The following interview was conducted by Gulnara Bekirova, Editor-in-Chief of the "Crimea and Crimean Tatars" Web site (in Russian), with Inci Bowman, President of the International Committee for Crimea (ICC), Washington, DC. A native of Istanbul, Ms. Bowman pursued her graduate studies in the United States and received her doctorate degree in the history of science and medicine in 1975 from Indiana University, Bloomington. She worked as curator of medical history at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. She retired in 1997, and now lives in Washington, DC.
GB. The Web site you manage www.iccrimea.org, appears to be the most informative Internet source in English about the Crimean Tatars. Please tell us about the Web site, its creation and scope.
IB. The Web site was created five years ago by the ICC, a group of individuals interested in informing the public about Crimean Tatar history and culture. We also support the repatriation of the Crimean Tatars who were unjustly deported from their homeland sixty years ago. The Web site includes a variety of information, scholarly articles, reviews, brief reports and statements issued by the ICC. One of our goals has been to contact those researchers and scholars interested in Crimea, and publish representative samples of their work on the Web. The section "Recent Studies on Crimean Tatars," for example, is an important resource for anyone interested in the issues of migrations, refugees, diaspora experience, and ethnic identity. Another example is the section titled, "Celebrating the Life of Ismail Bey Gaspirali (1851-1914)." As you know, in 2001 we observed the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ismail Bey Gaspirali, the Crimean Tatar leader and publisher. We gathered together articles, essays and book chapters that had been published in English on different aspects of Gaspirali's work, along with a collection of photographs, and placed them on the Web. This project involved the participation of many ICC members. Gaspirali, who advocated unity among the Turkic people, as expressed in his famous motto "Unity in language, thought and action," would have been very proud of us.
GB. Please tell us more about the ICC. Who are your members, for example?
IB. The ICC is an Internet group, with members in the US, Canada, Turkey, Germany, Holland, and Crimea. Most of our members live outside the Crimea, and thus the ICC is basically a Crimean Tatar diaspora organization. For example, this year I am serving as President and live in Washington, DC. Our Vice-President, who is a resident of Crimea, is currently working in Tbilisi, Georgia, and our Co-directors for Electronic Communications are in Turkey. Currently, we have 23 members, several individuals representing other diaspora organizations. Most of our activities involve the Internet, and some of our members have never met each other personally. We are, let's say, a virtual community of dedicated individuals interested in Crimea, our heritage and history.
One of our goals is to reach people of Crimean descent who live in different parts of the world. For this purpose, we established in 1998 Crimea-L, an electronic communications list. We distribute announcements, inquiries, brief reports and comments, in English, Turkish, or Tatar. Currently, we have 685 names on the distribution list, with most living in Turkey. Of course, the ICC would not exist without the expertise of a number of young men who are computer and network specialists.
GB. What other Crimean Tatar organizations outside of Crimea exist? What distinguishes the ICC from other diaspora organizations, for example?
IB. There are Crimean Tatar organizations in New York, Germany, Romania and of course Turkey. These diaspora groups are social and charitable organizations. They aim to sponsor social activities for their members and serve as a center to bring together individuals of Crimean Tatar heritage in their communities. They also send assistance to Crimea and help in many ways they can in the resettlement of Crimean Tatars. Most of the monetary assistance is provided from Turkey, where there is a Crimean Tatar/Turk community in all major cities. (Many people of Crimean Tatar descent in Turkey consider themselves Crimean Turks.)
The ICC, on the other hand, does not fall into the same category as the other diaspora organizations. Although the ICC has a Washington address we don't have a membership base here, and we don't organize social events. We are interested in promoting history and culture of Crimean Tatars via the Internet and try to maintain a network throughout the world.
GB. How did you become interested in Crimean Tatar issues?
IB. Although I knew that my grandparents or even great-grandparents had come from Crimea, I was not interested in learning about my heritage until the late 1970s when I read Alan Fisher's book on Crimean Tatars. I was working at the University of Texas then. In 1980, on a visit to Istanbul I interviewed my elder uncle and my father (both of whom since died) about our family and their experiences as children in Crimea. My grandfather, who was born in Crimea but lived most of his life in Turkey, returned to Crimea in 1918 to teach. Earlier he had worked for Gaspirali and was one of the young teachers trained by Gaspirali in the "New Method." In 1918, my grandfather was 40 years old, had a wife and four children, and was working as headmaster of a middle school in Istanbul. He took his family with him to Crimea. The family suffered great hardships during the Russian Civil War and the Famine of 1921-1922. They finally left Crimea, never to return, but my grandmother died on route to Turkey. I think that my grandfather's idealism and devotion to Crimea, the effects of war, violence and starvation on his young children, and the death of their mother make a touching story. In fact, I am now translating into English my grandfather's publications that relate to their stay in Crimea from 1918 to 1922.
GB. When did you learn about the 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars?
IB. When I was growing up in Istanbul, there was hardly any mention of Crimea at our house, and my parents spoke Turkish. In the 1950s, a group of Crimean Tatar refugees from Germany came to Turkey. I met one of them. He had served in the Soviet Army during World War II, been taken prisoner by the Germans, and had lived in refugee camps for several years. He said his family was deported from Crimea, but he had no contact with them. He did not even know where they were or whether they were still alive. He talked about his family and began to cry. To see a grown-up man cry was very sad. This was the first time I heard about the deportation, and I was probably 12 or 13 years old then.
GB. What, in your opinion, are some of the pressing issues involving the Crimean Tatars?
IB. Our first priority is and must be the return and resettlement of those Crimean Tatars who were deported in 1944 by the Soviet government. The disintegration of the Soviet Union made it possible for many of our people to return to their homeland. But the resulting economic collapse and the persisting prejudice against the returnees have complicated the repatriation process. Of course, we are supporting the efforts of the Mejlis and other politicians at the local and state level. It seems to me, however, that the resettlement of the deportees has international ramifications beyond the boundaries of Ukraine and could perhaps be facilitated with the assistance of international organizations. The Mejlis, with the assistance and support of the Crimean Tatar diaspora, should undertake a well planned public relations campaign and draw world's attention to the persistent problems faced by Crimean Tatars. Unfortunately, it is still very hard to get current news about Crimean Tatars in English, although that sort of information, I was told, exists in Russian and Tatar.
Secondly, the revival of the Crimean Tatar language remains an important issue. As we all know, one's native language is part of one's national identity. Although Crimean Tatars readily admit that their mother tongue is Tatar, Russian remains the main language of communication. I heard family members in Crimea or Crimean students in Istanbul speak Russian among themselves. In a way, one cannot blame them, as Russian is what has been taught in schools. However, in order for Crimean Tatars to survive as a nation, their native language eventually must take precedence over Russian. The expansion of Crimean Tatar schools and publication of books and texts will require financial resources and time. Nevertheless, each Crimean Tatar could begin today by trying to speak his/her native language whenever possible.
Thirdly, I would like to express a concern that I have, and that is the current and long-term health of Crimean Tatars living in post-Soviet societies, where state expenditures for public health are very low. These societies continue to face serious health problems. In Russia and Ukraine, for example, the rate of deaths exceeds the rate of births, and the population is on the decline. While Muslim communities in post-Soviet states may not be subject to this negative trend now, we must think in terms of fifty or one hundred years from today. How will our people survive in an environment of deteriorating health conditions? In particular, the physical health of child-bearing women and their babies is crucial to the survival of that nation. This is perhaps one area where the diaspora organizations can help in formulating long-term plans and providing assistance for better health care.
18 August 2003