BY DAILY SABAH WITH AA
The exile of the Ahıska Turks is a humanitarian tragedy that deeply injured people, the Turkish ambassador said Sunday as a commemoration ceremony was held in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania for the 78th anniversary of the deportation of the community.
In the city of Lancaster, where the Ahıska Turks live, the ceremony was held at the Lancaster Diyanet Mosque, which was organized with the efforts of the community, Türkiye’s Ambassador to Washington Hasan Murat Mercan and New York Consul General Reyhan Özgür. Representatives of the associations of Ahıska Turks in the U.S. and local and foreign community members attended the ceremony.
Ambassador Mercan, in his speech, stated that the history of the Turks has always been full of great pain and tragedies, and said that the Ahıska Turks’ exile, which is one of them, deeply hurt people.
“We are here today to understand that pain and pass it on to future generations. In fact, my opinion is that this exile should be commemorated as a week in every place where the Ahıska people live, throughout the U.S., from Miami to Seattle, and it should be kept alive.”
Emphasizing that Ahıska people were exiled only because they were Turkish and Muslim, Mercan said that the love of homeland, unity and solidarity shown by the Ahıska people living in the U.S. is pleasing, and added: “Your commitment to your faith and culture here sets an example for other Turkish societies.”
Speaking at the ceremony, Consul General Reyhan Özgür wished mercy to those who lost their lives during the exile and expressed that the Ahıska Turks are sensitive not only to their own cause but also to Türkiye’s national issues.
Pointing out that Türkiye has always stood by the Ahıska Turks, Özgür said: “The Ahıska Turks are an inseparable part of the great Turkish nation. Your sorrow is our sorrow, your joy is our joy. It will always be so.”
Özgür shared the information that there are around 500,000 Ahıska Turks spread across nine different countries across the world, and pointed out that the existence of Meskhetian Turks living in the U.S. should be known by local authorities and awareness should be raised.
The President of the Lancaster Ahıska Turks Association Ahmed Sabriyev also gave examples from the difficult days of his childhood in exile.
The World Union of Ahıska Turks (DATUB) American Representative Shuhrat Temirov stated that despite the passing of 78 years, they still feel the pain of exile in their hearts.
Noting that they are making efforts to move the Ahıska Turkish society further in the U.S. and in the world, Temirov said, “We want the dark winters to end for our society and now spring to come.”
At the commemoration ceremony, the drama of the Ahıska Turks was revealed with a film screening and a photography exhibition, and then Turkish dishes were served to the participants.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine this year, Türkiye evacuated several groups of Ahıska Turks from the region in eastern Ukraine.
On Nov. 14, 1944, 100,000 Ahıska Turks were deported by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin from their ancestral lands in Georgia’s Meskheti region to distant parts of the Soviet Union, according to the World Ahıska Turks Association. Some of the expelled Ahıska Turks settled in Ukraine in 1989.
Today, approximately 20,000 people live in the Meskhetian region, though a very small number of the population are Turkish.
The majority of Ahıska Turks still live where they were exiled or in the countries they later migrated to.
According to reports from international organizations and other sources, 550,000-600,000 Ahıska Turks currently live far from their homeland.
Some have made their way to Türkiye while others are in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and the United States.
Georgia has failed on its part to take concrete steps to resolve the issue despite a law it enacted in 2007 on the return of Ahıska Turks.
Despite harsh conditions, they preserved their identity over the decades and passed on their cultural heritage to future generations.
Due to the conflict that broke out between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army in eastern Ukraine in 2014, most Ahıska Turks were allowed to move to Türkiye and settled in the eastern Erzincan province on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s initiative.
A new documentary on the exile and repatriation of Ahıska Turks, also known as Meskhetian Turks, who have spent their lives without a state for more than half a century, was also prepared by the Turkish Presidency’s Directorate of Communications earlier this year.
According to a statement made by the directorate, the difficult days of Ahıska Turks, who were exiled by Soviet dictator Stalin in 1944 and condemned to live stateless because of their beliefs and ethnic origins, were told in the documentary “120 Minutes.”
The production details how Stalin, who gained the upper hand toward the end of World War II, gave the Ahıska Turks on the Georgian border only two hours to pack their belongings and leave the country to prevent possible moves from the Turks and to reduce the Turkic ethnic density.
The documentary goes on to explain how the community, which has been living away from its homeland for more than 70 years, returns to its homeland in 120 minutes through the initiatives of the Republic of Türkiye.
In the film, which was shot in the Erzincan and Bitlis provinces, Ahıska Turks, who are the last surviving witnesses of the exile living in Türkiye, are interviewed.
Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun stated that the oppression faced by the Ahıska Turks who were exiled was revealed through the documentary and noted that the film describes how the Türkiye and President Erdoğan protected them.
Pointing out that the persecution inflicted on Ahıska Turks is ignored by many countries in the world, Altun said: “The homesickness of our Ahıska Turk brothers, who were brought to our country by the order of President Erdoğan, has ended. The Republic of Türkiye has always stood by the oppressed, wherever they may be in the world, and has always extended and continues to extend a helping hand to its Turkish and Muslim brothers.”