It took only a few hours for them to board trains but their pain lingered for decades. The Ahıska or Meskhetian Turks, an ethnic community that originates from present-day Georgia's Meskheti region, marked the 75th anniversary of their forced exile from their homeland by the Soviet Union. Upon the orders of Stalin, this Turkic community living in a region close to the Turkish border was forced to board trains to the inner lands of the Soviet Union where the present-day Turkic republics are located. Some 86,000 people were sent to Central Asia while about 17,000 among them died on the road due to hunger, freezing temperatures and diseases. Their plight did not end in places they were exiled to. They were taken to labor camps regardless of their age. The elderly among the exiled that survived the continuous suffering remember the tragic lives they led in exile. Today, the Ahıska diaspora is spread all across the world and Turkey hosts a large majority of them, something many members of the community are thankful for.
The Meskheti region was originally an Ottoman territory before the empire ceded it to Russia following the Ottoman-Russian War in 1828-1829. After World War I, it was annexed to Georgia and its residents shared the fate of any minority with Turkic origins under brutal Soviet rule. They were loyal to the Soviet regime and even fought in the Red Army in World War II but Stalin was determined to sever their ties with their homeland, under the pretext of their collaboration with Nazis. In fact, their purge was simply an extension of a policy to wipe out Turkic presence from regions around the Black Sea. On the fateful day of Nov. 14, 1944, following a decree from Moscow, they were forced into trains in a few hours, with few belongings. Their journey in overcrowded trains took more than one month and about 17,000 perished before they arrived in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. They were taken to labor camps and not allowed to settle in cities. Any Ahıska Turks violating this rule would be exiled to Siberia for decades. Some 30,000 Ahıska Turks died of hunger and epidemics in the following years in the Central Asian regions they were forced to settle in.
Today, Meskheti is home to about 20,000 people but few are Ahıska Turks as most either stayed in the Central Asian countries they were exiled to or settled in third countries after they left. The total population of the Ahıska diaspora numbers about 600,000. They are concentrated in Turkey, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and the United States. For years, they sought to return to their homeland after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Georgia passed a law to facilitate their return in 2007 but no concrete steps have been taken yet.
Fuat Uçar, who heads World Ahıska Turks Union (DATÜB), says the world has been "deaf and blind" to their exile. "This is a genocide, a crime against humanity but the world ignores it," Uçar told Anadolu Agency (AA) ahead of the anniversary. DATÜB organizes large-scale events every year to raise awareness on the issue and this year, the Turkish presidential complex will host such an event. Turkish authorities also attend remembrance ceremonies in other countries like Kyrgyzstan. Some 60,000 Ahıska Turks live in Turkey, according to Uçar but the highest number is in Kazakhstan where 200,000 members of the community live. For Uçar, the biggest dream of every Ahıska Turk is to live in Turkey. "People used to say that they would 'smell' a person who comes from Turkey when they came across her or him in the places they live. They would 'smell' the homeland. Every Ahıska Turk, wherever they live, has a Turkish flag in their homes," he says about their love of Turkey. Uçar credits late President Turgut Özal for his efforts to bring Ahıska Turks to Turkey but says a real change in their lives came during the tenure of incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who reached out to Ahıska Turks while he was prime minister.
Turkey granted citizenship to over 40,000 Ahıska Turks living in Turkey and the process is ongoing for another 20,000 applications seeking Turkish citizenship. Since 2015, Turkey received thousands of Ahıska Turks from Ukraine as it was mired in conflict and settled them in northern Turkey, in housing complexes built by the government for them. Uçar says they never severed ties with Turkey and appeals to Turkey to facilitate more arrivals. "After 75 years of exile, they want to live freely under the Turkish flag.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement to mark the anniversary on Thursday and said Turkey would continue to "actively support the just cause" of the Ahıska Turks.
The ministry said Turkey will continue to support the Ahıska Turks to maintain their unity and identity and to help transfer their future generations in the countries they live to their homeland.
"We wish that the process for the return of the Ahıska Turks to their homeland will be completed successfully and that they will continue to live peacefully in their home as well as in the countries they currently live," it said. "We feel the deep grief of Ahıska Turks on the 75th anniversary of their deportation and wish God's mercy upon those who lost their lives during the deportation," it added.
Hayriye Agali is among the 1,937 Ahıska Turks who resettled in the northern province of Erzincan's Üzümlü district from Ukraine. The 81-year-old mother of five was just 6 when she and her family were forced into exile. She remembers Soviet soldiers arriving in their village and rounding up men. "They told them to leave the village in two hours," she told AA. It was early in the morning and soldiers went from door to door, pointing guns at them and ordering them to leave. They were huddled in military trucks and taken to a train station to board a freight train. Every wagon had five or six families. "We had many sheep and did not want to leave them behind. My father slaughtered one sheep and wanted to take its meat with us. Soldiers did not let him but he managed to cut it to pieces and hide it in a sack," she recounts. She also remembers the death of a child during their long journey and soldiers simply putting a cover on his body. "We were worthless for them," she says. Agali and her family traveled to Uzbekistan where they led a poor life. "We just tried to survive. We had so many challenges." Agali and her five siblings were raised by their mother after her father's death in Uzbekistan and often moved from one place to another. She is grateful to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for finally giving them a permanent home. "The president brought our community here and backed us. It was like he gave us a new world. Turkey gave us a house and jobs, something even a father may not do for his children. Erdoğan is like our father now," she says.
Like Agali, 94-year-old Köşeli Rical was among those taken to Uzbekistan. "It was a poor place. We worked in the fields to make a living," he remembers his time in Central Asian country. His son Şah İsmail says they grew up with memories of exile. "Being in exile means being homeless. You live like a homeless person without your homeland. We went to Ukraine but war broke out. Thanks to President Erdoğan, we left there and was given a home and food. I always dreamed of having a homeland while I was a child. I now have one," he says.
Bitlis in eastern Turkey is also home to Ahıska Turks from Ukraine. Muhammed İlyas is member of one of 72 families settled in the eastern province's Ahlat district in 2016. The elderly man was only a 4-year-old child during the exile. "They told our fathers, grandfathers, that they were 'saving' them from World War II and promised to bring them back [to Meskheti]," he says about Soviet officials. Speaking to İhlas News Agency, İlyas recounted how people in Uzbekistan helped them settle in villages of Samarkand. This was not the last destination though. "We moved 12 times in 75 years," he recounted, either due to continued exile under Soviet regime or due to poverty. "We have gone through so many troubles. There were times without food or water. Those were dark days," he says.