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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Memory, Faith Light Path of Exiles

Kerim Memetov was 12 years old when troops barged into his parents' Sevastopol home at 6 a.m., gave his family 15 minutes to pack 100 kilograms of their belongings and herded them onto railway boxcars for a perilous, 18-day journey to their new "home" in Kazakhstan.

Five decades later and thousands of miles away, Memetov, now 64 and a cardiologist in Moscow, along with some 25 other Crimean Tatars met Saturday within a stone's throw of the former KGB headquarters on Lyubyanskaya Square to mark the 52nd anniversary of the Crimean Tatars' deportation May 18, 1944.

Recollections of that day flooded forth as Memetov and others stood in the bright sunshine under the Crimean Tatars' sky-blue flag with its yellow royal seal. In memory of the tens of thousands who died as a result of the deportation, they laid lilacs on a monument -- a stone taken from the Solovetskoi labor camps -- for peoples repressed by the Soviet regime.

While the forced deportations themselves claimed many lives, thousands more died during the two years following. A statistic often quoted by Crimean Tatars is that 46.2 percent of the 186,000 people deported to Central Asia died, said Aizer Farikov, 34, a research scientist at Moscow State University's International Laser Center. An additional 94,000 Crimean Tatars who had been living outside the Crimea were deported to Siberia, the Urals and Central Asia.

While many of those present Saturday talked about their wretched past, they also discussed current and future goals of their people. Refat Appazov, 75, of the Organization of Crimean Tatars and a deputy in the Medzhlis -- the Crimean Tatar parliament that represents the diaspora -- criticized the United Nations for supporting governments, but not the people under those governments.

Discrimination against the Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Mongol hordes Genghis Khan, continues today, Appazov said, explaining that in Crimea authorities have passed laws that Appazov called prejudicial. Despite what Appazov called continuing discrimination against Crimean Tartars in what was their native land, many hope to return to Crimea. Unlike the other deported peoples who were rehabilitated and allowed to return to their homelands in 1956, the Crimean Tatars were not permitted to go home. A long-term goal is to "recreate" their homeland and reconstruct their ancient culture, Appazov said.

Today, said Appazov, there are some 250 to 280 Crimean Tatars living in Moscow. Those who remain are a close-knit group, and at times Saturday's solemn occasion seemed like a family reunion as they passed around old faded photographs and drank coffee.

Despite the Crimean Tatars' hopes for the future and steady reconstruction of their community, that day 52 years ago is still a defining moment in their national identity.

The deaths started, Memetov recalled, in the cramped boxcars carrying 50 people apiece. "Along the way, the dead were not buried, they were simply thrown off the train. When we arrived in Kazakhstan, an old man died and the older people told the children not to speak about this because the man's body would be thrown from the train," Memetov said, proudly adding, "When we arrived, we buried the man's body."

But the deaths, hunger and fear did not end with the journey east.

"Men from collective farms came to take these people as [slaves]," Memetov said. The people were forced onto settlements; there, because of heat, lack of food and poor conditions many, including Memetov's sister and two nephews, died from starvation and malaria.

"When I remember all the people who died, I want to cry," Memetov said.

While Saturday's recollections periodically lapsed into despair, there was also a sense that the nation has survived and will continue to grow and rebuild. "We lived, we will live. ... But we have victims, thousands and thousands. We will be believed and we will have our opinion, our culture, our language," said Yervin Umerov, a Moscow writer deported with his family at the age of 4. "We must try to remember our victims and try to have our society and develop and reconstruct our culture."