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One Year Later, Crimea's Tatars Even Further In The Shadows

Many Crimean Tatars say their rights and traditions have been under attack since the Ukrainian peninsula was annexed by Russia last year. (file photo)

It's not as though Abdureshit Dzhepparov hasn't been kept busy.

Sitting in his flat in the Crimean city of Bilohirsk, about 40 kilometers northeast of the capital Simferopol, the Tatar activist calmly ticks off the meetings he's held with de facto authorities since his son and nephew were abducted last autumn: two talks in October. One in December. Another one in February.

At each meeting, Dzhepparov acknowledges, some small progress is made -- a form signed here, an agreement struck there. He's even met the Moscow-backed leader, Sergei Aksyonov, who promised to personally intervene.

But none of that changes the fact that a half-year later, Dzhepparov is no closer to knowing what happened to his son Islyam Dzhepparov, 19, nephew Dzhevdet Islyamov, 23, or any of the numerous Tatar men who have vanished in the year since Russia seized control of the peninsula on March 18, 2014.

"Soon it will be six months since my son and nephew went missing. There's no trace of them," says Dzhepparov. "I hope they're alive and OK."

Abdureshit Dzhepparov
Abdureshit Dzhepparov

Dzhepparov mentions other men who have vanished, like Timur Shaymardanov and Seyran Zinedinov, friends in their early thirties who had actively opposed the annexation of Crimea. The men disappeared within five days of each other in late May and haven't been heard from since.

Altogether, at least 18 Crimean Tatars have gone missing in the past year, including 39-year-old Reshat Ametov, whose dead and mutilated body was discovered two weeks after he vanished last March. No one has ever been arrested for Ametov's killing or any of the other disappearances.

"It's clear that we've spent the last year as a subject of the Russian Federation," says Dzhepparov.

Intimidation, Pressure

Crimean Tatars, the Turkic native inhabitants of the Black Sea peninsula, have been an imperiled minority since the end of World War II, when they were deported en masse to Central Asia as punishment for alleged Nazi collaboration.

Families began to return in the 1980s, but were stripped of property and land on the peninsula, where ethnic Russians had become the dominant majority.

Even after Crimea became part of Ukraine, Tatars had struggled for greater decision-making autonomy and rights. But now, once again under Moscow's control, Tatars -- who make up just 13 percent of the population on the peninsula -- say their situation has grown even worse.

"Teachers and students have started acting in a really incomprehensible way toward our children," says Gulnara Memetova, an activist and one of the organizers of last year's mass roadside protests against military intervention and annexation by Russia.

"Even though our language is the second official language here, some of our kids have been threatened for using Tatar," she adds. "There have been times when someone has innocently written something in Tatar or Ukrainian, and they're called back and forced to do it again [in Russian]. It's very unpleasant. There are situations where they're picked on for their music, for their culture."

Tatars have lived in Crimea for more than a millennium.
Tatars have lived in Crimea for more than a millennium.

Riza Fazyl, a prolific novelist and the head of the Crimean Tatar Writers Organization, says Tatar literature -- now dependent on Moscow's state committee for ethnic relations and deportees for publication funding -- is facing a slow death under Russian rule.

"There's no reason for joy," says Fazyl, 85. "Only two books in Crimean Tatar got financing for publication last year. We haven't seen any change for the better. We've already suggested six books to be published this year, but they said there's no money."

'Only Negatives'

The peninsula's pro-Russian de facto government has also overseen a crackdown on Tatar media, raiding the ATR television channel and refusing to renew the license of QHA, a popular Tatar news agency.

Cultural gatherings have been largely banned or relegated to distant locations. Many rights groups have been shuttered, and the Mejlis, the highest ruling body of the Crimean Tatars, was stripped of its rights after it called on its followers to boycott the referendum and refused to recognize Russian rule.

Several of the most prominent Mejlis members, including leader Refat Chubarov and the Tatar community's moral standard bearer, Mustafa Dzhemilev, have been banned from the peninsula for five years.

Speaking in Brussels on March 17, Dzhemilev said a climate of fear reigns on the annexed Ukrainian peninsula, where he said "almost zero democratic freedom" remains under the de facto authorities.

Dzhemilev's wife, Safinar, remains in Crimea, separated from her husband and increasingly worn down after a year that she says has brought "only negatives." But she says it's essential that Tatars remain on the land they occupied for more than a millennium, no matter what pressure Russia brings to bear.

"They brought an enormous number of soldiers to the peninsula. An enormous amount of military equipment. The population of Crimea can't expect something positive to come out of that," Dzhemileva says.

"But the very presence of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula is a challenge to that show of force. We are on our land, and the very fact that we're here is already heroism."