Circassians Protest in Tel Aviv Against Sochi Olympics

Members of the minority community demonstrate at the Russian embassy, recalling the 1864 massacre in their erstwhile capital.

About 100 members of Israel’s Circassian community demonstrated outside the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv Monday morning to protest the holding of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Sochi was the Circassians’ historical capital, and became a bloody symbol of the century-long Russian-Circassian war that ended 150 years ago in their mass slaughter – Circassians estimate the death toll at 1.5 million people – and expulsion.

The protesters, some wearing the traditional yellow boots of the community and others in Reeboks, chanted slogans such as “Wake up, world, the Circassians won’t keep silent any more” and “Free Circassia” in Circassian, Hebrew and English. Some waved signs and posters recalling the defeat, which the world has forgotten in favor of the wars and disasters of the 20th century.

The colorful demonstration about an ancient, unfamiliar subject involving the crimes of czarist Russia, with green flags resembling those of a yacht club and protesters in traditional garb, complete with daggers, provoked smiles from most of the passersby on Hayarkon Street. Some paused to take a photograph with their iPhones before moving on.

One of the organizers of the demonstration – one of several taking place around the world during the Olympic Games – is David Shugan, 32, of Kafr Kama, who works in the town’s Circassian Museum. Around his wrist is a white plastic bracelet; his wife had just given birth, and he came straight from the hospital so as not to miss the protest.

Shugan calls himself a “seventh-generation” survivor of the massacre, and says he would like to return to Circassia. “If they let us go back, many would,” he said. “Sochi is Circassian land. This is our moral right, and this is our cry of pain over our genocide. At the opening ceremony of the Olympics, they didn’t mention the Circassians, but they mentioned Greek mythology. I didn’t watch the games, and I won’t,” Shugan said.

The 100 demonstrators constituted a significant proportion of the 4,000 or so Circassians in Israel. The Circassian diaspora marks May 21, the date Czar Alexander II declared victory, as Genocide Memorial Day.

Salwa Harun Nafsu, 53, wore orange sunglasses. She is a wedding deejay, specializing in Circassian and Middle Eastern popular music. She is a distant relative of Izat Nafsu, an Israeli army officer from the community who in the 1980s was accused of espionage. He confessed under torture by the Shin Bet security service and was convicted on the basis of false testimony and his confession. After serving seven and a half years of an 18-year prison term he was exonerated. Harun Nafsu related with pride that she learned her profession at a school in Tel Aviv.

“More important to me than the Sochi and the mochi is for Russians to see what democracy is, that it’s possible to demonstrate at their embassy without being removed,” she said.

Harun Nafsu doesn’t dream of returning to her lost homeland. “I wouldn’t leave Israel,” she said. “But it’s important for the Russians to know. They perpetrated something like your Holocaust on us.”

The issue of the Circassian genocide was dormant for years before it was suddenly revived, a few years ago, she said. “Once, they didn’t talk about this,” she said, adding that “the media and the Internet and Facebook” has sparked awareness.

Above us, in the Sheraton Hotel, an African cleaner polished the railing of the balcony nearest the demonstrators again and again, for long minutes, even though it was already sparkling. She was presumably curious about the colorful gathering but didn’t want to be accused of idleness.

The great African disaster is happening now. We need to respect the catastrophes of the past, but the gray, charmless politics of the present, devoid of colorful banners, is always more important. Even though the idea isn’t popular in a country like Israel, where the giant shadow of the past is always present, in my view, traumas of the past should be taken in small doses.

Today, more than 300,000 Russians live in Sochi, and they paid no notice to the cries of “Sochi is ours, not yours” hurled at the Russian embassy.

On the other hand, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, such demonstrations are treated with much less equanimity. The Tel Aviv organizers said that Circassian demonstrators in Russia were violently dispersed by the Russian police; their vehicles were confiscated and dozens were arrested.

In his kippa and tzitzit, or ritual fringes, Avraham Shmulevich, the only Jew, stood out from the Circassian demonstrators. He says he fell in love with the Circassian issue about 10 years ago. He writes articles about the Caucasus, and as a former conscientious objector he identifies with the Circassians’ battle against the Russian establishment.

He calls the Caucasus “the Balkans of our times” and fears that just as World War I began in the Balkans, the next world war will begin in the Caucasus. “The Circassians’ situation in the Soviet Union was very similar to that of the Jews,” Shmulevich said.

Then he took up the green Circassian flag and waved it proudly at the passing cars on Hayarkon Street.

Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-On