Turkey: Caucasus Groups Put Aside Conflict to Live as Turks

Flags representing some North Caucasus republics decorate the walls of the Bursa Caucasus House. (Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

Back home, their differences may run strong, but within Turkey, ethnic groups from the Caucasus often find that they have more in common than conflict.

In Inegol, a town of about 151,000 near the Sea of Marmara known for its furniture and its meatballs, one ethnic Georgian explains. "Our ancestors come from all different places in the Caucasus, but what we have in common is that we are Turks," says Inegol Deputy Mayor Yousef Sen. "Here, we are brothers under that nationality."

Sen's ancestors and thousands of other ethnic Muslim Caucasians from Georgia, Abkhazia and the North Caucasus left their homelands in the mid-19th century as Tsarist Russia took over the region.

When resistance to Russian rule failed, they fled across the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire, which had promised them protection.

There, scattered throughout Turkey and Ottoman holdings in the Balkans, the migrants assimilated, but preserved strong ethnic identities.

"We all experienced the same destiny and bad things. We came to the Ottoman Empire and here continued with the same culture and traditions as we did back home," explains Aytekin Akay, an ethnic Abkhaz and retired bank manager who lives in the Abkhaz village of Rustiye, not far from Inegol. "That is why there is no problem among us. . . "

The Inegol region contains 19 ethnic Georgian villages, four ethnic Abkhaz, and two ethnic Adyghe villages, according to official data.

Signs for local furniture factories reflect that diversity.

Inegol's ABZ Chair Factory is run by ethnic Abkhaz; its acronym stands for Abaza, a North Caucasus language related to Abkhazian. Firms run by ethnic Georgians, meanwhile, feature Georgian-language names like Tetri ("white"), Lamazi ("beautiful") or Didi ("big").

Both ethnic Georgians and ethnic Abkhaz often settled in places in the region where the topography resembled the mountainous homelands they left behind.

In the village of Mezit, about two hours from Bursa, ethnic Georgians and Abkhaz live in the hillside sections; the Laz, a mostly Muslim people who speak a language related to Mingrelian, Svan and Georgian, live further down.

Holding on to other memories has sometimes proven more difficult, however.

Only one house from Rustiye's original Abkhaz settlement still stands. The others were burned when the Greek Army briefly occupied the area in 1920, locals say.

But the dark, deadpan wit of the Caucasus has lingered on among the hamlet's residents.

Asked if his wife is still alive, Rustiye pensioner Huseyn Aktash, an ethnic Abkhaz married to an ethnic Georgian, responds that she is in the hospital. "[A]nd if she will not die today, then, yes, she is alive," he jokes.

Knowledge of native languages may prove to have a shorter life span.

"[T]wenty to 30 years ago, small children in our villages would not speak Turkish till primary school," recounts Inegol Deputy Mayor Sen, a descendant of 19th century migrants from Georgia's Achara region who learned Georgian from his parents. "Today, young people, as they move from the villages to the city, are mostly forgetting their ancestors' languages."

That trend can be seen at the Caucasus House in Bursa, a regional commercial capital about 40 kilometers from Inegol where many Caucasian migrants settled. Youngsters of Adyghe background, a North Caucasus ethnicity, gather here on weekends to learn traditional dances and music and study the Adyghe language, but their conversation with friends is in Turkish.

Turkey does not recognize the Abkhaz, Adyghe or Georgians as official ethnic minorities. Ethnic Abkhaz retiree Akay, though, stresses that locals take in stride hearing people speak in Caucasian languages.

"Nobody ever bothers us and asks 'Why do you speak Abkhazian or Georgian?'" he comments.

Nor do such divisions exist among the ethnic Caucasians themselves, others claim, citing their common belief in Islam.

Says Nadim Bayram, the vice-president of Inegol's Georgian Culture Association: "We have become relatives . . ."

Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi and the recipient of a second-place prize in the 2009 World Press Photo competition for her coverage of the 2008 war in South Ossetia.

Turkey: Caucasus Groups Put Aside Conflict to Live as Turks

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