Seventy years have passed, but memories of February 23, 1944 are still raw for Mukhazhar Dzhabrailova.
The elderly Chechen woman vividly recalls her mother’s alarm after spotting a column of army trucks from a hill overlooking Zandak, their small mountain village in what was then the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
“My mother stopped, sat down by the roadside, and burst into tears,” says Dzhabrailova, who was 13 at the time. “I asked her why she was crying. She said these trucks had come for our people and would take us far away tomorrow.”
When Soviet troops came knocking at their door in the middle of the night and ordered them to pack their bags, Dzhabrailova realized with horror that her mother had been right.
That night and the day that followed, there were knocks on all the doors in her village and throughout the republic as local residents were systematically rounded up on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
The entire Chechen and Ingush peoples, about half-a-million strong, were being deported to Central Asia as punishment for what Moscow called their collaboration with Nazi Germany — a move widely seen as retaliation for their resistance to Soviet rule.
Operation Chechevitsa, or Operation Lentil, had begun.
Herded Onto Cattle Trains
Many who were old or sick, babies, and others deemed too weak to travel were slaughtered. So were those caught leaving their homes.
That night, amid the panic and confusion that gripped her village, Dzhabrailova says four of her relatives were killed.
Her aunt was shot dead by soldiers as she fetched water from a stream.
Her two teenage cousins and her uncle were also gunned down outside her house after dropping by to return earrings borrowed from her mother.
“My cousins were both buried there, they were simply put in the ground and covered with earth,” says Dzhabrailova. “There’s still a small mound in that place today. Their father rushed to the scene; he was also shot and buried right there. That’s how all three of them were killed.”
Dzhabrailova and her surviving family members were herded onto cattle trains and shipped off to the barren steppes of Kazakhstan. A small number ended up in Kyrgyzstan and Siberia.
Even the roughly 40,000 Chechen and Ingush soldiers fighting against Hitler’s troops on the battlefield were not spared.
Salman Dudayev was in the trenches of Stalingrad when he was told he was being exiled on charges of helping the invading Nazi army.
The young Chechen, who had run away from home to join the Red Army at the age of just 13, was crushed.
The news, Dudayev recalls, also came as a shock for his commander – an ethnic Ukrainian named Mykola Kotov:
“There were tears in his eyes,” Dudayev says. “He came up to me, wrapped an arm around me and said: ‘Son, I wasn’t able to tell you this for several days but I have to. Chechens are born warriors, they fight well. I’m truly sorry but I cannot disobey orders.'”
Dudayev was immediately demobilized and put on a cattle train bound for the eastern Kazakh city of Leninogorsk, close to the border with China.
He survived the harrowing 27-day journey and the famine that killed tens of thousands of deportees in the months that followed, which Chechens refer to as “Aardakh” — the Exodus.
After a fruitless, six-month search for his relatives in Kazakhstan, Dudayev resolved to brave the travel ban on Chechens — punishable by 25 years in prison — and made his way to Kyrgyzstan, where he was able to find his family.
The Dzhabrailovs, too, were able to reunite after being sent to Kazakhstan on separate trains.
The deportation, however, took a devastating toll on their family.
Dzhabrailova’s brother was run over by a train on February 23, 1944 as he helped his mother and siblings board their carriage.
When the family stepped off the train in Kazakhstan four weeks later, Dzhabrailova says they were on the verge of starvation.
“There was no water, no food,” she says. “We had long ago eaten what we had taken with us. When the train stopped, my mother would gather snow in a jug. She would then give us the melted snow to drink.”
Within months of their arrival in Kazakhstan, Dzhabrailova’s whole family died of hunger – first her father, followed by her two remaining brothers, her mother, and her two sisters.
Like the Dzhabrailovs, between 30 and 50 per cent of Chechens and Ingush are estimated to have succumbed to cold, hunger, and Soviet bullets during the deportation and the ensuing year.
Survivors were permitted to return to their homeland as late as 1956, three years after Stalin’s death. The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which had been wiped off the map, was restored.
But Chechens barely recognized their homeland.
Other people had moved into their houses and taken their land. Soviet authorities had shut down hundreds of mosques and burned ancient manuscripts in Chechen and Ingush. Gravestones had been pulled out, and in the mountains, centuries-old towers had been razed.
Many, heartbroken, returned to Kazakhstan. A second wave of Chechens fled to Central Asia when the first Chechen war broke out in 1994.
Both Dzhabrailova and Dudayev stayed in Chechnya.
They have not forgotten the deportation, even though Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, had cancelled all commemorative events on February 23.
To this day, Dzhabrailova still weeps when she recalls her father’s dying wish that she honor his memory by returning to Chechnya, checking on the family’s horses and beehives, and baking corn bread for his people.
“When we got back home, there were, of course, neither beehives nor horses,” she says. “It had all been taken away. I baked the bread and handed it out in memory of my father. But it was not corn bread; it was made from simple wheat flour. I wasn’t able to fulfill my father’s wish. This thought torments me every single day.”