The Korea Herald


Homecoming for victims of Stalin’s terror

By 최남현

Published : April 5, 2011 - 18:40

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TBLISI, Georgia ― Nearly 70 years after being deported by Stalin, members of the Meskhetian Turkish community are preparing to return to Georgia. But after all this time, it’s unclear exactly what kind of welcome they will receive.

The Meskhetians were one of several ethnic groups who were deported from the Caucasus region during World War II because Stalin feared they might form a fifth column with German invaders.

They were rounded up and dispatched to the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. Thousands died en route.

In 1989, tens of thousands of them fled ethnic violence there. Many ended up in Azerbaijan or southern Russia. Around 10,000 were resettled in the United States. Many, however, remained in limbo.

Georgia first agreed to facilitate the minority’s return in the 1990s, but the necessary legislation was not enacted until 2007.

The Meskhetians now have until the end of this year to declare themselves ethnic Georgians and receive “repatriate” status, which will put them on the fast track to acquiring citizenship and other rights.

Kamal Qahramanov is one of those who has been waiting decades to return home. “If possible I will return. But I know nothing about Georgia. They say there are mountains and forests there,” he said. “If I go back, I will be a farmer like my forebears,” Qahramanov said.

But not everyone in Georgia is excited about the new arrivals.

Where, for example, will the expected 6,000 returnees live, asked Nugzar Tsiklauri, who chairs a parliamentary committee dealing with diaspora issues. He said that Georgia was hoping foreign donors would step in to help finance housing.

And then there’s the question of ethnic tensions. Many returnees are expected to settle in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, where the current population consists primarily of ethnic Armenians. Given the legacy of hostilities between Armenia and both Turkey and Azerbaijan, the local residents may not welcome the arrival of a Turkish-speaking group in their midst.

Melsa Torosyan, chairman of Nor Akunk, an activist group in the town of Akhalkalaki, couched these concerns in economic terms, suggesting that the region was simply too impoverished to accept incomers.

“I agree that the mistakes of the past have to be corrected. But we mustn’t make other mistakes,” he said. “Our region doesn’t have factories and the people don’t have work, yet they want to bring in new arrivals.” Torosyan argued that the authorities should ensure there is funding, work and integration programmed for the Meskhetians before settling them anywhere, and also prepare local residents so that they will accept them.

“The repatriates will definitely have problems with the local population, of that I’m certain. It isn’t just the ethnic factor ― in fact that’s the least of the concerns,” he said.

“What’s more important is how land is distributed. Alkhalkalaki residents don’t have so much land that they can share it. Various problems may arise, and the locals will always seek to pin the causes of conflict on the newcomers. One can only guess where that will lead,” he said.

Ethnic Georgians in the south of the country also expressed concerns about the plan.

“Let them give work to locals first, and only then bring in others, whoever they might be,” Temur Zazadze, a resident of Tmogvi in the Aspindze district, said. “There’s so much unemployment that this is just going to increase the competition. There isn’t enough land ― I’ve got three sons and the land isn’t sufficient to divide among them.”

Still, Tsiklauri pointed out that the total number of settlers was really quite small, and they were people who were keen to be part of Georgia.

“I think it’s premature to say these people are going to have problems when they arrive. We’re talking about 6,000 people in a country of 5 million,” he said. “On top of that, these are people who ― despite the decades that have passed since they were deported ― have always pushed to return and regarded Georgia as their homeland.”

By Maia Tsiklauri and Kenan Guluzade

Maia Tsiklauri is a reporter in Georgia and Kenan Guluzade is reporter in Azerbaijan who write for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. ― Ed.

(The Institute for War&Peace Reporting)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)