May 17, 2013

69th Anniversary of Sürgünlik Commemorated

Saturday 18 May marked the 69th Anniversary of the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars under the regime of Joseph Stalin. This tragic event continues to influence the lives of returned Tatars and even politics of Ukraine.

The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group whose historical homeland is Crimean peninsula between Black Sea and Sea of Azov. After centuries of nomadic lifestyle in the area, the official Crimean Khanate was established in 1441. Crimea finally fell under Russian dominion in late 18th century. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Czarist regime ruling the Crimea was succeeded by Soviet Socialist rule.

But the hardships peaked in 1944, when Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population from Crimea to the Urals, Siberia and to Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The deportation began on 18 May 1944 More than 32,000 NKVD troops participated in this action. The forced deportees were given only 30 minutes to gather personal belongings, after which they were loaded onto cattle trains and moved out of Crimea. 193,865 Crimean Tatars were deported, most of them to Kazakh and Uzbek SSR-s. At the same moment, most of the Crimean Tatar men who were fighting in the ranks of the Red Army were demobilized and sent into forced labor camps in Siberia and in the Ural mountain region.  Due to hunger, thirst and disease, around 45% of the total population died in the process of deportation.

The resettlement of Crimean Tatars began in 1967, but they soon found out that their return is not welcomed. Prior to the deportation, Crimean Tatars primarily resided in the southern resort areas and in urban centers, but because of the high demand on the resort areas of the Crimea, the Crimean Tatars were forced to settle mainly in the steppe regions. A massive influx of Crimean Tatars from Uzbekistan has led to an overcrowding of limited housing and greater pressure on formerly Tatar lands that are now occupied by other groups. Further, poor health relative to other groups in Ukraine continues to plague the Crimean Tatars. The economic situation of Crimea and Ukraine has had difficulty supporting this influx, and sufficient funds have not been made available for effective resettlement. In 2006, only 90% of Tatar settlements had electricity, 70% water, and 25% paved roads. Also, ethnic Russians in Crimea have consistently raised concerns about the returning Crimean Tatars, objecting to privileges such as special access to housing or quotas for political representation. One sad result has been violence between the two groups. 

In the last five years up to 1,500 deportees have annually come back to Ukraine, guided by The Bishkek Agreement on the restoration of the rights of deported people and national minorities signed in 1992. The document, which is renewed each 10 years, simplified their return, granted them pension benefits and insured their social-cultural development. This year the document is in danger of not being prolonged due to the country’s poor economic condition. 

UNPO expressed condolences to Crimean Tatars Mejlis on this day and wished them strength and wisdom in developing their autonomy. Protests were held outside Ukrainian embassies across Europe to mark this event, in addition to a demonstration of 30,000 people in Sevastopol in Crimea. UNPO was present at the protests outside the Ukrainian embassy in Brussels, in solidarity with the Crimean Tatar people.