26 февраля 2015 15:25

Crimean Tatars living in fear in homeland ruled by Russia


 The day after her husband was arrested, Elvira Ablyalimova woke up to find her home in Crimea surrounded by snipers while a squad of men combed through her belongings for 10 hours, letting nobody in or out.

 The day after her husband was arrested, Elvira Ablyalimova woke up to find her home in Crimea surrounded by snipers while a squad of men combed through her belongings for 10 hours, letting nobody in or out.

Russia's takeover of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine a year ago was hailed by many ethnic-Russian locals, but for Ablyalimova and others from the indigenous Crimean Tatar minority, the new rulers have brought little but fear.

Ablyalimova's husband Akhtem Chiygoz is a deputy head of the Tatars' traditional decision-making assembly, the Mejlis.

But he is now under arrest for allegedly organising riots, inciting violence and committing involuntary manslaughter. And those charges are only part of a sweeping probe that has already seen over 150 people questioned and saw Ablyalimova's family home raided in January.

"It's purely by chance that our children weren't here" during the search, Ablyalimova said, sipping tea in her living room in Bakhchysaray, Crimea's ancient capital.

A Muslim community that comprises about 13 percent of the province's population, the Crimean Tatars were opposed to Moscow's takeover from Ukraine.

They boycotted en masse the hastily-organised March referendum in which the pro-Russian majority voted to join Russia.

Native to the peninsula, the Crimean Tatars were brutally deported to Central Asia in 1944 by Joseph Stalin for alleged collaboration with the invading Nazis during World War II.

The return of Russian rule has triggered anxiety.

"After the Russian authorities came to Crimea, things that had never happened in Crimea before started to happen," said Mejlis member Ilmi Umerov, a longtime head of the Bakhchysaray district who quit when it moved under Moscow's control.

"These actions are meant to teach us loyalty to these authorities."

Umerov said four young men remain missing after suspected kidnappings and that four others who disappeared were later found dead.

    Living in fear 

 Crimean Tatar survivors of Stalinist repression were not allowed to return and settle on the peninsula until the 1990s, when they began building fragile cooperation with the post-Soviet Ukrainian authorities.

But now, their homeland doesn't feel much like home anymore. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Tatars have opted to leave, heading to mainland Ukraine, Umerov said.

"In every Crimean Tatar family there is a feeling of fear and lack of security while living in our own homeland," Ablyalimova said, listing "disappearances, sadistic murders... attacks on media, and arrests on trumped-up charges."

The probe against Chiygoz stems from a rally the Mejlis called on February 26 last year near the Crimean parliament, just hours before heavily armed soldiers in unmarked uniforms occupied the building, raised the Russian flag and forced the lawmakers to vote for installing a new pro-Russian government.

Clashes broke out when pro-Russian activists turned up at the same location. Footage shows two groups facing off, ignoring calls for order, yelling "Referendum!" or "Crimea is not Russia!" In the ensuing disorder, two people died.

However, the probe only targets Crimean Tatars and applies Russian law to events that preceded Russia's jurisdiction, Ablyalimova said. "It was a different reality, a different state," she said incredulously, calling the case illegal.

The authorities say that arrests and searches are well-founded and directed against political troublemakers rather than Crimean Tatars as a whole.

    Media targeted 

 The office of the Mejlis has been sealed off and key members banned from entering Crimea, making Skype the only means to discuss important issues, said Umerov. The Tatar media also faces difficult times.

"Most of us are shocked by what happened in Crimea. Those who could not get over the shock have left," said Liliya Budzhurova, deputy director of the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR and also a reporter for AFP.

Those who stayed "made a difficult choice", she said, to live in what is essentially a hostile environment in which the channel must employ self-censorship if it wants to survive.

Last month ATR's premises were stormed by 50 Russian police who searched every workstation and employee and seized footage of the February 26 events, she said, calling the force used during the raid "intimidation".

The channel was openly pro-Ukrainian before, but recent Russian anti-extremism and separatism legislation has forced it to cut potentially compromising terminology from coverage, she said. They even avoid mentioning that Crimea was until a year ago part of Ukraine.

She described the process as having "scissors inside our heads".

"Occupation, annexation: these terms have been fully excluded from our vocabulary," she said.

The prospects for ATR look dismal. The new governor of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said this month that the peninsula does not need "enemy media."

But closing down the world's only Crimean Tatar-language channel would be a global scandal and go against everyone's interests, Budzhurova said.

"For half a century we didn't have the right to speak, listen and read in our national language and to rob us of that right would be a repeat tragedy," she said, vowing to stay and work in Crimea no matter what.

"I cannot breathe here, but I will not leave, because it is my homeland," she said. "I will not leave, even if they blow up a nuclear bomb."

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