Ukraine picks Crimean Tatar with tragic tale for Eurovision

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Crimean Tatar singer Susana Jamaladinova, known as Jamala, is pictured during rehearsal in Kiev on February 18, 2016

Crimean Tatar singer Susana Jamaladinova, known as Jamala, is pictured during rehearsal in Kiev on February 18, 2016 (AFP Photo/Anatoli Stepanov)

Kiev (AFP) - Ukraine has picked Jamala, who belongs to the Muslim Tatar minority of Crimea, to represent the country in the Eurovision contest with a harrowing song about Stalin's wartime deportation of her people.

The 32-year-old is a well-known jazz singer in Ukraine and beat five other finalists competing to represent the country at Eurovision in Stockholm in May after a vote by the public and a panel of judges.

Dressed in Tatar traditional dress, Jamala could not hold back her tears during her performance at the national final, winning massive applause from the audience, some of whom waved Tatar and Ukrainian flags.

Jamala's song "1944" is about the tragedy that befell her great-grandmother that year, when Soviet dictator Stalin deported 240,000 Tatars -- or nearly the entire community -- to barren Central Asia and other far-flung lands.

Memories of that horror have been revived by Russia's seizure of Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula, in 2014.

"This song ... is precisely what we are all suffering in Ukraine today," said one of the judges, the singer Rouslana, who won Eurovision in 2004.

Over a span of three days in May 1944, Stalin accused the Turkic ethnic group of collaborating with the Nazis and deported them thousands of kilometres (miles) to the east, where nearly half the people died of severe living conditions.

Jamala's great-grandmother was in her mid-20s when she, her four sons and daughter were deported, while her husband fought against the Nazis in the Soviet Army's ranks.

One of the children died during the journey to Central Asia.

"I needed that song to free myself, to release the memory of my great-grandmother, the memory of that girl who has no grave, the memory of thousands of Crimean Tatars", who have nothing left, not "even photographs", Jamala told AFP last week ahead of the vote.

Jamala said she had entered Eurovision because she wanted people to hear a song written "in a state of helplessness" after Russia's seizure of her land.

"It was hard for me to recall all these memories again and again, but I understand that it is necessary now. Because now the Crimean Tatars are desperate and they need support," she said.

Crimean Tatars, who began returning to the their ancestral homeland after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, were horrified by Russia's takeover of the region, with the majority opposing the new authorities.

In the wake of Russia's annexation, many Tatar activists were arrested or had their homes raided.

The international community has not recognised Russia's annexation and the United Nations has condemned widespread human rights violations against the Tatar community.