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Ukraine: Crimean Tatars Begin Protest March

Crimean Tatars began a protest march today on the anniversary of their expulsion from the Crimean peninsula during World War Two in an effort to bring attention to their contemporary complaints.

Prague, 6 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The story is a familiar one in Eastern Europe.

A distraught women tells how she and her family were expelled from their home in the middle of the night and left with nothing:

"At 3:00 am, while our children were fast asleep, soldiers burst in and ordered us to get our things together and leave our home in five minutes. We weren't allowed to take any food or possessions with us."

A Kosovo refugee?

No, these lines are from Roy Medvedev's "Let History Judge" about the Tatar expulsion from the Crimean peninsula more than 50 years ago.

As ethnic cleansing continues apace in the Balkans, Crimean Tatars today began a highly visible demonstration intended to highlight their plight after being cleansed from their homeland in the days of World War Two.

Crimean Tatars are taking part in a national march on the peninsula and plan to converge on the city of Simferopol on May 18. The march is intended to draw attention to the poor living conditions for Tatars who have returned to the Crimea, now part of Ukraine, and to remind the world of a time when Tatars were uprooted from their homeland solely based on their ethnicity.

The modern story of the Crimean Tatars begins during World War Two, when the peninsula was occupied by German troops. After the Germans retreated, Moscow began to suspect the Tatar population of wavering loyalty. In a three-day operation, all the Crimean Tatars were packed into trains and shipped eastward to the Urals, Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Tens of thousands never made it to their destination alive.

The areas the Tatars were shipped to were primitive and had few signs of Soviet modernization. The existing populations were often hostile to the newcomers. Tatars died by the thousands of disease and starvation. Amir Asan Karayev, who was just three years old at the time, remembers the deportations and life in Uzbekistan after the Tatars arrived.

"Oh, I remember that well because after I came to the camp we lived by the railroad and there were these bloated bodies, Crimean Tatars. There was a cart-driver ... my father forced him to take the bodies to the cemetery. We were busy with this all week. There was a lot of death. My aunt had seven children, six of them died, only a girl survived."

Some say as many as half the Crimean Tatars died during the deportations and the first year after arriving at their new homes. Those who survived were kept in resettlement areas by the Soviet internal passport system, which prohibited moving without permission.

Crimean Tatars were given the possibility to return to their native homeland in 1987. Since then about 270,000 have done so. But on the peninsula where they once comprised a majority, they now make up only 12 percent of the population.

In such a political atmosphere, the Crimean Tatars say they are ignored and discriminated against. They say a new Crimean constitution, adopted at the end of last year, fails to guarantee them a certain number of seats in the Crimean government as a previous constitution did.

This, they say, effectively excludes them from government as many of the returning Tatars do not have Ukrainian citizenship and thus cannot vote or run in elections.

The adoption of the new constitution seems to have sparked a new round of violence against Tatars. This year alone, several mosques have been burned and graveyards and a monument to the Tatar expulsion have been vandalized.

Those are only the most visible signs of trouble. Ordinary Tatars say life is difficult at the most basic level: finding housing and jobs, obtaining education, or listening to radio or television in their native language.

Some Tatars have said Crimea should leave Ukraine and join Russia -- a sentiment that leaves them exposed to criticism by non-Tatar politicians.

The speaker of Crimea's parliament, Leonid Grach, publicly accuses members of the Crimean Tatar National Assembly of engaging in what he calls "national radicalism." The Tatar assembly is a consultative body which is not officially recognized by authorities.

The deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatar National Assembly, Julvern Abljamitov, though, rejects any claim that he or other assembly members are calling for radical solutions. He told RFE/RL his group is looking for answers to basic problems:

"First, I will say that the speaker of parliament is a practiced, prominent specialist in the manipulation of terminology. There is no national radicalism among Crimean Tatars, and moreover, neither the Crimean Tatars nor the Kuriltai (National Assembly) are the part of the population with a radical approach to the problems of nationalism. We are demanding laws which are helpful to our people, and a solution to the problems here in the Crimea. If this is not done it is not our problem, it should be that of the speaker."

Abljamitov says if the authorities do not pay attention to demands of the Tatars they will continue their protests. He says there's even a plan to demonstrate in front of the council of ministers if necessary.

That's what Crimean Tatars who are on the march today want the world to see. They arrive in Simferopol in twelve days, marching in eight separate columns. Once there they plan to assemble on Lenin Square at noon to hold a protest meeting.

(Ferit Agi of the Tatar-Bahskir Service contributed to this feature)