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The Arabat Tragedy III: A Mother's Cry*

By Yunus Mirgaziyan

It was early in May (1944). Saniye hanim ran out of food, there was nothing to feed the family with. She decided to go and live with her uncle Hamit who was a fisherman in one of the fishing villages on the Arabat Spit. Marsel, her only son was in the army, and in his last letter to his mother he mentioned that the war would soon be over. Once he was discharged from the military, he would be able to continue his education. Saniye hanim's husband Musa was accused of assisting the partisans fighting against the Nazis and hanged in the center plaza of the town. (Crimea was then under the Nazi occupation.)

Towards the end of May, Crimean Tatar fishermen returning from their fishing trip brought back the heart wrenching news of the mass deportation of every single Crimean Tatar on mainland Crimea. They had heard that their countrymen were awakened in the early morning hours, loaded on cattle wagons and deported. Somehow they did not touch the Crimean Tatars on the Arabat Spit. In the past, Crimean Tatars rather than becoming slaves to Russians had abandoned their ancestral homeland and emigrated en masse. During the Patriotic War (World War II) many had sacrificed their lives and had become martyrs. Yet they were still subjected to this tragedy. Now, perhaps Allah protected the Crimean Tatars on the strip of land at Arabat, they thought....

The good news of being spared from the Surgun (Mass Deportation) did not last long. Soon enough a boat with a large barge attached to it anchored on the shore. Some of the militia remained to guard the boat, and others began to move towards the village. The first house on the shore was Uncle Hamit's house.
"You have half an hour to get your stuff and get out of your house!" was the order. One of the militia, turning to elderly uncle Hamit, said:
"Tell them not to take too much stuff, they will have everything they need where they are going."
Within half an hour, the entire Crimean Tatar population in the village was forcibly uprooted and brought to the shore. Saniye hanim's two daughters fearfully hugged their mother, and began to cry loudly:
"Are they taking us away to kill us, mom?"
"No, my children, what are you saying? Your father fought to defend this country, they will not harm us. Don't you worry!" was her answer.

The Crimean Tatar men who were serving in the armed forces had not returned yet. Therefore, mostly women, children and elderly remained in these villages. They forcibly took the elderly Uncle Hamit from his sick bed and dragged him outside. He was barely able to walk by holding on to two girls, dragging his feet on the sand. He began crying out loud saying that once he is gone, he is not returning. Then a militiaman put his machine gun to old man's head and the old man stopped crying. They brought all the Crimean Tatars to the shore and then began taking them to the barge by raw boats.

Saniye's daughters were taken away while she reminisced on the shore crying her eyes out. When the empty row boat returned, people let her get on first. This gesture comforted her and made her feel a little better. As the rowboat left the shore, Saniye heard a strange music coming from the shore. The sound reminded her Mozart's Requiem. This was a cry of a nation, a people's voice of mourning. It was a voice of a tragedy that one can trace back centuries. The destruction of a nation that began centuries ago had finally reached the Arabat Spit.

The militia did not let the Tatars remain on the deck. All of them were pushed and shoved to the bottom of the barge, including Saniye hanim. The stairs were so steep one had to negotiate them going backwards holding on the railing. As another woman tried to go down, they began stepping on each other. When they reached the bottom, they realized that they had stepped into a pool of water. Saniye finally found herself a safe corner to stay. Now she had to find her daughters, and she started to call their names. But the noise and turmoil were so loud that no one could hear her. She tried to move a little but hit a human wall. The human prison was wall to wall, full of people unable to move, all Crimean Tatars. The smell was unbearable, as this barge had been used to transport smoked fish. It was dark and one could hardly breathe in there.

"Esma, Zamfira!" cried Saniye again and again. When there was no reply, she sat down, totally discouraged. She thought that they were in worse situation than their deported compatriots. People had no idea what was going on. Many thought that they were being taken away, just like the slaves from Africa to America. Some thought they were to be deported to same places as their compatriots were previously. They believed they were being taken to one of the Azov Sea ports, and to be loaded on cattle wagons and shipped off. Even if this was the case, would they survive the ordeal? But at that moment, their main concern was to be able to breathe some fresh air.

The crew and the militia on board had already begun to celebrate their success. They were celebrating their great accomplishment by drinking and dancing. Soldiers began crowding the deck with plenty of food and liquor. The food, dried meat and dried fruit, etc. were all taken from the homes of the Crimean Tatar victims.
"I congratulate your victory," said the NKVD Major in charge of the operation. "Bravo Eagles! You completed your task without a hitch. After General Kobulov (Beria's representative in Crimea) had reported to his superior that there was not even the scent of Crimean Tatars left in Crimea, we discovered that the Crimean Tatars on the Arabat Spit were forgotten. If Lavrenti Pavlovitch (Beria) had reported this to Stalin, you would have been all dead now. But we finally succeeded. Let us drink to that! Let us drink for Fatherland, for Stalin!"
The soldiers responded with loud hurrah and continued to drink in celebration, as the barge was pulling away full of Crimean Tatars.

It was night time, the moon was shining on the barge. The sergeant using his flashlight tried to open the door to find his way. The moonshine also lit the basement of the barge. Saniye was able to see her daughters who had clung to each other. Saniye tried to move towards them passing through the enormous human wall.
"Esma, Zamfira!" cried Saniye, "Don't be afraid, I am here! Soon they will take us to the shore."
As the sergeant tried to move and reach the other side of the barge, Esma and Zamfira were once again lost in the dark. By pushing, shoving and kicking, the sergeant finally reached his destination and tried to grab something that he was looking for.
"I found it, I found it!" he screamed with happiness. "It is impossible to open (the hatch)."
"Why don't you use your machine gun to open it," yelled one of his friends.
"It is no use, we need a crowbar. The kingston (the hatch) is quite tight."
He was given a crowbar and he began hitting the kingston (the hatch). One could hear the noise, metal hitting the metal. He finally yelled "I opened it," as he went on stepping on people's heads and shoulders to reach the other end of the barge. He got up on the deck.
"Let the wire loose, and let the barge go!"yelled the sergeant. But the soldiers could not untie the barge. The one on the row boat finally climbed to let the barge loose.

The water rushed into the basement of the barge; people were drowning. Their screams, their outcry slowly faded away. The victors waited and watched the barge sink, full of Crimean Tatars. Somehow the barge did not sink completely.
"Didn't you open the kingston (the hatch)?" yelled the (NKVD) Major. "If the barge does not sink completely in half an hour, you know what will happen to you!"
"I did open it. I don't know why it did not sink, maybe it hit the shallow ground."
The captain of the boat (barge) was so drunk that he could hardly stand up. Only the mechanic was sober enough to know why the barge had not sunk.
"When you closed all the doors, it created an air vacuum. That is why it did not sink."
"Get the row boats ready, hurry up!"
"They can't even stand up. How are they going to use the the row boats? They will drown one by one by the time they get to the barge. You know what? Maybe you should use the automatic machine gun to fire on the doors of the barge to open some doors and let the air out."
The soldiers, as ordered by their commander, opened fire on the barge doors. But their shots were unable to open the metal doors.

The barge of death did not sink completely. The intoxicated NKVD Major whisked the machine gun from the sergeant, climbed on the mast and began firing at the barge. Finally the barge began to sink and disappeared completely.

Translated into English by Mubeyyin Batu Altan

* Translator's Note:
Written in Crimean Tatar, this story was originally titled "Arabat Oku," or "Arabat Arrow" in English translation. It appeared in the May 15, 2004 (pages 5-6) issue of Yani Dunya, a weekly newspaper published in Simferopol.
The Azov Sea thus became the burial place for those unfortunate Crimean Tatar villagers who were accidentally forgotten and who temporarily avoided the mass deportation (Surgun). Crimea was finally ethnically cleansed of Crimean Tatars, and the centuries-long Russian dream of "Crimea without Crimean Tatars" was now a reality, though temporarily.

Posted: 26 December 2012

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