In 2016, over 200 million people watched the Crimean Tatar artist Jamala win the Eurovision Song Contest with her song “1944.” In the shadow of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea just two years earlier, the world was moved to hear her sing, “You think you are gods, but everyone dies. Don’t swallow my soul, our souls.”
Although Jamala’s song refers to the deportation of around 200,000 Crimean Tatars by Joseph Stalin 79 years ago this month, Russians have been “swallowing” Crimean Tatars for centuries. They are swallowing us still, by brutally invading our homeland and trying to wipe our people off the map.
It is necessary to revisit the horrific events of May 1944 to understand what many have called a genocide of Crimean Tatars, and why Crimea is key to any Ukrainian peace deal. The fact is that we risk allowing this atrocity to happen again, in 21st-century Europe. That is a line we cannot afford to cross.
Over three days in May 1944, Stalin’s secret police forced women, children and the elderly at gunpoint onto locked cattle trains. Many husbands, fathers and sons were still abroad, having fought with the Red Army and received heroes’ medals in the Second World War.
They returned to find their families had been transported 2,000 miles to remote Uzbekistan, in conditions that served as a chilling echo of what Hitler had done to millions of European Jews. Their crime? Collaboration with Nazi Germany — a charge that made a mockery of the suffering they endured under occupation and their service to the world in the fight against fascism.
On the overcrowded cattle wagons, they died in thousands due to insufficient food and water, disease and vicious treatment by Stalin’s secret police, called NKVD. When they arrived in Uzbekistan, some were forced to travel for several more days to Central Asia. The bodies of those who had died in transit were tossed out onto the tracks by guards.
Of the 240,000 Crimean Tatars who were exiled, it is estimated that around half died either during transportation or within the first year, due to the brutal conditions of the labor camps where they were forced to live and work, as well as the appalling, unsanitary living conditions.
Treated as second-class citizens and traitors by the local population, Crimean Tatars dreamed of the day when they could return to their homeland.
Back in Crimea, their homes, farmland, possessions and graves were seized and destroyed. Two months after the mass deportation, 51,000 people –— most of them Russians — were moved into their properties. The term Crimean Tatar was banished from the Russian-Soviet lexicon, and all place names were changed to Russian. The total eradication of Crimean Tatars was complete.
Except that the Soviets didn’t reckon with the will, pride, strength and determination of these people. In the dying days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy reform in the 1980s, after nearly half a century in exile, 260,000 Crimean Tatars won the right to return to their ancestral homeland.
But they received no help, no compensation and no apology from Russia. It is only in the last 10 years that the deportation has been formally recognized as a genocide by Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Canada.
In the small window of peace before Russia invaded again in 2014, this resilient Sunni Muslim nation, which became part of Ukraine after its declaration of independence in 1991 and is one of its indigenous peoples, helped shape the region’s sense of self.
Together Crimea and Ukraine were ready to thrust forward as one European, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multilingual country. And it was for precisely this reason that Putin wanted to put a stop to the further westernization of the region by annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine.
Of course, I believe that if the West had acted against Putin in 2014, or in 2008 when his troops entered Georgia, there would have been no war in Ukraine. But with Crimea annexed and parts of Ukraine invaded, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars turned to each other again.
A majority of Ukrainians now support an amendment to Ukraine’s constitution in support of recognizing the “national-territorial autonomy” of the Crimean Tatars, and part of an estimated 40,000 of their people who had fled annexation formed volunteer battalions to fight the Russians.
For all these reasons, it would be an unimaginable strategic and moral mistake if the West once again sacrificed Crimea to the Russians.
My kin did not suffer brutality, oppression, death and exile twice in living memory to lose their homeland again as part of an appeasement deal to end the war in Ukraine. With moral and historical justness on our side, the Crimean Tatars have the opportunity, with the help of Ukraine and the West, to reclaim their land, culture and identity once and for all.
A united, sovereign, free Ukraine would send an incredibly powerful warning to would-be aggressors the world over. It would also be a potent force for good in defending modern liberal democracy — a force we need now more than ever.
Don’t liberate Crimea just for Crimean Tatars. Liberate Crimea for what it represents — and because our continent will never survive the alternative.
Alim Aliev is a Crimean Tatar activist and deputy director of the Ukrainian Institute.
Source: The Hill