SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Ali Aliev was a 9-year-old when German troops occupied Crimea during World War II, and he still remembers the day he and others in his village in the southeastern Sudak region of the peninsula gathered in a schoolyard to wait for their liberators, the returning Soviets.
There he learned that the indigenous Crimean Tatar population was being rounded up and sent away.
“We didn’t know where, just somewhere,” he said, now in his 80s and living in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.
His people were loaded onto empty train carriages — women, children and elders crammed together. When the train stopped, the Soviets opened the doors, threw dead bodies over the side of the platform and restarted the train.
After 22 days on board, Aliev ended up at a labor camp in the Ural region in the center of the USSR. This was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s punishment for the Crimean Tatars, citing Tatar collaboration with the Nazi invaders, despite the fact that many had served in the Red Army.
Descendants of the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan, the Crimean Tatars are Turkic-speaking Muslims and the peninsula’s indigenous inhabitants. The Soviets left them scattered in labor camps across the barren steppes of Central Asia. Thought to number approximately 200,000 at the time, almost half the population died from hunger, thirst and disease in their first year of exile.
“They threw us aside to exterminate us from the earth,” Aliev said. “But despite what we lived through, the people never forgot their homeland. We went to sleep at night dreaming of Crimea.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Crimean Tatar population has slowly returned to an entirely different homeland from the one they were forced to leave, one dominated by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Since the Tatars’ homecoming, they have been fighting for their rights, but with the newest Russian incursion, the Crimean Tatars here says they feel hemmed in from all sides.
With Russian troops on their streets and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s warning that he will use force to secure Crimea and eastern Ukraine, anxiety is mounting among the minority, which supported the uprising against now ousted President Viktor Yanukovich. The embattled Tatars, who make up 12 percent of the multiethnic peninsula, according to a 2001 census, look unlikely to get their way.
On Saturday, Putin requested and received authorization from the upper house of Russia’s parliament to use military force in Ukraine. On a call with U.S. President Barack Obama, Putin “stressed that in case of any further spread of violence to eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas,” the Kremlin announced. On Sunday, Ukraine responded by calling up its military reservists, while Russian troops continued to surround Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula.
“Other ethnic groups here have governments that protect their future, but we don’t have a homeland other than Crimea,” said Abduraman Egiz, a deputy with the Mejlis, a representative body for the Crimean Tatars.
Russians make up almost 60 percent of the peninsula’s populations, and Ukrainians compose 24 percent according to the 2001 census.
“We want to protect our language, history and historical figures, but the legacy of the USSR lives, and people don’t understand these basic rights need to be guaranteed,” Egiz said.
Return from exile in Central Asia was a slow process. “All the adults told us stories about our homeland. They pounded us with them so we would never forget,” Zulfere Memetova, a 30-year-old accountant who grew up in Uzbekistan, remembered.