Return of the Tartars
March 2009

by Ilker Gurer

I have always been interested in Turkic ethnic cultures throughout the former countries of the Soviet Union so the invitation to go to the Crimea (a part of the Ukraine) and to cover the Tartars seemed perfect – it was also going to be my first foreign assignment. My British colleague actually told me about the Tartar problems; she is a TV journalist who was going to cover the story and asked if I would join her as translator because I can speak Turkish and its various dialects. We discussed the project extensively and I realized that working on it would encourage me to proceed with my own interest in researching the personal stories of this part of the Turkic people. No longer would I have to depend just on history books.

© Ilker Gurer/WpN
A woman named Husniye (age 76), who is a Crimean Tartar, in a temporary house in Simferapol, Ukraine, on Oct. 6, 2008. Turkic-speaking Tartars, who are almost all Muslim in faith, have a history that dates back to the 8th and 9th centuries in the Crimea. They were exiled by Joseph Stalin by 1944, having been accused of collaboration with German Nazis in World War II. But they have been returning to Crimea since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
We decided to sail from Istanbul on Sept. 28 to Sevastopol, the major harbor in Ukraine, to see the Russian Fleet in the area and, indeed, we saw Russian war vessels patrolling in the Black Sea near Ukraine. It was my longest trip ever on a ship. The trip – on an old former KGB Russian radar vessel, now a cargo vessel – took us around 36 hours. While it was a waste of precious time, I really enjoyed it. Before traveling to Ukraine I met with a Crimean Tartar community foundation based in Istanbul. The director of the Tartar foundation gave me some contacts, which I called to explain when my colleague and I were coming and why we wanted to meet them. Since we came from Turkey the Tartar group was very warm and welcoming (the biggest community in the worldwide diaspora of Crimean Tartar origin lives in Turkey).

When we arrived at Sevastopol we took the bus to the city of Simferapol, the capital city of Crimea in the Ukraine (the Tartars were deported in 1944 by Joseph Stalin). The hotel owner whom I had called is an ethnic Tartar and was very nice and helpful to us. But the most help came from the general manager of the Crimean News Agency, Ismet Yuksel. He provided us with a Russian-speaking Tartar as a guide. My colleague and I rented a car to travel and investigate the Tartars' lives in Crimea. The general mood in the streets of Crimea saddened me. The first day, I saw people trying to eat from a trash bin; most people were drinking and were living in a depressed state because of the economic problems. But I also liked the Tartars' astounding energy in spite of everything – they were trying to survive despite the local bureaucracy. They were not giving up anything.

© Ilker Gurer/WpN
A Crimean Tartar at home preparing water for a meal in a tent in Simferapol, Ukraine, on Oct. 6, 2008. Crimea is an autonomous region that is governed by Ukraine. The Tartars say that their culture is disappearing because they are excluded from the national education curriculum. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, land privatization became a huge issue across most of Eastern Europe. The problem the Tartars face is that they do not have any legal documentation to prove that the property belongs to them, because they were exiled in 1944.
The Tartars claimed that they had a right to return to and live in the land of their birth, that their rights were the same as those of their Russian and Ukrainian neighbors. Most of the elders I met in Crimea affected me greatly with their unswerving attitude of holding on to life. Aunt Husniye, in her late 70s, said to me, "I have suffered a lot. When I was a small girl I saw the hardships of life and the exile made me stronger so that I can face life's difficulties." She was a lively person. Her fortitude was a good lesson for me because she was living in a makeshift house with no electricity or water and had to make her own living.

Later we met another strong and humorous character named Seyit. He was also in his late 70s and he welcomed us graciously into his house. He lived on the outskirts of Simferapol with his daughter and his grandchildren. His easygoing attitude was reflected on his face. He told us that he had worked hard to get back to the Crimea. He was old but the memory of the trials he had endured as an exile – he lost his siblings in a train car during the Tartars' 1944 mass deportation – made him weep. I had tears in my eyes too; I was trying to translate what he said but it was sometimes very difficult. However, he had retained the ability to look at the good in people. He also added that he had seen many awful things in life and that they had made him stronger.

© Ilkur Gurer/WpN
A Crimean Tartar named Ahmet (age 77), who watches over the community mosque, sits at home in a field of temporary housing on land occupied by returning Crimean Tartars, outside of Simferapol, Ukraine, Oct. 6, 2008. Up to 25,000 formerly exiled Tartars live in makeshift homes with no electricity. At the present time, the autonomous Republic of Crimea is governed by its own constitution in accordance with the laws of Ukraine. However, Kiev's politics have been largely pro-western since the Orange Revolution in 2004. Crimea has remained and is dominated by a pro-Russian outlook which the Tartar community says belongs to an emerging "New Russia" --they are worried that history may be about to repeat itself.
These elder Tartars were more hopeful compared to the younger generation. Ahmet served as watchman for the community mosque in Simferapol and I took pictures of Ahmet in front of the Crimean Tartar flag. He was proud to be a Ukrainian citizen and that his son had won a national boxing title in Ukraine – he was very proud of all his children. His strength shown in his eyes but the tough life he has led was also evident. Before I took his picture with the flag, he read some of his poetry he had written to honor his countrymen.

Before I went to the Crimea I had a little information about the Crimean Tartars from books but meeting them personally showed me more than I had ever known. They were Turkic and we spoke the same language; they each told me their personal stories. Experiencing these people and seeing their dignity and their hope for the future in spite of great problems affected me enormously.

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© Ilker Gurer

Ilker Gurer started photography in 2004 and became a professional in 2006. Since then he has worked as a freelance photographer for various publications. In January 2007 he began working with World Picture News (WpN), sometimes on an assignment basis, and the following January he became photo editor at a daily newspaper in Turkey. He has covered four major personal projects to date including the urban transformation story in Istanbul and an ongoing series on leprosy patients. In Gurer's projects he wants to show people's strength when facing hardships. He lives in Istanbul, Turkey.

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