Saturday, October 20, 2012

PHOTODOCUMENTARY: The Unpromised Land. By Temo Bardzimashvili

In 2009, I worked on a short story about a few Meskhetian families. After more than 60 years of exile, they had returned to Abastumani, Georgia - the same village their forefathers were deported from to Central Asia. It was then that my interest grew in this group of people, especially in their traditions and their love for soil.

In 2011, I was commissioned by the European Centre for Minority Issues, Caucasus to document the Meskhetian communities in four different countries - Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Kyrgyzstan. The project was exhibited in Georgia. The exhibition toured Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Akhaltsikhe, Batumi, Gori, and Telavi.

The present book is a compilation of the documentary material that I have gathered from 2009 to 2011. Through the images, I have strived to present a realistic image of their lives and the way the deportation has affected them.

Working on this project has given me the opportunity to learn more about this group of people, and I hope that the present book can do the same for its readers.

Temo Bardzimashvili 

Temo Bardzimashvili is a native of Tbilisi, Georgia. After finishing his graduate school in the technical fields, he became interested in photojournalism and graduated cum laude from the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management. Temo Bardzimashvili works mostly on long-term documentary projects focused on ethnographic, social, and travel photography. His work has been published in a number of international publications, and exhibited both in Georgia and internationally.

Introduction: Jana Sommerlund
Accompanying text: Negin Angoshtari
Book concept: Negin Angoshtari and Temo Bardzimashvili
Photos: Temo Bardzimashvili
Archive photos: From the private collections of Rafik Efendiev, Bahadır Metan Enveroğlu, Emil Gamidov, Sarvar Lazishvili (Safarov), Sona Ulfanova, and Gyunesh Tursunova.
Design: Tornike Lordkipanidze
Cover photo: A Meskhetian house in Medrese, Azerbaijan.

© All photos copyrights belong to Temo Bardzimashvili except for pages 126 through 135.

© Book copyrights belong to ECMI, Caucasus except for pages 126 through 135.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission from the copyright holders.

ISBN 978-9941-0-4856-2
Published by
© 2012 European Centre for Minority Issues – Caucasus

Printed in Georgia by Cezanne



As part of the massive repressions of the Soviet regime, a large group of people were deported from southern Georgia to Central Asia. They were mostly the inhabitants of Meskheti - a historical region now split between Georgia and Turkey, who throughout their history were subjected to conflicting interests and influences from the Ottoman and Russian Empires.

During the Second World War, the Soviet hostility towards the Meskhetians, and other Muslim groups in Georgia intensified. In November 1944, the Muslim population of Meskheti and Ajara region– including Karapapakhs, Kurds, Turks, Roms, Hemshins, and the Meskhetian Turks were forcefully gathered at the train stations and transported in cargo carriages to three Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

According to the official figures, a total of 94,955 people were deported1. The journey to Central Asia lasted between 18 and 22 days. Due to the harsh transportation conditions, many of the deportees, including children and elders became ill or died. After arriving in Central Asia, the deportees were distributed between different collective farms (kolkhozs) and factories. They were provided with housing, but were prohibited from leaving their assigned districts. It is estimated that 3,000 people died during the transportation, and thousands more perished in the first years of exile due to the rough climate and the harsh living conditions 2.

Meskhetians are Sunni Muslims, and speak the Eastern Anatolian dialect of Turkish language. The Soviet rulers perceived them to be the Turkish fifth column, and they were accused of treason, espionage, smuggling, and other crimes. The deportation has made a big influence on how the Meskhetians define their identity and their lives in exile.

After Josef Stalin died, the restrictions against the Meskhetians were partially lifted. From 1956 onwards, they were allowed to resettle in any Soviet Republic except for Georgia. Many Meskhetians moved to Azerbaijan and Russia in order to be closer to their homeland, hoping one day to return to Georgia.

In 1969, a small group of Meskhetians managed to return, and to settle in Georgia’s western regions of Guria and Samtredia. These early returnees still live in the country, and feel fully integrated into the Georgian society. Over 40 families have returned afterwards and they now reside in their historical homeland in Samtskhe-Javakheti.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, and upon becoming a member of the Council of Europe in 1999, Georgia has committed itself to repatriate the deported population. In 2007, the Georgian Parliament adopted the law “On Repatriation of Persons Forcefully Sent into Exile from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia by the Former USSR in the 40’s of the 20th Century”. This created a legal framework for the Meskhetian repatriation. By the end of 2010 – the official deadline for submission of applications – the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation, and Refugees has received 5,841 applications covering about 9,000 individuals. By the time of this publication about 800 Meskhetian applicants were granted repatriate status.

The majority of the Meskhetians today live in eight countries of the world: Turkey, Azerbaijan Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the United States of America.

Meskhetians prefer to settle compactly in family groups. This pattern of social organization represents an essential strategy to survive adversities that this group has faced during and after their deportation. In many cases, the Meskhetian settlements in the other countries resemble the composition and the structure of the villages and the communities they were deported from.

As Muslims, the majority of Meskhetians adhere to the Hanafi rite of Sunni Islam. They practice religious traditions by praying, fasting, and celebrating the main religious holidays, such as Kurban Bayram, and Ramazan Bayram. They also observe the ancient feast of Nowruz. Furthermore, the Meskhetians have preserved and practiced some of the old Christian traditions – such as placing open scissors resembling a cross on the chest of a deceased, or a bride drawing a cross with honey on her husband’s door.

The eastern Anatolian dialect of Turkish is the spoken language between the Meskhetians, regardless of where they live today. Due to the constant migration and re-settlement in several countries, many Meskhetians know several languages such as Russian, Azeri, Turkish, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek depending on their countries of residence. Georgian is spoken only among those who have returned and settled in Georgia.

The Meskhetian society is a rather traditional society with a clear division of gender roles. Meskhetian families are led by the eldest men, who are the heads of the families, and are traditionally treated with a profound respect from the younger members of their kin. Women have secondary status and are usually subordinated to their husbands, fathers or brothers. The father of the family is considered to be the breadwinner, while the mother is perceived to be the hearth keeper. This gender division plays an important role in the lives of many Meskhetians, especially the women who are required to seek permission from their fathers and husbands in choosing their education or work.

Meskhetians observe the births, the marriages, and the funerals with a mixture of Muslim rituals and customs specific to places of their residence. Thus, upon their integration in the local communities, many customs are adopted from Turkish, Russian, Azeri or Georgian traditions.

The author of this book focuses on the important details of the Meskhetian life. Rituals, customs, family, gender roles, work, leisure, and finally their longing for the historical homeland are depicted through documentary style of photography.

The majority of the photos presented here have been exhibited in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, and in the regional cities of Gori, Akhaltsikhe, Kutaisi, Batumi, and Telavi. The exhibitions were organized by the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI) within the framework of the EU-funded programme “Supporting the Repatriation of Persons Deported from Georgia in the 1940s and their descendants” implemented by the European Centre for Minority Issues Caucasus and Action Against Hunger, International. I hope this book will enhance the awareness on deportations and plights of the deported population among a broader public in Georgia and beyond.

Jana Sommerlund
ECMI Caucasus International Project Manager
Tbilisi, September 2012

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