CHERKESSK, Russia (Reuters) - Muhammed Cherkesov remembers his grandparents whispering about the Russian soldiers who drove his forefathers at gunpoint from their mountain homes down to the Black Sea coast in the mid-19th century.
The forced migration of the Muslim Circassians into the lowlands in and around Sochi where they were deported beyond the Russian Empire’s borders killed about a third of the population through disease, starvation and exposure to the elements.
A century and a half later Russia wants to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in the very same broad valleys and mountain slopes around Sochi that Circassians say hold the bones of their ancestors.
“We’re talking about holding the Olympics over a mass grave of Circassians,” said Cherkesov, a leader for the minority in Karachay-Cherkessia province in the North Caucasus, a patchwork of mostly Muslim regions along Russia’s southern flank.
Many Circassians believe 1.5 million of their predecessors perished as Russian soldiers embarked on a mass expulsion of their people to ease the Tsar’s conquest of the Caucasus region. European and Russian imperial historians say that number may be closer to 300,000.
Circassian extremists say they want to turn back the clock and gain independence from Russia. Most stand behind an increasingly vocal campaign to urge Russia to recognize the killings as genocide and to pave the way for the large Circassian diaspora to return to its historic homeland.
Russia has said the deaths were among the tragedies of war which both sides suffered as the Czar was closing his grip on the Caucasus Mountains region, but denies that amounted to genocide.
“We are not asking for any material compensation from Russia, we want Russia itself to say that unjust actions were taken against the Circassians and that this was the land of Circassians,” said Cherkesov, speaking to Reuters in his spartan office surrounded by pictures of his forefathers dressed in traditional long red coats and high black boots.
Of the nearly eight million Circassians worldwide, only about 700,000 live in Russia. The rest are the descendants of the men and women who refused to bow to Russian rule and were carried off by the ships of the Ottoman Empire which resettled them in the far-flung stretches of its territories.
“We want Russia to acknowledge that there was genocide and accept the natural consequences, including the return of our territory and Moscow’s acknowledgement of our sovereignty,” Circassian advocate and writer Timur Kudayev said in an interview.
Russia’s Circassians, separated by administrative boundaries across the Caucasus, have failed to unite under a single leader, complicating negotiations for both sides.
Some have threatened a fight for independence if their demands are not met, a move that would further inflame the volatile North Caucasus region.
Moscow is already grappling with violent insurgents that aim to turn the region into an Islamist state and have threatened to attack the Olympics at Sochi where athletes from around the world will be competing in a few years time.
The Circassian campaign attracted brief international attention in May when Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia three years ago, recognized the 19th-century killings as genocide.
Moscow dismissed the move as one of many political provocations from its southern neighbor since Tbilisi was forced to sign a ceasefire to halt the fighting in 2008 and Moscow recognized as independent two rebel Georgian regions over which the war was fought.
The increasing pressure forced Russian lawmakers to meet with Circassian representatives earlier this year to discuss their demands, including the easing of repatriation laws that would help the diaspora travel and resettle freely in their North Caucasus homeland.
“Russia must think of this as a project for Circassians, including making their return easier, with money, land and a place to live,” Cumhur Bal, of the Kafkas Associations Federation, an umbrella group representing the many Circassian groups scattered across Turkey, told Reuters from Ankara.
His organization, which was present at a meeting with Russian lawmakers in February, along with the leaders of several other Circassian groups, says between 400-500 Turkish citizens have already moved back to their historic homeland.
Circassians in Turkey say that strong state-supported Turkish nationalist sentiment makes it awkward for them to discuss their roots or openly practice their traditions.
Gupse Altinisik moved from her home in Istanbul, the cultural capital of Turkey, to the small, predominantly Circassian city of Nalchik in the province of Kabardino-Balkaria. She left because she said she and her husband felt more Circassian than Turkish.
“Looking at it from a historical part of view, this is my homeland, this is where our ancestors lived,” she said.
After her children go back to Turkey for higher education, she wants them to come back to the region she calls home.
“This is a project we believe in, one that we see a future in,” she said.
The small minority’s new sense of nationalism and awareness of the potential strength of its widespread global presence has been boosted by a swarm of web sites in English, Russian and Turkish dedicated to anti-Olympic and pro-Circassian debate.
Many of them have created mock Olympic posters with skiers racing over a pile of bones, and blood dripping from the mountains onto the five Olympic rings.
Russia’s Olympic Committee declined to respond to questions over Circassian claims and any plans to recognize the minority at the Olympics.
“It’s a new understanding of a lost genocide,” said Oliver Bullough, a published author on the Circassian killings.
“Awareness is driven by the Internet. It’s a great thing for the Circassians but it could be a problem for Russia,” he added.
The closest Russia has come to apologizing for the killings was in 1994 when then-President Boris Yeltsin said force against invading Tsarist armies was justified.
Two of Russia’s North Caucasus regions -- Adygea and Kabardino-Balkaria -- urged Moscow to apologize for the killings after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but Circassians say the Russian parliament never responded to the initiative.
Some leaders fear some members of the community may turn to a full-fledged independence movement if demands are not met.
“If there is no meaningful change in policy, the nature of the relationship between Russia and the Circassians will shift to a more adversarial one,” said Cicek Chek, who met with Russian lawmakers in May on behalf of Circassians living in the United States.
“Any nascent independent movements will begin to gain supporters as more and more Circassians lose hope in a cooperative solution,” she said.
Few now say they would be willing to fight, but any kind of resistance would complicate Moscow’s ties with the restive region ahead of the Olympics.
“We don’t want the Olympics carried out at all if they are at Krasnaya Polyana, the site of our own massacre. We won’t be able to bear to watch the games without tears,” said the writer Kudayev.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall