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Threatened in their homeland: Crimean Tatars after the annexation

“Don’t forget about Crimea”, as Mustafa Dzhemilev, the spiritual leader of the Crimean Tatar community told Breitbart News on 5 August 2014 when appealing to the international community. While all eyes are now on the rising conflict forming along the border between Russia and Ukraine, there is no attention given anymore to the lives of Crimean Tatars that are now forced to live in an occupied territory after the annexation of Crimea in March of 2014 by the Russian Federation . The Tatars, a minority group that makes up 13% of the people living on the peninsula, as reported by The Guardian on 24 November 2014, are now concerned about Russia’s recent actions and fear for the autonomy of their community.

This concern about Russian actions against their ethnic group is grounded in history. The Crimean Tatars are the indigenous habitants of the peninsula. From the 15th to the 18th century, they had their own state and were an autonomous community. While the region was annexed by Catherine the Great in 1784, the Tatars held on to their own culture. However, in 1944, Stalin ordered for all the Tatars inhabiting the peninsula to be deported –191.000 people- to Central Asia. Only in 1990 were the remaining Tatars allowed back into Crimea. Now, having managed to gain some forms of autonomy granted by the government of Kiev, the homeland that the Tatars have fought for for so long, was threatened again in March 2014. While most of the population in Crimea welcomed the new rule, the Tatars massively opposed the annexation. In an interview with VICE news on 2 April 2014, Lilya Khalilova, a Crimean Tatar living in the region, tried to explain the hopelessness that is growing among the Tatars: “It’s a fight between two peoples, the Russians and the Ukrainians. They can’t share Crimea, you know? They don’t consider Tatars at all, since they are a minority”. The turnout of Tatars in regards to the important referendum that would decide the fate of the peninsula reflected these feelings, since it was only 30%, as The Guardian reported on 24 November 2014. People felt as if the decision had already been made for them. Refat Chubarov, the chairman of the Mejlis, the governing body of the Tatars, stated in an interview with The Guardian on 13 March 2014: “This referendum is a humiliation. What is a choice while staring down the barrel of a gun?”.  Subsequently, the community did not participate in the elections that took place on the 14th of September. Now, Crimea is part of Russia. However, have the lives and autonomy of Crimean Tatars been taken care of after involuntarily becoming part of Russia?

 Certainly not. Mustafa Dzhemilev  describes it as “more dire than under Soviet power” in an interview with BuzzFeed news on September 27, 2014. Their autonomy is diminishing every day, on various grounds outlined by The Economist on September 17 2014. Firstly, the leaders of the Crimean Tatars are not allowed back into the peninsula after attending meetings in Kiev. The leaders in question, Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov are now banned from entering Crimea for 5 years. This decision was made on the grounds that they were allegedly engaging in extremist behavior. Now, the books of Dzhemilev  are even banned in Crimea, isolating the Tatars from their leaders, beliefs and culture. Secondly, schools, mosques and community centers were raided and searched by the heavily armed  “Special Purpose Police”, based on the same grounds: extremist behavior. Subsequently, before the referendum took place, Crimean Tatars expressed fears that their freedom of speech would be taken away by the Russians. In an interview with VICE news on 2 April 2014, Amed Yunusov, a Crimean Tatar, explained: “No freedom of speech exists in Russia. In Ukraine there is, but in Russia I feel there is not. We are afraid we won’t have this freedom of speech in Russia”. Sadly, fear became reality. The only media channel of the Tatars is struggling to be kept on air. Channels that expressed anti-Russian sentiments have been replaced by pro-Russian channels, and journalists have suffered physical attacks. The situation now has become so dire, that  Mustafa Mustafaev, a Crimean Tatar whose grandmother experienced the deportation in 1944, compares the situation to the deportation in an interview with the Financial Times on 4 November 2014. “My grandmother was given no more than 15 minutes to pack her things when they took her away – at least it hasn’t come to that yet”, he says.  Despite this fear, there is little the Tatars can do now. They have no armed forces and do not consist of a population big enough to make a significant difference in the contemporary policies. Still, protests against the Russian occupation are organized in order to get some international attention. Rimma Morozova, a woman that managed to return to Crimea after being deported 50 years ago, is also taking part in the protests by holding a banner with “no war” written on it. She explains to The Guardian on 13 March 2014 that she still has hope that everything will be alright, but that she knows evidence suggests otherwise. Meanwhile the cars that pass by  reflect the attitude of the international community on the conflict: there are few that honk in order to show support, but most cars pass by silently without a second glance.

 This attitude needs to change. Despite the systematical oppression that has become reality for the Crimean Tatars today, their problems are not recognized as the focus in the news lies on different aspects of the conflict. However, voices of people that are being ruled by someone they did not choose themselves, need to be heard. As an unnamed Tatar woman states in an interview with VICE: “Why is it that now, because of the politicians, ordinary people have to suffer?” They do not have to suffer. But that depends on us.

 

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