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Jordan's Circassians balk at Sochi Olympics

The group indigenous to Russia's Caucasus regions demands recognition for ethnic cleansing carried out 150 years ago.

Last updated: 22 Feb 2014 12:39
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Tens of thousands of Circassians live in Jordan today [Amjad Toghoj/Al Jazeera]

Amman, Jordan - On February 7, about 300 ethnic Circassians gathered for a brief demonstration in front of the Russian embassy here in the Jordanian capital. Holding signs with slogans such as: "No to the Falsification of Circassian History", they blasted the choice of Sochi, Russia, as the site of this year's Winter Olympics.

The Sochi area, Circassians say, is the site of what they consider to be a genocide, carried out 150 years ago by invading Russian soldiers.

Circassian activists have long been trying to draw global attention to their history and cause, but it wasn't until the Olympics in Sochi began that many began paying attention. 

Many Circassian activists interviewed in Jordan said the Games have been a boon to their cause, even as they continue to oppose them being held in Sochi. "We benefited indirectly from Sochi," said Mohammad Hamzouq, a member of the Jordanian Friends of the Circassians in the Caucasus. After Sochi was selected for the 2014 Winter Olympics, Circassians' history suddenly seemed more relevant, as did the global diaspora's effort to raise awareness about it. 

Hamzouq has been an activist for the Circassian cause for 55 years, he said, demanding Russia recognise what he calls genocide and fighting for Circassians' right to return to their ancestral homeland. 

The first of several waves of Circassian immigrants from the Caucasus arrived in Jordan in 1878, with many of them living in Amman long before it became a major city.

Al Jazeera World - Winter of Discontent

Today, Circassians are estimated to comprise one percent of Jordan's population of 6.5 million. Jordan is home to more than a dozen Circassian cultural and political organisations, through which Circassians in the diaspora fight to keep their culture, traditions, and endangered language alive. 

Circassia was originally a nation in the northwestern Caucasus Mountains. In the 1760s, the Russian Empire began expanding southward, and over the next century, clashes ensued between Circassians and the Russian military. 

For Russia's Caucasus Military Command, "the plan was to drive the Circassians to Turkey at all costs", said Walter Richmond, a professor at Occidental College and author of The Circassian Genocide. "If the plan didn't work, they were prepared to kill all of them. The reason was purportedly regional security... but more important was the fact that the Caucasus Military Command wanted to take the land for themselves."

Circassians and their allies made their last stand against the Russian military in May 1864, about 40 kilometres from Sochi. Following the Circassians' surrender, they were driven to Sochi, where thousands died as they waited to be taken by boat to the Ottoman Empire. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation estimates that 1.5 million Circassians died or were expelled from the Caucasus. Despite the fact that at least 600,000 were killed or died of starvation, the Circassians began to be all but forgotten.

In addition to sending letters to ambassadors and world leaders highlighting their plight, Circassians demonstrate peacefully every year on May 21 to commemorate the expulsions and killings. They screen films and hold lectures at local institutions, and promote traditions such as Circassian dancing and cuisine, particularly for the sake of the younger generation. 

"We've always been activists for the Circassian cause," said Nawriz Shapsough, a Circassian who lives in Jordan. "In the last three years, the cause became bigger," he said, because of the Olympics. "I am against Sochi Olympic Games, because it's held on our last historic capital, on our historical land, without mentioning anything about the Circassians."

While Shapsough called on Russia to recognise the genocide, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no mention of the Circassians in Sochi - though Russian authorities have on several occasions detained and questioned Circassian rights activists

"I was amazed that the International Olympic Committee… accepted Russia's proposal to hold the Games in Sochi," said Hamzouq. The National Circassian Movement, which is affiliated with Jordanian Friends of the Circassians in the Caucasus, also sent letters to presidents and ministers asking them to boycott the opening ceremony of the Games.

Although Sochi has heightened global awareness about Circassian history, Hamzouq said Russia had turned a deaf ear to Circassians' requests - a list that begins with recognition of the genocide and includes the right of return as well as compensation. Even if those requests are unlikely to be granted anytime soon, Jordan's Circassians seem to wholeheartedly appreciate at least one recent development, thanks to Sochi.

"The entire Circassian community here in Jordan is talking about the issue - Sochi," said Hameed Abzakh, another Circassian activist. "Everybody, even children in schools, has started talking about it. This is the biggest benefit, and an unexpected one."

Follow Elizabeth Whitman on Twitter: @elizabethwhitty

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Al Jazeera
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