May 18th is the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide. This day in 1944 marked the start of the operation of forced resettlement of Crimeans to Uzbekistan and the Urals region which led to the deportation of more than 180,000 Crimean Tatars in just two days.
By different estimates, between 25% and 45% of deported people died on the way and in the so-called special settlements. In 2016, all public remembrance ceremonies for this tragic date in Crimea were banned by the Russian Federation authorities.
There isn’t a single Crimean Tatar family whose members were not deported. A whole people was deprived of its Motherland. Ukrayinska Pravda tells the stories of five families.
SULEYMAN CEMİLEV (SULEYMAN DZHEMILEV), oncologist at the National Cancer Institute, and RUSTEM CEMİLEV (RUSTEM DZHEMILEV), student
My father was born in Ayan, a village in Crimea, to a family with seven children. His elder brother fought in WWII, his father helped the partisan movement. When Crimea was occupied by Germans, many went to join the partisan resistance together with their families, with their cattle even.
On January 3, 1944 the Germans circled several thousand civilians at a reststop under one of the villages and started firing machine guns at them. My father’s younger siblings were there, and as they all tried to escape, two of them, Suleyman and Zekiye aged five and three, were killed. I was named after Suleyman, and I named my daughter after Zekiye.
The Germans captured my grandfather and wanted to send him to Germany to be a forced laborer. The barge with forced laborers was shelled, and my grandfather drowned, as he couldn’t swim.
My father and his surviving siblings were deported to the Urals region by the Soviets. There, one of his sisters died and another went missing. His elder brother came back from the frontline without a leg to find that his family had been deported. He had a fight with the NKVD officer and stormed out of the village to the nearest train station — we know nothing of his fate, but we suspect the NKVD officer might have caught up with him on the way.
The story of Crimean Tatars from the Arabat Spit still brings tears to my eyes — they simply forgot to deport them, so they put several villages on a barge and drowned it in the Sea of Azov. When I found out about this in my student years in Toshkent, I couldn’t but join the National Movement.
Several days before the deportation, all adult men were ordered to join the labor army and go dig trenches and build fortifications. The regime had already encountered resistance from the Chechens, who were also deported between February 23 and March 9. So they wanted to make sure that when deportation started only women, the elderly and children would be home.
My mother had five siblings. Luckily, all of them survived in those freight cars that were used for transporting people. In 1944, my father was 17 and my mother was 18. They both worked in logging and lived in the barracks until 1953. My mother remembered they were treated like cattle and food was constantly lacking.
My elder brother and I were born in the Urals. I was two when we moved to Uzbekistan in 1961. We lived like regular Soviet people, our family was very poor. Our parents worked very hard. We raised ourselves. Our parents constantly talked about Crimea.
We were told at school that ‘Crimean Tatar’ is not a real nationality. Once in our high school graduation year, all of us skipped an Uzbek language class. The principal lined us up and asked one by one why we had done that. Unexpectedly to myself, I suddenly said: "Because I would prefer to study my native Crimean Tatar language."
For the next three hours our classroom teacher who was a Russian German, the principal who was Jewish and a teacher who was Ukrainian — so they were all minorities themselves — kept telling me: "If you keep up this attitude, all roads will be closed for you." We knew that all roads were closed for us anyway, so we studied hard. We worshiped education.
In 1989, many Crimean Tatars started going back to Crimea. By that time I was 31, a practicing ENT doctor, married with a daughter. I quit my job and went to Crimea, too. Nobody wanted us there. I was prepared to go to the most remote places, but as soon as chiefs at the hospitals saw my nationality, they "ran out of vacancies".
My brother and I started building a house, We had some savings, but in order to finish it we had to go back to Uzbekistan to work for 3–4 months in the wintertime. Our parents helped us, too — sending money through acquaintances who took a Toshkent—Simferopol flight. We called it ‘Tatar post’.
To get a job in Crimea, I studied for a narrow specialization of ENT oncologist at the All-Union Oncological Center in Moscow. This made me a rare professional, and I got employed.
The 1990s were very difficult. My wife and I baked baklava at night, and I traveled to Yalta to sell it. One time, my co-workers saw me and started making fun of me, but I said: "I’m not asking you for money nor stealing money from you. I just make baklava and sell it after work." The jokes stopped.
We finished building the house when I was 40. We knew that our parents’ job was to survive, our job was to go back to Crimea and settle there, and our children’s job will be rebuilding it.
On February 26, 2014 when the Crimean Tatars gathered under the Supreme Council of Crimea to protest against the annexation I was in the operating room. In just a couple of days, I felt it became difficult to breathe, as if we were covered by an invisible cage.
At the hospital, many people were happy at first. The monthly salary of a doctor grew to about $1000. I kept getting invitations to conferences in Tatarstan and the Russian Federation. At the time of annexation, I was de-facto the main oncologist in Crimea. I broke down and quit.
I thought that if I couldn’t find a job in Kyiv, I would go back to Crimea, buy sheep and start working on land. But I found a job and now work in the National Cancer Institute. My children Zekiye and Rustem are students at the medical university. My wife still lives in Crimea — she doesn’t want to abandon our house.
I know that all of it is temporary. I am sure I will live in Crimea again and my remains will be buried there.
Our parents were deported from Crimea three times.
The first time was in 1929, when they were sent to the Urals region as kulaks. Our family had a farm where they grew grapevines and fruit trees. My mother was 19 and she and my father had just got married.
My father managed to get the documents and take the family out of the Urals. Going straight back to Crimea would be dangerous, so they settled in Melitopol in the south-east of Ukraine. It was difficult, as they had spoken Crimean Tatar their whole life and didn’t know any Russian or Ukrainian. In 1935, they went back to Crimea, but not to their native village as they were afraid someone would give them away to the authorities, but to a different one. They lived there until 1944.
I was born later, in Uzbekistan. But I can see the deportation as if I saw it with my own eyes. It is shown very accurately in the movie Qaytarma. On May 18th, my father was out doing some kind of labor, and my mother with the children was ordered to come to the center of the village along with other people. They were not allowed to take anything with them, and had to stay there in the heat with no food or water.
My mother convinced the soldiers to let her go back to the house to take something to eat, but all the food was gone. So my mother took an axe and started breaking the wall, to get to the secret food stash that most people had in their houses at the time. The soldiers were impressed.
We were lucky that our father caught up with us on the way. Nobody in our family died, but the trip was horrible. People were not given food or water. They suffered from lice. The trip took 40 days.
In Uzbekistan, the locals called us ‘traitors’.
My mother was 34, my father was 46. They lived in a special settlement, my father worked as a laborer, they were very poor. My mother and I once counted that between 1929 and 1989 our family moved 30 times.
Mustafa (Mustafa Cemilev (Mustafa Dzhemilev), Dilara Seytveliyeva’s brother) joined the National Movement very early. As soon as he started fighting for return to Crimea, we were under constant pressure. Some relatives thought he shouldn’t be this radical, but my mother would only recite Crimean Tatar poets in response and ask "If we won’t, who will?" She was a strong woman and visited him in prison.
Our parents were well-versed in the history of Crimea, they talked about Crimea all the time. We all lived with the idea of going back. In 1967, Crimean Tatars were rehabilitated, but they started calling us ‘Tatars who lived in Crimea earlier’. Prominent Crimean Tatar leaders and the Soviet intelligentsia wrote letters to the authorities asking to allow us to go back.
The authorities pretended they gave in, and introduced some kind of quotas for return, 5–10 families at a time that they would scatter around different villages. In 1979 we decided to go back to Crimea. At the time, Mustafa was doing time for slander against the Soviet state, as he said that de facto Crimean Tatars could not register at a Crimean address. So we thought, if they register us, our whole family would be back, and if not — we will be live evidence of defense in Mustafa’s case.
We bought houses and started settling in. Our relatives were collecting money and sending them to us for support. We collected medicinal herbs and sold them to the drugstores to earn a bit. We submitted documents for registration, but they did not register us, only kept threatening us that we were breaking the passport regulations by living there without registration. Finally, my own and my sister’s husbands went to the south of Russia to Krasnodar Krai and registered at the address of Crimean Tatar acquaintances.
On the day they got back, all of us were arrested. It was almost 1944, they didn’t feed us either. Our things were sent to the registration address of our husbands. We ended up settling there. In 1987, there was a powerful upsurge in Krasnodar Krai where about 25,000 Crimean Tatars lived at the time. They went on strike, they quit their jobs, started selling their houses and getting ready for the move to Crimea. There were many protest meetings in Moscow. At some point, people just started going home in groups. They did not let us get on ferries, made us get off trains and planes. But the people were unstoppable.
We came to Bakhchisaray in 1989. There was a protest meeting under the city administration building, as people had nowhere to live, and the authorities did not know what to do about it. We were lucky to find a house for exchange — the owner was willing to move to our house in Krasnodar Krai.
We came to stay. We never thought anyone would ever try to drive us away again. My sister’s house was in front of the Khan’s Palace, we opened a small cafe there, and built another house — a hotel.
The Ukrainian state didn’t do much for the Crimean Tatars, to be honest. But we understood really well that the Ukrainian authorities weren’t really represented in Crimea.
In May 2014, soldiers came to our house, along with some seven people in civilian clothes, allegedly because of a complaint that we were misusing the premises, although it was a private house of my sister.
My mother, as many other Crimean Tatars, was not angry at those who deported her. It may be the only thing that helps us not break under the pressure of the circumstances.
LENUR ISLÂMOV, coordinator of the Civic Blockade of Crimea, owner of Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR
The family of my grandfather on my father’s side lived in Demerdzhi. They had 300 horses and apiaries. My grandfather used to say that everybody was wealthy back then, there were no poor people.
On the morning of May 18, 1944 all people from the village were driven to a nearby meadow. They all thought they were going to die right there, so they did not take any food or water. My father was a little boy then, and he had a friend, a goat. The goat was very attached to him, and found him in the crowd. My grandfather said that Allah sent it, and the family ate it. It was a childhood trauma for my father, he still remembers this story.
My mother’s parents lived in Simferopol in a big house. They had horse carriages, baby strollers, and ordered shoes from a French shoe-maker. On the day of deportation my grandfather wasn’t home, as like all the other men he was sent to a labor army. My grandmother was in her third trimester. The soldiers broke into the house in the morning, and one of them ordered her to pack. "What for?" Grandma asked, "You are going to shoot us anyway."
The soldier took a basin and started putting food and things there. My grandmother was deported with this basin and with my little mother. The basin helped her a lot. She gave birth to my uncle in it, and the food saved them from starvation.
The cattle train cars were horrible. One young woman’s baby died, and she held it at her breast for three days, without letting anyone take it. A cadaverous smell started going around the car and it put everybody in danger of some infection. And then someone managed to pry the baby out of her arms and throw it away. The bodies were thrown off the train, they couldn’t bury anybody.
When Ahtem Seitablayev was filming Qaytarma [Ed: Lenur Islâmov was an investor and producer of the movie], he invited people who lived through the deportation as children to play extras in the train car. One of them, a very elderly woman, cried on my shoulder and said: "I can finally let this pain go." You could only imagine how deep the trauma was.
My grandmother said that Uzbek children came to meet them at the railway station with rocks in their hands. But when their parents saw exhausted elderly people, children and women come out of the train, they took the rocks from their children. Uzbek people saved Crimean Tatars. They fed us and helped us.
My father’s family was sent to the Urals region. My grandfather was the most respected elder in the extended family of almost 40 people. So when a director from Toshkent theater came to invite his niece, a very talented actress, to work there, it was up to him to decide whether she agreed. He said they would go there only together. This was how my father’s family also moved to Uzbekistan.
We lived a simple life, my parents worked a lot. My grandfather was very independent and hard-working. He set aside everything he earned for the return to Crimea. The first time I came to Demerdzhi was with my grandfather. We came to the house where he was deported from and met a family who lived there. It turned out they were forcefully resettled there from some village near Rostov. When they saw the rocky landscape of Demerdzhi, they tried to go back home. But they were stopped at a blockpost in Simferopol and ordered to go back.
I am convinced that a people have some kind of a divine connection with their land. On their own land people find themselves and the meaning of life. It is a great sin to sever this connection.
We will definitely come back home.
ESKENDER BARIYEV, a member of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatars, founder of Crimean Tatar Resource Center, ZAREMA BARIYEVA, English teacher
Eskender Bariyev: If you line up Crimean Tatars, you would see that we are very different — with brown and blue eyes, light and dark skin. Tatars from the south coast, from the mountains, and from the steppes had almost no family contact with each other before the deportation. And after the deportation they were put all together in special settlements. So, our internal ethnogenesis is still in progress.
I was born in a family of National Movement activists, Enver Bariyev and Gilâra Bariyeva. When people came to my parents’ house, everything they and their guests talked about was Crimea. I remember asking when I was six: "Why do we keep talking about Crimea but never go there?"
My mother was also six when their family was deported. Her mother was a doctor, one of the first graduates of the Crimean Medical Institute. Mother remembered how they came early in the morning and gave them 15 minutes to pack. Grandmother refused to take anything: "What for? You are going to shoot us like the Jews, aren’t you?"
They were brought to cattle train cars. My mother remembered how adults would prop them up, as it was difficult to breathe and the roof had cracks in it, so there was air. The trip lasted more than a month, my grandmother’s profession was very useful: she treated people. She said that when someone died on the road, they would just throw the body off the train.
They survived only because they exchanged everything they had for food with the locals on the way. When Uzbek people saw Tatars prayed and did namaz, they started treating them better. Uzbeks helped us. My grandmother had many relatives. They were all deported to different places and searched for each other later.
My father’s family was not deported, his father was a head of a railroad in Lviv, and during WWII they lived in western Ukraine. But all his relatives ended up in Uzbekistan, and my grandfather decided to go there, because he wanted his children to grow up Tatar. As soon as they arrived in Uzbekistan, grandfather joined the National Movement.
In 1961, the Movement had two demands: return to the native lands and status of Crimea as an autonomous republic within the USSR. My father got a second job on purpose, where he could secretly print articles and flyers at night. We sent them to Soviet intelligentsia in Moscow and in other Soviet Republics.
I went to a swimming club as a kid, and older kids there were calling me ‘traitor’. One time, our instructor said: "I believe that Eskender’s grandfather and grandmother were not traitors, but the Soviet government does not deport the whole people for no reason." I remember that I felt like crying and I told them: "You’ll see, we’ll go back to Crimea."
I told myself I had to do everything so that my children would not have to go through this. So I became an activist and helped my parents. The first time I went to Crimea with my mother was in 1990. When we were going back, we said that we would not be claiming our houses. Crimean Tatars worked a lot. Many had cars and houses in Uzbekistan. We went there knowing we would not be going back to our houses, but would be building new ones. I visited my grandfather’s house in Sudak district. They let me in. It was important for me just to stand near the walls of my family’s home.
Zarema Bariyeva: I was born in Uzbekistan. I grew up on talks about Crimea. My grandmother used to say that even pears there were better. My father was the first to go back. We joined him in 1992. We lived right on the plot of land where we were building our house.
My parents sent me to a school that specialized in English, I was the first Crimean Tatar student there. I caught up with everything they learnt in the first five years during summer. My maiden name was Cemileva (Dzhemileva), and everybody thought I was a relative. I had to explain it was just the same name. The kids would tell me: "You’re good, but other Crimean Tatars are bad." In the recent years this attitude started going away. People in Crimea started to understand more about who we are and what we went through. But it still remains.
I remember, every time you take public transport and it goes past a Tatar village, one of the passengers would say: "Look at all this that the Tatars have built." And nobody asked us what it took for us to achieve this minimal level of wellbeing.
We were one of the first Crimean Tatar families whose home was searched. My husband is a member of the Mejlis [Ed: the ethnic group’s leading assembly in the occupied peninsula]. It happened because he participated in the May 3 events, when the Tatars came to the border to greet Mustafa Cemilev (Mustafa Dzhemilev), the leader of our nation. On September 16, 2014 we woke up because somebody was knocking on our door, we opened, and people with guns ran in. My husband asked them to act according to the law, to show their documents. They told us they were looking for prohibited literature and drugs in the house, but in essence they were just going around and turning everything over. They meant to intimidate us.
I couldn’t bear it and said: "Now I know what my relatives went through in 1944." And you know, it had some effect, they left our house after half an hour. We had to leave Crimea. Now we work in the human rights sphere, help those Crimean Tatars who stayed home.
GAYANA YUKSEL, member of Mejlis, the head of Crimean News information agency, ISMET YUKSEL, businessman, advisor to the Head of Mejlis, born in Turkey, moved to Crimea in 1995
Gayana Yuksel: My grandfather on my father’s side fought in WWII. My grandfather on my mother’s side was taken to Germany as a forced laborer when Crimea was occupied by Germans. He was 14 at the time.
My grandmother on my mother’s side was only 17 when she had four siblings on her hands. When they came to deport them, she quickly packed all the valuables they had in the house. This helped all children survive, although it didn’t save them from the horrible experience of the deportation trip. In our family, they often talked about the return to Crimea, but didn’t like to talk about deportation. My grandmother would always cry.
My grandmothers would always say that everything was tastier and better in Crimea. It was a promised land for us. The first to go back were my grandparents on my mother’s side, they bought a house there in 1989. I was 14 when I joined them. I realized immediately that I had to prove all the time that I wasn’t a second-class person, that I wasn’t good for nothing.
The return of my parents was very difficult. The authorities did not want to give them land, they participated in the 100-day protest in Yevpatoriya that ended up with the establishment of a Tatar village. We had to fight for our right for the land all the time.
After school I went to study as a journalist to Rostov in Russia. I was afraid to go to Kyiv as my Ukrainian wasn’t good enough. In 1995 I came back to Crimea and decided to study Turkish, this was how I met my future husband. Together, we launched the Crimean News information agency that works in different languages including Romanian and Turkish for the diaspora.
In 2013, I participated in the election to the Mejlis — I wanted to enhance communications and help with my diaspora connections. I couldn’t have imagined that anyone could ever prevent me from going home. In summer 2014, my husband Ismet was banned from entering the Russian Federation. We are now contesting this decision in court.
I went to Crimea several times after my husband was banned to enter. They called me for interrogation to Center E (Main Office for Countering Extremism of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation). The excuse for it was that we published a piece of news about Pravyi Sektor on our website.
Ismet Yuksel: The families of my grandparents had to leave Crimea in the 1870s because of the pressure from the Russian Empire. Back at the time, they just took lands from Crimean Tatar peasants, and there was no other way to feed yourself. So, many Crimean Tatars went to Turkey through Romania, my grandfather was born somewhere on the way.
My relatives settled in a village where other Crimean Tatars lived. Between 1870 and 1950 they married only inside this village. This was their way of preserving their identity and culture. In our home everybody spoke Crimean Tatar. We subscribed to Emel ["Aspiration"] magazine about Crimea and Crimean Tatars, this is where we found out about the deportation and the problems of our people.
In the 1970s the Crimean Tatar diaspora was becoming more active in Turkey, many civic organizations were established. I started attending one as a teen — we learnt folk dances and traditions and spoke only Crimean Tatar. I felt I was Crimean Tatar when I was 14.
In 1987, there was a first football match between a Soviet and a Turkish team in Simferopol. Many Crimean Tatars went to have a look at Crimea, on the pretext of being football fans. I was 19 at the time, I didn’t have a passport to go, and I was very upset about it.
As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the scope of Crimean Tatar civic organizations increased from merely preserving our national identity to helping our deported people come back to Crimea. In 1992, our organization invited Mustafa Cemilev (Mustafa Dzhemilev) to Turkey.
I was 24, and Mustafa-agha [Ed: -agha is a Turkic honorific title for a respected leader] was a legend to me. I was hanging on his every word. We were all having breakfast together, and he asked me: "Have you ever thought about going back to Crimea?"
This was the first time I seriously considered it. I had my little shop by that time, the business was going well. I came to Crimea in 1994. We organized the first Turkic Youth Forum. All 150 participants spent the first day of the forum in the houses of Crimean Tatars — handing bricks and helping with construction, getting to know the people and their problems. At the time, people from Uzbekistan kept and kept coming.
I traveled around the whole Crimea then. It was a region with a poor economy, but I realized I wanted to live there. Mustafa-agha needed an assistant who would handle the mail in Turkish. So I volunteered to help him. I lived at my grandmother’s, and every day came to his house to help with the documents.
Later I worked from TIKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency. Turkey very actively supported Crimean Tatars through this organization. One of our projects was buying 1000 houses for Crimean Tatars. We provided targeted help to talented people, for instance, we helped Rustem Skibin, a ceramist, open a workshop.
My personal project that I am proud of is called Educate a Child. Our idea was to connect children from underprivileged families with donors from different countries of the world. The condition was that every child had to write a letter in Crimean Tatar once a month, and a donor would reply and send $15–20.
We started this project in 2000. There were 1160 children who participated, and in 14 years it resulted in $1.2 million of aid. Of course, it is not the money that is important, but the social connections. With our projects we were bringing Crimean Tatars from all over the world closer to Crimea.
The stories were heard by Anastasiya Ringis, translated by Tetiana Vodianytska
Nota Bene! Publications of the English version of Ukrayinska Pravda are not verbatim translations of the source publications from the Ukrainian or Russian language versions of our website. For the sake of clarity and editorial effectiveness our translators might take the liberty of shortening and retelling parts of the source publications. Please consult the text of original publication or the English editorial staff of Ukrainska Pravda prior to quoting our English translations.