Since March 2014, 30 Crimean Muslim Tatars have been imprisoned on charges of “extremism”. Forty-four activists have been abducted, 19 of whom are still missing, while six have been found dead. The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, known as the FSB, is allegedly the main culprit behind these incidents.
For decades, Crimea’s Muslim Tatars have been pinpointed for discrimination by Russia as the Tatars’ opposition of Moscow’s rule and ambitions have made them prime targets.
“I was kidnapped by people in military uniform without insignia. They put a sack over my head and took me away,” an anonymous source told Al Jazeera. “They kept me in a cellar, tortured me and threatened my life. They try to recruit you as an informer. To inform on your own people and betray them.”
We are the soul of this land, the salt of this earth.
Before the invasion of 2014, Crimea was a part of Ukraine, reformed when the Soviet Union broke up into separate states – something that many Russians, including President Vladimir Putin, were unhappy about.
However, since the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014, hostilities against the Muslim Tatar community by Russian authorities have notably increased in episodes of intimidation, aggression, disappearances and even alleged murder.
“After the annexation I was in Crimea and we all witnessed it. It was horrific. Armoured Russian military personnel carriers were driving along the roads. Russian Cossacks were walking the streets intimidating people. Ukrainian citizens had their passports taken and ripped up,” says Evelina Arifova, deputy head of Crimea Civil Blockade.
The current reality of the situation in Crimea, however, means most incidents go unreported by the families of those missing as reprisals from authorities loom over their very existence.
This has also led to tens of thousands of Tatars fleeing north to various parts of Ukraine, seeking safety. Once the majority of the 2.5 million Crimean population, the Muslim Tatar community only accounts for 12 percent today, as Moscow encourages more Russians to move to the region.
Safinar Dzhehmilev refuses to leave her home in Crimea. She says the land belongs to the Muslim Tatars and should remain so. “Our people deserve to live peacefully, happily on our own land…. It would be wrong to abandon this land and leave because it’s our ancestral home.”
In 2018, the Crimean Bridge, a project linking Crimea with the Russian mainland, was inaugurated by Putin himself, as a symbolic gesture of presence and unification. The Tatars, devastated by the blatant disregard for ownership of their land, continue to hope for the release of those held by Russian authorities, while others pray for the ones they know nothing of.
By Jamie Doran
In the early hours of February 23, 2014, President Putin met his security chiefs at the Kremlin to discuss the collapsing pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine. Agreeing to provide Yanukovich with a safe haven in Russia, he then remarked to those present: “We must start working on returning Crimea to Russia.”
Less than a month later, Crimea was formally incorporated into the Russian Federation after a hastily-arranged and internationally condemned referendum.
Since then, Crimea has been conveniently forgotten by the outside world. Yes, there are sanctions in place; but, in reality, there seems to be a feeling abroad that Russia has completed a fait accompli by taking the peninsula by force, so why bother any more. But there are important factors which the world needs to be made aware of – which is why I decided to make this film.
It’s almost certainly true to say that, simply by weight of population numbers, any referendum would have seen the majority ethnic-Russian voters victorious in their desire to secede to Moscow. However, the presence of thousands of heavily-armed Russian troops at the time of the referendum in 2014 made any voting process a farce.
But the most important factor is not to do with that vote almost five years ago. It has to do with Russia’s apparent inability to allow peaceful, democratic opposition to its annexation of Crimea. Russia fears the voice of opposition, it always has, and it crushes it in the most violent way.
Until I began this film, I, like most people around the globe, knew virtually nothing of the plight of Crimean Tatars. I knew nothing about their history of deportations from their homeland over the centuries, nor of their struggle to return, time after time. Most significantly, I knew nothing of their present struggle against the might of the Russian security services.
A majority in the 19th century, today these Muslim Tatars make up around 12 percent of the peninsula’s population of two-and-a-half-million. But it is to this minority that the mantle of protest has been passed. Almost exclusively, it is the Crimean Tatar population that continues to draw attention to what they call the “illegal occupation”, and they are paying a dreadful price at the hands of Russia’s FSB.
Almost 50 young Tatar men and women have disappeared since the annexation. Some managed to escape and brought with them terrible tales of torture and intimidation. Others were not that fortunate – their bodies turning up in shallow graves (with signs of horrendous torture). The rest have, simply, never been seen again. We spoke with several of the parents, distraught at the fate of their children, yet determined to carry on.
This is an extraordinarily defiant group: the most significant trait among the Tatars is their refusal to give up hope on all fronts and a determination never to bow in the face of superior odds. Against all the threats, all the inducements offered by Moscow, few will ever abandon their claim to their homeland.
I am a Russophile. I used to live in Moscow and genuinely love many aspects of Russian culture. There have been so many awful episodes of Russian history where it has had to fight off invaders, and its people have remained strong. Why, then, does it fail to understand others who oppose the invader?
It’s time for Russia to stop wielding its “iron fist”. Instead of its obsession with building bridges across the Black Sea, it’s time for Russia to build bridges towards the Crimean Tatar community. Although they stand little chance of ever reversing the result of that referendum, it’s time for Russia to recognise the Tatar’s democratic right to peacefully oppose, without the threat of torture and death.