NEW YORK – Put aside for a moment the geopolitical issues and cries of “Munich” and “Sudetenland” that surround Russia’s ongoing annexation of Crimea: In human terms, Crimea’s Tatars are the reason to care. The Muslim Tatars have suffered repeated persecution since the Ottomans ceded their peninsula to the Russian Empire, including an attempted genocide under Stalin. In 1944, the entire population was deported to central Asia and Siberia, and as many as half were killed.
There were no gas chambers or Bergen-Belsens, but the best way to understand the fears of the Tatars is to imagine them as if they were Eastern European Jews, under sudden threat of reoccupation by a Germany that had yet to recognize its collective responsibility for the Holocaust.
If that sounds like a stretch, maybe it is. But consider that in recent days thugs have daubed black Xs on some Tatar homes in Crimea, according to news reports, in a grim reminder of the way they were identified for the 1944 deportation.
Ahmet Berber was among those who were sent to Uzbekistan or Siberia as children. Today the retired mechanic is 79 years old, but he has a mind like a steel trap. He was in kindergarten when Germany declared war on the former Soviet Union in 1941, and he still remembers the sound of men speaking unintelligible languages (German and Romanian) as they approached to open up the basement where he and his family were hiding in their village outside Simferopol.
“There were just old people and children left here,” says Berber, still pained and perplexed by Stalin’s accusation as the war ended that the Tatars had been German collaborators. Some Tatars did fight for the Germans in a brutal war with Soviet partisans. At least as many, however, fought for the Soviet Union.
On May 18, 1944, Berber, then 8, was awake before dawn with a toothache when two Russian-speaking men with semi-automatic rifles arrived at the door to his house. They told everyone to be out within 15 minutes.
Five families were piled into each of the trucks that were brought to the village, says Berber. They were taken to the train station at Simferopol, where he remembers being piled into a freight car with his family and about 50 other people. It was the first time he had seen a train. “I thought this was a new house we were going to live in — I was so surprised it started moving,” says Berber.
The journey to Uzbekistan took 18 days. There was little food and people would jump out when the train stopped to quickly make fires and flatbread with flour they had brought along, but with mixed success. They became weak, and some died in the freight cars. The train began stopping at bridges so the guards could open the car doors and push the bodies into the rivers. “Like they were dogs,” says Berber.
Finally, their car and two others were emptied in a remote part of Uzbekistan. They were taken to a set of barracks, one of which was already full with Polish Jews. Berber’s grandmother and grandfather died within months, and his older sister followed. People were so weak they couldn’t dig graves deep enough for the dead, and animals would dig them up.
Eventually, the Jewish camp commander found a house for Berber’s family in a nearby village. Until 1956, they weren’t allowed to leave it, but gradually they built up their lives. And then, in 1990, the road was cleared for Crimea’s Tatars to return home.
Because all of them left at once, there was no market to buy their houses in Uzbekistan, while inflation made their savings worthless. They weren’t assigned land or homes in Crimea, so they squatted and built their own.
Eventually Ukraine’s authorities gave them title, and for the first time, Berber and his family felt free. Today he lives with one of his sons in a solidly built breezeblock house on the outskirts of Simferopol.
It is the unreality of Moscow’s claims that gets to Berber, reminiscent of the distortions under Stalin. “Did you watch Putin’s meeting with reporters a few days ago?” he asks. “I have never seen a man lie so much. Every word. I didn’t know what to think.”
Few groups in the region need the protections and rights that Ukraine’s gradual integration with the European Union would bring more than Crimea’s Tatars. With the arrival of masked Russian gunmen, the closure of dissenting television stations and news media outlets, and the announcement of a preordained referendum on joining Russia, that prospect is fast slipping away. Berber’s elderly wife collapsed from shock when the referendum was announced, and she remains in the hospital. Young Tatar men have begun forming neighborhood watches, in their own version of a self-defense force. There is little, however, that they can do.
“There is no freedom in Russia. We know this,” Berber says, sitting at night at his son’s kitchen table. “They have taken away our hope.”
Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcChampion.