Prague, 4 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Klara Baratashvili was not yet born when World War II ended. But this woman in her fifties still vividly remembers what her father, Latif Shah, used to tell his four children about what happened to him and his people on the night of 15 November 1944.
"At 4 a.m., people were aroused from sleep and ordered out in the fields without a single word of explanation," Baratashvili relates. "They remained all night on the threshing floor. Later on, several Stuedebaker trucks drove in and everyone was ordered to board them. People were authorized to take only the bare minimum with them. Before leaving the house my father had grabbed a few books and his personal notes. He had such faith in communism -- he was almost a fanatic -- that he had taken [Josef] Stalin's complete works with him. That was what he valued most."
Yet it was the Soviet leader who, a few weeks earlier, had sealed Latif Shah Baratashvili's fate by ordering the deportation to Uzbekistan of Georgia's entire Meskhetian population.
Except for a brief visit made in 1956, three years after Stalin's death, Latif Shah never saw his native Georgia again. He died in Soviet Azerbaijan in 1984.
An estimated 1.5 million people were sent into forced exile after Soviet troops reasserted control over the areas of the Black and Caspian seas beginning in 1943.
Stalin's reasons for deporting more than 100,000 Meskhetians remain unclear. Some historians have suggested he wanted to cleanse southern Georgia of its Muslim elements in anticipation of war with neighboring Turkey. Others say the Soviet leader suspected the Meskhetians -- and other ethnic groups he ordered deported in the preceding months-- of not being subservient enough.
Officially, the Soviet historiography justified the war deportations by alleging the exiled peoples collaborated with the enemy during the German occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and the Caucasus in 1941-42.
An estimated 1.5 million people were sent into forced exile after Soviet troops reasserted control over the areas of the Black and Caspian seas beginning in 1943. In lighting-strike operations performed by Stalin's NKVD secret police, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingush, Karachais, Kalmyks, Balkars, Bulgarians, Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Hemshin, Meskhetians, and others were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.
Germans, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and Finns from western and central Soviet regions were deported at the beginning of the war with Nazi Germany.
Baratashvili remembers her father's account of his first months of exile in Uzbekistan.
"The [1944-45] winter was particularly harsh," Baratashvili says. "Many people died of hunger and cold. Since there were no men to sustain these people, many newborn children died because their mothers did not have milk."
Because nearly all the Soviet male population was serving in the army, the majority of the deportees consisted of women, children, and the elderly. The men were arrested and sent into exile after the demobilization.
Mustafa Cemilev chairs the Qirimtatar Millyi Meclisi, or Crimean Tatar National Parliament. This veteran dissident, who was deported as a child and spent 15 years in Soviet jails for defending the cause of his people, tells RFE/RL that nearly one-half of the Crimean Tatars who were deported in 1944 died, either during their resettlement or in their first two years of exile.
"Some 380,000 Crimean Tatars were deported," Cemilev says. "That does not include some 50,000 [soldiers] who were sent into exile after they returned from the front. Many had died at the front and all those who had survived were deported. But if we take this figure of 380,000 as a basis, we can say that between 150,000 and 170,000 [Crimean Tatars] died [during the first two years of exile]."
Following the 1956 de-Stalinization, most deported peoples were authorized to return to their home regions, only to find out that their property had been given to representatives of other ethnic groups sent to resettle the depopulated areas.
The Soviet leadership had also taken advantage of the massive deportations to redefine the administrative borders of the entire Northern Caucasus region. Although these changes were partially corrected after Stalin's death, they paved the way for the ethnic unrest that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union, such at the brief war that pitted Ingush against Ossetians in 1992.
Among those peoples who suffered lasting discrimination long after Stalin's death were the Crimean Tatars and the Meskhetians.
The Meskhetians, who endured yet another exile after the ethnic clashes that rocked Uzbekistan in the late 1980s, are still not allowed to collectively return to Georgia and remain scattered across seven former Soviet republics. Only a few hundred individuals, such as Baratashvili, have returned so far.
Although they were exonerated of all alleged crimes in 1967, the Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return home massively until 1989 -- only to face a number of new hurdles.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine authorized former collective farm workers to buy land. But this privilege was denied Crimean Tatars who had previously worked in collective farms in Central Asia.
Cemilev says access to land is the biggest problem facing the returnees.
"Although 75 percent of Crimean Tatars leave in rural areas, they have approximately half as much land as the Russian-speaking population," Cemilev says. "This problem is particularly acute in the south as a result of the attempts made by the Soviet regime to bar the Crimean Tatars from returning to these prestigious areas. Before the 1944 deportations, the Crimean Tatars accounted for 70 percent of the population in these regions. Now, they account for less than 1 percent. The lands are being distributed or sold at cut-prices to oligarchs who live either in Kyiv or in Russia. This generates tensions and permanent conflicts."
Some 150,000 Crimean Tatars still live in Central Asia, primarily in Uzbekistan. Lack of money, administrative harassment on the part of Uzbek authorities, and Kyiv's reluctance to issue them Ukrainian passports make it difficult for Crimean Tatars to return home.
In Ukraine itself, the life of Crimean Tatars has seen no real improvement in recent years.
Ukrainian lawmakers voted in 2004 to restore social benefits for Crimean Tatars. But former President Leonid Kuchma vetoed the bill.
Cemilev, who holds a seat in Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada, the national parliament, says President Viktor Yushchenko has vowed to reconsider his predecessor's ban and increase the representation of Crimean Tatars in local self-governments. But these promises have had no effect so far.
In Georgia, the leaders that succeeded former President Eduard Shevardnadze are under strong pressure from the Council of Europe to accelerate steps aimed at paving the way for the Meskhetians' repatriation. But despite repeated pledges, the new government remains as noncommittal on this issue as its predecessor.
Arguing that the presence of an estimated 300,000 displaced persons from the separatist republic of Abkhazia make it difficult for Tbilisi to accept any newcomers, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said in April that the Meskhetian issue can be settled only "step by step."