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'Just Give Us Our Freedom,' Says Wife Of Exiled Crimean Tatar Leader

Safinar Dzhemileva with her husband, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, in Warsaw last year.

Safinar Dzhemileva with her husband, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, in Warsaw last year.

BAKHCHISARAI, Ukraine -- Mustafa Dzhemilev, the long-time leader of the Crimean Tatars has been banned from the peninsula since Russia annexed the Ukrainian region in March 2014. But his wife, Safinar Dzhemileva, remains in Crimea, living in a large house in Bakhchisarai, the traditional capital of the Crimean Tatar nation.

She welcomed RFE/RL's Mumin Shakirov into her home, pointing out stacks of documents in her husband's study and one of the couple's prized possessions -- a radio presented to her exiled husband by fellow Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

RFE/RL: What are the prospects for you being able to see your husband again here in Bakhchisarai?

Safinar Dzhemileva: It completely depends on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. [When my husband was barred from Crimea] they didn't even give him any document at all. There was no court involvement, no investigation. They simply did not let him in. Guys with guns, wearing masks. You couldn't even see their faces.

RFE/RL: Your husband is now a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in Kyiv. What is he able to do for Crimean Tatars from there?

Dzhemileva: There are several people there [i.e. lawmakers representing Crimea in the Ukrainian parliament]. He travels around the whole world. He pushed through a law saying that we are a native people of Crimea and that without the permission, the agreement, of the native peoples of Crimea, no one has the right to take power or consider this land as theirs. Crimean Tatars know that any annexation, any seizure of foreign territory, is an act of war. It is what we see in Donbas and what happened here when they annexed Crimea. We thought that they were going to deport us or murder us, but they chose a different tactic. They are creating conditions here that are so bad that people would run away on their own to save their children. But only a very small percentage of Crimean Tatars have left Crimea for the mainland. Here, most of us are sitting and waiting.

RFE/RL: What are relations between Crimean Tatars and the de facto authorities in Crimea like now, one year after Russia annexed the peninsula? Do you feel their presence?

Dzhemileva: They are listening in on us. And they are following us. If three people talk somewhere, the FSB [Russia's Federal Security Service] immediately knows everything. They have activated their informers who were stashed all over Crimea. And there are a lot of them.

RFE/RL: Informers? From within the Crimean Tatar community?

Dzhemileva: They have activated people who during the Ukraine period got caught doing something [illegal]. And these people are very helpful [for them]. They are on the hook and now they can be used for various purposes in order to divide our people and create the impression that some part [of the Crimean Tatar community] supports the Russian authorities.

RFE/RL: For nearly two decades, you have been the head of a nongovernmental organization called the League of Crimean Tatar Women. You have refused to register your organization with the Russian authorities. Is it still operating?

Dzhemileva: Our organization's work was based on its connections with public organizations in Ukraine, Turkey.... We worked with the Red Crescent; we worked with diasporas in Romania and Bulgaria. We worked with [the American international development agency] USAID. All of Crimea then was getting foreign aid. Now, everything is cut off. If it's impossible to come and go from Crimea how can we work? Now I come to work and we just keep having the same conversation: When will they leave?

RFE/RL: Are you following the situation in Russia?

Dzhemileva: We are following it very closely. We are watching the ruble, the dollar, the price of oil. All this tells us that Russia has enough problems of its own. Crimea is a burden for them. We wish the Russian people prosperity, economic development, happiness, and that they wouldn't be jealous of other countries, wouldn't want to grab the territory of others. We want them to prosper and live. We love them. But we love them there -- at home, in Russia. Not in Crimea.

RFE/RL: And, finally, what do Crimean Tatars need most now in order to exist under the current circumstances?

Dzhemileva: We don't need anything. We are ready to live on bread and water, without electricity or gas. We are ready to sit here with nothing at all. Just give us our freedom.