Less than 500km from where I sit right now, the soldiers came. At gun point, they were forced from their homes. Allowed to take only what they could carry, they were forced onto buses. The buses took them to rail yards. At the rail yards, they were loaded onto trains. From there, like ashes to the wind, they were scattered.
Their homes were given to new families. Their cemeteries were destroyed. Some of them were paved with concrete to create new shopping areas. While this happened, those trains chugged their way to Asia. Those that died were merely tossed out of the rail cars by soldiers. They were thousands of kilometers away before the journey ended.
While those on the trains had heard no accusations against them, those who lived where they arrived had. They were called “betrayers” by those who greeted them. Some were given clothes suitable for the new climate they inhabited. Some were not. A young teenager fed her family by smuggling potatoes from the collective farm where she worked. Two thousand miles away, a girl less than half her age fed her family by singing on the street. All of them had a new language to learn. Theirs was banned. Books in their language were destroyed. Their ethnicity was removed from government census forms. As a people, the government said the no longer existed.
Some of them resisted. Some protested and were sent away never to return. Some of them began to work the political machine looking for allies. The most important of them protested by keeping their customs alive at home. If someone wanted to cook and share the food with their neighbors on a particular day, what could be done to stop them? If they wanted to tell their children about their homeland, who could interfere?
Almost 50 years later, they were finally able to begin returning home…if they could afford it. Where they arrived to was not the same place as when they were forced to leave, but at least it was home. Some 25 years later, not all the damage has been undone. There are still those that mutter “betrayer” under their breath. There are those that use their ethnic identity as a slur.
Today is the 68th anniversary of the Sürgün — the exile of the Crimean Tatars from their homeland.
A special thanks to those Crimean Tatars who have opened their homes and hearts to me and those that chose to share with me their stories. Some of these stories can be found at www.eastword.org.