This was the day for true stories. It was the eighteenth of May, and the sun rose bright and blithe as if it had no heart. A day for picnics, for paddling in the sea, for lying in the grass beneath the knee-high daisies. There were tangles of wild roses on Mangup-Kalye now, poppies and peonies smelling of warm sweet cakes. The caves were round sun-traps, the valleys were lush with green and silver bird-full forest falling mile after mile to that line of light that was the sea.
It was a Crimean day that stood on tip-toe and shouted Look how wonderful I am! It was the day for remembering how the Crimean Tatars had to leave all this behind.
As the chartered bus swung into the station on the outskirts of Simferopol, the morning sun shone right into Safi’s face, dazzling her into seeing black shapes. She put her hands over her eyes. When she looked again, there were hundreds more shapes. The bus station was full of Crimean Tatars, standing quiet and purposeful, ignoring the police cars parked all round them. Pale blue banners marked with the Crimean Tatar tamga shifted gently over their heads, and a very low, wailing hum rose into the morning.
Bus after bus pulled into the station, bringing Tatars from Bakhchisaray and other villages and squatter’s camps west of Simferopol. […] The sun was high when at last the Tatars formed into a column and moved off. Along the road into Simferopol locals stopped to stare, and curtains twitched in the windows as though anxious inhabitants were watching from the safety of their homes. At other houses, doors opened and more Crimean Tatars came out to join the march. […]
Safi looked round at her parents. Mama had a steadying hand on grandpa’s arm and they were talking together, but papa saw her and his hard, fierce face softened a little, as if he’d seen something in her expression that worried him. Safi smiled at papa, glad he was there with mama and grandpa and Lutfi. This was the day for terrible stories, for remembering all the things the Crimean Tatars left behind, and what they lost on the way.
They walked until noon. The traffic had to stop for them, and some drivers got out of their cars and shouted insults, even threw stones. It didn’t matter. The pale-blue flags fluttered proudly over the swelling crowd, and everyone, no matter how poorly they were living, had dressed in their best clothes for this day. They chanted Our land! Our rights! Our home! They sang the old Tatar songs. And all the time the low wailing hum rose into the dazzling Crimean sky, the hum of stories being retold. Everyone had tears on their cheeks, not only the old people. Safi had not been born at the time of the Surgun, the deportation into exile. Her mother and father had not been born. But that meant nothing. She wiped her eyes along with the others because these stories belonged to all of them. This was what it meant to be Crimean Tatar. You weren’t one person, you were part of a nation, sharing a history, an identity, a family. The many stories blended into one story, the voices into one voice.
The eighteenth of May 1944. The soldiers came before dawn, to every town and every village throughout the whole of Crimea where Tatars lived. The fighting was over, there were no partisans and Germans to fear now, only the Soviet liberators. They had banged on the doors and ordered us sleepy Crimean Tatars outside, with fifteen minutes to get ready and no word of where we were going, only that the Soviet authorities decreed that we be sent away forever for treason to our country. They packed us into lorries and jeeps, then loaded us onto the trains like cattle. They took us away, and on the journey they let us die. No water, no air, no food in those railway trucks, only suffering. At one stop my mother ran for water, and she was late coming back. She reached out to climb into the truck, but through the closing doors I saw a soldier strike her hands away with a bayonet, and I felt her fall under the moving wheels. They came for my baby. I told them he was sleeping but they said he was dead. They tore him out of my arms and before he could scream they had tossed him from the truck. They killed my brother. He was told to dig the hole right there by the railway line where they threw the dead and the dying all jumbled together, no name, no marker. My brother refused, and they split his head with a spade and pushed him in with all the others.
Safi wept and wept. They all did. But they kept their heads up, and the Crimean sun dried the tears on their faces. There was one thought in all of their heads. We Crimean Tatars have lived through this. We have waited and struggled for fifty years. And we have come back. Nothing can stand against us, now we have returned to reclaim our homeland.
From Dream Land (2008)
Listen to this chapter read in Ukrainian here