Filmmaker: Ahmet Seven
On May 18, 1944, Joseph Stalin deported 218,000 Crimean Tatars to Central Asia.
Using personal testimonies, this film tells the story of the Tatars’ expulsion from their homeland and their long struggle to return.
It was only in 1989, with the opening up of the Soviet Union, that they were able to come back in large numbers. Most, finding Russians living in their former homes, built shacks in which to live.
Today, 300,000 Tatars live in Crimea – 5,000 of them still in shacks.
Even those with houses suffer because they only have minority status.
Despite this, 150,000 more are still hoping to return home.
It was just after New Year’s Day, 2011, and I was on my way to Ankara to visit my elder sister. I had decided to take the eight-hour train journey from Istanbul rather than the 45-minute flight. But as I sat on the train, feeling trapped, I was reminded of a story I had read about the exile, by train, of the Crimean Tatars.
As the journey progressed, I grew increasingly excited by the idea of making a film out of the anecdotes of the Crimean Tatars.
After researching the topic, I hit the roads once again – this time to Crimea for a research trip.
In my mind, there were many questions to be answered: Who are the Crimean Tatars? Why were they exiled? Why didn’t the thousands of Crimean Tatars who died during the exile have graves? And what happened during their years in exile?
The old family photographs I saw in the archives – many of them torn and damaged – all bore traces of those difficult years and hinted at answers to my questions. On some there were notes, like one that read ‘Year 1944, the Russo-German War continues’.
During my research I came across some stunning new information. The Crimean Tatars I met with claimed that Soviet soldiers had forgotten to exile the Tatars living in Arabat and had instead prepared a dreadful ending for them. It was a case that no one knew about.
Excited by this apparent discovery, I went to Arabat in northern Crimea without delay. The Crimean Tatars living there were looking for some form of proof to strengthen their claim.
Most of the exiled Tatars have now returned to Crimea. But they have become a minority in their own homeland.
They told me about the oppression they endured in the gulags, the Russian work camps, they were exiled to, and about their long fight to return home. Their struggle for their soil in Crimea, their homeland for 700 years, was quite impressive.
One by one, the questions that had formed in my mind were being answered and the film was taking shape – the exile, events in Arabat, the return.
In the beginning, the lack of a video-archive about the exile seemed to be a deficiency. But this allowed me to place the human stories at the centre of the film. Every Crimean Tatar I met had an intense story to tell – and what I discovered in Crimea went far beyond what I had anticipated during that train journey to Ankara.