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A Crimean couple in Ukraine says they're reliving an 80-year-old story

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Most Ukrainian Muslims are part of an ethnic group, the Crimean Tatars. And they left their ancestral home in the southern peninsula of Crimea after Russia invaded and occupied it a decade ago. They say that displacement and the disruption to Ukrainian lives today echoes a forced deportation by Russians 80 years ago. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from Kyiv.

ELMIRA GALIMOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Elmira Galimova is a retired teacher who has already been uprooted twice by Russia's war on Ukraine. And as a Crimean Tatar, she understands displacement. In May 1944, the Soviets forced nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatars from their homes. Her father, Akim Abdiev, was among them.

E GALIMOVA: (Through interpreter) He was 16 when the deportation happened. The Soviets gave people 15 minutes to collect their belongings and leave. My father was in the forest gathering firewood. His entire family was deported while he was gone.

KAKISSIS: Abdiev returned to find his family's house ransacked. Soviet troops shoved him into a rail car already packed with other Crimean Tatars and exiled them to Central Asia.

E GALIMOVA: (Through interpreter) I still wonder how did he do it. How did he manage on that train without food or water for days?

KAKISSIS: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin falsely accused Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II.

E GALIMOVA: (Through interpreter) Our family always talked about how this was so unfair. My father said that when the Germans occupied Crimea, nearly all the Crimean Tatar men were fighting with the Soviet army.

KAKISSIS: Thousands of those deported died on the way. Galimova says her father was sent to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return to their homeland until the late 1980s, just before the Soviet Union disintegrated.

E GALIMOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Galimova says her father died just as he was moving back to Crimea in 1990.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMALA SONG, "1944")

KAKISSIS: Crimea became part of Ukraine as an autonomous region, and in 2016, Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest with this song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1944")

JAMALA: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: ...Called "1944" by Crimean Tatar singer Jamala.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1944")

JAMALA: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: Ukraine memorializes the deportation victims every year. Traditional music played on Friday as Tamila Tasheva, the Ukrainian president's special representative for Crimea, spoke about unpunished evil.

TAMILA TASHEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "It has a tendency to return," she says. "Since Russia or the Soviet Union did not face any consequences for their crimes, they are repeating them." She cites a recent example, Russia's systematic deportation of Ukrainian children from occupied areas since the full-scale invasion.

E GALIMOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Elmira Galimova realized her father's dream of living in their ancestral land. She and her husband Alfad raised their family in Crimea. They stayed even after Russia invaded and occupied Crimea in 2014, Alfad says they wanted to stop the Russians from confiscating their property.

ALFAD GALIMOVA: (Through interpreter) We kept thinking if someone challenges us, we must hold on until the very end.

KAKISSIS: But Russian authorities arrested and imprisoned those who challenged them. The couple fled to the Kyiv suburb of Irpin in 2020, and they were forced to flee again two years later during the full-scale invasion.

A GALIMOVA: (Through interpreter) Our soldiers stopped them just outside the town, so the Russians bombed it. My wife and I ran through the park to reach safety.

KAKISSIS: They sheltered for a few months in Western Ukraine but are now back in the Kyiv region near their son, a documentary filmmaker named Akim, after Elmira's father. After the 1944 deportations, her father could not find his parents for years. They died shortly after he was reunited with them.

E GALIMOVA: (Through interpreter) He never talked about it, but I remember that sometimes when I came into his room, he would be holding a portrait of his parents and crying.

KAKISSIS: She says, he never forgot what happened, and neither have the rest of us.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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