Thirty years ago, a 47-year-old Crimean Tatar named Musa Mamut poured gasoline over himself and set himself alight.
He lived for five days, eventually dying from his burns on June 28, 1978.
Before dying, he is reported to have said, “I feel the pain of every Tatar who is not allowed to return to his Crimean homeland.”
Mamut was not a particularly nationally active Tatar, but his roots ran deep in the Crimean soil.
Like thousands of other Crimean Tatars, Mamut was driven out of his family home in 1944. As a 13-year-old boy, he was loaded onto a cattle wagon and shipped off to Central Asia. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accused the Crimean Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis. This was their collective punishment.
Together with his family -- his mother, father, five brothers, and two sisters -- Musa was resettled to a collective farm in an area outside Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. During the first years in this new land, both his sisters and two younger brothers died from malnutrition.
During the era of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Crimean Tatars actively pursued a repatriation movement. They gained the support of Soviet dissidents and human rights activists, such as Andrei Sakharov and Petro Grigorenko. As a result of intense lobbying, the Soviet authorities passed a decree in September 1967 exonerating Crimean Tatars from any wrongdoing during World War II.
Tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars began returning home.
Musa Mamut returned to his native Crimea in 1975. He purchased a home in a village outside Simferopol, the peninsula’s capital. However, he was denied a “propiska," the notorious Soviet-era regulation designed to control internal population movement by binding a person to his or her permanent place of residence.
Unable to obtain the necessary residence permit, Mamut was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for violating the propiska rule.
Despite being released from prison nine months early because of his diligence at work and his model behavior, Mamut continued to be harassed by local authotities. Less than a year after his release, new criminal charges were brought against Mamut and his wife.
When the authorities came to take him away, Mamut doused himself with gasoline and lit a match.
Crimean historian Gulnara Bekyrova compares Mamut to the Czech patriot and national hero Jan Palach. Palach also committed suicide by setting himself on fire in January 1969 to protest the crushing of the Prague Spring reforms by Soviet-led troops.
“It is thanks to people like Musa Mamut that we were able to return to Crimea,” she says.
'Musa Loved Crimea'
Mamut became a symbol of Crimean Tatar nationhood. His death galvanized others to return to Crimea, awakening in them a longing for a homeland that some were beginning to forget, says Mustafa Jemilev, leader of the Crimean Tatar council Medjlis. “Musa loved Crimea, his frustration at the injustice suffered by his fellow Tatars compelled him to take this tragic, heroic step."
Mamut’s sacrifice is being remembered in the Crimean Tatar community on the 30th anniversary of his death. A book has been published, and an exhibition featuring photographs, samizdat, leaflets and other memorabilia from Mamut's life are on display in a Crimean Tatar library in Simferopol. Mosques in Crimea and in two additional provinces held memorial services for Mamut on June 27.
More than 300,000 Tatars have returned to Crimea, but local authorities have done little to welcome them home. Land distribution is being stalled, jobs are scarce, and animosity from the communist, pro-Russian Crimean authorities has made for a bitter homecoming for many. Land grabs are common, as are violent reclamations. Angry and frustrated Crimean Tatars have clashed with the authorities.
Thirty years after Musa Mamut committed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, Crimean Tatars are back in Crimea, but they are far from being home.Irene Chalupa is the director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service