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  The Crimean Tatars

The Crimean Tatars are a displaced people. For love of their homeland, against huge odds, they are now returning to The Crimea to rebuild their lives.
By Renart Saranayer  
  The Crimean Tatars are the descendants of the native Crimean population and of the Tatars who occupied the peninsula in the thirteenth century. Since Crimea was first annexed by the Russian empire in 1783, the Crimean Tatars have repeatedly been subjected to persecution. Stalin's repressive measures against the Tatars culminated in the 1944 deportation of the entire Tatar population. Many of the deportees were women, children, and elderly people; an estimated 194,000 Tatars did not survive the deportation. After the war, the Tatars were to become a nation of slaves. They were denied access to higher education and reduced to working as labourers. They were not allowed to serve in the military and were denied personal identification documents. And they were forbidden to leave their places of exile. After Stalin's death, these restrictions were lifted, but the Tatars were still not permitted to return to Crimea.

The dispersed Crimean Tatar population nonetheless strove to return to its homeland. Petitions, rallies, and demonstrations on a scale unprecedented in the Soviet Union attracted the world's attention to the plight of the Crimean Tatars. Individual families that tried to return were routinely persecuted and sent back into exile. Mustafah Dzhemilev, for many years a Gulag prisoner, became the leader of the Crimean Tatar movement.

In 1991, the Republic of Ukraine began administrative and financial measures to make possible the return of the Crimean Tatars, whom Ukraine sees as allies in its dispute with Russia over Crimea. Some 200,000 individuals have already returned and another 300,000 are planning to do so. 1991 also saw a meeting of the Crimean Tatars' 262-member representative body, the Kurultai, to elect the 33-member executive body, the Mejlis. The Mejlis is based in Simferopol, but its representatives are active everywhere Crimean Tatars live.

Not far from Simferopol lies a construction site several hectares in area. Nearly one hundred Crimean Tatar families live in tents or temporary shelters at the site. From dawn to dusk, they pour cement foundations and build brick walls for the houses they hope to finish before winter comes. "I have only one dream now", the 60 year old Aesat Mustafayev tells me. "That the sunset be late". Mustafayev lived in Uzbekistan for nearly forty years. "I sold everything for pennies, packed up, gathered my family, and moved here. My father recently died, at the age of 91, but was happy to die here in our homeland".

We don't want a war... Crimean Tatars from Alushta have filed 2,200 applications for land with the authorities. So far, the authorities have granted us three apartments.
At the neighbouring construction site a young pregnant woman, Leila Mustafayeva, cooks dinner on a camp stove. Her parents had returned to Crimea some years earlier; though the police deported them twice, they kept coming back. "We had no right to attend school because we had not been registered as inhabitants. But the school principal, a Russian, admitted us on his own authority. In 1987, the authorities spread the rumour that the Tatars were going to murder the Russians. My Russian schoolmates would ask me, 'Are you going to come one night and cut our throats?' I always answered, 'Think for yourself, is that possible?'". Leila's husband, Edem, had to hide the fact of his nationality in order to finish his medical studies. Both of his parents had been repeatedly imprisoned for 'transgressions against regulations'. I ask Leila and Edem if they are afraid that persecution might begin again. They laugh. "We have survived so much, we no longer fear anything".

This beautiful field, filled with young people measuring plots for their future homes, has been illegally occupied by Crimean Tatars. The authorities have long refused to grant land to Tatars. Their patience exhausted, Tatars simply began to build without permission in several areas. The authorities try to chase them away and incite the local Russian populations against them, but the Crimean Tatars refuse to yield.

Whenever possible, the Crimean Tatars buy houses from Russians legally. I visited two artists, Zarema Trofimova and Alim Usinov, who bought a small house two years ago near Bakhchisaray from a Russian woman whom they call Aunt Mary. "Aunt Mary", says Zarema, "knew the Tatar language, Tatar cuisine and even some songs that we had not known. She comes to see us sometimes. The Russians who lived here before the war treat us well. It is the authorities who instigate Russians to hate us and who cultivate racism in order to prevent our return".
  Alim was raised in an orphanage. When he was 18, he went to the railroad station to where his family had been deported, and there he learned how his parents had died. Zarema was four years old when she and her parents were deported. The soldiers did not let them take her two year-old brother from the nursery. Zarema is still searching for him, so far without success. Both Alim and Zarema teach in the Arts Academy in Tashkent. "Compared to Tashkent, Crimea is a remote, provincial place. Even in the cities in Crimea, gas and indoor plumbing are rare. It is impossible to find work commensurate with one's education. Returning to our homeland means exchanging relative prosperity for poverty, but all of us are returning", explains Zarema. She and Alim are building a large house; once they bring their children to Crimea next year, they will settle here for good. Alim, busy pouring the foundation, has no time to talk to journalists. He shouts to me from the pit, "The entire USSR is falling apart and we are building!"

Tatar settlements in Crimea have not gone unopposed. Violence erupted this past summer at a settlement near the coastal city of Alushta. I visited the settlement not long after the incident. The young man showing me around explained what happened.
"The state should not use the army against its own citizens. .The decision to raze our camp on August 8 must have been made very high up". "Russians now live in the houses that had been confiscated from Tatars years ago. We don't want to take those houses from them. All we want is bare land. The authorities haven't given us any. It's as if they want to provoke us into trying to take our houses back from the Russians, which would spark a civil war. We don't want a war Crimean Tatars from Alushta have filed 2,200 applications for land with the authorities. So far, the authorities have granted us three apartments. After two years of waiting, we finally announced that we would take the land ourselves. There was no answer from the authorities.

"On July 5, we set up our tents here. The next day, a drunken policeman arrived and scolded us. On July 8, the Alushta city council voted unanimously to remove us. They sent telegrams to the sovkhozes around asking the workers to come and chase us away. The sovkhoz directors held meetings on the 10th to explain to the workers that the Tatars are their enemy, then the workers were loaded on to buses, during working hours, and driven over here. Two hundred workers surrounded the 200 of us. Behind them were policemen and special riot forces. We called to them by loudspeaker. "Why have you come? We have no claims against the local inhabitants. Go home". They answered, by loudspeaker, by reading prepared statements. "We want you out of here".
  We talked with them this way for a while, then the OMON troops attacked. They beat up a 17 year old girl, they smashed a 13 year old boy in the head, and they destroyed our tents. We put up new tents of course, as well as small brick houses which are harder to destroy. On August 8, the OMON and SPECNAZ troops surrounded our camp again and attacked. That was when three of our boys, Ural Baygooldin, Ibrahim Smaylov and Dilaver Tokhtarov, poured gasoline on themselves and threatened to set themselves ablaze if the attackers came another step closer. That stopped them. Talks started and negotiations are underway between our delegates and representatives of the town. There have been no results yet. They still have not granted us land, and meanwhile the winter is getting closer and closer. We will probably have to spend it in the tents".

I ask him if the Tatar settlers are afraid of the local residents. "Peasants from around here frequently come to chat, one even brings us food. We tell them that we are fighting a common enemy, the communist bureaucracy. The Russians reply, "You're right; Russians who refuse to bow down to the authorities do not get permission to build either". But anything could happen. Nothing takes place without permission. They can organise a pogrom against us, like the one in Yalta. Notice that it was not just policemen who took part on August 8 that would have been normal. Military units participated as well. The state should not use the army against its own citizens. The SPECNAZ troops are marines under the command of the Black Sea Fleet in Simferopol. The decision to raze our camp on August 8 must have been made very high up".
  Contact can be made with the Crimean Tatar movement by writing to: Renart Saranayer, perculok Turistov, 11 333024 Simferopol. Crimea, Ukraine.
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