Circassians in North Jersey are headed for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver with a message to the world: If you let the 2014 games go on as planned in Russia, you’ll be skiing on the graves of our oppressed ancestors.
Members of the Circassian Cultural Institute in Totowa are leading a campaign with their sister organizations worldwide to stop the 2014 winter Olympics from being held in Sochi, Russia, the former capitol of their historic homeland.
They say Russia’s armies brutally drove their ancestors out of the area between the Black Sea and Caucasus mountains nearly 150 years ago. Since then, it’s been life in exile for descendants of the survivors, and they don’t want to see worldwide celebration and games in the same location.
On Wednesday, 10 members of the institute plan to leave for the Vancouver Olympics to call attention to their history. They are going to join members of a Circassian community from California in protest at Russian Olympic event venues while the world has its eyes turned on the games.
“Our work for the past four or five years has been all about this,’’ said Iyad Youghar of Hackensack. “This is by any measure the most significant activity we are trying to put together to go to the Olympics and tell people: Where you are going to go four years later is a place where actually our fathers and mothers died.’’
Local Circassians are concentrated mostly in the Passaic County communities of Wayne, Haledon, Prospect Park and Hawthorne. They represent the largest Circassian cluster in the United States, with about 5,000 people. Since the Circassians were forced into exile in 1864, they have been living spread throughout the world — in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, parts of Europe, the United States and Israel.
The Russian government disputes the Circassians’ account of their history. Yevgeniy Khorishko, press secretary for the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., issued a statement Monday saying, “There was no genocide of the Circassians. All allegations in this context have no basis.”
Youghar said that the Russians assert there was no genocide because the word didn’t exist when the Circassians’ ancestors were killed. But he said Russian historians have written about and documented the events that took place generations ago.
“The facts are as it stands now that although a population of almost three million Circassians were in the Caucasus at one point, now 90 percent of them are in Diaspora and a very small remnant remain in the Caucasus,’’ Youghar said.
Area Circassians say the Russians fought for 200 years trying to take over the fertile region their ancestors occupied in the northwest Caucasus Mountains — sandwiched between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. During a two-year period in the 1860s, the Russians drove the Circassians from their homeland, Youghar said. They forced them to leave their villages and pushed them toward the Black Sea coastline in and around Sochi. Circassians waited until ships came to transport them to locations throughout the Ottoman Empire. Many died while waiting to leave or on the journey.
In 1864 a group of Circassians tried to return home but were defeated in a bloody battle on a mountain that became know as “Red Hill.’’
“That is where the ski lifts and ski events will be held, at the Red Hill,’’ said Zack Barsik, president of the local Circassian Institute. “The Olympic events of skiing and snowboarding will be held on that same mountain.’’
He said Circassians are asking for the Olympics to be moved to another location in Russia or elsewhere around the globe.
Barsik compared holding the Olympics in Sochi to holding the games in Darfur or on the grounds of Auschwitz.
“I believe the world would find it absurd to hold Olympic games in those locations,’’ Barsik said.
The selection of Sochi for the 2014 Olympics have given the Circassians a platform that many feel is their last chance to reclaim their rights and ties to their homeland. Loyola University Professor Michael Khodarkovsky, who specializes in history of the Russian Empire, said the Circassians have a legitimate grievance because the Russians don’t speak about or acknowledge their history. But he said fighting for the right of return is more complicated and politically charged.
“With any issue of return the area has been settled now by people for many generations,’’ Khodarkovsky said. “When you return, you have to displace someone else.’’
But that doesn’t make local Circassians any less passionate. They say they are fighting to preserve their culture from assimilation while living in exile. And they fear if the Sochi Olympics go forward, Russia will have legitimized its claim on the region, leaving the Circassians forgotten.
“If the Olympics happen and the world still doesn’t know the story of the Circassians, it is really going to be a sad day for us,’’ said Tamara Barsik, 27, of Haledon. “The mockery of bring the Olympic games to an area where so many people suffered and died; no other group in the world would accept something like that.’’
Janty Basha, 28, Hawthorne, who will be joining Barsik and her cousin Zack Barsik on the trip to Vancouver this week, also fears that the campaign against the Sochi Olympics represents the Circassians last chance to reclaim their past.
If the Olympics go forward, “it erases our people, it erases the crime that has been done,’’ Basha said, “because the whole world is saying ‘OK’ to Russia, the whole world is saying ‘nothing happened here and we are going to come here and celebrate peace between the nations.’ ’’