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Story Publication logo May 16, 2011

North Caucasus: Old Wounds Fuel New Conflict

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A woman in Sernovodsk, Chechnya, holds a picture of her brother, allegedly killed by Russian security forces in 2004. Image by Tom Parfitt, Chechnya, 2004.
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Stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian, the North Caucasus region of southern Russia is best...

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Magomed Atabiyev, 83, a survivor of the 1943 deportation of the Balkars to Kazakhstan, at his home in Verkhnyaya Balkaria. Image by Tom Parfitt. Russia, 2011.

Sitting in his front room next to a mangy stuffed badger and a carved wooden eagle in this village high in the mountains of the North Caucasus, Magomed Atabiyev took a moment to gather his thoughts as he recalled the events of more than half a century ago.

"It was March 8, 1944," he said, finally. "They came in the morning, one soldier for every house. The soldiers knocked and walked in and said, 'We are deporting you.' There was no explanation.

"Down by the river there were Studebaker trucks waiting to take us away. They couldn't cross the bridge, so all we could take with us was what we could carry on foot."

Atabiyev, 83, was telling the story of a dark episode of history that is little known outside the former Soviet Union.

During a recent journey through the North Caucasus region, I wrote a series of reports trying to identify the key reasons why people are joining the Islamic insurgency which plagues this corner of southern Russia.

Stifling corruption, widespread poverty, clumsy religious policy and the cruelty of security forces that persecute civilians–these are some of the evils which stimulate young people to take up arms and join the boyeviki, rebel fighters who are battling Moscow's rule.

Yet beside these acute contemporary problems there are other, older wrongs which provide a kind of throbbing background ache to the current stabs of pain.

One of these is the ongoing sense of outrage over Joseph Stalin's deportation of four North Caucasus nations in 1943 and 1944.

While these forced migrations took place more than 60 years ago at the end of the Second World War, the memory of them is burned into the identity of every nation concerned: the Karachays, the Balkars, the Ingush and the Chechens.

All told, at least 600,000 people were deported in cattle wagons to Siberia and Central Asia after Stalin accused the four nations of collaborating with the German army, which had pushed deep into the Soviet Union in 1942. An estimated 25 percent of the deportees died on route or succumbed to disease and starvation within five years of arrival.

Anger over this mass punishment remains strong, not least because thousands of people who survived deportation are still alive, while a whole generation now in middle age was born in exile.

I traveled to Verkhnyaya Balkaria because I wanted to meet some of the survivors of the deportation of the Balkars, a Turkic people who live on the high slopes of the Great Caucasus Mountains.

Verkhnyaya Balkaria is a village of about 5,000 inhabitants set in dramatic highland scenery in the south of the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Today, just as it did in the 1940s, the village survives by keeping livestock and growing cabbages. All along its main street, there are cows ambling around in small groups.

The people here are bluff and hardworking. In 2008, on a walking expedition from the Black Sea and Caspian, I arrived in the village having crossed a pass to the west.

I did not know where I was I going to stay, but as I began my descent down a footpath to the village, I reached a shelf of land where three locals were scything grass. They engaged me in conversation, and one, a cheery man with a red triangle of sunburn at his neck called Elias, immediately invited me to stay at his house.

I spent two days at the house of Elias, his brother Khabibulakh, and Khabibulakh's wife and children. I've often thought of them in the three years since that visit, and I was delighted to see them again when I returned to Verkhnyaya Balaria in February, this time by car.

By chance, as the brothers and I sat talking in their kitchen, the head of the village dropped in on an errand. He offered to introduce me to some of the survivors of the deportation. One of these was Atabiyev, who had watery, mischievous eyes and wore a sheepskin hat. We picked my way to his gate through the splatter of cowpats that lined the roadside.

"I was with my parents, my sister and my four brothers the day we were sent away," Atabiyev said, as he told the story of the deportation.

"At the train station we were loaded into cattle wagons. We traveled like that for 16 days. Now and then they gave us a bucket of soup and five loaves of bread for the whole wagon with 93 people in it. It wasn't enough. Some people fell ill, some died. The guards would look into the wagons, pull out the corpses and lay them by the rails. No funeral, nothing. And then the train would leave.

"When we arrived in Kazakhstan it was very cold. We lived in one room, the whole family. We buried many people the first three years. They died from cold, from lack of food. Sometimes we didn't have the strength to bury them," he said.

Living near the Kazakh city of Almaty, Atabiyev worked as a shepherd and at a grain processing plant. "We got the lowest, dirtiest jobs that no one else wanted," he recalled. He and his family would not go home until 1957, after Nikita Khrushchev, the general secretary of the Soviet Union who had succeeded Stalin four years earlier, gave permission for the deported peoples to return from exile.

A bit further down the road in Verkhnyaya Balkariya, I visited another survivor, Mukhadin Murtezov, who said he was 108 years old. He peered out from behind two bristly eyebrows. "I had fought through the war and had my leg badly injured, so when we arrived in Kazakhstan I was shown more respect than some of the other men," he recalled. I worked in not such a bad place, a vineyard in the south. But the heat was terrible in summer. Our people couldn't adapt in the beginning. Eight people died every day."

Soon, the terrible recollections of 1943 and the years that followed may slowly begin to fade as the survivors pass away. For now, however, the exile remains an immensely symbolic event.

Late last year, Alexander Khloponin, the North Caucasus envoy to Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, announced a seemingly harmless plan to send migrant workers from the region to other parts of Russia.

The Committee of Elders of the Balkar Nation issued an angry response. "Do you know how the idea of taking people out of their motherland is perceived?" asked Oyus Gurtuyev, a leader of the group. "In Balkaria this is still fresh in the memory, still a point of pain; that we were taken away for 13 years."

The committee is a politicized body that has clashed with Kabardino-Balkaria's president, Arsen Kanokov. It appeared to willfully misunderstand the idea of Khloponin's employment scheme. Bu the statement demonstrated the passions that the narrative of exile can still provoke.

"The deportation of our people is inside every Balkar, man and woman," one villager in Verkhnyaya Balkaria told me before I left. "It is not just a moment in history; it is a part of who we are."

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