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Crimean Tatars, Still Living In Shadow Of 1944, Invoke Fears Of Ethnic Cleansing

Crimean Tatars gather for the funeral of Reshat Ametov -- whose naked, bound, and apparently tortured body was discovered outside Simferopol -- on March 18.
Crimean Tatars gather for the funeral of Reshat Ametov -- whose naked, bound, and apparently tortured body was discovered outside Simferopol -- on March 18.

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea -- Khatidzhe, an elderly Tatar woman living in a small, shabby house in the suburbs of the Crimean capital, admits she suffers from the occasional memory lapse in her old age.

But there are some things she'll never forget. The German soldiers who locked her family in a room and used their house as lodging during World War II. The chilly suspicion of locals when she and fellow Tatars were later deported to Uzbekistan by Soviet authorities as purported Nazi collaborators. And her anguish when she returned to Crimea in 1991 only to realize her childhood home in the coastal town of Alushta had been seized and long since given away to Russian occupants.

"They didn't give us anything! No compensation at all. They kept making promises, but it never went anywhere," Khatidzhe says.

"Our old house is still there. I can't go around trying to get it back. It's pointless," she continues. "I can't walk. I had a brother; he died five years ago. He could have fought for it, as the direct heir. I'm an heir too, but I can't walk. For something like that you have to walk and walk and walk."

WATCH: Khatidzhe discusses her fears for Crimea's Tatars.

Crimean Tatar Woman Fears War
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Stories like Khatidzhe's are depressingly uniform among Crimean Tatars, who have seen their historic claim to the Black Sea peninsula repeatedly and brutally violated ever since the territory was brought under Russian control in the late 18th century -- peaking with Josef Stalin's mass deportations in 1944.

Now, with Russia's militarized annexation of the territory, many Crimean Tatars who returned home in the wake of the Soviet collapse fear the cycle is starting again -- a 21st-century ethnic cleansing, using violence, harassment, and isolation to drive Tatars off their native land once and for all.

Ukraine's Border Service reports that as many as 1,000 people have fled Crimea "under duress" since the March 16 referendum on joining Russia after 60 years as part of Ukraine. Some officials put the number as high as 1,600.

Not all are Tatars -- Kyiv officials say Ukrainians and even some of the peninsula's ethnic Russian majority are among the mix. But Crimean Tatars, as Muslim non-Slavs with few legal protections, are considered the most vulnerable.

Tatars Fear Repeat Of History

Many Tatars, who make up roughly 15 percent of Crimea's population of about 2 million, have already reported having their front doors marked with special insignia designating their ethnic identity. The disappearance and killing of Reshat Ametov, a 39-year-old Crimean Tatar whose naked, bound, and apparently tortured body was discovered outside Simferopol on the day of the referendum, has fueled fears further -- particularly among those Tatars who, like Ametov, openly supported Ukraine's pro-European Euromaidan protests.

Rustem Skibin, an artist and collector, says he and his family fled their home, a traditional Crimean Tatar house built between Simferopol and Feodosiya, after watching a steady buildup of military hardware and the blackout of local media -- including ATR, the Crimean Tatar TV station. He and his wife traveled to Kyiv. His mother, sister, and her children moved in with friends in Lviv.

"I decided that this whole situation was a threat to my family, to me, to my art," Skibin says. "I decided to leave for Ukraine, and take my family and the small art collection that I had worked really hard over 20 years to put together."

In Kyiv, the 37-year-old Skibin is now working with Crimea SOS, a volunteer organization providing support for residents who have fled the peninsula. (A number of Tatars have moved even farther field, with 32 from Yevpatoriya applying for asylum in EU member Poland.)

Skibin says so far, many Tatars are deeply reluctant to leave their homeland. But that may change as the Crimean government seeks to impose new restrictions on their already marginalized ranks.

Legalized Pogroms?

Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliyev announced this week the government would ask Tatars to vacate illegally occupied land to make way for "social needs." If formalized, the request will target virtually all of Crimea's Tatars, who were denied land rights upon returning to the peninsula in 1991, and have been forced to build makeshift homes on unauthorized property.

Crimean Tatars often build small structures on plots they don't have rights to while they fight for ownership.
Crimean Tatars often build small structures on plots they don't have rights to while they fight for ownership.

Nadir Bekir, a lawyer who heads the Foundation for Research and Support of the Indigenous Peoples of Crimea, says the situation has remained unaltered since the early 1990s, regardless of the political sea changes in Kyiv. "The Communists, the Orange governments, Party of Regions -- nobody did anything," he says. The situation, he adds, has left Crimea's Tatars in a legal black hole that the new authorities will find easy to exploit.

"If any pogroms begin, of course it's possible the Crimean Tatars will resist at first," Bekir says. "I assume that they introduced the issue of vacating the Crimean Tatar settlements in the first place as a way of creating a kind of legal pogrom and the beginning of ethnic cleansing."

The threatened evictions are the first indication that Simferopol's pro-Russian government may not uphold prereferendum pledges of improved representation for Crimean Tatars under Russian rule.

Moscow's 'Divide And Conquer' Strategy

Temirgaliyev -- himself a Kazan Tatar, a related but linguistically distinct group from Crimean Tatars -- has vowed to grant a number of high-ranking positions in the Simferopol government to Crimean Tatar representatives. Russian President Vladimir Putin, after meeting with Ukrainian lawmaker and Crimean Tatar activist Mustafa Dzhemilev, acknowledged Crimean Tatars had been treated "unfairly" in the past and promised to "restore their rights and clear their good name."

Dzhemilev, however, has since been declared persona non grata in Crimea by the Simferopol government. Speaking on March 21 in Kyiv, he said he expected to see local officials attempt to intimidate the tight-knit Crimean Tatar community through a simple strategy of divide and conquer.

Ukrainian lawmaker Mustafa Dzhemilev
Ukrainian lawmaker Mustafa Dzhemilev

"Here in the 21st century, it's unlikely there will be cattle cars and forced deportation like there was in 1944. But there will probably be pressure, repression, attempts to destroy those members of the Crimean Tatar political elite who won't bow down to the occupying power," Dzhemilev said. "My guess is that they're going to put a lot of work into trying to drive a wedge between the Crimean Tatars, by luring at least a certain faction to join their side."

Crimean Tatars, who take their cue not from the Simferopol government but from their own Mejlis political assembly, largely boycotted the March 16 referendum, and hotly dispute Russia's claim that nearly a third of the reported 97 percent returns in favor of Russian unification came from Tatar voters.

Still, Ali Hamzin, the heads of the Mejlis's external-relations department, says many in the community were willing to accept the fact that their homeland was being strong-armed back under Russian control in exchange for stability and security. Now, he says angrily, all bets are off.

"Putin spoke to Mustafa Dzhemilev and made a big show of promising to guarantee the safety of the Crimean Tatars. At some point we made peace with the fact that Russia was going to use its military strength to annex Crimea," Hamzin says. "Now we want Putin to prove that he wasn't deceiving us when he promised Crimean Tatars that everything would be OK."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by Andrei Sharogradsky in Simferopol. Tom Balmforth and Vitaliy Portnikov also contributed from Kyiv

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Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Crimea?

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