Ihsan Ozkoseli was six years old in October 1938 when he and his family of four left the native village of Khosrov, in the heart of today’s Azerbaijan.
"We were in grief. In tears, we separated from the village. We would not leave, but Stalin's actions broke us."
Now 85, Ozkoseli has not forgotten the days before the repression - his eyes twinkle, his voice is full of joy as he quickly jumps from one story to another, as he was afraid to forget or leave any details behind.
His life, and his family’s, was transformed forever - the persecutions carried out by the Kremlin from the mid-1930s pushed thousands of people to leave their land, and in many cases went as far as to shape their identity as their surnames were changed as well. They ended up in Kars, eastern Turkey.
Huseyn Mumtaz was a Turkish national. In 1918 he answered the call of Nuru Pasha and joined the Islamic Army of the Caucasus (known as Qafqaz İslam Ordusu in Azerbaijani)in today’s Azerbaijan to fight the Bolsheviks-Dashnak Baku Soviet forces. Injured, he stayed on, settling in Agdash. When his Turkish wife passed away, he re-married with Yakhshi Khanim, an ethnic Azerbaijani from the neighbouring village Sadavat. In 1932 Ihsan was born.
"My father used to walk nine kilometres to Agdash, every day to purchase daily staples, he would carry them in a saddlebag. He used to buy sweets and tangerines. We were waiting for our father under the sycamore tree,'' recalls Ihsan.
Huseyn was the mullah, orreligious leader, of 20 villages in the area of Agdash. When the large-scale repression conducted across the Soviet Union in 1937 started targeting writers, religious leaders, opposition representatives - or anyone perceived as such - he was taken to Moscow.
"He was taken to Moscow for the mersiyye, the laments for the prophet Muhammad’s family after his death in Karbala. Soviet officials had started to ask why people gathered at the local mosque here. Then he was shocked, realizing it had become impossible to remain,” says Ihsan.
The family packed all they had and set off westward, departing before they faced a potentially tough repression.
"When we entered Gumry, officials checked us from head to toe. I remember they asked about any gold. We had a samovar [traditional teapot], musical instruments, an accordion - everything was confiscated. Ultimately, the customs’ officials in what was by then the Armenian SSR took everything from us and instead gave us beds to sleep."
Once in Kars they applied for citizenship, and in the registration process they were given a new surname - Ozkoseli.
"The conductor of the train told the station chief that we didn’t have a place to stay and he said to all the managers that someone had to host us. Thus, every ten days we stayed in one of managers’ houses."
After the first winter, Ozkoseli built a small mud house from mud, and after a few months they managed to rent a tiny space of eight square metres.
"It was difficult," recalls Ihsan.
“There (in Azerbaijan) education was important and mandatory. When I was seven my dad could not send me to school, we were too poor, he could not pay. At nine, he said that I had to study and he reapplied to school, but they did not take me because I was too old. So I lied about my age. Now I am 84, but according to my ID card I am 82," he explains.
"In Agdash as the other children, we lived like in paradise - without any hard days, or responsibilities. But here our life turned into the opposite. Here we started to sell mint sugar, we were helping our father to earn bread money. In Azerbaijan we did not care about it,'' he says.
Every day, Ihsan and his brother would sell mint candies at the station where the train for the Soviet Union would depart, every early morning he would make some money cleaning people's shoes.
In Turkey money was scarce, and discrimination was common. "We were constantly hunting for a piece of bread, kids of our age would run after us calling us, "Russians, Russians!” he laments. “At home we’d ask, "Father, they called us Russians, are we Russians? My father, doing his namaz (reciting his prayers) would respond, “How could we be Russians? They did not know what they are saying.”
Hikmat Alp shares Ihsan’s memories. He is the head of the Azerbaijani Cultural House in Istanbul and his family moved to Igdir from Azerbaijan in the early 1900s.
At the turn of the 20th century, clashes between different ethnic groups broke out, the most serious between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The first clashes exploded in Baku in February 1905 and soon spilled over to other parts of the region where the two communities lived. Later the October Revolution triggered more localized conflicts between Armenians and Azerbaijanis from the city of Gyumri to Baku - and between March 1918 and November 1920 military confrontation caused thousands of casualties. Azerbaijanis left to either Iran or Turkey. Alp’s family moved to Turkey following the first wave in 1905.
"Hundreds of people in cities like Kars for example were Azerbaijanis but they were discriminated by local people who called them Russians. In Anadolu they were called acem, meaningPersian in Turkish [it has a negative connotation, it means the person is a foreigner]."
Others recall how local Turkish used to ask the Azerbaijanis whether they were Sunni or Shia, as they divided people according their religious beliefs - being Shia meant being Azerbaijani.
The Turning Point
After serving two years in the Turkish army, at the age of 23, Ishan completed high school and four years later he took an exam to work in a bank. After years of struggle against poverty and for self-affirmation, that moment was significant, since life would get better but the sense of being uprooted never really abandoned him
"I passed the exam and my life changed. For 35 years I worked in one of Turkey’s largest banks, in various areas. The last 13 years of my career, I’ve spent in Istanbul.”
Throughout the Soviet Union, returning to his native Azerbaijan always remained a dream.
“There was no possibility to do it. Or maybe the courage," he notes.
The dream ended in 2013. That year, an event was organized in Baku to recount the history of the Islamic Army of the Caucasus and Ihsan was invited to speak as his father had been one of the volunteer fighters. Before going to the capital he asked the organizers to take him back to his native village. It was an emotional journey - the village changed a lot from his childhood memories.
"The village is between Agdash and Goychay. I remember that near our home we had a stream, and my grandfather used to do his ablutions there. You could drink that water,” he remembers. “When we arrived, people took us to the street where we lived. I told them that was not our house and they responded that it had been destroyed.”
Ihsan’s tale stops, his eyes seem searching for an image amid the fog of time.
It took him a while to find where exactly his beloved sycamore tree was. He did not expect to find relatives, but he found Shole.
"We entered from the street. The daughter of my mother's uncle was sitting in the garden of her house, surrounded by her daughters and grandchildren. When she saw me she directly asked, " Ihsan, is this you? We hugged each other, and cried."
"She is just under 90 years old and is the only one who stayed in our family. She hugged me and did not want to leave me. I told her that I have to leave. She asked, "Will I come back?” I said, "Yes and kissed goodbye.”
He hasn’t. Since then his health has become more fragile and he’s undergone heart surgery.
"My wife and I were not blessed with a child, we do not have a person who could hug and help us,” he laments.
Then he politely apologizes and lights a cigarette.