9.7 New persecution of the Meskhetians

No 9 : 31 August 1969

‘The people’s movement for the restoration of historical justice continues’ — those were the final words of the report in Issue 7 of the Chronicle [see 7.6] on the tragic fate of the small Meskhi people. Also continuing is the persecution of the Meskhi by the authorities.

The Meskhi are an ethnic mixture of Georgians, Azerbaidjanis, Armenians, Kurds and Turkmenians. What they have in common has been created by their past experience of Turkish influence and their Muslim religion, and the persecutions they have suffered during the last twenty-five years have strengthened their unity as a nation. The unique culture of the Meskhi has attracted the attention of scholars. On 23-24 May 1968, the Georgian Academy of Sciences held a scholarly seminar on the history and ethnography of Meskhetia. At that time the indigenous population of Meskhetia was trying in vain to obtain permission to return to its homeland. On 18 November 1968, B. P. Yakovlev, an official of the Central Committee of the  Party, received [once again] a delegation of Meskhi representatives in Moscow—the twenty-fourth of its kind. During his talk with them, Yakovlev granted the Meskhi permission to settle in various regions of Georgia, and fifteen to thirty families were even allowed to settle in Meskhetia. Although this permission was not confirmed in writing, the Meskhi people decided at their meetings to trust this indefinite form of permission. However, those who were prepared to get up and go have met with persistent opposition: they are refused references from the places of work releasing them, they are not removed from the military service register, and no transport is provided for them.

Eight families from the kolkhoz ‘Ady-Gyun’ in the Saatly district of Azerbaidjan left for Georgia, abandoning their homes and belongings because they had been refused transport. They were given work at a state farm in the Makharadze district of Georgia, but were very soon dismissed, and deported back to Saatly district by the police. The Saatly district is in the Megan steppe, and many Meskhi settled there after the decrees of 28 April 1956 and 31 October 1957, which relieved them of the regime for deported exiles. Refusing to allow them to return to Georgia, the authorities tried to enthuse them with the idea of cultivating the Megan steppe, an area with severe extremes of climate and with almost no water fit for drinking—the water there is either bitter and salty or turbid and rather muddy. But the Meskhi moved there from Central Asia simply to be a little nearer their homeland.

The Meskhi from the “21st Congress of the Party” collective farm, also in the Saatly district, managed to procure seven vehicles for their journey, but they were stopped by the police and forced to escape into Georgia on foot, leaving behind their belongings as trophies for the Saatly District police. There are many similar stories. Georgian railway stations and terminuses have become crowded with homeless people, deprived of their belongings and their work, with no roof over their heads, systematically driven out of their homeland the moment they set foot in it. Whole families with small children, old men and invalids are involved.

On 19 April 1969, the President of the Temporary Organizing Committee for the Return of the Meskhi to their Homeland was arrested in Saatly. He is Enver Odabashev (Khozrevanadze), an officer in the reserve, who took part in the Great Patriotic War. Odabashev was attending a teachers’ conference, during which he was called outside. Waiting for him on the street was the district Procurator Kadirov, with two unknown men. The Procurator then lured Odabashev to the police station under false pretences, and left him there. Odabashev was held there until one o’clock in the morning, with no explanations and no food, and then summoned for interrogation by an investigator of the district Procuracy, Farzaliyev. The interrogation lasted until 3.30 in the morning, thus violating the statute of Soviet law which states that interrogations may not be held at night, except in urgent cases which cannot be delayed. Then Odabashev was put into an unheated room, where he soon caught a chill, dressed as he was in light clothing. In protest at his arrest by force and deception, and at the arbitrariness of the whole affair, Odabashev began a hunger-strike.

After Odabashev had been detained, a search was carried out in his house. Local police inspector Ummatov, Procuracy investigator Farzaliyev and others made the search, during which they took away from an archive copies of documents addressed to the  Party, the government and the people.

When they found out about Odabashev’s arrest, on the morning of 21 April the Meskhi left their work and came from all the village settlements in the area to gather in Saatly at the district  Party committee building, where they demanded the immediate release of their teacher of the people. When they met with refusal, the hard-working Meskhi sent express telegrams to L. I. Brezhnev and V. Yu. Akhundov [first Party secretary of Azerbaijan]. The crowd did not disperse. Late in the evening of 21 April, the secretary of the district  Party committee, Babayev, who had been in Baku, returned in great haste, probably sent by the republican  Party organs. After lengthy deliberations with representatives of the Meskhi, the district committee secretary ordered Odabashev to be released.

Odabashev was brought in for interrogation, already prepared and photographed for deportation the next morning, and told: ‘Sign here, we’re releasing you.’ The district police chief Mirzoyev, and the Procurator Kadirov, who had finally appeared, began shouting and threatening and demanding that Odabashev should not travel anywhere or participate in any meetings. That night, after his spell in a cold cell, and hungry from his strike, Odabashev signed a blank sheet of paper which the investigator, Farzaliyev, handed to him, as well as the record of his interrogation. No one can tell how this blank sheet will be used.

When the old teacher was let out into the street, he was met by the crowd of Meskhi, who had not dispersed although it was now late at night. They shouted: ‘Freedom! Equality! Homeland or death! Our teacher lives!’

Reports began to circulate to the effect that Odabashev’s arrest was to have been the first of a series of arrests of other activists. For the moment, however, the people’s reaction has put a stop to the unlawful actions of the authorities. Still, the threat of arrest has, as before, come to hang over active participants in the movement for a return to the homeland.

The Georgian government suggested earlier to the Meskhi that they settle in other areas of Georgia, in particular in Kolkhida [i.e. Colchis, west Georgia]. By June 1969, 505 Meskhi families had arrived in Georgia. The Georgian population welcomed them as brothers, and helped them settle in. But on 7 June there was a round-up of Meskhi who had already arrived and found work, as a result of which they were sent off by train in various different directions. The fate of many of the victims of this round-up, or their whereabouts, are not known.