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May 18, 2020

By Idil P. Izmirli, Ph.D.

When I wrote the article "May 18, 2010" for the ICC 10 years ago (see below), I had some hope about the future of Crimean Tatars in Crimea. I was living in Crimea, on and off, with yearly visits that lasted from three months to six months, or to a year. I knew that there were many problematic and unresolved issues in Ukrainian Crimea, such as the land allocation question, sporadic attacks by the Kremlin-backed Russian organizations on Crimean Tatars, vandalism of graveyards and mosques. Yet, the returnees were free to assemble, protest or commemorate the anniversary of their mass deportation from their homeland on May 18, 1944. Until the illegal occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in 2014, The Day of Trauma, as it is widely known, they had received considerable support from both the Crimean and the Ukrainian authorities every year and their representatives participated in these events.

May 18 rally in Simferopol, Crimea, 2009
May 18 rally in Simferopol, Crimea, 2009

In 2014, however, two months after Crimea’s annexation, for the first time in 23 years, this gathering to honor the victims of deportation was banned by the state authorities in Crimea. Soon after, the Russian Federation banned these commemorative gatherings as well as any activity/assembly in Crimea if it entailed more than two people to get together.

The oppression of the authorities did not end there. At present, pursuing a policy of intimidation, Crimean security forces deliberately fabricate cases of terrorism for Crimean Tatars, as house searches and mass arrests continue. Although there have never been any terrorist attacks in Crimea, Crimean Tatars are still being continuously harassed, being labeled as extremists and arrested. They are jailed on trumped-up terrorism charges without any evidence. Once they receive their sentences, the defendants are sent to prison colonies throughout Russia (hybrid deportation), hours away from Crimea, away from their spouses and children.

Ten years ago, when I wrote this article, Crimea was a different Crimea. Crimean Tatars were rebuilding their lives because they were free to do so. Now things are very different for them. Since the illegal Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014, basic human rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, and peaceful assembly of the Crimean Tatars have been systematically violated. More than 30,000 Crimean Tatars were forcefully pushed out from Crimea to mainland Ukraine.

Today, as we commemorate the 76th anniversary of the Crimean Tatar deportation from Crimea, Crimean Tatars cannot even hoist their flags on their houses or gather to pray for their dead because these are considered “extremist” activities. Although Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, recognized the 1944 deportation as an act of genocide against the Crimean Tatar people (followed by Latvia on May 16, 2019, and Republic of Lithuania on June 6, 2019), today this topic is not even being discussed in Crimea. Meanwhile, Crimean Tatars are being persecuted, jailed, and their basic human rights are being violated. The occupying Russian forces are not letting them breathe freely and are trying to crush their souls, maybe not with machine guns, but with their discriminatory policies and anti-Tatar propaganda.

Yet, as Crimean Tatars, we commemorate the Day of Trauma (May 18, 1944) today in a heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul and hand-to-hand manner around the globe. We are in solidarity with our Crimean Tatar sisters and brothers. During this horrific pandemic, nobody can gather and assembly anyway, so all over the world in our socially distanced spaces, we, the Crimean Tatars, silently but collectively remember all those who died during and after the deportation, and pray for their souls. We are doing this as the Crimean Tatar global community. As we remember the dead, we also plan to get together again in the streets of Simferopol (Crimea) one day, free as before, and away from the Russian occupying forces. I don’t think we can say “Next year in Simferopol” yet, but I am hopeful that one day this will be possible.

May 18, 2010*

It is a horrendous event when one loses one's parents, or siblings, or children. That pain stays with one forever and its trauma burns a hole in one's heart. Losing one's home and all the belongings in it also is a terrible thing to happen to anyone. How about being forced to leave the one and only homeland one was born and grew up in? How much incurable pain does that cause in one's soul and psyche? On May 18, 2010, this is what we need to remember; the pain and suffering Crimean Tatars as an entire nation endured 66 years ago. We should also remember that regardless of their horrible fate on that dark day of deportation, Crimean Tatars were not defeated. As decades passed in exile, they did not give up; they kept their honor and their persistent passion for their homeland. Their narratives were handed down to newer generations who also developed an eternal flame in their hearts for a land they had never seen before. Through their passion and persistence, most of the Crimean Tatars were able to return home to their ancestral Crimea, after 47 years in exile.

Of course almost all the returnees cry when they talk about their parents, relatives, siblings, or friends who died either on trains or in "Commander's camps," where they were imprisoned for 12 years just because they were Crimean Tatars. They remember those days as if it was yesterday and feel so much pain. Yet, through that sorrow, they also find courage. They find strength. They continue to resist to injustices, value their families, and their cherished homeland. They celebrate birthdays, they work, they wed, and they live. Each year on May 18, they also gather at Simferopol's central square and commemorate that day of trauma (Kara gun), the day of Surgun. Their counterparts, Diaspora Crimean Tatars also commemorate the day of deportation with prayers, ceremonies, and gatherings all over the world.

Today, I did not tell you about the details of Surgun (deportation). I did not want to preach to the choir. As I sat in front of my computer, I silently wept and prayed for all who unnecessarily lost their lives, their homes, and their beloved homeland 66 years ago just because they were Crimean Tatars. I remembered all Crimean Tatars who suffered an enormous loss because of the deportation. I hope we all take a moment today and imagine how much they suffered and yet how much they accomplished. I hope through the sadness, we also find joy and celebrate Crimean Tatars who are devoted to peace and nonviolence regardless of many obstacles they continue to face in Crimea.

Idil P. Izmirli, Ph.D.
President of ICC
Springfield, Virginia

*Originally posted to ICC Web site in May 2010: May 18, 2010

Posted: May 19, 2020

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