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After Surviving Soviet Repression, a Turkic Minority Is Being Divided in Ukraine

The traditionalist Meskhetians are fighting on both sides of the current conflict

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After Surviving Soviet Repression, a Turkic Minority Is Being Divided in Ukraine
Members of the Meskhetian Turk community who were born in Uzbekistan and live in Ukraine. The women have chosen to live out the war there rather than leave their husbands behind. (Emre Çaylak)

Serhan Halilovic, a devoted and fearless grenadier with the 113th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces, is a Meskhetian Turk first and a Ukrainian second. He is willing to die for Ukraine — the country he grew up in, where his daughter was born and for which he will bear the scars of war for life. The one thing he is not willing to do is kill a fellow Turk.

It almost happened in Bakhmut, during the longest and bloodiest battle of the war so far, which lasted seven months and caused enormous casualties among the Ukrainians and Russians on either side. Halilovic’s 209th Battalion was under endless bombardment, firing back at enemy positions as part of a rotation that ensured a constant stream of soldiers ready to replace the dead. Deep into the battle, they discovered six Russians hiding among some trees. At first, they thought they were Kadyrovites, Chechens loyal to the head of their Russian republic who have a fearsome reputation for cruelty.

“We were going to shoot them,” Halilovic told New Lines. They lined the men up and positioned their guns. Then one of the Russians raised his hands and begged God for forgiveness in a Turkish dialect.

“I shouted to my friends to stop and told them not to hurt them,” continued Halilovic, a thick-set man of 34, with a beard, short-cropped hair and a cheeky smile. He described how he sat down and talked with the men who had just pleaded for their lives, learning that they were also Meskhetian Turks but from across the border in Russia, from a village near the city of Rostov-on-Don. The area was familiar to him because his father’s relatives live there. Halilovic’s unit provided the men with hot food, which they had sparse access to and which was gratefully received in the biting cold of Ukraine’s winter, and turned them over to the authorities as prisoners of war — the most Halilovic could do for them without getting himself into trouble.

Over the past two years, Russia’s brutal and ongoing war has displaced millions of Ukrainians and left more than a quarter of the country under occupation. U.S. and U.N. officials believe the war has killed tens of thousands of each army’s soldiers and at least 10,000 Ukrainian civilians. The Meskhetian Turks have been caught in the crossfire of the largest land war in Europe in generations, forcing them to fight, and die, on both sides of a war many do not consider their own. Thousands have fled and more are waiting to leave in the latest mass relocation of this persecuted people who have spent much of the past century uprooted.

Questions facing this deeply traditional minority, on either side of the border, have been flung into sharp relief by the war: not only the question of where home is but also of what reaching that home would mean for the community. Meskhetian Turks speak a form of Turkish, practice Sunni Islam and follow Ottoman-era traditions that would be largely out of place in Turkey today. Their name comes from the Meskheti region of Georgia where they originate, which was ceded to the Russian Empire in 1829. (This area was called “Ahiska” by the Ottomans and is also the name used by community members when referring to themselves in Turkish.) For some Meskhetian Turks, Georgia is their “vatan” (homeland); for others, it’s Turkey, the motherland, where they have religious, cultural and linguistic ties. And there are also those eyeing new pastures, like the United States.

“Ukraine is showing everyone what freedom and the homeland is worth. We need to see it as an example and follow,” said Sadiyar Mamedov, a 48-year-old businessman-turned-politician from Kherson in eastern Ukraine. Dapper, with thick brows and a flick of gray hair, when we sat down to talk he became instantly animated by what the war could mean for the future of the Meskhetian Turks: “If we have to fight we will, inshallah, or we will cease to exist. … We want a flag in the sand, we don’t want to move anymore.”

Serhan Halilovic resting in his home in the Kharkiv region after being wounded in Bakhmut. (Emre Çaylak)

Neither the Soviet Union nor Georgia (which became independent in 1991), ever granted the Meskhetian Turks a viable path to return home. Generations have grown up in exile, at the mercy of sometimes hostile hosts. Without territorial autonomy, the traditional cornerstone of self-determination, they have been left with no protection or safe haven, making them extremely vulnerable.

In 1944, amid increasing paranoia that Turkey would side with Germany in World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire minority from over 200 villages in southwestern Georgia to remote corners of the Soviet Union, primarily Uzbekistan, accusing them of having ties with Turkish intelligence.

In the late 1980s, part of the community suffered a second mass deportation after an outbreak of ethnic violence in Uzbekistan led to the killing of 100 Meskhetian Turks in what became known as the Fergana Valley riots. In the wake of the unrest, about 80,000 Meskhetians, who had lived in Uzbekistan for 45 years, were hastily evacuated without choice by the Soviet authorities. They were split up, often arbitrarily, and sent to Russia’s Rostov, Stavropol and Krasnodar regions, with others dispatched to Ukraine’s Kharkiv, Kherson and the Donbas regions. It is an involuntary geography that has put the community in danger yet again, pitting them against each other since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“Because of Russia, brothers are killing each other,” said Gulgez Kurbanova, a 44-year-old in the small village of Mazharka in the Kharkiv region in Ukraine’s northeast. Kurbanova’s son is fighting for Ukraine; her nephew went missing somewhere in Ukraine while on military duty for Russia. “We didn’t hear from him for four or five months. We don’t even know what happened,” she told me. Resting nearby on a temporary bed in their living room was her husband, Kamil Ozaivic. Diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer just two weeks before we met and with his body gaunt, Ozaivic almost disappeared under the thick blanket he lay under. His last wish was to see his sons again. Their eldest had been denied requests for leave, while their youngest, who was in Estonia, was scared to return home for fear he would be mobilized. To compound the heartache, Ozaivic’s cousin had been killed fighting for Russia. Russia’s war made his dream impossible: A month after we met in August 2023, Ozaivic died at the age of 54.

Now the community in both countries is scrambling to leave, but this time of their own volition. Since war first broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, about 8,000 of the approximately 11,000 Meskhetian Turks who lived there have fled to Turkey, according to the World Union of Meskhetian Turks (DATUB), a nongovernmental organization that works on Meskhetian rights from its base in Istanbul. The relocation accelerated after the full-scale invasion two years ago, with Ankara facilitating evacuations from Kherson and other hot spots. Similar numbers have left Russia: Islam Shakhbandarov, head of the U.S.-based Meskhetian Turk Association, said that an additional 8,000 to 10,000 Meskhetian Turks have come to the U.S. since the 2022 invasion, the majority of them from Russia, where there was a prewar population of over 100,000. Shakhbandarov has learned of at least 10 who have been killed on deployment, from both sides, including one of his distant relatives. The real figure is likely much higher. Of the dozens of community members New Lines spoke to, all knew at least one Meskhetian Turk who was in the military, and many knew someone who had been injured or killed. Globally, their population is estimated to be around half a million people.

For a people centered on family, heritage and tradition, the separations that ensue bring agony. At a garden ceremony last summer in the leafy farming village of Mazharka, 23-year-old Flora Mamedova married her childhood sweetheart — via video call. The groom, Osman Armurchayiv, also 23, fled to the U.S. with his family last year. Under the strict Muslim rules of their community, she couldn’t travel to live with him until they were married — so they held a traditional ceremony in Ukraine before her departure. The couple’s grandfathers agreed to their union formally, as per Meskhetian tradition. The fact that it was not legally binding under Ukrainian law did not matter. As Mamedova received congratulations from the community, one by one, she was alone. She was both excited to marry and apprehensive at the idea of leaving Ukraine. A video team recorded the day for Armurchayiv, who joined briefly through FaceTime from the U.S. The couple served Uzbek pilaf (“plov”), fried meats, fruits and lokum, also known as Turkish delight. As would be custom in weddings across Turkey during Ottoman times, an aunt handed around small glasses of sherbet (boiled water and sugar), which guests drank before filling them with hryvnia, the Ukrainian currency. Mamedova wore a sparkling crescent-moon brooch pinned to her modest white dress, a nod toward Turkey.

A portrait of Flora Mamedova on her wedding day, which the groom, Osman Armurchayiv, attended by video call. (Emre Çaylak)

Two weeks after the ceremony, Mamedova left for America. She will now most likely not see any of the men under 60 in her family until after the war — they cannot travel without special dispensation under mobilization rules.

“Everything would be better if there had been no war,” she told me as she helped clear up after the wedding. “Inshallah it will end and I can return to live here again.”

The community estimates that just 82 families remain in the small village, which is near where Halilovic grew up. There are also a number of men living alone; many of the women and children were sent away by male family members to safety at the start of the war. Elders now want to sell it but are not convinced that it would be easy to find a buyer, for several reasons: Life here is old-fashioned, with many of the houses having outdoor toilets; it takes several hours by car to reach the big cities of Kharkiv or Dnipro; the village is full of wandering goats and patches of tomato and cabbage plants; missiles fly overhead on their way to more important targets.

Meskhetian Turks in the village of Mazharka celebrate Flora Mamedova’s wedding. After eating, the bride is given gold jewelry and money and her photograph is taken. (Emre Çaylak)

The Meskhetian Turks’ plight is emblematic of the experience of regional minorities, who have suffered for generations at the hands of the Kremlin, which has failed to reckon with its colonial past.

“They are victims of the same imperialism that saw Russian President Vladimir Putin invade Ukraine,” said Richard Arnold, a professor of political science at Muskingum University in Ohio who researches Russian nationalism.

The Meskhetians lived in Georgia in relative peace for hundreds of years until several wars between the Ottoman and Russian empires during the 19th century made life increasingly difficult. Following the Crimean War of 1853-56, they were brutally punished for helping the Ottoman army and pressured, mostly unsuccessfully, to convert to Christianity. When Georgia was annexed by the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Meskhetian Turks were pushed, as many non-Slavic ethnicities were, to Sovietize their names. The Turkish last name Mehmetoglu, meaning son of Mehmet, was changed to the Russified Mamedov, for example. It was the start of what felt like an effort to erase their connection to their past, a direct attack on their identity.

In 1944, some 100,000 Meskhetian Turks — alongside other ethnic minority groups including Kurds and Hemshins, a small group of Armenian Sunni Muslims — were taken from their homes in Georgia, loaded into cattle wagons and deported en masse to Siberia, Central Asia and Azerbaijan. It was part of a wider program of population transfers that saw millions of people from ethnic and social minorities uprooted from their lands in one of the most tragic pages in Soviet history. Among them were the Crimean Tatars, who were moved from their native Crimean Peninsula to Central Asia, where they stayed until the late 1980s. The Chechens, Ingush, Karachays, Balkars, Kabardians, ethnic Poles and ethnic Germans were also displaced, accused without evidence of aiding the enemy Nazis.

Yildiz Mamedova, a spry great-grandmother aged about 95 and from Halilovic’s home village of Vovkivka, was a teenager at the time of the deportation. She recalls how Soviet soldiers arrived with their guns. “They didn’t say where we were going or why. They said, ‘You don’t need anything. You’ll be back soon.’” People left their valuables, money and livestock behind. A savvy few managed to squirrel some precious items away — Mamedova’s grandmother buried a jar of gold in the garden. She recalled how the animals screamed and bleated as they left, as if they knew that something terrible was happening to their owners.

The journey took more than a month. Numbers vary, but more than 10,000 people are thought to have died on the way from stress, thirst, the biting November cold and disease. At the time of the deportation, about 40,000 men were away, serving in the Soviet army. When the surviving half returned to their emptied villages, they were also sent to Central Asia.

Families were ripped apart as they were bundled into different wagons and sent to distant parts of the Soviet Union, thousands of miles apart. As Mamedova’s train stopped along the way, a young mother jumped out to fetch water for her dehydrated child. She didn’t make it back in time as the trip continued. The child was sent to Tashkent, and it is not known what happened to the mother.

“So many women lost their children,” said Mamedova.

The community believes lost infants were given to local families to bring up, and they forgot their Meskhetian Turk heritage. Mamedova, her mother and two sisters managed to stay together and were taken to Uzbekistan, where they were put to work by the state, collecting cotton. The work was hard and the wages pitiful. They were often starving and would make soup from hot water and grass just to feel full. Later, her mother’s abdomen began to bloat from malnutrition. She soon died, at 41 years old. The girls didn’t have anything to wrap her in as a shroud, so they swaddled her in the only blanket they had on the bed they all shared so she could be sent for burial.

“After that we were alone. I was the eldest, so I had to take care of my sisters,” she said. Now, the nonagenarian splits her time between Turkey and Ukraine, afraid to abandon the men and many great-grandchildren in her family. In this, she is not alone: Across the villages where Meskhetian Turks live, older women have chosen to live out the war because they refuse to leave their husbands or other male family members behind.

While Soviet reforms in the 1960s and 1980s saw the charges dropped and minorities allowed to return home, the Meskhetian Turks were only granted the freedom to move within the Soviet Union but not to return to the region of Meskheti. They are the only ethnic group that was deported to remain without the right to repatriation. For decades, Tbilisi placed responsibility for rectifying their plight with Russia, largely considered the successor to the Soviet Union, while Russia refused involvement on the grounds that Meskheti is in Georgia. In 1999, Georgia finally agreed to resolve the Meskhetian Turks’ exile as a condition of entry to the Council of Europe. But it did not pass a law until 2007. Bureaucratic hurdles have continued to prevent their return since. Fewer than 1,000 live there today, and of those only a few hundred have been granted Georgian citizenship.

Uzbek-style plov served at Flora Mamedova’s wedding. (Emre Çaylak)

The minority have lived such a transient life that most speak three or more languages, including Turkish and either Ukrainian or Russian. Each generation was born in a different country from the last, meaning loyalties have become complex, and that has muddied a cohesive sense of identity or collective goals. They don’t all agree on what their next steps should be, but they do believe in having a home.

For those who were born or grew up there, there is a sense of loyalty to Ukraine. Some who stayed, like Halilovic, chose to fight. (There is also the lure of a high salary — a soldier can receive over $2,500 a month for work on the front line, some five times higher than Ukraine’s average wage.) Halilovic signed up in the first weeks of the war. He was working in construction in the Czech Republic but returned when Putin’s troops crossed the border. He was wounded three times in Bakhmut, most seriously just days before the city fell to Russia in May 2023. Hot shrapnel sprayed from an exploding modified Grad rocket, punching into his stomach and leg, gouging right through his left foot and just missing his head. Photos on his phone from his hospital stay show an astonishingly deep hole in his ankle and the flesh on his foot sliced in two like a chicken breast. He spent the summer recuperating at the home he is renovating in a quiet suburb in Kharkiv. When we visited in July, he served me and the photographer Turkish black tea and sliced fruit. We sat in his garden, accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong, distant air raid sirens and the boom of artillery being fired over the border from Russia. He looked like the cultural pluralist he is, wearing a crimson T-shirt emblazoned with the white crescent moon and star of the Turkish flag while also proudly displaying a gleaming Ukrainian veteran’s medal. Now back on his feet after more than a dozen operations, he is fighting near Bakhmut again, hoping to liberate it, he told me via text.

In June 2022, some four months into the war, a Turkish presidential decree granted 1,000 Meskhetian households from Ukraine permanent residency, and many were brought to safety through Crimea, Russia and, somewhat ironically, Georgia. They were placed in temporary settlements made of containers in Elazig in eastern Turkey. Ankara has not negotiated any special agreement for men of draft age, however, and they are viewed as all Ukrainian citizens are — if they are ages 18 to 65, they are mostly forbidden to leave the country. But in the early chaotic days of the war, some Meskhetian men of fighting age from occupied territory did manage to leave.

Progress on taking in more people has been stalled by the devastating double earthquake that rocked southeastern Turkey on its border with Syria in February 2023, killing over 50,000 people. Resources had to be reallocated: 10 cities are now in need of full redevelopment, with the country already coping with a biting economic crisis and hosting the world’s largest refugee population, at over 4 million.

Some Meskhetian Turk families in Ukraine told me that they were waiting for places on government housing schemes in the eastern cities of Siirt and Erzincan but that construction had stopped and funds were redirected toward earthquake relief.

“It’s easy to relocate yourself to Turkey, but some want to be evacuated [from Ukraine] so they get access to housing as a refugee,” said Shakhbandarov.

In 2017, Turkey granted citizenship to Meskhetian Turks already on its territory. By 2021, some 70,000 Meskhetians who hailed from across the Soviet Union had claimed it. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly offers the community support in his speeches, saying in September 2023, “Wherever they live, Meskhetian Turks’ hearts always beat with Turkey. We as Turkey are proud of the success stories that you write by resisting all kinds of setbacks.” Turkey also marks “Ahiska Day” each year to commemorate the first deportation some 80 years ago. However, the country has stopped short of fully opening its doors to Meskhetian Turks, and slow bureaucratic processes have hindered many who have sought citizenship. Critics see the government’s help as a bid to attract votes and force demographic change in majority Kurdish parts of the country’s east, where the Meskhetians are generally resettled.

Although the move would bring some sense of safety and stability for Ukraine’s Meskhetian Turks, it is not a silver bullet. Work and other opportunities in Turkey are limited and life is expensive, with the country seeing inflation hit almost 65% for the last two years. It would also see even more distance put between families. Besides, the Meskhetian Turk identity was forged by exile and some worry their ways would be lost in Turkey, or even marginalized. Modern Turks would struggle to recognize Meskhetian practices and clothes, and their dialect is unfamiliar and can be hard to understand. “They are European in Turkey now,” said Ismail Mamedov, the father of Flora, the bride. “We, as a minority, have been afraid of losing our traditions. We haven’t changed them for hundreds of years.”

Men drink sherbet, an Ottoman-era drink of boiled water and sugar, at Flora Mamedova’s wedding. According to Turkish customs, once the bride’s family agrees to give her away, she drinks sherbet to celebrate. (Emre Çaylak)

DATUB continues to fight for a return to Georgia. “We will go back to Georgia eventually, but it will take a long time,” said Burhan Ozkosar, the organization’s representative for Europe. Sadiyar Mamedov also fiercely believes in a return to Meskheti. He traveled to Turkey in November with plans to stage a protest on the border with Georgia, to raise awareness for their cause. But once he arrived, his protest was not given the necessary greenlight by local authorities, and he returned home.

Ozkosar now fears his community is at a vanishing point, believing their identity and way of life could be lost within a generation if they don’t return to Georgia. “The longer it is postponed, the more likely the younger generation will integrate elsewhere and forget about returning to Ahiska. Georgia is making a careful calculation,” he said, implying that Tbilisi is banking on fewer Turks wanting to return in the future.

Serhan Halilovic shows his medal from Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Unit. (Emre Çaylak)

The war, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described as one between light and darkness, has come to embody a global struggle between democracy and tyranny. It is a dichotomy that has not spared the Meskhetian Turks. “The difference between here and there is that Turks in Russia don’t go to war of their own accord,” Halilovic said, reflecting a view held by many Ukrainians that their men and women volunteer to defend their country out of patriotism, while Russians are forced to invade. In Russia, men are drafted in waves; in Ukraine, men of fighting age are forbidden to leave the country but there is no universal conscription, though a new mobilization bill could lead to the drafting of up to 500,000 troops.

Halilovic’s once-close cousin from Rostov-on-Don is fighting for Moscow in occupied Crimea. Officers came to his house one morning and took him by force, according to what his father told the family. The cousins no longer have direct contact due to the risks involved. The Meskhetians from Russia whom Halilovic encountered in battle also told him they had been forced into the military. Russian troops from Dagestan, Buryatia and Krasnodar (where the majority of Russia’s Meskhetian population live), have lost the most soldiers in the war, according to a BBC Russian Service investigation. The wildly disproportionate numbers show ethnic minorities have been targeted by the Kremlin for conscription to fight and die in Ukraine.

Halilovic’s father, Halil, who is 63 and moves between Turkey and his vegetable farm in Ukraine, speaks to his brother in Russia on the phone regularly. They often argue. His brother tells him that despite his son being mobilized, he believes in a just war against Western imperialism and NATO, a vision that is laid out and tightly controlled by Moscow. Halil, who previously spent six years in Russia, thinks his brother has lost his mind. “Putin sent his soldiers to Ukraine to slaughter people,” he tells him on the phone. “Not the other way around.” He tries to impart an understanding of what a continued conflict between the two countries means. “I tell him, ‘If your son and my son come across each other while fighting this war, one of them will kill the other one,’” said Halil. “‘If they don’t, their brothers in arms will shoot them. Our sons are enemies now.’”

The Meskhetian Turks who resettled in Ukraine say they have largely been treated well. Most were granted citizenship in 1991 by the newly independent country of Ukraine and given farmland so they could rebuild their lives, which many still rely on for income today. But of those who went to Russia, thousands were kept stateless until a decade ago, allowed only to stay through temporary residence status. Births and marriages were often not registered legally. They had no access to state-run health care and were subjected to intimidation and police brutality. In 2004, the U.N. intervened and relocated about 10,000 of them to the U.S., mostly in Ohio, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

A young Meskhetian Turk from southwestern Russia, who asked that his name not be used out of fear for his family’s safety, described a lifetime of humiliation. It began as name-calling at his school in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, where he was called “Black,” a common pejorative for non-Slavs, by his classmates. As he grew up, this evolved into unsuccessful job applications, landlords refusing rental contracts and police tickets issued for no reason. Neighbors stole vegetables from his family’s garden, he told me from the U.S., where he now lives. After the invasion, racism and targeted harassment rose. “There is so much death. Friends I did military service with in 2020 are dead. Meskhetians I know are dead. A distant relative is dead,” he said.

In early June last year, scared of being called up to fight, the 24-year-old made his escape. “What Putin is doing is wrong and I didn’t want to get involved,” he said. Gathering all the funds he could access to cover the $2,500 he needed to reach America, he set out on an uncertain journey through five countries that saw him spend 75 days in U.S. detention camps. He planned his path meticulously, using information scraped from WhatsApp and Telegram groups as well as YouTube videos. As he crossed borders, he pretended to be a tourist as opposed to an asylum-seeker to avoid being returned to Russia.

After catching a bus to Turkey via Georgia, he flew from Istanbul to Mexico City and made his way to Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border. He applied for U.S. asylum twice but was turned away both times. He then resorted to smuggling himself in, paying a taxi driver $100 to take him to the low-running Rio Grande, which he paddled across into the U.S. He was transferred between detention camps for over two months, sleeping in large rooms of 150 to 200 people. “The camps were full of Russians. … I knew I made the right choice,” he said. A month after leaving Russia, his mobilization papers arrived through the mail at his parents’ home in the North Caucasus.

Since coming to the U.S., he has tried his hand at being a chef and truck driver. His first court case for asylum is fast approaching, and he is coming to terms with the fact he may never see Russia again — the only country he knew before escaping. With his father of fighting age, and therefore eligible to be drafted, his parents may not be able to leave anytime soon.

In the meantime, both Mamedov the businessman and his son have been part of Ukraine’s war effort, as a volunteer in the National Guard and a soldier in the armed forces, respectively. After Kherson was liberated from occupation in November 2022, Mamedov helped “clean things up” — his team identified and detained Ukrainians who were collaborating with Russia. Since then, one of his cousins by marriage has died fighting for Russia. He was just 24.

“When you have no homeland, you have to serve others,” he said. “We are nobody. Even history doesn’t write about us.”

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.

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