Cover Image for Deportation, Homecoming, and Belonging: Three Crimean Tatar Stories

Deportation, Homecoming, and Belonging: Three Crimean Tatar Stories

Emine Ziyatdinova
Issue 2 (2024)

The stories of three Crimean Tatar women, Emine Ziyatdinova’s paternal grandmother, mother, and the author herself, revolve around their relationship with Crimea and its history. The essay is based on multiple interviews with her family Ziyatdinova recorded between 2008 and 2022   as well as her personal memories.


Emine Ziyatdinova (author), born in 1987 on the ‘Lenina’ collective farm in Uzbekistan

My family moved to Crimea from Central Asia in October 1990. I was three years old. I have no memories from before that, nor do I feel any connection to my place of birth, even though the toponym ‘Lenina, Uzbekistan’ travels with me around the world and continues to define who I am — at least, to border-control staff. My paternal grandmother was forcefully deported to the Lenina collective farm from Crimea in 1944. The same collective farm where my parents held their wedding celebration, and where my brother and I spent our early childhood. The same village from which my family moved back to our homeland on the brink of the Soviet Union’s collapse. We packed forty-six years of life into a twenty-tonne container and shipped it to the village of Berezivka in northern Crimea. Some relatives arranged a small temporary house for us to stay in for free.

Otmekmen may’, I demanded, asking for ‘bread with butter’ for breakfast at the new house. My grandmother spread a layer of butter over bread, topped it with honey, and cut it into cubes for me. I went outside with my brother to play with the neighbouring kids. I spoke to them in a mix of Crimean Tatar and Uzbek, while they shouted back in Russian.

It was relatively easy for repatriates to find a manual job on a collective farm, but my parents were both dentists and didn’t want to give up their profession. It took a relative’s Crimean Tatar friend, that friend’s Russian co-worker, and the co-worker’s husband, as well as bribing the head of the district hospital with 500 rubles of the 5,000 rubles that my parents had saved for their move to secure their jobs. The head of the district hospital even drove my parents to meet the heads of two collective farms and asked for their approval.

The following September, the collective farm that employed my dad as a dentist provided us with a vacant house in the neighbouring village of Serebrianka, which was an upgrade. My mum often repeated that she always dreamt of having a ‘spacious living room’ like the one in our new house, where she could host guests. Waves of relatives would pass through that living room, sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor when they had just arrived from Uzbekistan, came to visit, or sought dental treatment occasionally while living in Crimea.

By 10 o’clock in the morning, my grandmother Ayriye would finish her household chores, which included feeding the dogs, cats, chickens, and other animals. My parents would be at work, and my brother at school. She would then prepare coffee in a jezve, the Turkish-style coffee pot with a long handle, and sit by the window in the kitchen, enjoying her quiet time by reading her magazines, newspapers, and the Turkish translation of the Koran. She had three subscriptions: a local newspaper in Russian called Krymskiye Izvestiya [Crimean News], a Crimean Tatar newspaper called Yani Duniya [New World], and a Crimean Tatar magazine called Yildiz [The Star]. Through them, she rediscovered the history, culture, and Islamic stories of Crimea.

At over eighty years old, she read an article about how the Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio. She recalled how every year she taught her high school students about Alexander Popov, the Russian physicist who was supposedly the world’s first to invent this technology. She laughed and said that not only, as it turned out, she told the children lies about the radio, but she was also the ‘best propagandist’ in the district for teaching ‘scientific atheism’, which was part of the Communist ideology. She emphasised that she had never said directly that Allah does not exist.

I was excited to start school. I was able to read and count to one hundred. I was the child who rang the first bell of the school year in 1994 on 1 September. One of the senior school students carried me on his shoulders while I swung the heavy metal bell with a red bow. My parents decided that I should join the 1-A class taught by Valentina Dmitriievna. Everyone in the village respected her and thought she was better than Gulnara Ibragimovna, the 1-B class teacher. Ibragimovna was a newly hired Crimean Tatar who had arrived from Uzbekistan, just like us. In the eyes of the villagers, she wasn’t equal to the local teachers. They never questioned their own superiority and sometimes surmised that Crimean Tatars’ qualifications, including my parents’ diplomas, ‘were bought for a sheep’ in Central Asia. On top of this, for the first time, Dmitriievna taught Ukrainian as the second language to children from the first grade; this was part of the changing curriculum in Ukrainian Crimea in 1994. My mum was convinced that I should learn Ukrainian right away, as we lived in Ukraine, and it would be important for my future. ‘To live with wolves, you must learn to howl’, my mum repeated over the years.

I was the only Crimean Tatar child in the class. Ayshe, Lemara, Evelina, Elvina, Aider, and the others were in 1-B. They had Crimean Tatar as their second language. I have always been a fast learner, so Russian, Ukrainian, and English came quite naturally to me at different stages of my life. But my mother tongue was lost somewhere in Serebrianka village between our house on Horkoho Street and elementary school. Whenever I try to say something in Crimean Tatar, the words do not come. If I remember the words, they do not form into sentences, and if the sentence is made, I have trouble pronouncing it. It sounds foreign even to me.

One summer day in the late 1990s, my grandmother and I attended an event in Buyuk As, the village from which my great-grandmother came. It was only twenty kilometres away from Serebrianka. The sun was bright, and it was hot outside. We walked with my grandmother from a nearby settlement into the field. The landscape was too familiar, with the flat horizon interrupted by a thin line of trees that protected the road from the wind. Brownish thistle stems and dry tumbleweed covered the ground. Some cars were parked, and families were greeting each other. There was no shade to hide in, and the steppe wind carried the smell of plov, a traditional meal, made on an open fire several kilometres away. The only thing left of the village were the remains of one of several wells that used to serve the seventy families who had lived there before their deportation in 1944. My grandmother had briefly lived here with her relatives during the Nazi occupation. My great-grandmother, Adjire, left the village at the age of seventeen in 1913, when she was married off to someone in the village of Eski Burnaq forty to fifty kilometres away.


My paternal grandmother Ayriye, born in 1932 in the village of Eski Burnaq in Crimea[1]

When I was five, in 1937, our house was searched at night. I needed to pee, so my mum and I went out into the corridor, where I sat on the potty. There was a small kerosene lamp barely burning. My mum said to me, ‘Don’t cry, my dear daughter. Look, Sheikh Babai is also here’. I looked over, and in the corner, an old bearded man was sitting, wearing a turban. It turned out to be Sheikh Babai from the mosque. They searched our entire closet and bedroom. I was afraid and crying. When I finished, my mother put me to bed, and I fell asleep again. They took my father away [that night]. I remember it very well.[2]

Our belongings were also taken away — the new duvet, the sheets — and sold to poorer people. If something cost three rubles in the shop, they [the authorities] sold it for 1.5 rubles. Our uncle helped us run away from Burnaq to Yevpatoria, so they wouldn’t touch us. My mother and uncle worried that my older brother would be taken as well. [The older brother Shaib was mobilised into the Red Army in 1941].

[During the Nazi occupation of Crimea from 1941 to 1944], we returned to the village. That night, two soldiers stayed over at our house.  I was sent to my uncle’s house with my cousins.

Early in the morning, I ran back to our house crying: ‘We are being sent away. Auntie Nasib told me. They are putting on their new dresses. We are being expelled!’ The soldiers in our house got up as well, urging us to hurry up and take only food with us. We got dressed and walked to the square between the mosque and the well, where some people had already gathered.

We waited on that square until it got dark. Although the adults couldn’t leave, the kids were allowed to return home and take some belongings. Throughout the day, young Russian women and boys from the neighbouring village went from house to house, taking whatever they wanted. And what did I bring? ‘Mum, look, I brought your golden coloured [?]  jug!’ My mother replied anxiously, ‘Oh God, if this falls, it will break. Why did you bring this china jug, you thoughtless child? It would be better if you’d brought the metal one, so we can boil water’. My brother Emiramet, who was three years older, brought some corn and flour.

Late at night, they loaded us into the back of a small truck with three other families. It was dark, and nobody could see anything; nobody knew what was happening. I was crying, clutching my doll. My mum became irritated and snatched my doll, tossing it aside. ‘Here is the Koran,’ she said, handing me the book, ‘hold onto it and nothing else’. Some people tried to bring their bags into the truck, but they were thrown back. The soldiers had to load people, not belongings. As a result, we had no mattresses or pillows when we arrived in Uzbekistan. We only took one quilt. In the middle of the night, we reached Yevpatoria train station, were put into wagons, and sent away.

The wagon had two small windows on each side, but they were shut later. Ava-Sherfe and Lenifer were in our wagon. They had just recovered from typhoid. The sick ones were on one side, and the rest of us were on the other. Whenever the train stopped, my brother would quickly run out and fetch some water. During longer stops, my mum and other women would jump out and make small flatbreads. The trains would start moving again, leaving the bread half-cooked. They provided us with food only once during the eighteen-day journey. And it was stale bread.

An old man died. The adults told us not to look and instead search for lice on each other. Later, they left his body at one of the stations in the middle of Kazakhstan. [During the deportations in May 1944], people began to starve even before reaching [Central Asia]. The starving people started dying after a few months inside Uzbekistan. But my mother did not sit still — she went around the village to the Uzbek neighbours and talked to the old ladies. She sewed up everything for them, leaving not a single garment torn. They fed her and even gave her pieces of flatbread, or flour, or corn so that we children wouldn’t die. They [local Uzbeks] were also hungry, they didn’t have it [food] either, but among them, there were those who gave this much [she shows her palm]. And she [her mother] ate half herself — and half, hidden, she brought to us.

I made soup. I picked grass, horse sorrel, and onions, mixed them with flour and made porridge. Not porridge, but rather a thin soup. We ate and my mother gave me a few more spoonfuls in a separate, very little bowl: ‘Go, there is a girl who is dying of hunger next to you. Feed this girl. But don’t show this to your brother!’ Of course, my brother was already a teenager and was protecting us: ‘We ourselves are dying of hunger. Do not give [food] to others!’ I hid the bowl under an apron, fed [her] and gave [her] water. Then my mother went to bury those who died. Old sheets and rags she could find she used to wrap their bodies to bury.

She also had several strings of pearls. In Uzbekistan, she divided and sold them to wealthier Uzbeks. Clothes, scarves, whatever she had, she sold everything. We had no bed either. We cut reeds ourselves, then made a bed. In Uzbekistan, my mother reused a satin duvet which my father brought probably from Turkey. She sewed an Uzbek dress from satin and sold it. And we made ourselves a cover — a simple cover from my mother’s old dresses. And the three of us slept under one cover. And so, we survived.

As a child, I didn’t know that this was a deportation. How could I know? We continued living, and I told everyone at school in Uzbekistan that we weren’t deported; there was a war going on, and we were evacuated in 1944.

Throughout my childhood, my mother lived with the hope that my father would turn up one day and my brother would return from the Soviet army. She claimed that many people were sent to Samarkand in 1938 and that some pilgrims had even spotted my father there. Whenever she acquired some jam or sugar, she would split it in half, saving one half in case my father or brother came back.

My mother and Aunt Zylha were always whispering to each other and crying. Whenever I approached them, they would stop. I would ask why. My mother replied, ‘If you know everything, they’ll kick you out of school. You won’t go to school!’ That’s how we lived; they didn’t tell me anything. Every day, they prayed to return to Crimea. They cursed Stalin and said, ‘Allah boynini ursun onin’ [let God punish him on the neck]. When the older women gathered in our house, they used to say ‘Soon, we will be going back to Crimea. People already saw the wagons. They brought us here to Uzbekistan by mistake’. I heard that.

In 1953, Stalin died. I was in the tenth grade. We attended the march and cried and cried that our leader had died. But then we turned around the corner and laughed and laughed, wiping our eyes.


My mother Katibe, born in 1961 in Syrdarya in Uzbekistan

It was a known fact that the deportation had happened. In Uzbekistan, the Tatars were always called traitors. Even when I was a kid, other children would say ‘go back to your Crimea’.

But you see, we were brought up in a Soviet manner, so I thought it didn’t include us. We believed we were all Soviets. We were always taught that we should love our motherland, that we had the happiest childhood, that the state cared for the children, that we were building Communism, and all that.

During school, we were sent to pick cotton. You get tired and want to sit down after working the whole day. They wouldn’t let you. And if you didn’t collect the standard quota, which was fifty kilograms a day, or if you went to the toilet more than two or three times, they would say it was an ‘apolitical protest’, that you did not support society. I was in the ninth grade when the Komsomol committee called me and scolded me because my friends and I took a break for more than ten to fifteen minutes, and they said it was an apolitical protest. I came home crying. I still remember the teacher scolding me for not harvesting enough cotton.

I already knew something about our ethnicity and deportation. My mother always blamed Stalin and said that all our misfortunes were his fault. She said that he deported the Crimean Tatars to Uzbekistan. My mother used to listen to Crimean Tatar concerts on the radio. They were only [played] on certain dates and certain radio stations. At weddings, they used to play ‘Alushtadan Esken Eller’ [‘The Winds Blown from Alushta’]. People must have been feeling nostalgic.

I remember the first time someone from our family tried to move back to Crimea. My mother’s aunt, Ayshe-anay, and her husband left. We all took a bus to see them off from the railway station in Syrdarya. It must have been 1967. I remember they cried and said goodbye. But something didn’t work out because they came back within a few months. Ayshe-anay never made it back to Crimea and was buried in Uzbekistan. In those years, the Crimean Tatars were trying to go back, but were not allowed to settle in Crimea. Many ended up in the Kherson region of Ukraine or Krasnodar region in Russia.

The first time we went to Crimea for a vacation in 1977, I was in the ninth grade. We were shocked because everything was [available] in the shops there. Everything was cheap. At the diner, borscht with chicken cost 36 kopecks. Cheap cherries were sold everywhere. In Uzbekistan, cherries were expensive and in short supply. We could buy a whole wheel of cheese. Eating cheese with bread every morning was a luxury we couldn’t afford in Uzbekistan. Probably Crimea was supplied differently because it was a resort.

We went to Bakhchysarai, and it was the beginning of June. Everything was in bloom. The lavender fields and poppy fields were beautiful. My mother said, ‘Look how beautiful it is. The Tatars lived here. They took everything away from us’.

When we went on guided tours, my mother always got mad. The guides always said that Turkic people and Greeks lived there, but they did not mention Crimean Tatars at any point. Of course, that made her angry. But she didn’t argue with them; it was not acceptable then. She told us her ancestors had lived there, that we Crimean Tatars had always lived there, and that what they said wasn’t true.

We decided to move back to Crimea in 1990. At the time, everyone was going, and the events with the Meskhetian Turks in 1989 provided an additional push. The neighbours living on either side of my mother-in-law were Meskhetian Turks. Their wives used to make flatbread in a tandir [a special clay oven], while my son played with their kids. In the spring of 1989, there were events in Namangan — local disputes and fights between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks. Then the Uzbeks started to kick out the Meskhetian Turks deliberately and set their houses on fire.

In our village [in Uzbekistan], the Uzbeks filled a whole truck with stones, and someone pointed out where the Turks lived. They drove slowly down the street and started to throw stones at the Turks’ houses. There was a loud banging. They threw stones at the windows and roof shingles, and I woke up from the loud noise. I was scared. My husband Bakhtiyar grabbed a knife, which he had under the pillow. I told him, ‘please don’t go’. Of course, everyone was afraid for their own life. I don’t think he left the courtyard. When they drove to the next house to throw the stones, someone [in it] had a shotgun and fired it, killing one of the Uzbeks. The next day, the whole village was cordoned off by the police and internal troops.

We thought that it could happen to Crimean Tatars as well, because we were also a minority. If they started to kick out the Turks, then they could do the same to the Crimean Tatars. That’s why the following year, in autumn, we moved.



[1] The text below is an edited transcript of the interviews that I conducted in Russian and Crimean Tatar. Additional information is provided in footnotes and square brackets where necessary.

[2] According to the records of the State Archive of Ukraine, the NKVD’s (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) Crimean branch arrested Sheikh Mefa Abkerim (born in 1872) and my great-grandfather Emir Veli Abdul Kerim (born in 1889) on 6 November 1937 in Eski Burnaq. (For the case of Sheikh Mefa Abkerim, see Kyiv, State Archival Service of Ukraine, Digital copies of Metric books of the National Archive in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Fund N6 (R), Case N28, Protocol 23 of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic’s NKVD Troika session from 2 December 1937, slide 99 [accessed on 6 May 2024]; for Emir Veli Abdul Kerim, see slide 98 [accessed on 6 May 2024]). They were accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and sabotage. The files also mention that Sheikh Mefa was conducting religious gatherings, and Emir Veli was a ‘kulak’ and used hired labour. Both were sentenced to death by a Troika (a group of three NKVD officials who sentenced people without a public trial) and executed in early 1938. My grandmother found out about his fate only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Emine Ziyatdinova is a Crimean Tatar documentary photographer and co-founder and director of the NGO ‘Ukrainian Warchive’, a digital photo archive of the Russian war against Ukraine. She was born in Uzbekistan, after her family was deported from Crimea in 1944 by the Stalin regime. Growing up as part of the Crimean Tatar minority in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she gained a firsthand understanding of the human rights issues faced by ethnic minorities and the challenges stemming from the economic and political transition in her country. Ziyatdinova holds MA degrees in Sociology from Ivan Franko National University of Lviv and in Photojournalism from Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication. From 2012 to 2017, she worked extensively in documentary photography and journalism in Ukraine before relocating to the UK. There, she has contributed her expertise to the non-profit sector, working with organisations such as the Rory Peck Trust and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Ziyatdinova’s work was supported by a Fulbright Scholarship and a Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund Fellowship.


Image: Emine Ziyatdinova, Ayriye Emirveliyeva smells basil flowers she grew in her garden in Serebrianka village, 10 September 2020.

Cover Image for Crimean Tatars: Eighty Years of Remembrance and Resistance

Crimean Tatars: Eighty Years of Remembrance and Resistance

Issue 2 (2024)

For the eightieth anniversary of the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars, the London Ukrainian Review dedicates its second issue of 2024 to the Russia-occupied Crimean peninsula and its Indigenous people’s ongoing fight for justice.

Sasha Dovzhyk
Cover Image for The Long Exile: A History of the Deportation of 1944

The Long Exile: A History of the Deportation of 1944

Issue 2 (2024)

The mass deportation of Crimean Tatars in May 1944 is rooted in Russian settler colonialism which Martin-Oleksandr Kisly traces to the subjugation of Crimea by Catherine II. Eighty years after the grievous crime against the Indigenous people of Crimea, Crimean Tatars are under Russia’s occupation and banned from marking this historic date.

Martin-Oleksandr Kisly, trans. by Larissa Babij