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Fear Rife Among Crimea's Minority Tatar Population

Crimean Tatars: We Don't Want To Join A Police State
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WATCH: Crimean Tatars Say They Don't Want To Join A Police State

BAKHCHYSARAY, Ukraine -- Nurie -- a 48-year-old Tatar woman in the central Crimean town of Bakhchysaray -- was sitting in her home this week when a group of Russian-speaking Crimean men came walking down her street with truncheons.

One of the men had a list that appeared to contain the names and addresses of Tatars in the area -- a neighborhood called Aqchuqraq where most residents are either Crimean Tatars or ethnic Kazakhs.

Next door, Nurie's Tatar neighbor Ava had just returned from picking up her 7-year-old son from school.

Ava could see the men checking their list and marking the gates of houses where Crimean Tatar families live. As the men approached her, brandishing their truncheons, Ava ran inside with her son to hide.

The men didn't follow. But they scratched an ominous "X" into the front gates of both Ava's and Nurie's homes -- filling in the marks with white chalk before leaving.

"My neighbor who saw them was so scared and tried to hide in her house immediately. She called me. We went outside and saw the mark on our doors also," Nurie said.

"Those people were gone. The door is scratched by a screwdriver. There also were marks made by chalk but we've washed them off. The scratches still remain."

Ava called local police to report the incident. But Nurie says authorities can do nothing to ease the growing fears of Crimean Tatars who say their community is being intimidated by gangs of pro-Russia thugs.

Interview: The Legalities Of Annexation

The Muslim indigenous Tatars of Crimea have historical experiences to justify their fears -- especially since Russian forces were deployed in the peninsula on February 28.

It is within living memory of Crimea's oldest generation that Moscow ordered the "Surgunlik" -- a Crimean Tatar term for "exile" that refers to the forced deportation of most Crimean Tatars during World War II.

Server says Crimean Tatars will never accept annexation.
Server says Crimean Tatars will never accept annexation.
Under orders of Soviet ruler Josef Stalin and Soviet secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars were loaded onto cattle trains in 1944 and moved from Crimea to other parts of the Soviet Union -- mostly to Uzbekistan or Siberia.

At the same time, most Crimean Tatar men in the Soviet Red Army were pulled from the fight against the Nazis and sent to forced labor camps in Siberia or in the Ural mountains.

That history looms strongly in Nurie's mind. Her parents were both among those sent to Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley where she was born.

Tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars died of thirst or starvation during the first week of the poorly organized state-run deportation. About half of all "Surgunlik" deportees -- more than 100,000 -- died by the end of 1946.

Crimean Tatar activists today are campaigning to have the Surgunlik recognized around the world as genocide.

Returning Home

It was only in the late 1980s that Nurie and other Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to their Crimean homeland. By then, both of Nurie's parents had died in Uzbekistan.

When Nurie arrived in Bakhchysaray, the historic seat of the Crimean Tatar Khanate in the 1500s, she found that most Tartar homes vacated by the mass deportations of 1944 had since been occupied by ethnic Russians.

To accommodate the thousands of Tatars who were returning to Bakhchysaray, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a new "Sixth District" was built with more than 1,000 households -- almost all Tatar families.

A Crimean Tatar arrives for Friday Prayers at the Khan Chair mosque in Bakhchysaray.
A Crimean Tatar arrives for Friday Prayers at the Khan Chair mosque in Bakhchysaray.
Following reports of Russian-speaking thugs marking Tatar homes, fears of Tatars in the Sixth District of Bakhchysaray were stoked on March 5 when two masked gunmen broke into the home of a Tatar couple.

Suin, a 50-year-old resident there, told RFE/RL the culprits spoke "in clear Russian" and ransacked his place, destroying their property. He said the intruders did not steal anything. But they threatened Suin and his wife at gunpoint before fleeing.

The next day -- after Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia and hold a regional referendum to confirm the move -- neighborhood fears were fueled further when men in a car with license plates from eastern Ukraine were seen photographing the homes of Crimean Tatars.

Sixth District resident Server is a Crimean Tatar in his mid-50s whose parents were among those deported to Uzbekistan from Bakhchysaray in 1944.

Server says Crimean Tatars will never accept an annexation of Crimea by Russia -- regardless of the results in Crimea's regional referendum on the issue on March 16.

"They deported us once. They also deported the Chechens and they deported us. We don't trust them. Ukraine has been helping us. Not much, but still, it was help," Server said.

Yakub, a child of Surgunlik survivors who returned to Bakhchysaray after his parents died, agrees with Server.

"We don't want to join Russia because it's a police state. These new Crimean authorities -- the government and the parliament -- are relying on military force only. They ask nobody when they make their decisions," Yakub said.

So far, there hasn't been a mass exodus of Tatars from Crimea. But hundreds have left for western Ukraine or have taken boats to Turkey where they have visa-free entry rights.

In the meantime, the Tatar communities in Bakhchysaray have set up neighborhood patrols to keep an eye out for armed Russian speakers who they say are either trying to scare them into leaving, or to provoke violence that could be used by Russian forces to justify a crackdown against Tatars across the peninsula.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague, with reporting by RFE/RL Tatar-Bashkir Service correspondents Dilewer Osman and Nail Khissamiev in Bakhchysaray, Ukraine.

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