Crimean Tatars: Crimean Tatars struggle to leave Uzbekistan
"House for Sale", "House for Sale." The backstreets of Yangiyul, a Tashkent suburb, are covered with these homemade signs. Their message symbolizes the tragedy of Central Asia’s remaining Crimean Tatars, a nation charged en masse of Nazi collaboration during World War II and brutally deported by Stalin from their homeland in Ukraine’s Crimea.
On May 18, hundreds of Crimean Tatars gathered in Yangiyul and other locations across Uzbekistan to commemorate the 60th anniversary of their exile. Their meetings followed instructions from the Uzbek Ministry of Internal Affairs not to stage the large scale commemorations in Tashkent typical of previous years. For a government easily worried by mass meetings, it presented an undesirable risk. For this Diaspora, it was yet another setback as they struggle with bureaucracy, depressed housing prices and minimal official help to realize their dream of returning home.
Almost 100,000 Crimean Tatars are said to live in Uzbekistan today, the survivors and offspring of more than 150,000 people deported here during the lightning-strike deportations of May 1944. Deported without warning and in appalling conditions, the entire Crimean Tatar nation ended up in "special settlements" in Central Asia and Russia. Crimean Tatars estimate that 46 percent of their people died during deportation, resettlement and the hard labor that followed. Only well after Stalin’s death were they allowed to leave the cramped and frugal settlements and begin building a life for themselves. Not until 23 years after they were deported, in 1967, were the Tatars exonerated of blame for mass treason. Only in 1989 were they officially permitted to begin repatriation to the Crimea. It is a problematic process that has left many still in exile.
For those still in Uzbekistan, one of the biggest difficulties is finding the money for the move. Many are forced to wait to sell their houses before leaving, a process which can seem interminable. In the late 1950s, many Crimean Tatars were given land in Uzbekistan by their employers. Yet these plots were generally in the least attractive parts of towns, usually in suburbs that few Uzbeks found desirable. Today, as these Tatars try to sell their homes, that fact is hard to escape.
Fatima Abibulla was six when the deportations took place. By the time she arrived in the settlements, she was an orphan. In the late 1950s, her husband, Asim, and she were given a plot ‘beyond the river’ in Yangiyul, in a part of town where nobody else wanted to live. They built their two-story house by hand and carted all the materials across the river and up the bank on foot. Now, they will be lucky if they get $4,000 for the residence.
Their eldest children have already left for the Crimea and have pleaded with Fatima and Asim to join them there. But Fatima cannot leave her house. She is insulted by how little the residence, with its large, well-tended vegetable garden, would fetch. With eight dependants besides themselves to transport to the Crimea, Fatima and Asim face travel costs of $2000, plus $500 for the container to transport their small load of belongings. With annual incomes in Uzbekistan averaging $1700, it is an astronomical amount of money, and one that would leave Fatima and her family only a pittance with which to create a new life in the Crimea. Yet all she and her husband want to do is to return to their homeland – and to die on its soil.
The sun beats down mercilessly on the Muslim graveyard in Yangiyul. Here, many of those who did not make it back to the Crimea to die are buried alongside their Uzbek neighbors. The shared world of Islam helped make integration a little easier. It meant common religious rituals, dress codes, traditions and festivals. The Tatars are unfailingly grateful to their Uzbek friends. But in the graveyard there is a stark difference between the graves. The Tatars have been buried as people from the Crimea. Steadfast in their desire to return to an almost mythical homeland, their relatives have inscribed Crimean place names beneath the dates of their births and deaths. (These place names often no longer exist in the Crimea thanks to a de-Tatarization campaign that followed the Tatars’ removal.) While nearby Uzbek graves bear elaborate eulogies to the deceased, Crimean Tatar graves are inscribed with simple tributes to their lost home.
For Ali Hanzim, the Central Asian representative of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or governing council, these graves represent years of resistance to the Soviet state. Ali Hanzim works tirelessly to improve the rights of Tatars in Central Asia. He is a passionate example of the peaceful activism for which the Crimeans have gained renown, must notably, under Mustafa Dzhemilev, a leader of the Crimean Tatars who spent much time in jail and labor camps during the Soviet period for spearheading a non-violent campaign for repatriation and improved national rights (a cause which attracted the support of such Soviet-era dissident eras as Andrei Sakharov, Pyotr Grigorenko and Alexander Solzhenitsyn).
But Ali Hanzim is quick to point out that the Crimean Tatar national movement is not only represented by Mustafa Dzhemilev and his like. "The movement" he says "is the people." Over the years, thousands of Tatars have helped campaign for resettlement, whether through collecting signatures for petitions to Moscow or fundraising.
Ali Hanzim’s 23-year-old son Sherket, who helps his mother to make and sell salads at the local bazaar, puts it succinctly. "The Crimea is our home. We are only guests here whether we’re here for 50 years or 100. If we earn any money here we don’t spend it. We save it to spend there – in our homeland."
His grandmother, Mergube Mamutova, 66, was a young girl at the time of the deportations, and her eyes still well with tears at the mention of them. She watches quietly as her nine-year-old granddaughter, Alime, leaves for school. The Crimean language and history have no place there. In depriving them of a homeland, the deportations also deprived the Crimean Tatars of their national rights and much of their culture. While Mergube and her generation offer a bridge to that culture, it will only remain secure if they can return.
Yet, despite a 1992 agreement for countries involved in the Crimean Tatars’ deportation to help fund the costs of their resettlement, so far, only Ukraine has contributed any money towards this goal. No help has been forthcoming from the Uzbek government towards the actual cost of return and house prices in Uzbekistan have been depressed by the country’s dire economic situation. In addition, despite a 1998 agreement between Ukraine and Uzbekistan to facilitate the transfer of citizenship, it can still take up to a year to receive a Ukrainian passport, and the fees for renouncing Uzbek citizenship remain high.
Nor are the problems entirely financial or bureaucratic. Bekir Ganiev, 30, has already received his Ukrainian passport. He, like his compatriots, wants to live in the Crimea. But Bekir can see for himself the unsatisfactory conditions in which those Tatars who have returned to the Crimea exist. The majority live in cramped conditions in villages with limited housing, water, electricity, roads and other amenities, while over 60 percent of the Tatar population in the Crimea are unemployed. They still have only limited rights. Worse still, ethnic conflict prevails. Revered sites such as the grave of the 19th century Crimean Tatar national hero Ismail Bey Gasprinskii has recently been defaced by Slavic skinhead gangs. Faced with such prospects, Bekir, a successful businessman with a modern flat in Tashkent, says he will not return.
By all accounts, nostalgia for Central Asia runs high in the Crimea. Alie Akimova, who lives in Tashkent, tells how in 1990 her parents returned home. She speaks sadly of her father’s death after only two years, how he lived alone with his wife in a tiny house without a courtyard or garden and no relatives to visit him. In Uzbekistan, she said, deportees used to meet and ask, "‘Where are you from?’ The answer would be ‘Alushta, Kerch, Bahcesaray, Simferopol and other towns and regions of the Crimea. And now, back in the Crimea, they ask each other the same question. And in reply they say nostalgically ‘Andizhan, Fergana, Shakhrisabz, Tashkent…’"
While much of the nostalgia can be attributed to a general longing for the lost security of the Soviet Union, in Uzbekistan the homing instinct lives on. "Many of our friends have returned," said Suzanna Hanzima, Ali’s wife. "Yes, it’s hard, but they have worked so hard to get back there. Despite all the problems, they say it’s wonderful finally to be home."
Editor’s Note: Lucy Kelaart is a freelance journalist specializing in Central Asia. Genya Vasyuta is a photographer based in Tashkent.