History repeats itself in Crimea

In 1944, Stalin declared the Tatars 'traitors'. Now Putin calls them ‘extremists’. Madeline Roache reports

Staring out of the window from her kitchen located in the city of Bakchisarae, central Crimea, Salieva replays in her mind the last exchange that she and her husband had before he was arrested.

The sound of a dozen men storming into the apartment building and running up the stairs broke the quiet of the morning, waking her and her husband, Salyev, up.

‘Are you ready?’ she asked him.

‘I’m ready’ he said.

‘Do you want me to leave Crimea with the children?’, she asked.

'No, don’t go anywhere. We’re going to stay here until the last one of us is forced out.’

Seconds later, the officers kicked down their apartment door.

‘I’ll never forget the sound of my mother-in-law screaming while my husband was being beaten on the floor in our bedroom by 10 officers. My 8-year-old son doesn’t go into that room anymore,’ Salieva tells New Internationalist.

Ayshe Asanova, January 2018.

Last October, Seyran Saliev, a civic journalist and sports trainer, was arrested along with six Crimean Tatar activists, all accused of their involvement in a Sunni Muslim movement, Hizb ut-Tahrir. The movement is banned and considered ‘extremist’ in Russia, but not in Ukraine or most of Europe. The activists are currently in prison in Simferopol, facing sentences that range from five years to life.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of the oldest Ukrainian human rights organizations, there is no evidence to suggest that Hizb ut-Tahrir is connected to terrorism, nor is there any proof that the men were involved in the group. Memorial, an award-winning Russian human rights organization, has described all the activists in custody as political prisoners.

All of the activists were subjected to aggressive searches in their homes by armed, masked officers without legal warrants.

‘For hours, they turned my house upside down looking for weapons and drugs. My children were so scared. One of the officers said to my son, “don’t cry, we’re making a film,”’ said Ayshe Asanova, the wife of a Marlen Asanov, a school teacher and one of the six imprisoned activists.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, Crimean Tatars have become a special target of repression by the occupying authorities. The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority, indigenous to this region, and are among the most virulent opponents to Russian rule. According Crimea SOS, a Ukrainian charity, over 27 Tatars have been imprisoned on false charges of ‘extremism’, 43 activists have been abducted – allegedly by the Russian authorities. Of those, 18 are still missing and 6 have been found dead. As a result, more than 100 Tatar children are now fatherless and many families of the political prisoners are in dire financial straits. At least 30,000 Crimean Tatars have fled the intensifying pressure to other areas of Ukraine, according to Crimea SOS.

Fear and threat loom over Crimean Tatars. Salieva says she looks out of her window often to find officers sitting in their cars, just watching people enter and leave her apartment building. Russia’s Federal Security Service regularly carries out illegal searches in Tatar homes and have taken up to £2,000 (USD$2,770) in money, and also phones and laptops. The political prisoners’ wives have themselves been detained and illegally held.

Salieva and Asanova believe their husbands were targeted because of their active roles in the community.

When the repression began under Russian occupation, Asanov and Saliev helped establish Crimean Solidarity, a civic group supporting families of political prisoners. The group helps buy medicine and clothes for those impacted children. Last year, Asanov received Ukraine’s Volunteer of the Year award for his dedication.

Now, Asanov and Saliev’s wives are financially struggling to meet the needs of their four children.

‘We’re living in a reality, where everything is reversed. Good people are put behind bars and bad people are free,’ says Asanova.

Her children, all under the age of 12, are already beginning to understand this warped logic.

When Asanova’s son, 11 asked her, ‘Why didn’t you hit the men who took dad away?’ her youngest daughter replied, ‘No, it’s a good thing she didn’t hit them, or they would have shot her’. ‘Why would you say that?’ her mother asked, ‘Because they had big guns.’

Muminye Salieva, January 2018.

‘Imagine, a four-year-old already understanding that someone could be shot, if they go against these people. Now, she’s afraid of me going anywhere by myself. I can’t leave the house without her throwing a tantrum. Can you blame her?’ says Salieva.

Under Joseph Stalin, the Crimean Tatars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and in 1944 some 230,000 were deported to Central Asia. Starvation and disease killed more than half of them. The collective trauma of the genocide runs deep in the Tatar community, who have not forgiven Moscow for the horrors their families went though.

After decades of pressure from the Tatar community, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, allowed Tatars to return to Crimea in the 1980s. Like many Crimean Tatars, Saliev and Asanov were born in exile in Uzbekistan and returned to Crimea as teenagers with their families. Today Crimean Tatars make up between 12 and 13 per cent of the peninsula’s population.

Then came the most recent Russian occupation.

‘In 1944, Stalin declared our people “traitors” of the state, and now in 2018, Putin calls us “extremists”. History is repeating itself,’ says Salieva.

When Russian repression began, Asanova asked her husband to consider moving to Turkey where they have family. She recalls her husband’s words, who, just like Saliev, said: ‘My grandparents grew up here. My parents worked so hard to re-build their life here. We are not going anywhere. Especially not when my people are suffering.’

If it is the Russian authority’s intention to break the resolve of the Crimean Tatars, they have not succeeded. Their communal charity and determination to stay in Crimea shows their defiance against Moscow’s repression. As Salieva says, ‘we’ve become more united and no one can take that from us.’

Madeline Roache is a British freelance journalist focusing on human rights issues in the former Soviet Union.