Crimea was never Russian

Crimea is no bargaining chip in a geopolitical game; it is my homeland and I will not give it up, just like my Crimean Tatar ancestors did not.

A Crimean Tatars flag flies at a rally, commemorating Crimean Tatars mass deportations from the region in 1944, in the village of Siren, in Bakhchisaray district, Crimea, May 18, 2019. REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak
A Crimean Tatars flag flies at a rally, commemorating Crimean Tatars mass deportations from the region in 1944, in the village of Siren, Crimea on May 18, 2019 [File: Reuters/Alexey Pavlishak]

For the past nine years, Crimea has often been mentioned in international news and analyses. Foreign journalists, politicians, pundits and scholars have all pitched in on its “strategic location”, its “military and political significance”, and its “special place” in Russian historical memory.

But while for them, Crimea is just a piece of land in a regional geopolitical game, Crimea for me is a homeland, it is at the very essence of the identity of my people – the Crimean Tatars.

It is the homeland that has been repeatedly, brutally taken from us; it is the homeland we will not stop fighting for.

My grandmother, Shevkiye, was just 11 years old when on May 18, 1944, Soviet soldiers barged into her home at five o’clock in the morning. World War II was still raging and the Soviet regime had just accused the Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the enemy, the German Nazis – a baseless allegation that led to the unimaginable horror of genocide by deportation.

My great-grandfather was at the front, fighting those same Nazis whom he was accused of collaborating with. So the Soviet soldiers found at home just his wife and four children – the youngest one only a few months old. The soldiers gave them 15 minutes to gather their belongings and did not stop hitting my great-grandmother with their guns as she struggled to pack.

They marched them out of the house and – along with other families from their home village of Ayserez – hoarded loaded them onto a train meant for transporting cattle. The wagons were packed with people and there were no toilets on them; people struggled to breathe. No food or water was provided on the long journey, during which my grandmother’s family remained unaware of their destination.

Exhausted and starved, they focused solely on survival as hunger and disease killed many along the way. One of the most traumatising memories of the journey for my grandmother was witnessing a pregnant woman give birth on the train and then pass away shortly after. A Soviet soldier threw her body out of the wagon while the train kept moving.

After 20 days on the train, they finally arrived at Golodnaya Steppe station in the Mirzachul region of Uzbekistan, where they were unceremoniously unloaded onto a scorching hot platform. With no money or support, they struggled to survive in this unknown land.

They settled in a dilapidated barrack with no roof, windows, or doors. Their food consisted of grass, nettle, potato peels, and rotten potatoes; their drinking water came from irrigation ditches and often caused dysentery. There was no medical assistance available; the Soviet authorities clearly wanted as many Crimean Tatars to die as possible.

The forced deportation of the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia resulted in the death of 46 percent of the population, leaving a gaping wound in the hearts of those who survived. It was the culmination of a century and a half of deliberate and systematic destruction of the Crimean Tatar people, heritage and culture after the subjugation of the Crimean state by Russian imperial forces in the late 18th century. It is on this obliteration of the Crimean Tatars that the bloody myth of Crimea as a “Russian territory” was built.

Living in forced exile, Crimean Tatars never gave up on their homeland. My family certainly didn’t. I was born in the city of Almalyk, Uzbekistan four decades after the deportation. We lived every day as if we would return home tomorrow.

My grandmother would constantly speak about what life was like in the homeland. My mother would buy household items that she would store away for “when we would return to the homeland”. I and my siblings would learn Tatar poems to recite and Tatar songs to sing. Our modest house became a gathering place for activists who were organising to demand the right to return to our homeland.

Those who fought for this right were harassed, expelled from their jobs, and even imprisoned. Our house was constantly searched by the Soviet security services, but that did not deter my parents. They ignored the threats and intimidation and continued to host activists.

In a significant turn of events, in November 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued a declaration rehabilitating the Crimean Tatars and recognising the deportation as a criminal act. This decision allowed us to return en masse to our historical homeland.

I was six years old when, in 1991, we finally set foot on the land of our ancestors. But there was no warm welcome for us in Crimea. When the Crimean Tatars were deported, their houses and properties were given to ethnic Russians, who were brought in to further Russify the peninsula. We found our house occupied by Russians.

With the local authorities favouring the Russian settlers and no prospects for a legal process of restitution, we had to start over. The hardship of the new beginning, however, did not overshadow our joy at finally being home. We rebuilt our homes, resurrected our communities, we reopened schools, theatres, libraries and museums.

We established the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People to act as our representative and executive body in Ukraine after Kyiv declared independence in 1991.

We even created our own television channel, ATR, which I joined as a young journalist in 2011.

Those years were relatively peaceful and calm. Ukraine was opening up and the political winds had changed a bit in our favour. It gave us freedom, a sense of security and optimism for the future.

But in 2014, we lost everything once again when Russia invaded and occupied our historical homeland again.

Since then, systematic searches, arrests, and kidnappings have been carried out against Crimean Tatars. Crimean voices have been silenced, our culture has been suppressed. The Mejlis has been shut down, having been declared an “extremist organisation”. Our channel, ATR, was also shut down and had to relocate to Kyiv.

Crimean Tatars have been denied even the right to mourn. The Russian authorities continue to forbid public gatherings in central squares to pay homage to the victims of the 1944 genocide.

Faced with persecution and the prospect of imprisonment, many of us have had to leave our homeland. Today, I find myself in exile for the second time in my life. It has been nine years since I had to leave my homeland, heartbroken, just like my grandmother did almost 80 years ago, when she was deported. But like her, I refuse to give up.

As we mark the 79th anniversary of the Crimean Tatar genocide amid the brutality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are as committed to our struggle for the liberation of Crimea as ever before.

We continue the fight for my right to return home, standing up to Russia’s formidable propaganda machine and the disinterested observers who buy into it.

I often hear comments about Crimea and the other territories occupied by Russia being the “price of peace” in Ukraine. I, like many Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, know that rewarding aggression and brutal occupation does not bring peace.

Crimea is not Russian to be “given back” to Russia. It never was. It never will be.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.