World Bulletin / News Desk
Exactly 150 years ago on May 21, 1864, hundreds of thousands of Circassian Muslims were forcibly deported as their homeland of Circassia, which lies in the northern Caucasus and along the eastern Black Sea coast, was purged and pillaged by the Russians. Old wounds were recently reopened when the world gathered in the Circassian capital of Sochi to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Little did they know that the games were held on the site of one of the bloodiest genocides in human history. A century and a half on, Circassians still feel the pain.
The 1856 Crimea war showed Russia just how strategic the region of Circassia was. Russia, which was on the receiving end of one of the most embarrassing defeats in its history, failed to send its troops to Circassia in time to prevent the Ottoman-English-French alliance from getting there first. Within that region, the presence of the Circassian’s and other communities seemed to be the greatest obstacle for Russian expansion plans. After the war, Russia began planning on ways to gain complete control over the Circassians and the rest of the Caucasian people or exile them from their lands in order to acquire complete dominance over the region.
In the 1860s, Russia had taken over all of the Caucasus – a region wedged between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The only place they couldn’t conquer was Adige, otherwise known as Circassia. On the shores of the Black sea, the region of Circassia served as open land for both the Ottomans and the West, and was an independent region which continued its existence within the domain of Russian sovereignty.
Russia, which was seeking to seize complete control over the land, made two different decisions regarding the region. The first decision was to gain the friendship of the Circassians and in time solve the problem peacefully, with the second being to exile the Circassians from the lands in which they lived. The idea of exile was first introduced by the Russian Caucasus Army General Milyetun in the year 1857. Milyetun suggested that they exile some of the Adygeins (Circassians) living in the area to the north. However, the authorities feared that exile could trigger a reaction from the Muslim community of Russia and could have possibly cause new problems. For these reasons, the idea of exile was rejected.
Not long after, the idea of exile was re-introduced in another way. The Commander of the Caucasian Army General Prince Baryatinski made an essential change in Milyetun’s report and presented a new suggestion. The Circassians living in the region would be exiled not to the north, but to the Ottoman lands in the south. This way, Russia would avoid incurring any problems within its own country. After Sharin agreed to the plan, as of the year 1860, exile became the Russian government’s new policy.
The Circassians did not hesitate to react to this policy. They even met with Russian tsar and presented their own conditions, making clear they were open to negotiations. However, the Russians had already made their decision. The region was besieged by over a hundred thousand Russian soldiers. The Circassians were forced out of their homes, their villages were set on fire, and tens of thousands of people were massacred.
Around 20,000 Circassian resistance fighters gathered in Kbaada on May 21, 1864. They were surrounded by around 100,000 Russian soldiers. In the end, the Circassians chose martyrdom above surrender. The rivers flowing through the nearby Acepsu valley to the Black Sea turned red with the blood of Circassians. Meanwhile, the Russian tsar Alexandre declared that day a national holiday marking the Russian victory.
Russia gained complete control of the region by May 21st 1864. Michel, who was commissioned by his brother Sharin as the Grand duke of Caucasus, made this public announcement in the month of August to the people of the western Caucasus: “If the Caucasus isn’t abandoned within a month’s time, the whole population will be exiled to different regions as Russia’s prisoners.” Like this, the Circassians' great tragedy began.
The Circassians who were exiled departed via sea from the Caucasus docks of Taman, Tuapse, Anapa, Tsemez, Sochi, Adler, Sohum, Poti, Batum, ect. They arrived at the Ottoman ports of Trabzon, Samsun, Sinop, Istanbul, Varna, Burgaz and Kostence and placed into the camps prepared for them. Unfortunately, within a short period of time, thousands of refugees died due to starvation and illness.
The extent of the ordeals that was endured due to this exile were seen in the people who arrived at these camps. General Katrachef, who was in charge of migration at the Russian Consulate in Trabzon, showed this in his written report: “Of those going to Turkey, 70,000 Circassians came to Batum. From these, 7 people die every day. Of the 24,700 people sent to Trabzon, 19,000 have died so far. Now from the remaining 63,900 people, every day 180-250 of them are dying. Of the 110,000 in Samsun, 200 people die on a daily basis. And of the 4,650 people sent to Trabzon, Varna and Istanbul, I receive news that of them 40-60 die daily.
Along with the uncertainty of how many Circassians were exiled, various figures show between seven hundred thousand to one million were banished from their lands. The famous historian Kemal Karpat indicates that the number of Circassians exiled from 1859 to 1879 were around 2 million, and the number of those who reached the Ottoman State were around 1.5 million.
The Circassians who reached the Ottoman ports in a secure state were placed in camps within Ottoman territory, such as Anatolia, Thrace, the Balkans, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. They continue to live in these regions today with a firm sense of attachment and longing to return to their homeland.
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