Circassians flee Syria strife for Russia homeland

NALCHIK, Russia — Natai Al Sharkas’ great-grandfather killed his Russian commanding officer and defected to the enemy.

The ethnic Circassian swells with pride at the thought of the century-old act.

Natives of what is now Russia’s Caucasus region, Circassians fiercely resisted the Russian czarist conquest that ended in the 1860s after decades of scorched-earth warfare, mass killings or expulsions that some historians and politicians consider genocide.

The carnage forced many — like Al Sharkas’ ancestors — to seek refuge in what is today Syria.

Now carnage in Syria is driving many back to their homeland.

This spring, Al Sharkas joined hundreds of Circassians fleeing war-torn Syria for this remote Russian region of soaring peaks and lush forests. In the coming months, thousands more are expected to arrive in Kabardino-Balkariya, a Caucasus province the size of Maryland with a population of less than 900,000, two-thirds of which is ethnic Circassian.

“We are planning to stay here for good,” Al Sharkas, 35, said as he sat under fragrant fir trees at a Soviet-era resort hotel where many of the Circassian immigrants have sought shelter. “That’s the decision we made a long time ago and it’s been accelerated by the events in Syria.”

Circassians were widely dispersed in the Russian expulsions. An estimated two million live in Turkey, another 100,000 in Syria and other sizeable populations are in Jordan and the United States. But their sense of ethnic unity remains strong and the pull of their homeland compelling.

Al Sharkas’ great-grandfather Koushoukou, his brother and two cousins were forcibly drafted and sent to the Russian-Turkish war of the late 1870s. They had to fight Ottoman Turks — fellow Muslims whose sultans supported Circassian resistance and provided refuge for hundreds of thousands of them. After killing his officer in Bulgaria, Koushoukou joined the Turkish military and ended his life in Damascus — part of Ottoman Turkey at the time.

Al Sharkas, which means Circassian in Arabic, used a network of family connections, along with Facebook, to find relatives in Kabardino-Balkariya and other parts of Russia. He encourages his Syrian relatives to follow him to the Caucasus, although now, because of the fighting, it hardly seems possible. “They are trapped there as it is almost impossible to even leave their neighbourhoods,” he said.

Assmat Yahya, a retired electrician from a Circassian village in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights, also found relatives in the Caucasus and plans to stay in Russia with his wife.

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