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Home » The War-Torn History of Crimea—My Home: Emine Dzhaparova (Transcript)

The War-Torn History of Crimea—My Home: Emine Dzhaparova (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Emine Dzhaparova’s talk titled “The War-Torn History of Crimea—My Home” at TEDxAthens conference.

Emine Dzhaparova, a 40-year-old Ukrainian diplomat and mother of two, delivers a deeply personal and moving speech titled “The War-Torn History of Crimea—My Home.” She shares her story as an ethnic Crimean Tatar, discussing the centuries-long oppression and colonization of her people, and the ongoing struggle of Ukraine to maintain its independence amid the bloodiest war in modern European history.

Emine narrates her family’s painful history, including the forced deportation of Crimean Tatars by Stalin in 1944, and her own displacement following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Despite her high-ranking official status, she chooses to speak from the heart, sharing the impact of war on her family, particularly the emotional toll on her daughters.

Her speech also highlights the resilience of the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar peoples, their fight for freedom, and the importance of preserving their homeland’s history and culture. Emine’s commitment to her country and her people’s cause is evident as she talks about her involvement in the International Crimea Platform, aiming to diplomatically reclaim Crimea. Her poignant narrative underscores the universal longing for home and the devastating effects of political conflicts on individual lives and national identities.

Listen to the audio version here:

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, everyone. I’m so happy to be here, and thank you for your applause; it really supports me. My name is Emine Dzhaparova. I’m 40 years old. I’m a Ukrainian diplomat, an ethnic Ukrainian Tatar, and a mother of two beautiful daughters. And I have a confession to make.

When I was preparing for my speech, I felt very puzzled. What story should I tell you? Either to speak about my Crimean Tatar people, an under-discovered nation that went through oppressions and colonization for centuries, an indigenous people of Crimea that was born out of a mixture of all tribes and peoples ever inhabited the peninsula, or to speak about my hero country, Ukraine, the country that manifested three revolutions within three decades of its independence, Ukraine that is now going through the bloodiest war in Europe in order to preserve its freedom, its independence, and its right to live.

And as a high-ranking diplomat, I usually speak up on behalf of my country with my official statements and rather formal texts, and I tried many times and failed to prepare my speech as an official.

But then I received a phone call from my seven-year-old daughter, Alem. She together with my mother, my elder daughter, as well as many other millions of Ukrainian women and children left the country after the full-fledged invasion. And within this whole period of time, she never allowed herself to show any emotion, any weakness. She never complained.

Both of my daughters have actually been disciplined by war like soldiers, never putting their emotion above my service to the country at war.

But this time, she whispered, not even said, she said, “Mommy, I cannot handle it anymore. I want to come back home.” And I cried. I realized how mature both of my babies became within 15 months of this terrible war without a mother in their lives. And today, I’m here not as an official, but as a human being to share my pain, my trauma, to reveal my personal experience, my reflections about the war.

And this is the only way how I want to tell you my story, a story of a Crimean Tatar child who was born in exile apart from native Crimea, a story of an adult who had to leave the Crimean Peninsula again because of its occupation in 2014 and now struggles to get it back, a story of finding home, a story of losing home, a story of collective trauma that is in the DNA of every single Crimean Tatar because we’ve been constantly deprived the right to live in our homeland. And all this suffering for my people started centuries ago, actually, when Crimea was for the first time annexed in 1783 by the Russian Empire.

Back then, 95% of the local population were Crimean Tatars. And within a course of 100 years after, one-third of indigenous people had to run away because of repressions. Tens of thousands of those who actively opposed the annexation, they were killed, religious rights taken under control, many Crimean Tatar schools closed, property seized, archives burned. My aristocratic ancestor family, they used to own huge land tracts and property in Western Crimea, and they lost it all because Russian Empress Catherine II, she decided to launch a geopolitical project in Crimea called Tavrida, based on the imperial grandeur.

And she started, by labeling us Barbarians, she started to gradually erase our culture, our heritage, everything that reminded about Crimean Tatars.

But even darker days were ahead of my people. In May 1944, the Soviet Union, led by dictator Joseph Stalin, committed a genocide. He ordered a forcible deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar nation within just two days. While our Crimean Tatar men were fighting in the war, our seniors, children, and women were put in the cattle shepherd wagons and taken to Central Asian countries.

My grandmother Nisa, she was 20 years old when 5 o’clock in the morning, 18th of May, 1944, Soviet law enforcement broke into a house in the village of Khaymancha. This village no longer exists because of the deportation. And she and her sisters and brothers were given only 15 minutes to get prepared, without any explanation of what was going on.

People were gathered all across Crimea, were gathered to the, and at the railway stations. They were put like animals, stuffed in the cattle trains, and taken to Uzbekistan to the deadly journey. And this deadly journey lasted for almost a month. People were dying because of suffocation, lack of food, lack of water, and those dead boys were just thrown out right on the way. And the most cynical in this story was that Stalin, he justified his crime, labeling us a traitor nation.

Well, both of my grandfathers, they were fighting against Nazism. One joined the Soviet Navy and went through the blockade of Leningrad, which was a horrible hunger blockade. The other one joined the anti-fascist guerrillas.

Stalin’s real goal was to actually erase all indigenous national identities all across the Soviet Union.

His perverted ambition was to shape a single Soviet people, featureless people, united by the Russian language, manufactured false history, and propaganda. Yet another inhuman and utopian ideology that took lives, resettled, and imprisoned millions of people. One of those imprisoned dissidents was our leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev. He was a one-year-old boy when the deportation happened.

He went through all hardships together with his people, and his biggest dream was to return home. Because of this, he spent 15 years in Soviet prisons and camps, barely surviving 303 days of hunger strike, and because of one reason, because he wanted to come back home. In exile, Crimean Tatars were not allowed to leave the places of exile. They were living in the special barracks with inhuman conditions. They were just dying because of diseases, and as a result of the deportation, every second Crimean Tatar died.

As far as they were not allowed to leave the places of exile up until the death of Stalin, after they could travel, and some of them even managed to travel to Crimea. My second grandmother, Livia, she told me a story of one Crimean Tatar man from their neighborhood in exile who managed to go to Crimea and bring an apple and a black sea water in a bottle, and they all cut this apple into tiny pieces and shared among each other with tears in their eyes, and my grandmother, she told me that this was the most delicious apple in her life because it smelled like home.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, we finally gained our right to come back home, even though it was very challenging in those houses. Other people have already been living, or those houses were destroyed. Both of my parents, Ayar and Elmira, they were born in Uzbekistan in exile. They moved as students to Krasnodar, which is a Russian region neighboring with Crimea.

Many Crimean Tatars tried to settle around the peninsula and to be as much close to their homeland as possible.

My parents first arrived in Crimea with three-year-old me and two suitcases in their hands, and they went through hell. They’ve been both skilled doctors, but they were rejected in all job offers in the city of Kerch because of their Crimean Tatar nationality stamped in their passports. They changed many places. They were hopping from one apartment to another because when KGB officers got to know that these were Crimean Tatars, they forced the owners to kick them out.

Finally, a couple of years after, they managed to buy a very small land plot with a pet house on it, not bigger than a chicken coop. Their biggest dream was to live in their native Crimea, and they started to build a house of their own. For over 10 years, they’ve been building up literally stone by stone.

I remember my father was scrolling through hundreds of notes and pages with hundreds of projects of his own with this house. All my childhood dreams and all my childhood games were actually played in the unfinished rooms of this home. I imagined myself a princess in a castle when I finally had my own house with my own room, with my own bed, with my own wardrobe and a table, and I spent the most joyful time in my life in my home. And I could have had more joyful moments and happy moments to share with you, if not another tragedy, the tragedy of occupation of 2014.

Yet another Moscow dictator decided to launch a geopolitical project of his own in Crimea based on the Russian military grandeur. He turned my homeland into a prison, an open-air prison, when anyone who dared publicly to say that Crimea is Ukraine can be in prison for at least five years. And because of this repressive reality, again, many thousands of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians started to flee the peninsula. And the first victim of this occupation was a 33-year-old man, Rishat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar.

He is a father of three children.

He was a one-man picketer in the central square of Simferopol, which is the capital of Crimea. He had a pro-Ukrainian protest, and he was detained because of this and taken into unknown direction. And in two weeks after, we found his dead body tortured. On my part, I could not bear living under the Russian flag in Crimea, just silently watching how this violence is happening.

And I left my homeland in my car with my five-year-old daughter, Iman, with our cat, Sara, in the basket, and just a few bags. And I probably felt the same pain as my whole family and my whole nation felt losing home, generation after generation, history repeated again. My daughter, Iman, she was five years old back then. She was so desperate, you know, to find the way to return home.

And on the way, in the car, she started suggesting different options. She said, “Mommy, let us buy a present and give it to Putin, and he’ll be pleased. And he might give us Crimea back.” I said, “My dear, this might not be the case.” She continued. She said, “Mommy, let us buy a gun in a toy shop. Let us scare him. And if he’s scared, he will give us our home back.” I said, “My dear, this might not be the case either.”

She thought for a while and asked me if Putin had children. I said, “Probably yes.” She asked me if he loved his children. I said, “Probably yes.” And then she came to the most unexpected conclusion I could have ever thought of. She said, “Mommy, if he loves his children, why does he commit this cruelty to all of us? You should do something about this.” And I was very stunned, but I actually started doing something about this. New life in Kiev, new place, new job. I knew I would never give up.

Returning my home has become my life mission and a dream of mine, and in my professional career, it culminated into the International Crimea Platform.

It was once born as a one-page concept in my heart, but today it’s a unique diplomatic coordination mechanism that unites over 60 countries and organizations all across the world, and it’s been captained by President Zelensky. By the way, Greece is also a part of the International Crimea Platform.

Because of this platform, I was sanctioned by Russia. After we upheld the inaugural summit of the Crimea Platform, I was banned from entering my homelands, and then the Moscow court ordered my arrest in absentia upon the request of the Russian special services. But the goal of the Crimea Platform was actually to return Crimea by diplomatic effort. But those who sit in the Kremlin, they see diplomacy as weakness, and we Ukrainians, we learned this Crimea lesson by heart, and it’s very simple. It says that if aggression is not stopped, it becomes bigger.

If you dance tango with an aggressor, you can be killed. And this is exactly what happened in the dark morning of 24th of February, 15 months ago, when Russia launched the most barbaric war since the Second World War against my country, Ukraine. And it’s exactly what happened in the dark morning of 24th of February, 15 months ago, when Russia launched the most barbaric war since the Second World War against my country, Ukraine.

This is the sound of danger, sound of death, sound of unknown, sound of anxiety. When we hear this sound, it means that Russia launched missiles or drones on our peaceful cities. When this horrible sound breaks in the middle of the night, it’s a loud reminder that you can lose your life, or your loved one, or your home. Yes, we were really scared back then when the invasion started, but we didn’t panic. We didn’t allow this fear to paralyze us.

And the whole nation, armed forces, volunteers, journalists, diplomats, the leadership, we all worked 24-7 to defend our country.

The first day of the war, I spent at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs coordinating all our embassies worldwide. And that day, I saw a real missile right out of the window of my office. It hit the building of the Ukrainian Intelligence Service, and it was not a Hollywood movie. It was not a nightmare. It was a real missile. It was a new reality, which gave us no clue if we would survive.

Later that day, I was evacuated with the part of the government to the west of Ukraine, and I didn’t have a chance to take my emergency kit. And the only thing that I had with me was my backpack with my cell phone, with my power bank, and salmon sandwich. And I gave the keys from my apartment in Kiev to some of my friends and some men whom I never met before. They came from other cities of Ukraine and joined the defense units to protect the capital. And a complete stranger called Petro, who is now a dear friend of mine, he helped me to pack my suitcase via the WhatsApp video call.

And when the suitcase was delivered and I opened it up and I touched my belongings, I burst into tears, because my entire home was fit in that suitcase. And in that very moment, I understood what happened to my country, Bucha, Kherson, Irpin, and other war-thwarted cities of Ukraine. The city of Mariupol has become a death cage for thousands of Ukrainians. The city was, by the way, founded by Greek Urums, who were deported by Cassian II in the 18th century from their home Crimea. 30,000 Urums, they founded the city of Mairum in the 18th century. And this city was the biggest place of the Greek community.

But now it has turned into ashes. The ruins of Mariupol Drama Theater is a monument to those hundreds who were hiding from the Russian shelling and were killed by a Russian missile. Mass graves, massacres, kidnappings, tortures, filtration camps, rapes, and deaths. This is what we went through 15 months of horrible war. But we survived. We transformed our pain into our strength, our trauma into our resistance, our grief into determination to fight for our home.

If you have ever seen a picture, a tree sprouting from a stone, this is exactly the image that fits with my country that Ukraine has become. Not a victim, but a nation that blossoms dignity. Our collective and my individual trauma taught me one thing, that home is much more than a flat or an apartment. It is a place where we belong.

It is a place where we want to live in and to share our beautiful moments with our families. It is the place where we are as we are, loud, silent, acoustic, naked. It is the place where any trauma can be healed or any obstacle or hardship can be overcome. But it is also a place that we must protect.

Please, do me one favor. When you come back home, just take a moment, feel the energy of your space, of your home. Hug your loved ones or your pet. Make yourself a cup of tea in a cozy kitchen and just take this moment and value — value the peace and safety that you live in. And let it be a tribute to what we all share as humanity: our home.

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