Crimean Tatars feel pressure from all sides

They survived Stalin’s attempt to destroy them, but Muslim minority is now caught in the middle of Ukraine’s uprising

Tatars at a protest on Feb. 26. In the Ukrainian uprising, those who favor closer ties with Europe are struggling with ethnic Russians and their desire to be closer to Russia. Caught in between are the Tatars, Crimea’s indigenous minority.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Ali Aliev was a 9-year-old when German troops occupied Crimea during World War II, and he still remembers the day he and others in his village in the southeastern Sudak region of the peninsula gathered in a schoolyard to wait for their liberators, the returning Soviets.

There he learned that the indigenous Crimean Tatar population was being rounded up and sent away.

“We didn’t know where, just somewhere,” he said, now in his 80s and living in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.

His people were loaded onto empty train carriages — women, children and elders crammed together. When the train stopped, the Soviets opened the doors, threw dead bodies over the side of the platform and restarted the train.

After 22 days on board, Aliev ended up at a labor camp in the Ural region in the center of the USSR. This was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s punishment for the Crimean Tatars, citing Tatar collaboration with the Nazi invaders, despite the fact that many had served in the Red Army.

Descendants of the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan, the Crimean Tatars are Turkic-speaking Muslims and the peninsula’s indigenous inhabitants. The Soviets left them scattered in labor camps across the barren steppes of Central Asia. Thought to number approximately 200,000 at the time, almost half the population died from hunger, thirst and disease in their first year of exile.

“They threw us aside to exterminate us from the earth,” Aliev said. “But despite what we lived through, the people never forgot their homeland. We went to sleep at night dreaming of Crimea.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Crimean Tatar population has slowly returned to an entirely different homeland from the one they were forced to leave, one dominated by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Since the Tatars’ homecoming, they have been fighting for their rights, but with the newest Russian incursion, the Crimean Tatars here says they feel hemmed in from all sides.

With Russian troops on their streets and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s warning that he will use force to secure Crimea and eastern Ukraine, anxiety is mounting among the minority, which supported the uprising against now ousted President Viktor Yanukovich. The embattled Tatars, who make up 12 percent of the multiethnic peninsula, according to a 2001 census, look unlikely to get their way.

On Saturday, Putin requested and received authorization from the upper house of Russia’s parliament to use military force in Ukraine. On a call with U.S. President Barack Obama, Putin “stressed that in case of any further spread of violence to eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas,” the Kremlin announced. On Sunday, Ukraine responded by calling up its military reservists, while Russian troops continued to surround Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula.

A return from exile

“Other ethnic groups here have governments that protect their future, but we don’t have a homeland other than Crimea,” said Abduraman Egiz, a deputy with the Mejlis, a representative body for the Crimean Tatars.

Russians make up almost 60 percent of the peninsula’s populations, and Ukrainians compose 24 percent according to the 2001 census.

“We want to protect our language, history and historical figures, but the legacy of the USSR lives, and people don’t understand these basic rights need to be guaranteed,” Egiz said.

Return from exile in Central Asia was a slow process. “All the adults told us stories about our homeland. They pounded us with them so we would never forget,” Zulfere Memetova, a 30-year-old accountant who grew up in Uzbekistan, remembered.

Crimean Tatar activists at a protest in front of the parliament building in Simferopol, Feb. 26, 2014.
Arthur Shvarts/EPA

Her relatives spoke their native language at home, and Memetova said she used to tell her friends at the end of every school term that she wouldn’t be back next year because she would return to Crimea. She ended up finishing her degrees in Uzbekistan.

When the Tatars were finally allowed to return in the late 1980s, they found ethnic Russians living in their houses. They started building their own settlements from scratch. When Memetova’s mother-in-law Zarema Nasibolaeva, a 57-year-old doctor, returned to Crimea in 1993, the family members had sold all their belongings to pay for their homecoming. She remembered finding her ethnic brethren living in tents and ramshackle structures while struggling to build permanent housing. “Some people had even dug holes in the earth and were living there,” she said.

Interacting with the rest of the population proved challenging as well. “The Russians were terrified of us because of the Soviet propaganda. I used to argue with people on public transportation, but after a while we got used to each other,” Nasibolaeva said.

Even before the current crisis, Egiz, who is also a founding member of Bizim Qirim, a youth organization focused on Tatar identity retention, said Crimean Tatars were worried about losing their culture and their linguistic roots. In exile many spoke the Tatar language at home in secret to keep traditions and as a challenge to Soviet rule, but the modern world has come crashing down on the minority.

Bizim Qirim sponsors cultural events, appears on television to support Tatar rights and holds workshops in universities to promote Tatar issues. “Our main challenge is assimilation,” Egiz explained. Bizim Qirim started a petition to return village and street names to their historical Tatar names. “In our return to Crimea, one of our main goals was to retain the identity of our nation,” he said, “but as a minority, our rights are lacking. There are no strong laws protecting minority rights.”

Today Memetova and Nasibolaeva live in an apartment compound financed by the Ukrainian government that was reserved for Tatars. The streets outside the blocs are unpaved and muddy, and the school that the government was supposed to construct for children has been frozen since 1992.

Memetova’s children do not speak the Tatar language because they spend all day in Russian-language schools while she is at work. “When my daughter started day care, she spoke Tatar. Within a month she started speaking to me in Russian,” Memetova said. They worry that their the language and culture is slowly being eroded. 

These days, cultural concerns have taken a backseat to developments in Kiev and Moscow. The Tatars came out in Simferopol on Feb. 26 to support the Kiev protests after Yanukovich was ousted. So far, the Tatars say they have not seen signs of support from the government in Kiev. “Just as we’ve had to do everything ourselves, so it will continue,” Memetova said.

Over sweet tea and chocolate in the family’s home, the chance of a better life under Russian control seemed slim, and the prospect of help from the West seemed even further. “Maybe they won’t find a place to export us, but they’ll find a way to extinguish us. We’re afraid of Russia. We’ve never had anything good from them,” Nasibolaeva said.

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