Thousands of Circassians rallied Saturday in Istanbul’s central Beşiktaş district to mark the anniversary of the deportation by Czarist Russia of around 1.5 million of their ancestors from their homelands in 1864.
Members of the group carried banners criticizing the deportations, which Circassians claim resulted in the deaths of at least one-third of the people affected, and called for the recognition of the deportation and deaths as the “Circassian genocide.”
The protest was the second time Circassians have staged a rally in Istanbul recently, following a march held April 17 to demand broadcasting and education rights in their native language.
“The world has no idea about the tragedy the Circassians suffered 147 years ago,” Cihan Candemir, the head of the Caucasus Associations Federation, or KAFFED, said during the rally. “Millions of Circassians were killed during the wars in the 19th century, and the deportation of 1.5 million Circassians from their homelands started May 21, 1864,” he said, adding that the Circassians living in Turkey still face problems.
“Our ancestors fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Anatolia in World War I and the War of Independence. As the citizens of this country, we serve as soldiers, we produce and we pay our taxes, but we are not treated as equal citizens,” he said.
Recep Genel, a Turkish writer of Circassian origin, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Sunday that Turkey considers the Circassians to be “Caucasus Turks.”
“Even the names of the associations start with Caucasus; we do not have the legal right to use ‘Circassian’ in these names,” said Genel. “When we demand our rights, some say, ‘The Kurds have been trying it, is it now your turn?’ But what we demand is fundamental human rights.”
According to Genel, the Circassian groups in Turkey have agreed on two basic demands: radio and television broadcasts in Circassian and education in their mother tongue. He added that more rallies and other actions would follow until these rights are granted.
The writer also said what happened in 1864 should be recognized as genocide.
“The Circassian genocide is much different than the Armenian genocide,” said Genel. “We have all the documentation to prove who were put on the ships, and how many of them did not make it to land. Even Russia is aware of the situation; that is why it cannot deny the killings.”
Although actual Circassians constitute only one of the ethnic groups coming from the North Caucasus region in present-day Russia, all the peoples who originated from that area are generally referred to collectively as “Circassians” in Turkey. Many Circassians were forced to abandon their native homelands when Czarist Russia conquered the region in the 19th century. Most of those Circassians who fled were resettled in Ottoman Turkey.
Armenia claims up to 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed in 1915 under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey denies this, saying that any deaths were the result of civil strife that erupted when Armenians took up arms for independence in eastern Anatolia