Winter sports don’t command much of a following in a Middle East more familiar with sand than snow, but one of the region’s lesser-known minorities will be glued to its TV screens when the Olympics kick off this weekend.
The Circassian people were ruthlessly expunged from the Sochi area by the Russian czar’s armies in the 1860s, and the selection of the Black Sea city to host the Winter Games has aroused strong feelings in a diaspora mostly dotted across Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Israel.
Some Circassians feel these Olympics have been almost stage-managed to provoke maximum offense.
“This is like having the Olympics in Auschwitz,” tweeted one young Circassian activist.
The KrasnayaPolyana ski complex is purportedly built on the site of the Circassians’ legendary last battle, while the glitzy new Sochi seafront stands where the survivors of the Russians’ scorched-earth campaign sailed off into exile in the Ottoman Empire.
Most infuriatingly of all for a people fearful of being overlooked by history, it’s the Cossacks, who assumed a prominent role in hounding the Circassians out of their ancestral homeland, who are presiding over the Games’ ceremonial functions instead of the native inhabitants.
“We are the indigenous people, but we are not part of these Olympics in any shape or form,” said Tamara Barsik of the ‘No Sochi’ campaign, which has sought to raise awareness of Circassian grievances fromits base in suburban New Jersey.
The current trials of the community in the diaspora have only fuelled Circassian fury and energized those clamoring to return home.
Syrian Circassians have fled their adopted country en masse since the war started, and some now languish in refugee camps almost 150 years to the day since they were first made stateless. They’re not blind to the harsh symmetry of it all.
“I believe [the war] is even harder for Syrian Circassians [than other Syrians] because we were displaced before. We’ve lost our two homelands: the one we grew up and lived in and the original,” said Lina Shagouj, who fled to Turkey from Aleppo in late 2012 after soldiers killed and mutilated a young man in front of her small clothing business.
But even before the war, life for Syrian Circassians was something of a challenge.
The Ottomans settled many of the hardy Caucasus mountain people in the Golan Heights, and when war with Israel came in 1967, most Circassian villages were obliterated in the fighting, with the remnants evacuated to form a UN-patrolled demilitarized zone.
Circassians are all Sunni Muslim, but as a minority of a little over 100,000 people, some Syrian opposition Islamist groups have suspected them of siding with Assad’s government along with most Alawite Muslims, Christians and Druze.
There’s little evidence of Circassian support for either side, though a number of the community’s young men have been drafted into the army, and hundreds of Circassians are thought to be among the war’s 130,000 dead.
Several thousand Syrian Circassians have applied for Russian visas and residency, but Moscow is deeply wary of their intent to resettle the Sochi area and documents haven’t been forthcoming.
Cemal Ishak, who previously worked in human resources in Damascus before escaping to Istanbul when the violence intensified in early 2012, wouldn’t want to go anyway.
“What’s the difference between Assad’s regime and Putin’s regime?” he said. “We need some kind of liberal regime that respects all people. Besides, Putin is still controlling the land.”
Circassian activists claim Russia perpetrated a genocide against its people in 1864, and while many academics are slightly uncomfortable using the ‘G’ word, the personal correspondence of the Russian field commanders in Georgia’s archives tells the tale of systematic killing on a massive scale.
“The Circassians—like Chechens, Ingush, and Dagestanis—have a legitimate set of historical grievances that, unfortunately, very few Russians have begun to recognize,” said Charles King, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University.
Roughly 10 percent of the Circassian population, which is usually estimated at around seven million, resides in three semi-autonomous Russian republics, but in all of these Circassians are a small minority unable to exercise any power.
The abuse of Circassians who’ve remained in Russia continues to this day, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 40 Circassians were detained in a pre-Olympic crackdown on dissent, including about 30 arrested while flying ‘Sochi—The Land of Genocide’ banners in a North Caucasus city.
But Russian Circassians are probably still better off than their Middle Eastern kin, many of whom are reeling from the side-effects of Syria’s implosion.
Turkey is home to much the largest Circassian community in the world at around two million to five million people, but, as in Jordan, it’s struggling to contend with the massive influx of refugees, many of whom arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Families are quick to absorb distant cousins, and those with spare apartments are keen to surrender them to strangers, including Cemal Ishak, but there was no planning for the size of the Syrian exodus.
Until recently, however, it was Turkish Circassians who were reeling from state-sponsored persecution.
“We were not allowed to use our traditional names, because they’re not Turkic names and that didn’t fit with the Turkish idea. Not even [Circassian] first names were acceptable,” said Istanbul-native Sencer Shumaf, whose family was forced to change its name to Busun. It was a similar story in Syria: Lina Shagouj’s surname was replaced with Zakaria.
For much of the 20th century, schoolchildren were banned from learning their native Circassian language, and badly beaten if they disobeyed. Communities were spilt into smaller and smaller units, while signs in villages warned against speaking Circassian in public areas.
“They were meant to forget theirCircassian culture and just become Turks,” said Walter Richmond, an authority on the Caucasus region at Occidential College.
Jordanian Circassians were historically the best positioned in the region. They forged a strong bond with the Hashemite monarchy in its fledgling early days, and subsequently enjoyed decades of royal favor and patronage. As a measure of their loyalty, Circassians still form the King’s personal palace guard.
Nowadays, though, some Circassians feel their position is slipping, and with it the protection their status afforded them.
“We are happy, we like Jordan, but life is becoming more difficult for us here and people are always thinking to get back to the motherland,” said Emad Shubsagh, who like many Circassians works for the royal family, and who was expelled from Russia in 1993 after moving there to study.
Suspicion of Circassians is fired in part by their association with Israel.
5000 Circassians live in two villages in the north of the country near the Sea of Galilee, and their trusted status and the relatively unencumbered passage some of them enjoy when crossing the border raises eyebrows among many Jordanians.
It’s their appearance and traditions that really set them apart though.
SomeCircassians have very white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes and consequently stand out in mostly Arab Jordan. Many drink alcohol, mingle easily with members of the opposite sex and consume large quantities of highly calorific foods cooked to sustain Caucasus mountain herdsmen—including tea made with butter and seasoned with salt and pepper.
“This is all we have. We don’t have a country,” Emad said, as we watched a bevy of young Circassians perform a traditional dance, which is best described as a completely captivating balletic romp across a stage, in an auditorium steps away from the King’s office in the capital of Amman.
Circassians are desperately fearful of losing their traditions, and already many Circassian women wear hijabs, “which is something you never would have seen before,” said Merissa Khurma, who previously worked in the royal household and now organizes a football league in Zaatari refugee camp on the Syrian border.
This fear of excessive assimilation has persuaded much of the community to live in Circassian-only neighborhoods, which fuels anti-Circassian sentiment and breeds resentment of their seemingly insular traditions.
“But we have to do it this way or our culture will go away,” Emad said, gesturing at a row of shops catering to the community in Amman’s leafy Western outskirts. “Either this or we go back to Sochi and that is very difficult.”