Tears of Balkar Mothers
March 8 is recognized the world over as International Women’s Day and is a national holiday in Russia. In a cruel and ironic twist of history, it is also the day when in 1944 the entire Balkar population of the North Caucasus were forcibly deported from their homeland. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin sent nearly 38,000 people in cattle cars to the frigid Central Asian steppe, fearing they were giving aid to Hitler’s fascists during World War II. Whether or not Nazi sympathizers existed among the Balkars is a much-disputed question. This act of violence against an entire people group lasted for 13 years, resulting in the deaths of thousands, and making an indelible imprint on the Balkar soul.
In 1989 the Soviet government declared the deportation illegal, and on March 5, 1994 – the 50th anniversary of the Balkar’s expulsion – Russian President Boris Yeltsin mourned the event, saying, “Today, on the sad day of the 50th anniversary of the forced relocation of the Balkars, I bow my head to the memory of those who died prematurely in exile, and express my sincere sympathy and condolences to their relatives and friends. As President of the Russian Federation, I apologize for the injustice done.”
The following interviews were conducted by Marziyat Baisieva, a guest writer for East of Elbrus who is Balkar and who is also a journalist for Garyanka. The four women interviewed lived through the deportation. Their stories – as told to Baisieva – were originally published in Nalchik, Russia on Women’s Day, 2015, to honor the mothers who fought for the lives of their families in those dark days between 1944 and 1957. The interviews are reprinted with permission from the author and have been translated from Russian and lightly adapted for a western audience.
Many believe that the Balkars were saved from complete extinction during the deportation by their mothers. Most of the young men were fighting for the Red Army in Europe at the time. It fell, therefore, to the mothers to fight for every child, working day and night. “We cried, but we didn’t give up, we didn’t give up,” one survivor said.
I want to believe that one day a monument will be built in the Balkar homeland to the mothers of Balkaria, who preserved their people, language and culture for the world. The heavy weight of repression was resisted by fragile female shoulders. Mothers went through the hell of humiliation, but they taught their children to live with dignity. Is that possible? It is. Motherly love transforms and changes the world. Here are four of their stories.
Let’s remember the good things,”
The 8th of March
My father went to the front in 1941 when I was only a year old. In 1944, on a holiday – March 8 – we were evicted from our homes. We were shipped to the Jalalabad region of Kyrgyzstan and lived on a Soviet collective farm named “The 8th of March.” My mother and grandmother often cried; and while I did not understand what was wrong, I always cried with them.
My mother was a teacher. She tried to get a job at a school there, but they told her to her face that the deportees would not teach. She instead maintained wood stoves, sewed, and washed floors to feed us. I remember my school shoes. My mother took two layers of fabric, put cotton wool between them, and sewed felt boots for me. We needed galoshes, but there was no money to buy them.
No, we weren’t treated like everyone else. Now many people say, “Let’s remember the good things,” but I think that the truth is above all and nothing should be embellished. I quickly learned Uzbek and Tatar and participated in school confidently, but the wife of the school director gave me only C’s.
After the fields were harvested, deportees were allowed to collect what had been left behind. One time my mother collected a whole bag of grain, but the foreman hit her with a whip and took the bag away. The next day, she went to the village board and waited for the foreman to leave the building. When he came out, she threw a rock at him. My mother was brought to the chairman of the board, and he asked what the problem was. She told the story. He took the whip from the foreman’s hand and gave it to my mother. “Hit him!,” he said. But my mother said, “I already threw a rock at him.” He repeated, “Hit him!” And she did.
All men are equal before God, and nations are equal. Those who violate this equality commit a grave sin. We, the generation of the repressed, feel this keenly.
My Father’s Boots
I had four siblings. Together with our parents, we were shipped to a collective farm in Kazakhstan. My father died on the train. We turned that desolate area into a paradise. But the first years were terrible. First of all, everyone thought that we would soon return home, so nothing was planted. This led to famine. Secondly, we were not accustomed to the summer heat of the Kazakh steppe. The elderly and children died en masse that first year.
To survive, my mother Ayak sold my father’s boots to the farm manager in exchange for a whole camel. We slaughtered the camel, sold the meat and bought grain. My mother made a storage compartment for the grain in our one-room, mud-brick hut that we shared with three other families. She put a mattress on top of this compartment, and the six of us slept there. The grain we got for my father’s boots was crucial for our survival in those early days.
The land was fertile. My mother planted watermelon near the arik, a type of Central Asian irrigation ditch. The watermelons grew so large we could only carry them home in wheelbarrows.
My mother often walked 25 kilometers to get food for us. I exchanged all my silver for food. She brought as much food as she could carry. Eventually life got better. Women built better homes for their children using adobe brick.
As adults, my brother and I returned to this collective farm where we had grown up. We visited the graveyard where many Balkars had been buried.
During our visit, one Soviet official said to my brother, “This is a strong state farm. Have you heard of it before?” My brother replied, “This farm was raised on the bones of 1,500 of my countrymen.”
It is amazing how much suffering befell our mother, and yet she remained cheerful until her death. Even in her old age, she wore only fashionable clothes and loved to sing. Even in unbearable conditions, she did not lose her zest for life. My mother is the most amazing woman I have ever seen.
A North Caucasus valley from which the Balkar people were deported in 1944.
Prayers for the State
I am of a princely family. We lived in Karachay, at the head of the Kuban River, very close to Mount Elbrus. Through deportation, our lives were destroyed by those who were nobody and wanted to be everything. They never became anything. My grandmother used to say that money and wealth do not define a person – the main things are conscience and honor. But these people still managed to destroy our destinies. My mother died when she was 24, when I was just starting to walk. She was working in a beet field in the Central Asian steppe when she was pregnant with me and passed out. The commandant beat her with a whip. Later, a break was found in her knee from the beating. In the year after I was born, the pain would appear and then subside, only to reappear. Eventually gangrene set in, and my mother died. I don’t remember her. All I have from my mother is a picture of her on the day of the funeral.
I was raised by my grandmother until she died. I was 11 years old. I was always amazed that each of her prayers ended with a request for the welfare of the state. For a long time, I could not understand how she could pray for a state that had deprived her of everything. After she passed away, I went to boarding school and was raised by that same state. As an adult, I remember my grandmother’s prayers. And like she once did,I also now pray for the good of our country and its people. I am also a patriot.
I remember my joy as the adults put me in the train car, and we went. It was March 8, 1944 – Relocation Day – and I, a child, didn’t understand what was happening. My mother, my little sister and I were shipped to Kyrgyzstan. When we arrived, I remember looking everywhere for my sister. I didn’t realize she died on the trip. My mother often fried corn and shared it with other children. I was proud that she was helping to care for others. It was only many years later that I realized that a hungry mother did this in honor of her daughter, my little sister. My mother died in Kazakhstan before we were returned to our homeland in 1957. I was sent to an orphanage.
I know by experience that the grief of forced migration is the grief of mothers. In the short happy time when my life was illuminated by my mom, we had a neighbor named Capra. She buried all four of her children. People were hungry and without strength, and there was no one to dig graves. When her last daughter died, she dug a grave with her hands as much as she could, but the grave was not deep enough. A few days later the girl’s body was dragged out by a dog.
All those who returned home from Asia were saved by their mothers. They deserve our deepest respect and eternal memory. I am an orphan but I never feel sorry for myself. I only cry for my mother. May other mothers never cry.
People were hungry and without strength, and there was no one to dig graves.
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