February 23 this year marked the sixty-fourth anniversary of the mass deportation of Chechens and Ingush to Kazakhstan and Central Asia. In a matter of a few days almost half a million people, mostly women, children and the elderly, were loaded on to special trains and sent into the unknown.
To this day, in spite of two extremely brutal military campaigns which have recently claimed the lives of tens of thousands of civilians in the Chechen Republic, those who witnessed it at first hand remember “Stalin’s deportation” as one of the most terrible tragedies in their lives. Chechens consider that their thirteen long years of exile in the steppes of Kazakhstan and Central Asia caused a great many changes.
“Not only were the Chechens, like many other peoples of the North Caucasus, deported from their ancestral homeland – they were also subjected to a process that was intended to deprive them of their historical memory. I’m told that for several days after February 23, 1944, ancient Chechen manuscripts (teptary) were burned in Grozny. In the mountains, centuries-old historic towers were dynamited: in the Argun Gorge (southern Chechnya) alone, some 300 of them were destroyed. Our ancestral cemeteries were razed to the ground, and the gravestones (churty) were used for the construction of various buildings and roads,” says the Chechen State University professor Sharani Dzhambekov.
“February 23 is one of the most tragic dates in the history of the Chechen people. It will be remembered by our children and our children’s children because it affected every Chechen. More than half of our compatriots were left in unmarked graves on the way to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, and also when they got there,” he adds.
“About a month before the deportation Soviet soldiers came to the mountain villages. They said that the troops were getting ready for some sort of major exercises. But people were doubtful because there were already rumours that the Kalmyks and Karachays had been deported, ‘to Siberia ‘, as it was said at the time. But no one wanted to believe it, or that the same thing could be done to us,” says 78-year-old Grozny resident Salavdi Khadzhiyev. “At the time, we were living in the Vedensky district of the Chechen-Ingush Republic.”
“On the morning of February 23 all the adult men were called to some kind of meeting in the centre of the village. There they were surrounded by soldiers, and then a decree was read out to them. It said that the Chechens were being deported, and then they were ordered to immediately get their families ready for a journey. Soldiers went to each house and gave the families twenty minutes to make preparations. They were told to take warm clothes and food for three days, but no further explanation was given. I was just a teenager at the time, but I can still hear the crying and wailing of our women. It was horrible. No one knows exactly how many people died on the road of hunger and cold, or how many perished when they reached their destination. There were many thousands of such people.”
“Women, children, old folk, men from various families were herded into a single wagon. There were no toilets. The menfolk cut a hole in the corner and draped it with a blanket and a sheet. That was the toilet. But many people, especially young girls, were too embarrassed to use it, which damaged their urinary tract and even led to their death. In our wagon a 14-year-old girl died. There were also a lot of such cases in the other wagons. February 23 and the days that followed it were a road to nowhere – they were the most terrible shock of my life. Now, after the two wars that have been here, I realize that there are things worse and more terrible than the ones I experienced back then,” says 75-year-old Nepisat Akayeva, a female resident of the republic’s Itum-Kalinsky district.
“My father told me that when a trainload of Chechens arrived at one of the railway stations in the Aktyubinsk Oblast of Kazakhstan, they tried to find out where they had been taken. There were a lot of Kazakhs standing there. They’d been specially sent with horse-drawn sleighs to take the deportees to their places of accommodation. Well, one of the Chechens, who had previously worked as a teacher at a school, knew several languages and decided to talk to the Kazakhs. He began in Russian, but they were silent. He said a few words in Chechen, but they didn’t understand. He tried some other language as well, but again there was silence in response. Then he turned to his fellow countrymen and said: “We’ve probably been taken to Mongolia. They don’t know any language but their own,” another resident of Chechnya, 48-year-old Ayub Ishanov, relates.
“Of course, there were various different attitudes towards Chechens in those days. There was a lot of meanness and nastiness, but quite a lot of decency, too. For example, my grandfather who fought at the front in 1944, was forced to emigrate to Kazakhstan, as all frontline Chechen soldiers were. For several years he tried unsuccessfully to find out what had happened to his brothers and sisters, of whom before 1944 he’d had nine. In the end it became clear that only one sister had survived. She was living with her two small sons on a collective farm somewhere near Alma-Aty. And my grandfather was living in the Gurevsky district [of Western Kazakhstan] at that time,” 30-year-old Chechen resident Shamkhan told Prague Watchdog’s correspondent.
“He decided to go there and bring his sister and nephews back with him. He also learned that his sister was seriously ill with typhoid. At his own risk he went to Alma-Aty, hiding on the roofs of rail cars – at that time Chechens were forbidden to leave their places of settlement, a crime for which they could be sent to a labour camp for 15-25 years. Somewhere near Alma-Aty he was arrested and taken to the local commandant’s office. On learning that my grandfather was a Chechen, had fought in the Second World War and was going to fetch his sister, the commandant, a Ukrainian by nationality and himself a frontline officer, let him go. Moreover, he gave him some sort of pass which provided him with immunity from arrest. My grandfather always remembered that man with gratitude. He found my sister and his nephews, and took them home.”
“And in one of the other districts of Kazakhstan, I don’t remember now exactly where this happened, there was another commandant who was in charge of the ‘special contingent’. He would even let Chechens leave the auls [villages] where they lived. There were two villages next to each other, separated by a small river. Several dozen Chechen families lived in one of them. But the only cemetery was on the outskirts of the other aul, where only Kazakhs lived. When a Chechen died, the commandant would not allow the family to cross the river to bury the body in the cemetery. Chechens had to carry the deceased person on a stretcher to the middle of the river, and the Kazakhs would come out from the other side. They’d take away the corpse and bury it in their cemetery. Those are the sort of ‘customs’ there were then.”
“Though it has to be said that the things that happened during the deportation were as nothing compared to what happened here during the two recent military campaigns. In those days there were no mass bombings of villages, no large-scale abductions, there was no brutal torture of detainees, no selling of corpses and killing of hostages. Though in my opinion both the 1944 deportation and the two military campaigns (the 94-96 military actions and the ‘counter-terrorist operation that began in 1999) were acts of genocide,” Shamkhan is convinced.
Just 64 years ago, on February 23, the mass deportation of Chechens and Ingush to other regions of the Soviet Union, primarily Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, began on the orders of the Kremlin leadership. The large-scale operation, codenamed “Chechevitsa” [Lentil], was personally supervised by People’s Commissar Lavrenty Beria. Archive data from the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ChI ASSR) indicates that 478,479 people were deported, including 387,229 Chechens and 91,250 Ingush. According to various sources, in the early years of their exile about half of the Chechens and Ingush died from hunger, cold and disease.
In 2004 the European Parliament recognized the 1944 deportation of the Chechens as an act of genocide. The Kremlin leadership has so far taken no real steps aimed at the rehabilitation of these repressed peoples, despite the fact that in November 1989 a law to that effect was passed in the USSR. In “compensation” for their forced exile, Chechens (as victims of deportation, and their children born before 1957 – the first year in which Chechens were allowed to return to their historic motherland) are being offered payments of 10,000 roubles (about $400) per family. In Chechnya this is viewed as just more mockery of the Chechen people’s memory, and the vast majority of Chechens do not plan to take these miserable sums from the government.
Prague Watchdog – 2008