Crimean Tatars: A Return To A Homeland Burdened By Ethnic Divisions (Part 1)
It is the historic homeland of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic-language-speaking people practicing a liberal form of Islam.
Under its princely leaders, the khans, the picturesque peninsula -- which stretches into the Black Sea -- was rich in both commerce and culture.
But Russia forcibly annexed Crimea in 1783. And in 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation to Central Asia of all Crimean Tatars, on the pretext they had collaborated with Germany.
Seventy-four-year-old Iskender Ablyaev recalled how his family was given just 15 minutes to gather their belongings and leave their home near Bakhchiseray.
"We couldn't take anything. Just the clothes we were wearing, no food, nothing," Ablayev said. "They loaded us into vehicles and drove us to a railway station and put us into wagons. I don't remember exactly, but I think we traveled for 17 days to Central Asia."
Some people died during the trip, but Ablayev and his family survived. He was put to work on a collective farm.
In 1954, Crimea was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and remained a part of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From that point on, tens of thousands of Crimean Tatar exiles began to return to what is now an autonomous republic within Ukraine -- including Ablayev, who came back in 1995."Crimean Tatars have returned to their homeland not to live here as an average citizen, but to return to their roots and to revive these roots."
Some 260,000 Crimean Tatars now live in their historic homeland. As many as 150,000 more may follow.
But it hasn't been an easy homecoming. Many of Crimea's postwar settlers -- mainly Russians -- resent the Tatars' return. The local government has made it difficult for returnees to get land, homes, or jobs.
Despite the hardships, however, most Crimean Tatars say they have no regrets about returning.
Ablayev's wife died just two years after their return. He now lives with his 43-year-old son Shakir and his family in a settlement near Simferopol, the Crimean capital.
The settlement, called Kamenka, is home to 1,500 Tatars. It has poorly maintained roads, and the Ablyaev family home is uncompleted due to lack of money.
The aid they receive from the government amounts to less than $100 a month. Still, Ablayev said he is glad to be back in Crimea.
"Yes it's home," Ablayev said. "It's not necessarily easy, but it's better to live in your own homeland than in a foreign country."
Ablayev said that Crimean Tatars work hard to preserve their national identity. One of the most important elements of this is religion. Ablayev said he is proud his son helped build Kamenka's mosque.
The day our correspondent visited Kamenka, the local imam was presiding over the circumcision of Ablayev's grandson. According to tradition, the ritual was performed as the men of the family and the settlement's male elders sat on the carpeted floor and sang religious songs.
Many Tatars held on to their traditions and beliefs as a way of surviving the cruelty of enforced exile, said Rustem Chyiogoz, a district administrator in Bakhchiseray, the historic Crimean capital.
Bakhchiseray escaped the dismal fate of many Crimean Tatar towns, and remains an enchanting city, surrounded by high cliffs that guard the khans' delicately arched and carved 16th-century palace complex.
The palace boasts high-ceilinged meeting rooms, a harem room, an apartment for one of the khan's wives, mosques, minarets, and fountains -- including one immortalized by Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin.
Chyiogoz said the returning Tatars have worked hard to restore the splendor of the remarkable complex.
"Crimean Tatars have returned to their homeland not to live here as an average citizen, but to return to their roots and to revive these roots," Chyiogoz said. "The Crimean Tatar people are like other peoples -- they have history and culture, they have prominent figures who made the Crimean Tatar people known throughout the world. That's why our aim is not just to establish ourselves here but to revive historical, cultural, and other things."
Many of the original plans and documents related to construction of the sites were destroyed by the Russians. It has proved difficult to restore some of Bakhchiseray's most precious structures -- like the mausoleum of Crimea's most famous khan, Mengli Girai, and the magnificent school of religious and secular learning he ordered built.
Tatar restorers have sought out records in Turkey and Poland, or studied similar buildings in other countries, for clues on how to conduct their work.
The restoration of certain traditions has sometimes proved problematic as well. During the time of the khans, Bakhchiseray was filled with scores of craftsmen creating fine jewelry in silver and gold. Chyiogoz described the challenge of bringing back that tradition.
"And when we started to search for a master craftsman who knew how to do this, we found that among all our people there was only one left, just one," Chyiogoz said. "We searched for him and found him. We gave him the means to live and gave him some apprentices to teach. And now he is a master craftsman and he has taught three master craftsmen."
Amid the hardships, said Chyiogoz, that sort of success gives the Crimean Tatars hope for the future.