On November 14, 1944 Gulli Bekirova was 11. She remembers a cold night, winter was in the air. The women of the family were together, when they heard a loud banging on the door.
“It was a soldier, he told us we had to get out of the house and he would take us to another place. Temporarily, he said, so we only had to take the most strictly necessary things with us. I was a child, there were no men in our village because they were all fighting in the war [Second World War], also my father was fighting,” recalls Gulli.
It was not temporary, for Gulli has never been back to her native land. For the few Meskhetians who did, complex citizenship issues remain, resulting from the rough-and-tumble of the dissolution of the USSR. Young Bekirova was one of thousands deported Meskhetian Turks, an ethnic subgroup of Turks who populated the Meskhetiya-Javakhetiya region, in today’s southern Georgia. In the autumn of 1944 Joseph Stalin, at the helm of the Soviet Union, contemplated an offensive to try to seize part of north-eastern Turkey - an ethnic group parent of whom he saw as the enemy, was not part of the plan. In 24 hours, 115,000 people living in 220 villages were rounded up, forced from their homes, herded into train wagons meant for cattle, and shipped to the steppes and plains of Central Asia.
Now 84, Bekirova gets lost in her memories. A black headscarf covers her grey hair and two deep blue eyes pierce from a face mapped by deep wrinkles. When they were told to leave, her mother did not have time to think - she took Gulli, her brother, and her grandmother and followed the soldiers. They were taken to a vast field near the Rabat fortress, near Akhaltsikhe, currently close to the border with Armenia. All the belongings of Bekirova’s family remained at home, but just a few bags. Then together with five other families they squeezed into one car.
“A car brought us to the station where red cargo trains were ready to take us to Central Asia. On the way we stayed one night in Tbilisi. I was a child and I couldn’t understand what was happening around. From the train windows I saw beautiful Tbilisi with lights and fountains. I was crying and asking my mother to give me water, because I was thirsty and tired,” remembers Bekirova.
An estimated 17,000 people, mainly elderly and children, did not survive the deadly journey. “One child died in our wagon and his mother had to bury him in the middle of nowhere, there was no other option, but others had to leave behind their dead beloved without a burial. There was no proper food and conditions. The only food that we got during movement was the soup, which was not possible to eat.”
About half of those who did, settled in contemporary Uzbekistan. Bekirova’s train stopped in Syr Darya, in the heart of the Fergana Valley, a fertile plain spreading across eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and northern Tajikistan. Together with five families, hers was assigned to one single house lacking gas and electricity.
“It was such a different country - a distinct language and culture, and it was so hot. Anthropologically and ethnically we are so different, but that was not the only problem. There was anti-Turkish propaganda in whole Soviet Union, and at the beginning Uzbeks were just scared to help us. When my father came back from the army he started to work in the cotton plantations. The situation got better, the local people got used to us, trusted us and tried to help.”
After Stalin’s death in 1953 many Meskhetians left Uzbekistan. However, returning to their original homes - or of what remained of them - was still not an option. At the end of WWII the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, on the border with Turkey, was declared a “frontier zone;” civilian access was limited and the Meskhetians were not only banned from returning but also from visiting their ancestors’ graves.
As Georgia was off-limit, many ended up choosing the closest they could to their native land, settling in modern Azerbaijan, specifically in the regions of Saatli, Sabirabad, Khachmaz, Qazakh, and Quba.
Bekirova was one of them. In 1957, at the age of 24, she married and the newly-wedded couple decided that time had come “to move close to our motherland.” They chose Quba, a city just a few kilometres from the Georgian border, and in the winter of the same year traveled there with their two small children.
“People were so welcoming, many gave us shelter in their houses, and the authorities donated land to farm and to build our houses. We are a hard-working nation, that initial help allowed us to start. We have all we need, the only thing that has been missing is veten, our homeland. I never went back to Georgia, but I still dream of it.”
In the dying years of the Soviet Union, history repeated itself and the Meskhetian Turks were forced to a new exodus. The last USSR census in 1989 recorded 106,000 Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan, 50,000 in Kazakhstan, and 21,000 in Kyrgyzstan. Yet ethnic tensions have been boiling over for years, specifically in the overpopulated Fergana Valley where residents were competing for resources. In 1989 riots broke out between the Meskhetians and native Uzbeks - about 100 people died, properties were destroyed and thousands of Meskhetians were forced into exile. Around 70,000 moved to Azerbaijan, and smaller groups relocated to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine.
While most today have Azerbaijani passports, citizenship remains a challenge for some. The two waves of displacement across the vast Soviet empire, and the republics that emerged from its dissolution, have posed serious challenges to the Meskhetians in terms of citizenship.
In 1999 Georgia, upon joining the Council of Europe, committed to the return of those Meskhetians who wanted to, but the draft bill aimed at facilitating the return, took eight years to see the light.
Veten is an Azerbaijani-based NGO which has been providing legal assistance to Meskhetians seeking Georgian citizenship.Chairman İbrahim Zİyaoglu said they collected 13,200 applications between 2007 and 2009, out of which only 1,533 obtained the repatriation status and 493 citizenship.
But even after getting it, they can not move back to their homeland - Georgia. One of the key reasons lies in the fact that entire families applied for citizenship but only one or two members were granted it, thus making it impossible for a whole household to move. In addition, the law did not provide any financial assistance or a preferential track to obtain citizenship, which is granted after five years of continuous residence only in the country, and was valid only during 2007-2009. On January 1, 2010 the government stopped accepting applications.
The number of applications turned out to be smaller than expected - among the challenges: the community signalled the resettlement expenses (including for legal assistance), the difficulties to access social services like health care and education, lack of knowledge of the country and its living conditions, as well as the limitations on double citizenship posed by the Georgian legislation.
“It is hard to start everything from zero, without any support, or governmental support,” said Amir, a 90-year-old Meskhetian still living in Azerbaijan. “This law had a one year deadline for applying with all necessary documents.”
In October 2016, the Turkish government facilitated and financed the visit of 30 people to their original villages in their homeland. Today around 60 Meskhetians from Azerbaijan study in Georgia. Each month all heads and representatives of the community of Meskhetian Turks in Azerbaijan have a monthly meeting to discuss the local problems and find solutions. The main support for publishing the monthly ‘Veten’ newspaper and community expenses comes from Turkey and rich Meskhetians who live abroad.
In Azerbaijan, Gulli still grieves.
“A homeland is a homeland, who would not want to return?”
Portraits of Meskhetian Turks