Circassians return to Russia 150 years after Syrian flight
NATAI al-Sharkas’ great-grandfather killed his Russian commander and fled to the enemy’s ranks. He remains proud, as an ethnic Circassian, of his ancestor’s defiance.
Natives of what is now Russia’s Caucasus region, Circassians fiercely resisted the tsarist conquest that ended in the 1860s after decades of scorched-earth conflict, mass killings or expulsions that some consider amounted to genocide.
The carnage forced many – like Mr al-Sharkas’ forbears – to seek refuge in what today is Syria. Now civil war there is driving many back to their Russian homeland.
This spring, he joined hundreds of Circassians fleeing Syria for the remote Russian region of soaring peaks and lush forests. In the coming months, thousands more are expected to arrive in Kabardino-Balkariya, a Caucasus province with a population of less than 900,000, two-thirds of which is ethnic Circassian.
“We are planning to stay here for good,” Mr al-Sharkas, 35, said as he sat under fir trees at a Soviet-era resort hotel where many of the immigrants have sought shelter. “That’s the decision we made a long time ago and it’s been accelerated by the events in Syria.”
Circassians were widely dispersed in the Russian expulsions. An estimated two million live in Turkey, another 100,000 in Syria and other sizable populations are in Jordan and the US. But their sense of ethnic unity remains strong and the pull of their homeland compelling.
Mr al-Sharkas’s great-grandfather Koushoukou, his brother and two cousins were conscripted and sent to the Russian-Turkish war of the late 1870s. They had to fight Ottoman Turks – fellow Muslims whose sultans supported Circassian resistance and provided refuge. After killing his officer in Bulgaria, Koushoukou joined the Turks and ended his life in Damascus – then part of Ottoman Turkey.
Mr al-Sharkas used a network of family connections to find relatives in Kabardino-Balkariya. He is encouraging his Syrian relatives to follow him to the Caucasus, although now, because of the fighting, it hardly seems possible. “They are trapped there as it is almost impossible to even leave their neighbourhoods,” he said.
Assmat Yahya, a retired electrician from a Circassian village in the Syrian Golan Heights, also found relatives in the Caucasus and plans to stay in Russia with his wife. They left their seven-bedroom house in April after hearing that both rebel and Syrian forces were approaching their town. They now share a room in the hotel in Nalchik, the Kabardino-Balkariya capital.
“I’m here not because of the war, although it triggered the return,” the grey-haired 63-year-old said. “We want to live here with our relatives.”
But the newly arrived Syrian Circassians have run into bureaucratic hurdles in Russia.
Russia allows foreigners to stay for only three months without a residence permit. This forced Mr al-Sharkas and other Circassians to travel to Abkhazia, a breakaway Georgian province, to obtain entry stamps allowing them another three-months’ stay. Without permits, they face having to repeat this process again and again.
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