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On May 18, 1944 men from Russia’s NKVD, the Soviet secret police, began deporting Crimean Tatars from their homeland. According to official data, 183,155 people were sent into exile. Soviet authorities gave little time for people to gather their belongings. Thousands were herded onto train cars like cattle. Many elderly who could not walk or stand were shot on the spot. The majority of Crimean Tatars were sent into Uzbekistan, smaller groups were deported to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Russia. An estimated 46% of Crimean Tatars died during the deportation, either from starvation during the journey or in the first few months of exile.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the Tatars after accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis. Soviet authorities issued an order stating that a number of Crimean Tatars defected from the Red Army and fought against Soviet partisans. However, official documents show a number of Crimean Tatars who collaborated with the Nazi forces were actually evacuated to Germany weeks before the deportation started.
During the deportation Tatar war veterans were also sent away. Overall more than 250 officers were deported from their homeland; many of them received awards for courage from the Soviet authorities. Amet-Khan Sultan, a Tatar pilot, who was awarded the highest honor-Hero of the Soviet Union- was not deported, but banned from residing in Crimea
In June, Armenians, Greeks, and Bulgarians were deported from Crimea. Until 1948, over 80% of Crimea’s settlements, which had Tatar origin, were renamed.
A large number of those deported died of hunger and disease in the winter of 1944. They were not given amnesty by Beria in 1953. And until 1956 they had the status of special settlers without a right to leave their home, under criminal liability. Unlike other deported peoples who returned to their native land by the end of 1950, Crimean Tatars formally received such a right only in 1974. Only in 1989, some 36 years after Stalin’s death did Soviet authorities condemn the deportation of Crimean Tatars.
In 2013, a year before Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea Peninsula, more than 260,000 Crimean Tatars were living on the peninsula. Nearly 150, 000 Crimean Tatars live in Uzbekistan, half a million - in Turkey, and tens of thousands – in Bulgaria and Romania.