Tartars in fear of brutal Russians’ return

Published by The Daily Mail (4th March, 2014)

At four o’clock in the morning Zodiye Saliyeva’s mother was ordered out of her home at gun point, along with her three sisters and all their neighbours in Yalta. Forced to leave their possessions, they were herded into a school before being crammed on to railway containers and despatched thousands of miles away to Uzbekistan.

For they were Tartars – and the people that did this to them 70 years ago were Russian soldiers, acting under orders from Stalin to clear the Crimea of all its original inhabitants whom he accused falsely of collaboration with the Nazis. Nearly half died of disease, hunger or in the ‘crematoria on wheels’, while mosques were destroyed and properties confiscated. 

These shameful expulsions were merely the most brutal chapter in a bloodstained history of Russian and Soviet atrocities against the Tartars. Now these blighted people – who returned only after the break-up of the Soviet Union – find themselves trapped in the nightmare of confronting Russian forces once again.

They are the most vocal opponents in Crimea of the Russian invasion – and for people such as Zodiye, a friendly grandmother of seven, these are terrifying times. ‘This feels very scary – we have seen all this before,’ she told me yesterday. ‘When my mother talked about what happened she always had tears in her eyes. Now I am worried for my children and grandchildren.’

Such fears are understandable for this 270,000-strong Muslim minority, which represents one in seven Crimeans. They have lived in the region since arriving with Genghis Khan seven centuries ago.

Most of the rest are Russians, who started arriving after Catherine the Great annexed the peninsula in 1783. They have largely welcomed the intervention – but now tensions between the communities are growing as President Putin ratchets up pressure.

Pro-Russian activists have been holding up pictures and collecting cash for the families of two people who died in protests last week. Talk to them, and they soon start alleging Tartars used tear gas and carried knives – claims that are far from proven.

Yesterday 200 Tartar women held a demonstration for peace in Kamenka, a suburb of the regional capital Simferopol. Along with their children, they clutched balloons in the colours of Ukraine and held banners saying, ‘Putin: our children are afraid of your protectors’ and ‘Do not kill’.

Afterwards, in a symbolic show of support, they took food to Ukrainian troops blockaded by Russian forces in bases at Perevalne and Bakhchisaray. There has been hardly any other conspicuous opposition in Crimea to Moscow’s power play.

Tartar leaders refuse to acknowledge the new ‘puppet government’ in Crimea, which has been formed by pro-Russian militants and is pushing hard for a separatist referendum. Self-defence groups have been formed to protect communities, who have long complained of police harassment and economic discrimination.

Tartar leaders have urged the community not to respond to Russian provocation, fearing this is precisely what Putin wants to justify his invasion. But one local journalist said they were well-organised and could get thousands on the streets of Simferopol within one hour.

Yet they accept they cannot fight one of the world’s best-equipped armies; indeed, Tartars are renowned for a record of non-violent resistance. Instead they have appealed for help to the international community.

‘We are very worried because we are not safe and this could lead to war,’ said a spokesman for the Mejlis of the Crimean Tartar People, their representative body.

Others put it more starkly. ‘If there is a conflict we will be the first to suffer,’ said Usein Sarano. ‘This could be the new Yugoslavia.’

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