Posts Tagged 'Surgun'

Crimean apples

This is an extract from the original draft of Dream Land, which never made it to the published version. Like everything in the book, it’s a fictionalised combination of several first-hand accounts of the years of exile after all the Crimean Tatars were deported in 1944.

I’ve sadly lost the notes and recordings that made up the research for the book. I remember three people who were sources for this particular story, all then living in Bakhchisaray with children and grandchildren. The last of them died last year.

It’s a sort of physical anguish when people go forever taking their memories with them, leaving behind we who were preoccupied or absent-minded or reluctant to listen and record them when we could. Today, 18 May, is the anniversary of the deportation. I’ve been reading accounts of Crimean Tatars about 1944; the memories that map onto and create newer memories; the things that remain, the things that are passed on, the things that are lost.

Guli didn’t know exactly how old she was. When we would all get together to talk through our memories, keep the soul of Crimea alive, she always said she’d been four or five when we were all deported. She hated it that she couldn’t remember anything about the land we left behind. “It’s like a dream,” was all she’d say. “Like things in a dream.” The one thing she said she remembered was apples. In Guli’s dream the apples of Crimea were the biggest and reddest and sweetest in the world. The blossoming trees in spring, tall as mountains covered with white snow.

Her three brothers were at the front in 1944. She only ever saw one of them again. The cattle trucks took the remaining three children and their mother along with hundreds of other Crimean Tatars to the Ural mountains. Barefoot, in light spring frocks, and they ended up at a labour camp in the wilderness on the edge of Siberia. That winter in 1944 came early. It was so cold; everyone slept in the barracks tight-packed in a line like sardines, and in the night if someone wanted to turn over he had to wake up the whole line of women and boys and old people and children, and they all turned over together.

They were cold and they starved. Six hundred grammes of sour black bread was the daily ration, and that only for workers – not the old people, nor the children. Later they were allotted rooms, one for each family, and one night Guli cried and cried and cried for her empty belly. She was only five or six and she had hardly learned to speak; some of the others thought she was backwards, maybe even a bit daft. The wooden partitions were so thin, you could hear everything; when Guli had cried for three hours without stopping the wife of the camp commander came in.

“Shut the child up! I’ve got visitors staying from the district and they can’t sleep because of her whining.”

She’s hungry!” Guli’s mother replied. “How can I shut her up when I’ve got nothing to give her to eat?”

The wife went back cursing and swearing, and Guli went on crying. And then a little later one of the commander’s guests came sleepily through the door, carrying a chunk of bread and a lump of sugar on the top of it. “There now, eat it and calm down, child.”

Oh but the whole family were so hungry! And none of them would take food from the littlest, but they sat in a circle around Guli, like dogs round a butcher’s shop door, begging. “Give me a piece, Guli. Just a little piece. Share it with me, Guli. Just a corner. Just a nibble. A crumb. Please Guli. Give me a bit. There’s a good girl.”

And little backward Guli, who never said anything at all, looked at them and said as clear as you please, “No, I won’t give you any, because I cried and I cried and I cried this piece of bread all by myself!”

When their mother died it was so cold that the body froze solid. The oldest sister went outside to scrape up snow to wash the body, but the middle sister had the idea to pretend the woman was still alive, so they could get her food ration. They kept it up for three days, chewing on black bread under the frozen eye of their mama. On the fourth day a doctor came to see what was keeping the woman so sick she couldn’t work. He found the three girls wrapped together in all the clothes and blankets they had, warming their hands round a candle, and the body sat up stiffly in bed all blue and ghastly.

“Mama’s caught a cold so bad she can’t eat, she can’t get out of bed,” Guli explained.

Well, they took her away after that but the ground was frozen so solid they couldn’t dig a grave, so they just left her lying outside until the thaw.

About ten years later Guli and her sisters were transfered to Uzbekistan, to the Hungry Steppe, to work digging irrigation channels for cotton. We came from neighbouring villages in Crimea, but it was in the Hungry Steppe labour camps that I met Guli. She was no beauty, and she could barely read or write. But I was hardly one to talk, by then. I had got malaria from the mosquitoes that came after we irrigated the salt flats. My skin stuck to my bones, yellow as old cheese from the medicine. I shivered even in the heat of August, I was unable to eat, I hardly knew where I was, I couldn’t stir from my bed and I had no family left by then to help me.

Guli had never seen malaria, but she knew all about the cold. Because I wouldn’t stop shivering she brought her blanket and climbed into the bed with me and put her arms round me to warm me.

Her name meant ‘rose’. When I told her that she went pink as a rose but not with pleasure. “I’ve just got prickles,” she said. She was ashamed because she hadn’t known. She never did learn much reading or writing, she could swear like a soldier in Russian but she didn’t know much Crimean Tatar. I often made her feel stupid, and she knew she wasn’t pretty. But after they built a town where once was the Hungry Steppe and called it Gulistan, rose garden, she said, “They’ve named it after me, the nerve of it, the bastards never even asked.”

She was short-tempered and out-of-breath and she died when our son Alim was 18 and just getting interested in the Crimean Tatar National Movement. Alim brought home a girl he’d met on his first protest march and Guli didn’t approve.

“I don’t know what you see in her,” she complained, because the girl wasn’t pretty, had no family to speak of, couldn’t cook, talked of nothing but the protests. Alim was a handsome, clever boy, and Guli wanted a better bride for her son than she had been for me. But Alim was smitten. Soon he could talk of nothing but Crimea too, and I suppose Guli felt like she had lost both of us.

She was jealous of my memories of the Crimea we left behind. The stories I tell now to my granddaughter Safi started with my wife; I wanted to give them to Guli as a present, like one day I hoped to give her a real Crimean apple. But she knew there were things I never told her, perhaps she had heard them as I lay in her arms delirious with the fever. When she collapsed and they took her off to the hospital, the doctor said she had a hole in her heart. I came to see her and she patted my hand and said, “There you are then. There’s a surprise. I always thought you were the one with a hole in your heart.”

 

simferopol museum apple ads

Labels for Crimean apples and pears exported by the USSR in the 1930s (in Simferopol museum) 

This isn’t just our story

kuku house.sm

“This is my father’s house. They came at five in the morning on 18th May: three Soviet soldiers burst in with guns. It’s just the same as now. They come in the night or the early morning, when you’re asleep and you’re not prepared, you can’t understand what’s happening…

Back then, it was still wartime. Dad was 12 in 1944 and he remembers: all the men had been mobilised in 1941 and sent away, so that when the Germans came in 1942 there were only women and old people and children who grew up for two years under the Germans. The boys, 16, 17 years old, were all put into German uniform; they were taken from their homes and given German uniforms in return for flour and sugar, or else they were told if they didn’t wear it their families would be shot. They had little choice.

When the Soviets took back Crimea pilots were flying over and shot through his house roof. Dad remembered when he came back to Crimea in the 1970s he saw the same bullet holes still there in the roof, covered over with stones. When people asked how he knew which house was his, he said: it’s the one with the bullet holes, and they let him in to look at it. But they never let him have the house back. I’ve never even been inside the courtyard.

Instead when we came back in 1993 dad fought to get an official land plot to build a new house. He always insisted on doing everything according to the law. We lived in a damp container for three years, we all got hepatitis. Me and my brother built the house together with our parents. I was 15, my brother was 17.

This isn’t just our story; practically every Crimean Tatar went through this. No one helped us, no one gave us jobs or land or rights. At school when kids pointed at us we had to say: we’re not immigrants overrunning Crimea, we’ve come home. People were scared that we’d demand our houses and property back, but in fact none of us had documents to prove ownership, because we’d had to leave in such a hurry in 1944. We were sent away as traitors and forced to live in reservations behind barbed wire, having to sign in and out, like we were under house arrest…

Our father was born in 1932. He died in June 2015. My brother’s detention destroyed him. He only lived for two months after that. He was so strong, but the disappointment, what they did to his son, ate up his strength, he just dried up and crumbled away in front of our eyes… After they tried to kidnap my brother, and then beat him up and detained him, dad went to the Russian security services in Yalta. It was a young officer who until 2014 was serving under Ukraine’s security service. Dad said: aren’t you ashamed? He called him a fascist. The officer pretended it was nothing to do with him and it wasn’t his fault…

My father was asked to collaborate with the authorities in Soviet times. He refused. He went to prison for two years; he was in the Crimean Tatar national movement but they couldn’t prove that so they arrested him for hooliganism. Then in 2015 they came to my brother at work before and after they detained him for the first time. They said: we need you, you have to work with us. My brother refused, just as my father had refused even though they offered many times. They said: if you won’t help us then you’ll go to prison. My brother was a human rights defender, he was trying to find out what had happened to the Crimean Tatars who have gone missing since 2014. They couldn’t arrest him for working in human rights or for refusing to cooperate with them, so they arrested him for terrorism. They’ve got no witnesses, no victims, no case. All they have is the desire to put him in prison. And they found a way to put him there, just as they did with our father…

What my father wanted most was autonomy and rehabilitation for the Crimean Tatars, because this stain against us as supposed traitors from 1944 has never been removed. He wanted full rehabilitation, not just a signed piece of paper but restoration of all our property and rights. And when Putin really did sign a law on rehabilitation in 2014, for a short time he was actually as happy as a child. He said that in two months Russia had done what Ukraine had not done in 20 years.

But other than a piece of paper that says we are not traitors, there is nothing. Now my brother is in prison, and my father is dead.”

crimea tree crack.sm


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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