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Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP / Getty Images

In Crimea, the Tatars fear a repeat of a brutal history

The past isn’t distantr for a people who remember an exile forced by Moscow and the decades it took to get home

BAKHCHISARAY, Crimea — Fatime Saifulayeva is too young to remember clearly her first years in the frigid Ural Mountains village where her parents lived — and nearly died — after being deported from Crimea.

Local villagers took pity on Tatars like her family, exiled in 1944 on Stalin’s orders. They whispered to Tatar parents to register their children as being younger than they actually were, to save them from doing brutal hard labor cutting down trees in the Siberian winter. Locals taught the Tatars to feed their starving children watered-down moonshine, despite Islamic customs against alcohol, which warmed their bodies and gave small sustenance.

When her family moved to Uzbekistan in 1958 to join hundreds of thousands of other exiled Crimean Tatars, Saifulayeva was just 2. Like most other Tatars, her family struggled to survive, and yearned for the day they could return to their ancestral homeland on the Black Sea.

With the Soviet collapse in 1991, Saifulayeva and her family returned and, like thousands of other returning Tatars, tried to build new lives. Now, after Russia annexed Crimea and began incorporating the region as a Russian territory, she and many other Tatars say the visceral fears that were dormant for so long are returning.

“We’re all living in fear that history is repeating itself, like it’s 1944 all over again,” she said.

Weeks after Russia moved with lightning speed to seize Crimea, Ukrainian military forces are continuing their humiliating withdrawal, and border and customs posts are going up along the line between the mainland and the peninsula. Moscow has moved to integrate the peninsula’s 2 million people into Russia’s legal, social and economic networks — for example, replacing the Ukrainian hryvnia with the Russian ruble as the fiat currency.

Just as quickly, authorities have begun issuing Russian passports, and long lines of eager Crimeans are showing up outside registration departments in the capital city, Simferopol, and elsewhere signing up for citizenship in their new country.

For many of the roughly 300,000 Crimean Tatars, however, the new government is an old story pointing ominously to the future. Tatar loyalty to Kyiv has been lukewarm at best since the Soviet breakup; many Tatars say Ukraine’s government has done little for them, financially, politically or legally. Support for Moscow is virtually nonexistent, rooted in the searing memories of what Tatars call “surgunlek.” Its 70th anniversary will be observed next month.

Whiplashed by fear

In the period between the Kyiv uprising that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych’s Moscow-allied government and the March 16 referendum in Crimea that Moscow orchestrated to cement its annexation, Tatar leaders put forth a largely unified front, defying Russia’s overtures for support.

The Tatar legislature, known as the Mejlis, called on the Tatar community to boycott the referendum. On March 29, delegates to the Kurultay, the Tatar national council, adopted a resolution calling for “political and legal procedures for the ethnic and territorial autonomy of the Crimean Tatar people on their historic territory, Crimea.” A group of Tatar legislators is drafting wording for a referendum to be voted on by the entire Crimean Tatar community.

“We know what it means to live in Russia. Nothing has changed there, political repression, arrests,” said Said Seitumerov, who runs a restaurant in the historic district of Bakhchisaray, which is the heart of the Crimean Tatar community, about 20 miles south of Simferopol.

Crimea, Tatars, Ukraine, Russia
Delegates attend the Kurultay, the assembly of Crimean Tatars, in Bakhchisaray last month.
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

“Tatars need to learn politics to protect ourselves and our interests. We’ve been wanderers for the past 70 years: the Soviet Union, Central Asia, Crimea, Ukraine, now Russia.”

Meanwhile, the community itself has been whiplashed by fear, anxiety and threats of violence. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, small etched marks — in the form of X’s or crosses — appeared on exterior walls and metal gates of several Tatar homes in Bakhchisaray. No one has taken responsibility for them, but for most Tatars, the marks — now painted over or sanded off — were searing reminders of what happened in 1944, when Soviet secret police marked homes to distinguish Tatars from Russians before the mass deportations began.

On March 3, Reshat Ametov, a Tatar laborer who lived in Simferopol with his wife and three young children, disappeared after being seen led from a Simferopol protest by unknown men wearing camouflage jackets. Ametov’s body turned up 13 days later in the mixed ethnic community of Belogorsk.

Teifuk Gafarov, a lawyer who was the first Tatar representative to identify the body as it lay in a Belogorsk morgue, said the body had signs of torture on it. Local media said Ametov’s hands and feet had been bound with plastic tape, though Gafarov said he hadn’t been able to confirm that.

Ametov’s killing, and the sudden presence of heavily armed masked Russian soldiers and local paramilitary “self-defense” forces, prompted Tatars to form their own patrols and set up checkpoints in Bakhchisaray and other villages around the peninsula.  

“No one’s going to dictate to us how to live our lives, how to raise our children,” said Dilaver Afduramanov, 31, who oversaw a motley crew of men at a makeshift checkpoint made of rickety wooden benches, police tape and rough-cut timber boards in the village of Plotinoye.

Tatars were in a minority in Plotinoye and five other villages in the valley southwest of Bakhchisary, he said, but local Tatar leaders had agreed with Russians to minimize “provocative acts” like putting up Russian flags around town.

“If the repression starts, if the shooting starts, if there’s ethnic cleansing, of course we’re ready to defend ourselves,” Afduramanov said.

For now, violence seems unlikely, at least in the short term; reality, however, is likely to impose itself on the Tatars. Russia’s policies indicate that — legal or not, recognized or not — Crimea will not be reverting back to Ukraine, perhaps ever. Like other Crimeans who now hold Ukrainian passports, Crimean Tatars who receive state budget payments, such as retirees like Saifulayeva, may be forced to get Russian passports, for example, to keep receiving pensions.

“Moreover, if I don’t submit and get a [Russian] passport, I’ll have to apply for a residency permit. I’ll be a foreigner in my home, which I built myself, saving every kopeck, over 23 years,” said Saifulayeva, 58, who taught primary grades at a Tatar elementary school before retiring.

When one of her neighbors talked about doing big repairs on her house, Saifulayeva reminded her how after the Tatars were deported, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians moved in and took over the empty houses and vacant properties. When Tatars began returning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many found their homes occupied; in some cases, interior furnishings hadn’t changed in 40 years.

Crimea, Tatars, Ukraine, Russia
A Crimean Tatar holds the Ukrainian flag during a rally in front of a Ukrainian military base last month, two days before the referendum over the peninsula's status.
Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty Images

“We were telling her: ‘What the hell for? You’ll do that and then they’ll just come and take your house away again?’” she said.

Mixed into the distrust among Tatars for central authority — for the Ukrainian government, for the Russian government — is a feeling of betrayal from the United States and Europe that the West allowed the Kremlin to take Crimea without a fight, despite a 1994 agreement between Moscow and the West that ensured Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for it giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weaponry.

“We want the EU, NATO, the United Nations, the United States to take concrete harsh measures against Russia, because that’s the only language that they understand in Moscow. And only then will you have peace,” Afduramanov said. “With all their trickery and tanks, that’s how you have to deal with them.

“If the international community doesn’t enforce the agreements they signed, and protect a country’s territorial integrity, then any country that thinks it’s stronger than another can violate its borders,” he said. “The agreements are worthless.”

In Bakhchisaray, Akhtem Chiygoz, the chain-smoking chairman of the town’s local representative council, who peppers his arguments with expletives, argued that Tatars are the only group that has been consistent in its defense of Ukraine’s integrity since 1991. Yet, he said, the central government in Kyiv had treated Tatars like disloyal subjects, a “fifth column.”

“Of course we’re resentful,” he said. “There’s masked men running around the streets, and all the West wants to do is give Ukraine money?

“For 50 years we fought for our land, fought to return to our motherland. We wanted to believe in your ideals, freedom, democracy. All these ideals that you’ve thrown at us. What’s it done for us?” he said. “The Americans, the Europeans, they’re spitting on us now. If they didn’t want to spit on us, they’d be sending in NATO troops … For your ideals we have to suffer.”

Still, Chiygoz predicted Crimea’s Tatars would find some way to deal with the new Russian authorities.

“I’ve lived under three governments,” he said: Soviet, Ukrainian, now Russian. “We’ll find a way to get through this as well.”

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