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Meskhetian Turks' Tragic Odyssey

Thousands of uprooted Meskhetian Turks are more likely to find sanctuary in the United States than their native Georgia.

In the dry plains of Azerbaijan, dozens of Meskhetian Turks have gathered for a wedding in the village of Adygen.

As befits the Soviet people who have suffered perhaps the most tragic history of deportation and exile in the last 70 years, the guests come from all over the former USSR. The groom's uncle has travelled more than 11,000km from the eastern peninsula of Kamchatka to attend.

A huge mural depicting their original village of Adygen in southern Georgia forms a backdrop to the party. The artist, called Neriman, told IWPR that while he has never seen Adygen, he has heard so much about it since he was a boy that he can see it clearly in his mind's eye.

Like Neriman, most of the guests have never been to Meskhetia, the part of Georgia where they come from, and where their community was deported from en masse in 1944.

"We are tired of being guests," said 18-year-old Arif, the brother of the bride. "That is the reality of life in exile. Everyone needs their home - a place they know is theirs. I might not want to go and live in a village in Meskhetia, but I want to know that I have the right to go there."

However, that right of return still looks remote, despite a formal pledge by Georgia that it will allow the repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks. It now seems more likely that many of the people now living in southern Russia will find a haven in the United States rather than in their homeland.

The tragic story began in November 1944, when Stalin deported some 120,000 people - the overwhelming majority of them Meskhetian Turks in southern Georgia - to Central Asia. During the nightmarish 21-day journey in cattle trucks, around 15,000 people died of starvation or cold.

The Meskhetians shared this fate with around a dozen other Soviet minorities, such as Volga Germans and Chechens, all of whom were accused - on no evidence - of planning to collaborate with the German invaders. But unlike the other "punished peoples", the Meskhetians were never given the right to return.

In June 1989, around 90,000 of them were violently uprooted again, following pogroms in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley. Most fled to Azerbaijan and Russia.

The 17,000 or so Meskhetians who ended up in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia are now contemplating yet another move.

More than a decade after they arrived in Russia, they complain they are regularly harassed by local Cossacks. They claim that they are still denied permanent residency rights - which restricts their access to pensions, child benefit and healthcare - and have to pay a monthly "re-registration tax".

Last November the US State Department sent a delegation to the region and announced that it was considering allowing the Krasnodar Meskhetians to resettle in the United States. The case is still under review.

The 100,000 or so Meskhetians in Azerbaijan have fewer complaints. Linguistic and cultural similarities with the Azerbaijanis have made for relatively easy integration.

Most have state citizenship and many, particularly skilled farmers, earn more than their native-born neighbours.

But the issue of return to Georgia overrides all others.

Seventy-five-year old Feyaz Ormarov, who lives in Azerbaijan's Yevlakh region survived both the deportation from Georgia and Uzbekistan. "I want to say thank you to Azerbaijan for taking us in," he said. "They have treated us well - like brothers - but it is time for us to go home.

"We starved and froze in the wagons when Stalin deported us. We were driven out of Uzbekistan. We are guilty of nothing and we have suffered patiently. But how much longer must we wait?"

That will depend on whether Georgia honours the obligation it made when it joined the Council of Europe in 1999 - to keep to a framework leading to the repatriation of all willing Meskhetians within 12 years. So far the omens are not promising. (See next article).

Bekir Mamoyev, head of Vatan - a non-governmental organisation, NGO, that represents the Akhiska Turks (as the Meskhetians prefer to call themselves) in Russia and Azerbaijan - says the Georgians are deliberately stalling on the repatriation programme.

"Certain people are propagating the view that if we return there will be bloodshed, that there will be an invasion of Turks wielding scimitars," Mamoyev said.

"The older generation in Meskhetia knows that is not true, but maybe Georgia is waiting for them to die out. Of the twelve ethnic groups deported by Stalin, only the Akhiska Turks have not been rehabilitated. No one has apologised for the injustices committed against us."

Mamoyev also blames the outside world for not giving sufficient political support to his people.

However, the Meskhetians' cause has not been helped by some internal feuding. The communities in Georgia and Azerbaijan do not communicate properly, and there is an ongoing dispute as to whether the people should describe themselves as "Turks" or "Islamicised Georgians".

Eldar Zeinalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, says that the Meskhetians themselves need to act more constructively. "I think one of the obstacles to progress comes from within the community itself. The question of historical ethnic identity and terminology has become a divisive issue and is exploited by those who want to block their return to Georgia," Zeinalov said.

But Zeinalov's sharpest criticism is reserved for Georgia and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, for what he regards as lack of political will.

"By not enforcing its position the Council of Europe is treating Georgia like a spoilt child," Zeinalov said. "By shamefully allowing Tbilisi to delay the start of the repatriation process, it is killing the chance for the older generation of Meskhetian Turks to see their homeland before they die."

Even the youngest Meskhetians have an acute sense of the injustices their people have suffered - and believe it is time that others made a greater effort to correct them.

"Ever since 1944, our people have been left out in the cold," said Ali Belikberov, head of the youth organisation in Adygen. "Even now, when the question is being discussed, we have become the subject of the debate - but we are not included. It is time the world listened to us."

Dan Brennan is a freelance journalist and former NGO worker in Azerbaijan. He recently spent two months in Georgia and Azerbaijan researching the Meskhetian (Turkish) question thanks to a travel grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. The correct name for the people in this article is the subject of much disagreement. The author uses the term "Meskhetian Turks" here for the sake of simplicity and not as a statement of his political views.

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