We all have images that burn themselves into our minds. Scenes that have found a home to be carried and nurtured for a time. I unzipped my tent one morning after hearing the bleating and mooing of the cows and goats stomping by. Good morning Kazakhstan!
Behind them was a lone shepherd on his horse. Sitting tall and regal, he nudged the herd to lush tall grass across the mostly dried river. Then he dismounted under the canopy of the largest tree and got swallowed by the swaying grass. Two others joined him and fired up animated discussion. Laughter, loud and passionate, back and forth debate. These guys were completely alive and loving life. My new secret goal – to become a shepherd and write poetry, compose songs and paint landscapes, and then hotly debate and critique the results with my companions!
On April 13, 1940, 320,000 targeted family members of “enemies” were forcibly deported to Kazakhstan. They faced forced labour, squalid living conditions, starvation and disease. Many endured long work days on a ‘kolkhoz’ growing wheat or other grain for the USSR. They lived in windowless mud huts heated with dried dung. During the brief ‘amnesty’ period some of them managed to leave. I think of those who finally escaped only to perish on their journey to freedom. So close. So heartbreaking.
Our days cycling on the steppe have been filled with adventure, generous people, flats (both land and tires), sickness, heat, strong winds (never from behind) and sweaty, dirty no-water camping. My grungy ick has not helped my nasty cold funk. The ‘what am I doing?’ doubts punch through my congested head.
But then I think of the deportees who got typhus, dysentery, measles, scurvy, and later malaria. I have choices. Resources. Food. A home to go back to. Family. So when a woman smiles at me and her wrinkles give away decades of steppe life, I give her a big smile back and ask to take a photo to remember her beauty. She laughs.
Kazakhstan, unlike any other country so far, has been filled with toots of wahoo hello there -not the get out of the way kind. Those are different. People are filled with questions, photo requests, generous offerings of food, help and understanding. Like all others however, they do shake their heads in wonder…and why are you doing this?
It is often the last question. I explain that my mother was here. Nods. During the war. More nods. She was from Poland. Then they give that look. Uhuh. The yes we know look. Of course they do. Kazakhs were forced into kolkhoz labour and over 40% fled to China during the Stalinization of their country. Collective farms are still present here with evidence of crumbling brick administration buildings. We camped next to one.
For the Polish refugees, the ‘amnesty’ exodus south through Kazakhstan was brutally challenging and thousands more lost their lives trying to leave. Food was scarce, disease was rampant, trains were held for days or weeks to allow for Russian army trains.
At one station my mother’s family bumped into Alina and Wacia Rytwinska, aunts from home. From them they learned that my great grandmother Emilia had died on the train south. Her body was tossed onto the platform in Aktubinsk, Kazakhstan – now Aktobe. I’m not sure they even knew Emilia had been deported.
While packing up camp during my poetic shepherd morning, Lee and I both respond enthusiastically to a distinctive Hallooooooooo we hear through the steady wind. Our arms are waving in response. Then I burst out laughing realizing my tall, dark in the saddle poet was actually answering his cell phone and talking loudly as he rode away. Beautiful. Poetry.
With grateful thanks to Kresy-Siberia Foundation for use of historic photos. See more at http://kresy-siberia.org/museum/en/