Everyone has to have a place where they belong
There isn’t much to see at Adym-Chokrak. Steep slopes overgrown with plum and pear trees, heavy in Autumn with unpicked fruit. Two big walnut trees beside the overgrown track. Dead campfires and piles of rusty cans and plastic bottles left by irresponsible campers. And, incongruously, a whitewashed stone fountain carved with an arch and Arabic writing, pouring clear cold water into its weed- and rubbish-choked trough.
It’s difficult to imagine that a thriving settlement existed on this spot in south-west Crimea until May 1944. Then in one morning it all came to an end when Soviet soldiers arrived, rounded up the inhabitants and took them to the railway outside Bakhchisaray, where they were loaded into cattle wagons that transported them thousands of kilometres away into exile. Their houses were presumably later bulldozed, as there is now no sign even of their foundations. Only the fountain remains, and the village name, Adym-Chokrak (it means ‘many springs’), which has been given to the whole valley.
There are hundreds of places like this in Crimea, that disappeared from the maps when Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar population towards the end of the Second World War. These villages exist now only in stories.
I visit Adym-Chokrak whenever I come to Crimea. In this peaceful, lonely valley I try to bring to life the stories I’ve been told by Crimean Tatars who spent their childhoods in this village or others like it before they vanished.
I chose Adym-Chokrak as the setting for Dream Land, a fictional account of a Crimean Tatar family’s return to Crimea in the1990s. In the book, the family build a new squatter’s settlement here beside Mangup-Kalye, much as in reality the nearby village of Hoja-Sala has been rebuilt.
Dream Land is fiction, but almost all the events in the book are based on real stories that Tatars told me – either their own experiences or those recounted to them by their parents and grandparents.
The stories of Crimea before 1944 are like snapshots in an old photo-album. Many of them are beautiful; one old woman recalls picking apples and packing them into boxes for the winter – wonderful fragrant varieties of apples which no longer exist in Crimea. Another remembers the smell of coffee brewing, or how as a child she and her siblings teased her uncle as he prayed on his prayer mat every day. They conjure up bright happy images of festivals, of close-knit families, neat red and white houses and lovingly cultivated land.
Other stories of collectivization, cultural repression and conflict are not so happy; the picture of a Soviet village teacher forcing a Tatar girl to eat at school during Ramadan (the month in the Islamic calendar when believers fast from dawn til dusk); or of village houses burning as German soldiers and Soviet partisans fought during the war.
Whether beautiful or ugly, the world of these stories has almost entirely disappeared. Only the words remain. Through our conversations, I came to realise how important these words are. During their years of exile, the homeland existed for the Crimean Tatars only in the form of stories that became a survival tool, a way of preserving their national identity from assimilation in Central Asia or Siberia. I was told by one Tatar, born in Uzbekistan, how as child he loved to sit and listen to his grandparents endlessly talking over their memories of the country they left behind, until Crimea began to seem more real to him than Uzbekistan. This experience is common to a whole generation born after the war and deportation, who led the Crimean Tatar national movement in the 1960s and 70s, and returned after perestroika to a country they had actually never seen and which was essentially strange to them.
Again and again, I asked those Tatars who were born in exile and had grown up with these stories if they were disappointed in the reality of Crimea when they finally did come back to see it for themselves.
They told me: ‘Someone else was living in my family’s house.” “They had chopped down the orchard my father planted.” “The gravestones from the Tatar cemetery have been used for building.” “The springs have all been choked up…”
But were you disappointed? I persisted.
The answer was always No. In fact they looked at me as if I was asking a completely irrelevant question. How can a person be disappointed in his home, in the place where he belongs? As one of the characters in Dream Land says, “Everyone has to have a place where they belong”. Many people never have to think about where that place might be, they are fortunate enough to take it for granted. But the Tatars have had to fight for “the only place I can feel I’ve got the right to be.”
It hasn’t been an easy struggle, nor has it been won. Many Crimean Tatars feel marginalised and discriminated against. Many non-Tatars in Crimea feel that their own place where they belong has been usurped by newcomers. Some Tatar squatters settlements were bulldozed by locals before they were finished; others still lack running water and electricity. And, in a strange twist of fate, some, like Hoja-Sala, are now partly lived in by Ukrainians or Russians as the Crimean Tatars who fought so hard to rebuild the village have since moved away.
It’s unlikely that Adym-Chokrak will ever be rebuilt; it’s too far from the road and electricity lines. Once a year, descendants of the Tatars who lived here before 1944 come to pick the walnuts and plums, or the daisies which fill the valley in May. They’ve made their homes in Bakhchisaray and nearby villages, and have little time to spare from the hard grind of making a living.
After dreaming so long about returning to their homeland, perhaps the Crimean Tatars are still too busy realising that dream to worry about whether the reality is a disappointment. But they’re not too busy to tell stories, and the memories that sustained them through exile live on side by side with new stories from the last twenty years, that belong to the generation that came back. I am deeply grateful to the Crimean Tatars who entrusted their stories to me to put into Dream Land. I hope I’ve done them justice.
This article was published in Russian in Forum Natsii; you can read it here