When the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, Russia next month, there will likely be an opening ceremony celebrating Russian history. One horrific event probably won’t make it into the program.
In the mid-1800s, nearly 150 years ago to the day, Czar Alexander II ordered the expulsion of the native Circassian people from the Black Sea region of Russia. The expulsion forced millions of Circassians onto overcrowded, undersupplied ships across the Black Sea, where somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million Circassians died. It has been called the Circassian diaspora, but many Circassians have called it a genocide, and it’s been referred to as the “forgotten genocide.”
Since Sochi was announced as the 2014 Olympic host city in 2007, Circassians have protested the upcoming games, on the grounds that the genocide has received no recognition from the Russian government and the Olympic stadiums are being built on their ancestors’ graves. One hill being used for skiing and snowboarding events is called “Red Hill,” because Russian troops massacred a group of Circassians on it.
Recently, a delegation of Circassians traveled to their ancestral home to visit historic sites ahead of the games.
The arrival of the delegation began with a welcome ceremony for the many Circassians travelling from all over the world. Because of the diaspora, many traveled from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Israel, Canada, Germany, and the U.S.
Native to the North Caucaus region, Circassians were regarded, throughout their history, as fierce warriors. Here, two members of the Circassian delegation wear traditional clothes.
Circassians were known to be fiercely independent people. Their native land, whose capital was Sochi, was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. When the Empire ceded the land to Russia in 1829, the Circassians refused to accept their new rulers. This memorial stone marks a settlement destroyed by Russia in the ensuing conflict.
The delegation quickly moved to the village of Tkhagapsh, one of the few remaining settlements in the area consisting of primarily ethnic Circassians.
Ais Tlyf says that his ancestors settled in Tkhagapsh in 1872 with other Circassian families, after the war with Russia ended and the Russian military left.
Former Soviet army correspondent and writer Madin Chachukh is a Circassian living in Tkhagapsh.
Chachukh worries that the Circassian people and the tale of their horrific destruction will be forgotten, even more so than it is today. “The biggest threat we face today, is the loss of our language and subsequently our culture,” Chachukh told Reuters. “There are only very few of us left, too few.”
Circassians have a very distinct and separate culture from Russia. Here, children rehearse for a local folklore dance performance for the delegation.
Circassians from the delegation watch a traditional dance performance in Bolshoy Kichmay, near Sochi.
Anzaur Alyal, a Circassian villager, is not so sure that the Circassians will be forgotten in the Olympic ceremonies. “Some say, during the opening ceremony of the Olympics there will be Circassians in their traditional dresses walking in the first row …” Alyal told Reuters. “This would of course be a very good thing. At the same time, I would like people to understand that Circassians are more than just folklore dance and costumes.”
The Circassian people have long been known for honey making. Here, Muzarbek Teshu attends to his beehives in Tkhagapsh.
Ashirkhan Chachukh, 82, is one of the few Circassians not concerning herself with the coming Olympics. “The Olympic Games are far away, they don’t concern me,” Chachukh told Reuters. “The only thing I wish is that they pass peacefully. God forbid, only no war! Then, everything is good.”
In response to Sochi’s selection as Olympic host, a group from the Circassian diaspora reportedly asked the International Olympic Committee: “What if one of the candidates to host the Olympic Games had been Auschwitz-Birkenau?” They had no response.
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