SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Our next story takes us back to the Second World War and an atrocity committed on the orders of Joseph Stalin. In 1944, the entire population of Crimean Tatars was rounded up from the Crimean Peninsula and deported to the deserts of Central Asia.

That was almost 200,000 people. And within the first year, almost half of them died. Those remaining Tatars are still trying to make their way back home to the peninsula. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The Crimean Peninsula is an area about the size of Massachusetts, jutting into the Black Sea. It's almost an island, only thinly connected to the mainland. Over the centuries, it's been part of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and now Ukraine. But before that it belonged to the Crimean Tatars, descendents of the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

FLINTOFF: This is Chistopolye, a farming village on the eastern end of the Crimea. It has a few rows of houses and shops, and a new two-story mosque.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

FLINTOFF: The sound of Muslim prayer wasn't heard in Crimea in the decades after the Second World War because the Muslim Tatars were gone. Stalin had accused the Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis, who occupied the peninsula for nearly three years. He ordered them deported despite the fact that tens of thousands of Crimean Tatar men were serving in the Soviet army fighting the Germans.

Mullah Ziyatdin of the Chistapolye mosque is 82 now. He was 12 in May of 1944, the night secret police troops seized the people of his village, packed them into freight cars and sent them on a weeks-long journey.

MULLAH ZIYATDIN: (Through translator) When we get to a station, they would dump the bodies of people who had died along the way.

FLINTOFF: The destination was Uzbekistan in Central Asia.

ZIYATDIN: (Through translator) When we got there, there wasn't enough food. Many people died of heat, cold, hunger, disease. Of 20 families with us, only four survived.

FLINTOFF: Najiye Batalova stands by the Crimean shore near her home in the Black Sea port of Kerch. She was 6 when the deportation began and she's since become a journalist and historian of that event.

NAJIYE BATALOVA: (Speaking in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: In all, she says, about 46 percent of the exiles died from the harsh conditions. Many of the survivors suffered what amounted to slave labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. It wasn't until after Stalin's death in 1953 that the Soviet government withdrew the charge of treason against the Tatar people, freeing them from the labor camps.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that the Crimean Tatars were finally able to start coming home. Najiye Batalova leads the way through a Crimean Tatar settlement on the outskirts of Kerch.

BATALOVA: (Speaking in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Residents say the city gave them land on which to build houses, but in more than 20 years has never provided basic services, such as roads or running water. Still, an estimated 250,000 Tatars have now returned to Crimea and they're organizing to claim what they see as their rights.

At the World Congress of Crimean Tatars in their regional capitol, Simferopol, hundreds of delegates gathered to talk about a political agenda.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: It's indicative of the Tatars' new status that the session begins with the playing of the Ukrainian national anthem, followed by the Tatar anthem. Asan Egizov says the Tatars' loyalty is firmly with Ukraine, of which Crimea is now a part. But they want changes on the local level. He says the main problem is that the Ukrainian government considers the Tatars to be a national minority.

ASAN EGIZOV: But we are not a national minority. We are indigenous people from here. We are the owner of Crimean Peninsula.

FLINTOFF: The idea that Tatars are the indigenous people of Crimea and the real owners of the land is common among young Tatar politicians like Egizov, who's 26 and was a child when his parents returned. He wants nothing less than a full restoration of Tatar culture in Crimea, including use of Tatar as the language of official business.

Given that Tatars only make up about 15 percent of a population that's overwhelmingly composed of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, that could take a long time, but Egizov points out that the Tatars have a significantly higher birth rate than that of most other Ukrainians and says that in another generation they could have both demographic and political clout. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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