Tatars flee Crimea, fearing persecution

Russia's annexation of Crimea has sent hundreds of the region's ethnic Tatars fleeing the peninsula for western Ukraine. Mustafa Dzhemilev, former chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, said that nearly 1,000 have fled the peninsula since Russian forces took over there some three weeks ago. Dzhemilev decried the exodus, saying, "We did not spend 50 years in exile to be able to now escape under the first threat." Most of the displaced Tatars have made for Ukraine's Kherson Oblast, where there have been reports of Russian military incursions, with a natural gas plant said to be under the control of Moscow's forces. 

The Tatars, a Muslim community of about 300,000, largely boycotted the March 16 referendum on whether the Crimean Peninsua should secede from Ukraine and unite with Russia. Since then, there have been mounting reports of persecution. Crimean Tatars' homes are reportedly being marked with crosses on their doors—a practice that took place under Stalin's rule, in the prelude to the deportation of 200,000 Crimean Tatars to Central Asia in 1944. Tatar leaders also report that local authorities are carrying out unjustified ID checks in the streets of Crimean cities. The few Crimean Tatars who chose not to boycott the referendum were reportedly turned away at the polls, and had their identification papers confiscated. On the other hand, Crimean civil servants were reportedly threatened with the loss of their jobs if they chose to boycott the referendum. (Channel News Asia, March 24; Focus News Agency, March 23; UNPO, March 18; Kyiv Post, March 15)