were dispatched from Crimea, effectively uprooting an entire nation along with its language, culture, religion, and collective memory. A mere two days later, on May 20, the NKVD (the interior ministry of the Soviet Union) and other law enforcement agencies involved in the deportation of the Crimean Tatars reported to the Kremlin on the “purging” of the peninsula.

Crimean Tatar youth in Crimea before the outbreak of World War II.
Photo: archive of Hulnara Bekirova

Those responsible for this crime have never been punished, and modern Russia has inherited the traditions of the Stalinist regime and is still trying to destroy the Crimean Tatars. After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, they were again forced to leave their homeland. 

This time, however, they are fighting for their right to return home during their lifetime, some – with arms in hand.

Voices of deportation survivors

According to the Department of Special Settlements of the NKVD of the USSR, by November 1944, 193,865 Crimean Tatars were in exile: 151,136 of them in the Uzbek SSR, 8,597 in the Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and 4,286 in the Kazakh SSR. Another 30,000 were distributed “for use in labor” in various regions of Soviet Russia. This number does not include almost 6,000 who were sent directly to the Gulag (a system of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union). 

The journey to the “special settlements” usually took about 2-3 weeks. Freight wagons, where the security services forced women, children, and the elderly, were not suitable for living: no water, no food, and not even a toilet. Almost 8,000 Crimean Tatars died on the way. No time was given for their burial; the bodies had to be left along the railroad tracks.

The Tamirlar multimedia platform has collected stories of Crimean Tatars who managed to survive the deportation and exile.

Said, Yevpatoriіa

“I remember that night well: on May 18, 1944, I was to be 10 years old. At four in the morning, soldiers came to our house. At home was my mother, me and three other children. We were told that we were being evicted and had only 15 minutes to pack. No one explained anything. My mother dressed us all hastily in 20 minutes, and at five in the morning, we were already at the train station. We were put into carriages, 60 people each, but nobody knew where they were taking us. To be shot? To hang? There was panic and tears all around.

When we arrived in Samarkand, we were taken to the Spartak stadium and led to a bathhouse to wash. The clothes we had left behind were burned or stolen. So, we were dressed in the clothes of wounded or killed soldiers and allocated to districts. We ended up in the village of Chirek, Payaryk district, Samarkand province.

We slept under the school door the first days, then went to work on the collective farm. This is where we caught malaria. About a week later, elderly people started dying, but there was nothing to bury them in. We gathered in groups of 25-30 people to bury them together somehow. Here, I lost my father, brothers, and sisters, and then my mother died too. I only have an older sister left.”

Due to the lack of clean water, hygiene, and lack of medical care, malaria, dysentery, and yellow fever began to spread among the deportees.

According to the NKVD of the Uzbek SSR, 30,000 Crimean Tatars died in Uzbekistan alone in the first year and a half after the deportation. The total number of Crimean Tatars who died during the deportation varies from 20% to 46%, depending on different estimates.

Deported representatives of the indigenous people were assigned the status of “special migrants.” This involved constant surveillance by repressive Soviet structures, registration in commandants’ offices, and forced physical labor at exhausting jobs.

Khalidе, Yalta

“There were three girls in our family: a brother at war, my mother, and my grandmother. That day, my pregnant sister’s husband was taken away to the labor army. So that she would not be left alone, my sister Euphete was with her. At night, there was a knock at our door. Only my grandmother, me, and my mother were at home. They got us up and gave us 15 minutes to pack. My grandmother took the Koran and a little bundle she had prepared for the funeral.

We were thrown into freight wagons, and everywhere was very dirty. Two people next to us died. We were traveling and saw how other wagons were leaving corpses on the road…..

On June 6, 1944, we were brought to Khakulabad station in the Namangan region. There was no one around, as if the village had died out. My grandmother knelt down and started reciting the Elham prayer. The locals looked out of their yards — they were frightened. Later, we were already settled in our houses. The locals, like us, were starving.

I was the healthiest in our family, so they sent me to the mill to get wheat. My mother warned us not to eat apricots and not to drink water. That year, many people died of dysentery.”

The Stalin regime justified the expulsion of Crimean Tatars from the peninsula by baseless accusations of collaboration with the Nazis, who occupied Crimea from 1941 to 1944. The facts say otherwise: Crimean Tatars were part of the Soviet army and fought in World War II against Nazi Germany. In particular, 21 Crimean Tatars were awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union,” and the prominent pilot of Crimean Tatar origin, Amet-Khan Sultan, received this title twice. 

Amet Khan Sultan, 1945.
Photo: Ukrainian Institute of National Memory

For decades, the communist regime of the USSR and later Russia deliberately spread the myth of Crimean Tatars as traitors. The same rhetoric is being used by the occupying country today to sow hostility and harassment in the temporarily occupied Crimea.

Voices of those who returned

Even after Stalin’s death, the Crimean Tatars were never restored their rights or allowed to return to their homeland. In fact, the exile continued. But since 1967, Crimean Tatars have made numerous attempts to return to their own land in Crimea. The Crimean Tatar National Movement for Return was one of the most effective and vivid protest movements in the USSR. The real mass repatriation began in 1987.

The new generations of Crimean Tatars who did manage to return home first heard about Crimea from their parents or grandparents. However, most of them did not have a chance to see the peninsula as in those stories from their childhood.

Isa Akaiev

Commander of the Crimea battalion

Photo: Personal archive

“My maternal grandmother told me the most about Crimea. She talked about pears. She said: “Do you know what pears are like there? They are like honey. You bite them, and they melt in your mouth. When they are ripe, they are soaked in Crimea’s air, sun, and soil. Only in paradise are there such fruits.”

She talked about nature, architecture, and people. But when I returned in 1989, I was disappointed. I did not see the Crimea from her memories. I saw something completely different. Dirt, mess everywhere, drunkenness. No one wanted to see us there. All this junk that the Russians brought there. It was hard for me. 

However, I returned home. I felt it. I was sure that I was home. And all those who called me a newcomer were the descendants of those who deported Crimean Tatars, destroyed our homes, and stole our lands. 

They didn’t just deport the people; they tried to destroy us, to destroy our language, our names. They even destroyed Crimean Tatar cemeteries. Not a single Crimean Tatar cemetery from before 1989 survived. They used the gravestones to build foundations for cowsheds and pigsties and laid stairs to clubs and village councils.

Those mosques that they failed to destroy were turned into bars and clubs. They changed the topographical names. They tried to erase us.”

The deportation of Crimean Tatars was part of Russia’s colonial policy. Russians moved into empty and abandoned houses en masse. Crimean Tatar names of cities and settlements were replaced by Russian ones. Crimean Tatar schools were destroyed. Crimea itself was transformed from an Autonomous Republic into the Crimean region in a short period of time. 

“After the main wave of Crimean Tatars returned, Crimea began to change,” says Isa. “New mosques appeared with many believers, schools with the Crimean Tatar language, and places of compact settlement of Crimean Tatars. We all began to feel that we had returned home. We were euphoric, just happy to be there.

I often tell the guys (fellow defenders – ed.) that we will return to Crimea and have three main tasks: reviving our language, culture, and religion. Without this, we are nothing. Until we revive this, we cannot be a full-fledged nation.”

Those Crimean Tatars who did manage to return to their homeland earlier often faced discrimination from Russians.

Asiіe, Crimean Tatar and resident of Crimea

“We arrived in Crimea at the end of November 1977. We were accommodated in such a way that there were no windows, doors, floor, or light. 

There were five children in the family, and my parents and grandmother came back with us. My younger brother was in the service. I decided to write to him about how we were settled. His commander helped us. 

The head of the village council came to us on a weekend morning. She told my father that we had complained about our living conditions. We didn’t even have a stove, even though it was late fall outside. We got electricity, glass windows, and a floor about a week later. 

The head of the village council in this settlement was Russian, and we were treated badly there. My grandmother was almost 80 years old at the time. And because she could not work, they refused to sell her bread in the local store. Even though she came with money. 

After that, we relocated to a much better place. We were given a house, and that’s how we started living.”

After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, Russia continued the “traditions” of the Stalin regime in colonizing the peninsula and displacing Crimean Tatars. Those who did not leave after the occupation face repression, illegal detention, and enforced disappearances every day. 

On the night of February 27, 2014, Russian soldiers without insignia seized the Crimean government building.
Photo: Virtual Museum of Russian Aggression

According to the Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, as of April 2024, Russia illegally detained 217 political prisoners, 134 of whom are Crimean Tatars

“I do not feel at home in Crimea now,” Asiіe continues, “We live in fear. We worry about our children and grandchildren. We live in very scary times.

After the occupation, things got really bad. We are not considered human beings here, as if there are no Crimean Tatars and never were. Russians are doing everything to destroy both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars.”

A state of repression, occupation, and genocide

Throughout its existence, the communist totalitarian regime relied on crimes of repression, murder, deportation, and genocide. 

Even before 1944 and the genocide of the Crimean Tatar people, the Stalinist regime had killed millions of Ukrainians by creating an artificial mass famine in 1932-1933. And the flywheel of Soviet repression never stopped. Today, the Russian Federation is the successor to these practices.

After the occupation of Crimes, Russia once again seeks to destroy any national memory of the Crimean Tatars, cultural monuments, books, language, and religion. Most of the politically motivated cases against the Crimean Tatars are aimed at them because they are Muslims. 

Russia does not tolerate differences and diversity and, therefore, does not perceive any other nation as autonomous and free. It has made a multicultural and multi-religious peninsula burned and looted. And will continue to do so until Crimea is liberated. 

It needs to be stopped, and as soon as possible. So that this time, Crimean Tatars could return home within their lifetime. So that their children could see the land of the sweetest pears for themself and not just through stories.