We have all heard of the Jewish Holocaust - of the Armenian holocaust by the Turks, and through history there were many other such genocides.
Circassians have been outraged by the selection of Sochi, a Russian resort city on the Black Sea, to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Sochi was the site of the Circassian capital and the area where the Ubykh tribe made the Circassian "last stand" in 1864. The Olympics will be held on the 150th anniversary of these mass killings. The Sochi Olympics, in other words, will be played on a gigantic graveyard.
The Circassians are a mostly Muslim people who self-identify as Adyghe. The traditionally nomadic Circassians were organised into tribes and clans and lived by a code of behaviour known as khabza, which stressed honour, hospitality, respect for elders, egalitarianism and liberty. This ethos helped the Circassians, renowned for their warrior prowess, to successfully defeat every major power that passed through their mountainous region, including the armies of Attila the Hun and the Mongols. Khabza would also allow the Circassians to preserve their identity through the anguish and turmoil of exile. Circassians dominated the ranks of the Mamluks, a caste of elite soldiers who were taken from the Caucuses and dispatched across the Muslim world. In the 18th century, Russia acted to exert direct control over Circassia by military conquest and was met with fierce resistance. Over time, the Circassian tribes began to more efficiently organise and formally declared Circassian independence, which was recognised by Britain in 1838. By the 1860s, however, the Circassians proved unable to hold out any longer against an expanding Imperial Russia who coveted their mountainous homeland. One by one, the Circassian tribes were decimated with thousands killed, their lands settled by Cossacks, Slavs and others.
The Circassians fought so tenaciously that the Russians decided to remove them, either by death or deportation. The Circassians describe this operation as the first modern genocide. Of a population of 2.5-3 million Circassians, the Circassians told us, around 1.5 million were killed and roughly the same number expelled, of which around half died within months of famine and disease. These figures were corroborated by many scholars from around the world. Only a very small number of Circassians survived in the Caucuses and today, 90 per cent of the world's 5-6 million Circassians live in the global diaspora, while around 700,000 are split between three Russian republics.
Similar to the Turkish denial of the Armenian holocaust, the Russian government does not appear to recognise that a genocide occurred. When President Vladimir Putin gave his speech to the International Olympic Committee in 2007 to secure Russia's bid, he described Sochi as a place inhabited by ancient Greeks with no mention of the Circassians. Putin has renewed policies to curb the expression of Circassian culture, prohibiting schools from teaching the language and restricting Circassian language media. Circassians also faced restrictions on travel between the republics, which required permits that were often difficult to obtain.
A country that gives the most rights to Circassians is Israel, where they are allowed to preserve every single aspect of identity. Perhaps, they remember with gratitude the protection the Circassians gave their Jewish communities during the Second World War when Hitler's Nazis hunted them down.
Georgia has given Circassians refugee status and has officially recognised that the Russian actions in the 19th century constituted genocide. Georgia will be the first country to build a commemorative monument to the Circassian genocide to be unveiled this May at the anniversary of the Sochi massacre.
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