9 Mar 2014

Crimea’s Tatars: fearing a return to Stalin-era terror

The soldiers came at midnight when the children were sleeping. Sabrie, who was ten, struggled to stay awake as her mother grabbed her little sister and two brothers.

There was no time to change, to pack, to bring anything – they had fifteen minutes to get to the station. There they stayed, hungry and afraid, until the train came to remove them from their home in Crimea to a distant land. They would not return for half a century.

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I met Sabrie in the town of Bakhchiserai yesterday. Aged 80 now, she speaks of what happened as if it were last week, not 70 years ago. Her green eyes widen and she gesticulates with gnarled hands, reliving her story as if telling it for the first time.

“The train was dirty as if it had been carrying cattle,” she said. “No toilet. No water. The doors were locked. People were dying and at the next station the bodies would be thrown off. Nobody knew where they were taken.”

Sabrie is an ethnic Tatar. In May 1944, Stalin deported the Tatars – Crimea’s native people – to Uzbekistan, accusing them of siding with the Nazis.


Nearly half of the 200,000 Tatars forced to leave Crimea died of hunger and disease on the journey or during the years that followed. Sabrie and her family were amongst the survivors, although her father, who was fighting in the Soviet army, never returned.

“Father didn’t come back from the war. He left home in 1941, and we never saw him again,” she said.

Crimea is a land of patriotic myths where people spit their version of history in your face, ribbons pinned to their lapels, flags waving, fury in their raised voices. Sabrie, by contrast, was remembering personal pain.

She fears Russia’s sudden decision to re-incorporate Crimea, which has been part of Ukraine since 1954, may herald a return to the time of terror she lived in her childhood. She described how, as a teenager in Uzbekistan, she was forced to clean cotton after school long into the night. She married and had children there but it was never home.

When she and her husband returned to Crimea in 1994 she found Russians living in the house her family had been forced out of 50 years earlier.

“You know, in the old part of Bakhchiserai Russian people live in our house,” she told me, eyes flashing. “They are intruders, but they think it is their house. Putin thinks in the same way. He wants to find some territory to steal.”

Crimea’s new government, which has decided to rejoin Russia even before next Sunday’s referendum, says the Tatars have nothing to fear. Delegations from Moscow have visited Tatar leaders to reassure them.

Yet the gates to a few houses in Bakhchiserai have been marked with a cross, the sign Stalin’s men used to identify Tatar families for deportation in 1944.

It may just be the work of a few local thugs, but Tatars have started to patrol their neighbourhoods in fear of attack.

I asked Sabrie what she felt, as a little girl accused of treachery, as she was forced to leave her home in such terrifying circumstances. I expected her to say “fear” but she didn’t.

“Hatred,” she said. “My father had been sent to war. I was taken from my house as a traitor. What should I feel? Hatred. Even now I feel that hatred. I don’t know why I was taken from Crimea. I’m 80 now and I still don’t know the reason. There is no answer.”

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