Crimean Tatars Again Being Erased from History in Their Homeland
by Olena Makarenko, Euromaidan Press
May 18 is commemorated as a memorial day of the victims of the genocide of the Crimean Tatar people. On that day in 1944, Joseph Stalin began an operation to deport the entire population of Crimean Tatars who had survived the German occupation of the peninsula. Over 200,000 Tatars, baselessly accused of collaborating with the Nazis, were expelled in just two days. In packed and locked railroad cattle-cars, and with few provisions or water, they were sent on an arduous journey to remote locations in Central Asia and Siberia. Over 46 percent of the Crimean Tatar people perished during the trip or in the first two years of the exile due to the harsh conditions. A year after the deportation, when World War II ended, demobilized Crimean Tatar soldiers were sent from the Soviet Army directly into exile too.
Only in 1989 did the USSR condemn the deportation, after which the indigenous people of Crimea started returning to their homeland. The deportation was recognized as a genocide by Ukraine in 2015, and afterwards by Latvia, Lithuania and Canada.
The return from deportation did not go smoothly. Crimean Tatars, for whom their land and their home have a special meaning, had to live in temporary shelters when coming back to Crimea. The houses that belonged to them before the deportation were occupied by other people. Most of them met Crimean Tatars with an icy attitude, not allowing those who returned even to buy back their old homes. The Crimean Tatars were forced to start from scratch.
Today, thousands of Crimean Tatars have been forced once again to leave the Crimean peninsula due to the Russian occupation of 2014; hundreds of those who stayed are persecuted.
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Tamila Tasheva, the Crimean Tatar founder of the human rights organization Crimea SOS and deputy permanent representative of the president of Ukraine to Crimea, once told Euromaidan Press that her family, as well as many others, decided to build their own home. However, due to the lack of funds, constructions usually dragged on for long years.
“Many Crimean Tatars faced the same situation in 2014. They had to leave Crimea, but they had just finished building their house. I know that some sold their home with tears on their faces and were forced to move here [onto the Ukrainian mainland] because it is virtually impossible to stay there,” she said.
Nowadays, visiting her home is dangerous for Ms. Tasheva because of her activities; returning to Crimea has become her life mission.
With the beginning of the occupation in 2014, about 25,000 Crimean Tatars had to leave their homeland. Among them is the famous Crimean Tatar singer and Eurovision winner Jamala.
“I can’t even tell you how much I want to go to Crimea— especially in spring when you know that it is at this time that it is even more beautiful. Now, as never before, I often travel in thoughts to my house, to the mountains, to the shore, where I dived, swam, walked,” Jamala said in one of her recent interviews.
In mainland Ukraine, a number of commemorative events are scheduled for the day this year. Crimean Tatars themselves tell the tragic stories of their families.
This one is from Jamala: “On the morning of May 18, my great-grandmother Nazilkhan and her five young children were put in freight cars and sent to Central Asia. At the time when my great-grandfather was at war. They drove in terrible conditions for almost two weeks. The youngest child, a daughter, unfortunately, died on the way. The girl was not allowed to be buried, Soviet soldiers took her from her mother.”
The Mejlis of Crimean Tatar People called for commemorating the event in Crimea and mainland Ukraine. After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine started gradually fixing the mistakes that arose from a lack of policy regarding the Crimean Tatars.
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What is the fate of Crimean Tatars who remained in the peninsula?
Pavlo Kazarin, a Ukrainian journalist from Crimea, draws attention to one detail. The day of deportation and May 9, marked in Russia as Victory Day in World War II, are very close on the calendar. However, if May 9 in Crimea is celebrated with pathos and honor, as in Russia, May 18 remains in the shadows. Mr. Kazarin says the reason for this is hidden in the Soviet view of War II as the “Great Patriotic War.”
“In terms of this myth, the entire history of the war was presented as a struggle between absolute Good and absolute Evil. If you add the deportation of Crimean Tatars to this uncomplicated concept, then it turns out that in Crimea, Good defeated Evil and then, on May 18, 1944, it itself committed an atrocity,” he said.
Therefore, it was easier to erase the deportation, as well as Crimean Tatars in general, from history; otherwise, it would destroy everything on which the Soviet narrative relied.
As Soviet concepts and rhetoric became mainstream again in modern Russia, Crimean Tatars living on the peninsula were forced to accept them.
Hundreds of those who decided to stay under the occupation became victims of repression.
According to a monitoring of human rights violations in Crimea in the first quarter of 2020 by the Crimean Tatar Resource Center, Crimean Tatars, who make up around 12 percent of the population of Crimea, were disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. Out of 15 illegal raids police undertook during this time, 12 took place in the houses of Crimean Tatars. Out of 25 people detained, 14 were Crimean Tatars. Out of 97 people under unlawful arrest, 85 are Crimean Tatars. Out of the 127 people denied the right to a fair trial, 110 were Crimean Tatars.
Moreover, the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the unlawfully incarcerated Crimean Tatars—most of whom were falsely accused of terrorism for simply practicing their Muslim faith—to additional danger. Some have high temperatures and a cough but aren’t even being given tests to see if they have the virus and need treatment.
Those held in prison colonies in Crimea “do not have even elementary means of personal protection, masks or disinfectants,” and “tests for the new virus are not conducted there” at all, as reported by Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova.
According to Estonian human rights activist and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Oliver Loode, the most effective method of countering the discrimination against Crimean Tatars is to accelerate the processes of deoccupying Crimea. He asserts that under the Russian occupation, the discrimination will inevitably continue.
This story first appeared May 18, 2020 in Euromaidan Press. In the two years since then, repression against the Crimean Tatars has only escalated.
Image: One of the last demonstrations in Crimea in March 2014, before the Russian occupiers crushed almost all protest. Via Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.
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Reprinted by CounterVortex, May 18, 2022