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Georgia: Return of the Meskhetian Turks

This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.

The repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks to Georgia from Azerbaijan, Russia and Central Asia is not just a priority for the Georgian government, but also an obligation it has had to fulfill to the Council of Europe since becoming a member in 1999. Over 100,000 people were deported by Stalin in 1944, from the Meskheti region of Georgia, among them Hemshin (Muslim Armenians), Kurds, and Karapapakhs. By far the largest group relocated, however, were the Meskhetian Turks.

At least 400,000 Meskhetian Turks now live outside of Georgia, although it has been unclear how many would return in a process that should have officially ended last year, but which might be extended. This has been one of the reasons why the process of resettlement has taken so long, especially as ethnic Armenians now make up the majority population in what is now the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. As a result, in order not to strain inter-ethnic relations, the Georgian government is settling Meskhetian Turks throughout the country.

East of Center recently touched upon the sensitivities surrounding the issue:

Thanks to Stalin’s paranoia, millions of Muslims and members of various non-Slavic ethnic groups in the Soviet Union were forcibly relocated to Central Asia during the ’30s and ’40s. It’s hard to think of any of these communities that has been victimized more often and so thoroughly ignored by the wider world as the Meskhetian Turks. [...]

Clearly, however, Georgia is not capable of resettling that large a population anywhere on its territory, much less the underdeveloped Samtskhe-Javakheti region where the Meskhetians originally lived. And then there is the Armenian question, and a large dose of anti-Muslim feeling. [...]

Salim Khamdiv of Abastumani village. Khamdiv was 14 when the deportation happened © Temo Bardzimashvili

Salim Khamdiv of Abastumani village. Khamdiv was 14 when the deportation happened © Temo Bardzimashvili

However, in a two-year application period ending in July 2010, the Georgian government received only 5,841 eligible applications according to the European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI). This amounted to just 9,350 individuals. Ahıska Türkleri – Ahıskalılar explains what the Meskhetian Turks hope for:

We want to return our lands from which we were expelled unjustly. As of today, we have been settling down in 2000 different settlements at 9 different countries including USA. We have difficulty in getting citizenship, settlement permission and work permission in the countries where we live. Our culture and language is on the edge of vanishing. We want to return our country as Georgian citizens and to live in our lands from now on.

Osman Mekhriev (left) and Islam Niazov, elders of the Abastumani Meskhetian community, take a break from the holiday prayers during the end of Ramazan celebrations © Temo Bardzimashvili

Osman Mekhriev (left) and Islam Niazov, elders of the Abastumani Meskhetian community, take a break from the holiday prayers during the end of Ramazan celebrations © Temo Bardzimashvili

Last year, Zaka Guluyev's Blog detailed the situation of some of those that have returned, mainly from Azerbaijan, to Samtskhe-Javakheti:

Muslim Arifov and his family has come back to Akhiltskhe three years ago from Saatly, settlement of Azerbaijan. Arifov says that now he feels happy coming back and live in his motherland Georgia. “My parents were unfairly deported from this region. Now I’m happy that I managed to come back and live in my home Georgia with my family.”

Two months ago Muslim’s relative Mehemmed Rehimov also decided to come back with his family from Azerbaijan and to live in his motherland Akhlstkhe. Mehemmed Rehimov says that Georgia seems better place to live in. “It’s very good sense to live in my motherland Georgia. two months already past after my coming to Georgia. I’m happy here with my family and I’m feeling myself very well”.

[...]

Ismayil Moidze, the chairman of the [Vatan Georgian Axhiska Turks] society says that, their organization was expecting more people to apply for returning. But he explains that many families refused to apply because [...] many documents are required for applying [for] repatriat status in Georgia. [...] That’s why many families decided to stay where they live”.

Rana Rajabova, a 24-year-old bride in the Azerbaijani village of Shirinbeili. Rana's grandparents, natives of the Arali village in Georgia's Adigeni region, were deported to Uzbekistan. Before the deportation they were told by the soldiers that they would return in 7 days, so no belongings should be taken. Her grandmother hid her gold jewelry at home with the hope of returning after a week. Rana's family has applied for the repatriation and says that they do not want to be "refugees." © Temo Bardzimashvili

Rana Rajabova, a 24-year-old bride in the Azerbaijani village of Shirinbeili. Rana's grandparents, natives of the Arali village in Georgia's Adigeni region, were deported to Uzbekistan. Before the deportation they were told by the soldiers that they would return in 7 days, so no belongings should be taken. Her grandmother hid her gold jewelry at home with the hope of returning after a week. Rana's family has applied for the repatriation and says that they do not want to be "refugees." © Temo Bardzimashvili

Georgian Youth | Multiculturality | New Challenges looks at how the new arrivals are reintegrating:

In Samstkhe-Javakheti, the regional association “Toleranti” provides families of repatriated Meskhetians with legal counseling, medical assistance and language support. In the frame of its 3-year project “Provision of humanitarian assistance to repatriate Meskhs and prevention of “self-repatriation”, the association noticeably organizes classes for young repatriated Meskhetians twice a week. Youth who attend the classes hope to improve their chances of success at school, where they receive tuition in Georgian, and to support their integration in the community.

Considering how motivated they are to learn Georgian, and as quickly as possible, this integration is usually 100% successful.

[...]

As many others however, one thing prevents them from totally feeling home in Georgia: they are waiting for an answer to their application for the Georgian citizenship, which they sent two years ago. Without citizenship, they are not fully-fledged citizens in Georgia, and therefore struggle to have access to basic services like medical assistance. They have no choice, though: just like the others, they have to wait [...] – this means a life of uncertainty in the long-term…

Portraits of Abdullah Gamidov, his wife Khalida, and her father Zia Chumidze lie on the checkerboard in the Gamidov's house in Kant, Kyrgystan. Zia Chumidze was fighting at the frontline when the deportation happened and never made it home. © Temo Bardzimashvili

Portraits of Abdullah Gamidov, his wife Khalida, and her father Zia Chumidze lie on the checkerboard in the Gamidov's house in Kant, Kyrgystan. Zia Chumidze was fighting at the frontline when the deportation happened and never made it home. © Temo Bardzimashvili

Where's Keith comments on the work of Georgian journalist and photographer Temo Bardzimashvili who has been documenting the return of the Mskhetian Turks to Georgia as well as their lives in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. Some of Bardzimashvili's work, “The Unpromised Land – the Meskhetians’ Long Journey Home,” was exhibited in Tbilisi, sponsored by the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI), and accompanies this post with kind permission.

Delizia Flaccavento also posts photographs of a Meskhetian refugee community in Buffalo, New York, as does Meskhetian Turk Refugees in Atlanta, Georgia (the US State). Meanwhile ECMI says there is a “serious need [...] to enhance public awareness on the right of deported persons to return and on the repatriation process [...], in particular through the media and the educational system.”

This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.

  • http://blog.oneworld.am Onnik Krikorian

    Since writing this post the entry from Ahıska Türkleri – Ahıskalılar
    appears to have disappeared. Not sure if this is technical reason or not, but anyway, the quote from the blog post still stands. Hope it returns as the commentary was very interesting.

    • Musa

      Ahiska Turks have not Disappeared they Live in the United states Freely and i am One of them there Are Currently More then 9000 People in American even more.

  • Thalia Rahme

    Great Piece !!! Loved it !!! Thanks Onnik … incredible how complex and diverse, reality is in the Caucasus !!! and I that used to think that Lebanon is an diverse country !!!
    Wowwww !!! Im saving the article for a second reading, for I definitely need hours and hours to read in Wikipedia and get to know about all the populations you mentioned here.

  • http://blog.oneworld.am Onnik Krikorian

    Update: For some reason the URL format of the missing link changed since publishing the post, but as of time of writing this comment it’s now back on the new link format.

  • http://flickr.com/photos/jmlima João Miguel D. de A. Lima

    Lovely post, Onnik! Their story is so powerful… And I agree with Thalia: it made me dig out for more on Wikipedia!
    Plus, the project conducted by Temo Bardzimashvili is fantastic. The photographs are very beautiful.

  • Pingback: Finding their way back home « The Global Reader

  • http://newgeorgianyouth.wordpress.com/ Meline

    Hi Onnik,
    Thanks for writing about Meskhetian issues ! I was glad to be notified of your post as I wrote the article on the blog ‘Georgian Youth | Multiculturality |New Challenges’.
    I was actually wondering, how come you decided to report on Meskhetians to begin 2012 ?
    Also, I’d like to mention the fact that not all Meskhetians like to be called “Turks” – but you probably know the debate very well.
    Cheers !

    • http://blog.oneworld.am Onnik Krikorian

      Hi Meline, Simply that I came across the great photos by Temo Bardzimashvili on Facebook along with comments on his work on a recent blog. As I’m currently covering refugee and displaced people as well as the Caucasus it seemed worth digging a little deeper to see if there was enough material on blogs to do a post and there was. :)

      So, it was simply coincidence although the timing seems poignant. The resettlement should have been completed by 2012, but I’ve seen mention that it might be extended along with many issues that still need to be resolved re. documents and so on. What’s your understanding of the situation? As for the issue of naming, no, didn’t know. Have always seen them referred to as such, including on sites such as Wikipedia.

      However, have come across the same sort of issue re. Yezidis (i.e. Yezidis or Yezidi Kurds), Hemshins (Hemshin or Hemshin Armenians), and Azerbaijanis (Azerbaijanis or Azerbaijani Turks). In these matters I’ve always gone for simply Yezidis, Hemshins, and Azerbaijanis because it’s an incredibly complex issue. Thanks for pointing out the same re. the Meskhetians although it’s also another complex situation.

      For example, I would use the term Azerbaijani referring to any citizen of Azerbaijan, i.e. coming from there, while using the term ethnic Azeri for those born and living in Georgia. However, in the case of Meskhetia it’s a region and there were also Hemshins and Kurds etc displaced. I assume we don’t refer to them as Meskhetians or do we?

      • http://newgeorgianyouth.wordpress.com/ Meline

        It is true that the historical region of Meskheti is ethnically diverse, so yes, the general term ‘Meskhetians’ may be inappropriate too. I think the terms ‘repatriated Meskhetians’ and ‘Muslim Meskhetians’ are an attempt to respect all sides that may quarrel over the issue.

        Indeed, as you may know, there is an ongoing debate in the communities of formerly deported Muslim Meskhetians about the origins of their ethnic group. Were they originally ethnic Georgians who converted to Islam? Or were they rather a Turkish ethnic group? Those who defend the second option usually use the term ‘Meskhetian Turks’. However, those who defend the first option are strongly against the use of the term ‘Turks’.

        The European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI) once published a report entitled “Between integration and resettlement: the Meskhetian Turks” which prompted sharp criticism in the concerned community over the choice to use the term ‘Meskhetian Turks’ in the report, although this choice was justified by the author.

        Of course, they are not many to really care that much about vocabulary, though it can turn out to become a conflict issue in the course of a conversation… I remember meeting a family of repatriates established in the Gori area with whom I had to be very careful, as they paid very, very strict attention to the wording.

        Likewise, the same defended the use of the word ‘minority’ when talking about repatriated Meskhetians only in the sense of religious minority, as they consider themselves to be ethnic Georgians. Others would say they are a Turkish ethnic minority living in Georgia, and here starts another debate…

        As for the situation of repatriated Muslim Meskhetians today, I share your point of view. The committment of Georgia towards the Council of Europe for their repatriation and integration is not quite completed. Too many families still have many problems of all sorts (citizenship, access to basic services, border crossing, etc.) to get solved.

        • Shota

          As a Meskhetian Turk living in Georgia and are actively looking the process , I think that our Mesketain’s repatriation process will remain the same and no one will get back. There are so many Organizations that are not realy want us to get back. Most of the organizations are situated in Turkey-I mean organization established by the Meskhetian Turks.

  • http://giro.manoyan.net Giro Manoyan

    Happy holidays, Onnik,

    The concern of ethnic Armenians in Samtskhe-Javakheti regarding the resettlement or settlement of the Meskhetian(s) [Turks] is in regards to them being settled in Armenian populated areas of Samtskhe-Javakheti. When they were deported, the Meskhetian(s) [Turks] were not living in the Armenian majority areas of today’s Samtskhe-Javakheti (see map http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Meskhetian_turks_1926.png ). Today, those areas are mainly populated by ethnic Georgians. The Armenians’ concern, as expressed through public announcements by local NGOs, is that the Meskhetian(s) [Turks] might be resettled in the Armenian populated areas of Samtskhe-Javakheti in an effort to change the demographics of the region. This concern has been distorted by the Georgian authorities and presented as if the Armenians are against the repatriation of the Meskhetian(s) [Turks] to their original places of residence, which are now mainly populated by ethnic Georgians.

  • Pingback: The Armenians’ concern has been distorted | Giro Manoyan Կիրո Մանոյան

  • http://blog.oneworld.am Onnik Krikorian

    Giro, my understanding, and as mentioned in the piece, is that: “in order not to strain inter-ethnic relations, the Georgian government is settling Meskhetian Turks throughout the country.”

    Plus, the numbers are incredibly low anyway. 5,841 families (I assume) or 9,350 people. In fact, it seems as though the Georgian authorities have been dragging their heels on the Mesketian return because they don’t want problems.

  • Dogan AKTAS

    Thank you for this very striking article Onnik. As a 3rd generation ethnic Abkhaz refugee in Turkey, I know how depressing it is for peoples to be forced out of their homelands, Their problems, demands for solution usually goes unnoticed in their new environment.
    And also I know Georgians has millions of them deported in last 150 years only. I live in a city (in Western Turkey) which was full of Georgians (not Meshketian Turks), some fled to Germany after 1960s, some are still resisting to assimilation here. Also we, Abkhaz have suffer the same. I dont know how “others” in Georgia manage to live but judging from what they did in Abkhazia (Some of my cousins have returned), I guess there is a long way for ethnic/ religious minorities to make a living there.

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