Spring 1997 (5.1)
Pages 12-16, 88
Azerbaijanis are not the only refugees living in Azerbaijan. In 1989, an estimated 46,000 Meskheti Turks (pronounced mas-kha-TI) fled from Uzbekistan after the ethnic clashes made it impossible for them to live in safety. Many have since found refuge in Azerbaijan. But their real homeland is Georgia, and they still want to go home 50 years after Stalin deported them to Central Asia.
The box car of the train was so cramped. Nuraddin's younger sister lay on top of his older brother. His 8-month-old brother slept on his mother's chest. Spilled soup dried on the splintered wooden floors. The tracks would lead from Nuraddin's home in Georgia eastward to the distant Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan 3,000 kilometers away in Central Asia. But at the time, he didn't know that. No one did. Stalin had told them he was protecting them from the advancing Nazi army. They thought they would remain hidden for only a little while. That was 50 years ago.
Stalin moved Meskheti Turks from Georgia to Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan in 1944 (yellow arrows). In 1992, some of those living in Uzbekistan moved to Azerbaijan because of ethnic clashes (red arrow).
Map: Created by Azerbaijan International. Copyright 1997.
Nuraddin Tsatsiyev, now 65, is one of the tens of thousands of Meskheti Turks in Azerbaijan-living in someone else's home, so to speak-waiting and hoping that someday the Georgian government will allow his family and his people to move back home. "Your homeland . . . your homeland, you never forget," the retired architect said at the Baku office of Vatan, the organization representing the Meskheti Turks who are still struggling to be repatriated to Georgia.
The Meskheti Turks have been on the move since World War II. In 1944, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 100,000 Meskheti Turks, Kurds and other Muslim minorities who had lived for centuries in the southwestern Georgian towns of Meskhetiya-Javakhetiya along the Turkish and Armenian borders. Stalin, claiming security reasons, wanted them removed to the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In the early morning hours of November 14, 1944, the decree was carried out.
At first glance, these mass deportations appear to be a communist dictator's paranoia gone awry. Many experts suggest, however, that the relocation of Muslims had long been a tendency of Russian policy which sought to expand and fortify the empire's borders with pro-Christian communities. In the previous century, Russia had viewed the Ottoman Empire as one of the greatest threats to its southern borders, and the two nations went to battle on several occasions. During World War I, Russia had coveted and advanced on Constantinople (Istanbul) seeking passage to the Mediterranean Sea. In World War II, Stalin believed Turkey's neutrality was shifting to favor Germany. He viewed Muslims inside Russia's borders as potential spies and collaborators - enemies. This perceived weakness had to be removed and replaced with pro-Russian support. The Meskheti Turks were not the only Muslims to suffer such fate. Stalin deported several other small nations in the North Caucasus. For example, the entire Chechen-Ingush population of more than 1 million were also packed into box cars and sent to Central Asia. That happened nine months prior to the Meskheti removal.
"What did we think at the time?" said Nuraddin, who had been 12-years-old when they were sent into exile. "There was a war going on. Anything can happen during war. We really didn't think much about it. We just knew that soldiers charged into our home with bayonets and rifles yelling 'faster, faster, get your things!'"
Nuraddin's mother and six brothers and sisters had three hours to clear out and climb into one of the hundreds of freight train wagons. She managed it all alone since Nuraddin's father was fighting at the front, bracing against Hitler's army. Little did his father know that back in his own home, fellow Red Army soldiers were barking orders at his family. And so the family gathered minimal objects and supplies that they could carry on their journey. Axes, knives and kitchen utensils were strictly forbidden. Clothes and scraps of food were about all they managed to grab. This same scene unfolded in all the surrounding villages, in more than 200 settlements.
Ironically, local Meskheti Turks had just laid much of the railroad track that would carry them away. There had been indications of preparation-sinister signs that something was amiss. Empty wooden wagons had appeared on the tracks with no activity for the entire month prior to their deportation-just waiting. And for the previous two weeks before they left, villagers heard gunshots at night. Soviet soldiers were firing into the air to give the impression that the German army was advancing and beginning to surround them.
Nuraddin recalls that after being herded into the cold wagons, the train sat motionless on the tracks. Each wagon held about 50 people, crowded around a small, inadequate stove. The wait gave Nuraddin hope that maybe the whole affair was a mistake or that the threat had passed and that soon they could all return home. However, in the early morning hours of the third day, the train lurched forward. It would be 36 hours before the doors opened again. Finally, they arrived in Baku where they were given food for the first time-two buckets of borsch soup per wagon and some bread. An hour later, they were back on the rails. Much of the beet and cabbage soup had slopped across the floor when the train unexpectedly jerked forward. They were fed once a day, and those who lagged behind when the train pulled away were shot. Many died, their bodies left at the stations. It was clear that in this case the Meskheti Turks and the other Muslim groups were viewed as Stalin's security problem-not the Germans.
"Many speculated that we were being sent to Siberia [where Stalin had sent hundreds of thousands who had opposed him in the late 1930s and 40s]. Others were convinced we would be dumped into the ocean as food for the fish," Nuraddin said. "But that didn't make sense. Why would they be feeding us if they intended to dispose of us?"
The next stop was Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan north of Azerbaijan. From there, they arrived in Astrakhan at the Volga River delta and made their way through Kazakhstan. The journey took three weeks before Nuraddin's family and the others arrived at the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. "But arrived to what?" everyone wondered, as they shivered in the deep snows that winter of 1944.
Of the Meskheti Turks deported, the majority were women, children and the elderly. Along the way, thousands had perished from disease and hunger. Many died after they arrived as they were weakened, sick and unable to adapt to the frigid climate. Estimations of those who died between 1944 and 1948 range from 14,000 to 17,000. Almost every man between the ages of 18 and 50 had been sent off to defend the Soviet Union. And those who lived to return to the Meskhetiya-Javakhetiya region after the war discovered that their families and relatives had disappeared and that strangers were living in their houses-mostly Georgians and Armenians settled there by Moscow.
Though the deported families were told their stay in Central Asia would be temporary, they had actually been placed under the military-style "komendatura." With an Orwellian euphemism, Stalin's order described this Soviet mechanism of labor recruitment as the "permanent staff exchange between nations." A collective farm in the cotton fields outside Tashkent would be home to Nuraddin's family for the next 12 years. Local authorities required them to register on a monthly basis. Denial of passports and severe travel restrictions became a way of life. There was no education to speak of, and marriages were discouraged.
"We knew it was forever," Nuraddin said. "If relatives in a nearby village died or became sick, we didn't have the right to visit them. We had to go to the commandant and explain, and if he granted permission, then we could go. But often, he'd accompany us to see if we were telling the truth. If he discovered any deceit, we were never allowed to go anywhere again. Even if he did let us go, it was only for a single day, and we had to be back by evening. We lived like slaves."
After Stalin died in 1953, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, liberated the deportees from the "komendatura." Everyone soon had passports and could travel freely within the Soviet Union. The Chechens made their way back home to the north Caucasus. So did the Ingush and the Tartars. The Meskheti Turks, however, were never able to return to Georgia, and many settled in exile in Azerbaijan. Another 200,000 of them are scattered throughout the Soviet Union. "We were the only nationality who wasn't allowed to return to our homeland," Nuraddin said.
The Vatan Society, which serves as an information center helping to reunite missing relatives and family members, has been pushing for their return to Georgia since Stalin's death. They claim that ancestors of the Meskheti Turks had settled in that region more than 2,500 years ago and had been living there peacefully ever since.
"We have hope," says Khalid Tashtanov, Director of Vatan in Azerbaijan. "We believe in our return to our true homeland. Our deportation was illegal and inhumane. At least they should let our children, the next generation, live on the land that was originally ours."
Azerbaijan has been good to the Turks, Tashtanov admits. Adjustment was as smooth as could be expected. The languages are similar, as are the cultures. And the Meskheti Turks who fled to Azerbaijan in 1989 have been given the same rights as Azerbaijani citizens. Some, though, made the unfortunate choice of returning to the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan and were soon on the run again, joining the exodus of native Azerbaijanis from the area fleeing the onslaught from the Armenians.
Now, half of the Meskheti Turks in Azerbaijan have been designated as refugees and have started receiving international humanitarian assistance, as support from the cash-strapped Azerbaijani government has dried up. So, they also suffer the same economic hardships that the indigenous population faces. The Azerbaijan office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) is now working with the Meskheti Turks who have strong agricultural skills but little land. Most are unemployed and have been forced to sell their possessions and struggle for occasional work. Presently, UNHCR is registering the Meskheti Turks and examining ways to help them earn wages. Desperate for work, some of them have migrated to Chechnya. With wide-scale damage suffered there during the war with Russia, they believe they can find employment rebuilding the country.
Both Tashtanov and Nuraddin fear that a strong anti-Muslim sentiment coupled with rising Georgian nationalism will prevent their return home. And Georgia, too, is struggling with 300,000 of its own refugees produced by separatist movements in the Abhazia region of the country. Vatan understands that today's Georgian economy cannot support the repatriation of all the Meskheti Turks. But the organization is pushing for legislation to be passed that recognizes their ancestral claim to the land and which incorporates a realistic plan for repatriation. This past December, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze issued a decree allowing 5,000 Meskheti Turks to return over a 5-year period. But where they will be allowed to settle is not exactly clear. Most of the land is occupied, and many of the villages have been destroyed. Nuraddin and his older brother went back three years ago to visit the house their father built in the 1930s. They found two Georgian brothers living there with their families.
"This house . . . it was our home," Nuraddin said. "My father sold everything to build it himself. Then we were forced to leave, and someone else lives there now. And my father went off to fight for the country, and he never came back from the front. We don't know where he died or what even happened to him."
And now there is a new wrinkle to the story. Around 200,000 Armenians now living in the Meskhetiya-Javakhetiya districts bordering Armenia are pushing for a referendum to declare the region autonomous and gain self-rule. Border and customs points have apparently been established, and residents there claim to control transportation links between Georgia and Armenia.
Tashtanov and Nuraddin worry that the absence of a homeland could eventually destroy their culture. "We need to preserve our language and our culture," Nuraddin said. "We need our land now more than ever. I was born there. My roots are there. Here, I'm not worth anything. People don't know me. There-that's where my roots are. That's where they know me. Not a single day has gone by these past 53 years . . . not a single hour, that I don't think about my homeland."
Caleb Daniloff is a freelance journalist living in Baku.
From Azerbaijan International (5.1) Spring 1997.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.