By YURAS KARMANAU, Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Erfan Kudusov fled Crimea with his wife and four children after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea Peninsula in 2014, along with many other Crimean Tatars who resented the Moscow regime.
For Kudusov and others in Crimea, the Russian takeover evoked tragic family memories of the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944 on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, raising fears of discrimination and persecution.
Their fears materialized.
A few of Kudusov’s friends who remained in Crimea have since been convicted of extremism, separatism and membership in banned organizations and have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight to 19 years.
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The fate of the Crimean Tatars is one of the main topics discussed on Monday at the inaugural meeting of the Crimean Platform, an international summit convened by Ukraine to pressure Russia over the annexation which has been denounced as illegal by most countries in the world.
“Fear for my children and the memory of the crackdowns against my people forced us to pack all our things in two suitcases and leave our beloved Yalta literally in one day,” Kudusov told The Associated Press in his little one. restaurant in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. . “Most of those who left were well educated and energetic people who actively opposed the occupation of Crimea.”
Only an ancestral cover for their Koran, a few paintings of Crimean rocky landscapes and some ceramics now remind Kudusov of his native land. Letters from prison and conversations with relatives on messaging apps paint a grim picture of the life of the Crimean Tatars now under Russian control.
“Russia has a concentration camp there behind a beautiful facade,” Kudusov said. “People in Crimea are very scared and afraid to speak out loud.”
In August 2018, Vatan Karbash set himself on fire in the Crimean regional capital, Simferopol, to protest against measures taken by the authorities to raze the homes of Crimean Tatars. He survived with severe burns.
Ethnic Russians, who form the majority of Crimea’s 2.3 million inhabitants, largely supported Russian annexation, but the Crimean Tatars, who made up nearly 15 percent, opposed the takeover of Moscow. It is estimated that 30,000 Crimean Tatars have fled Crimea since 2014.
Some of those who remained faced a relentless crackdown from the Russian authorities, who banned the main representative body of the Crimean Tatars and some religious groups. About 80 Crimean Tatars have been sentenced and 15 activists are missing, according to Amnesty International.
“The Russian Federation continues its policy of intimidation, systematic pressure and criminal prosecution against the Crimean Tatars, who disagree with the occupation or refuse to cooperate with the de facto authorities,” said Kateryna Mitieva, member from the rights group. “The homes of Crimean Tatar militants are systematically searched by the FSB (the Russian internal security agency).
Just last week, four Crimean Tatar activists were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 to 18 years for affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist group that Russia banned as a terrorist organization in 2003 The group has been banned in most Arab countries, China, Turkey and Germany.
“Russia has brought imperialism, fear, its own vision of freedom and its understanding of who is friend and who is enemy,” Mufti Ayder Rustamov said at a Kiev mosque frequented by Crimean Tatars.
Moscow strongly rejected accusations of discrimination against the Crimean Tatars. The Russian Foreign Ministry highlighted the construction of new mosques in Crimea, the allocation of 100,000 land to the Crimean Tatars and its growing support for their cultural and educational projects.
At the same time, Russian officials accused the leaders of the Crimean Tatars who protested against annexation of serving Ukrainian interests, and Russian law punishes those who demand the return of Crimea to Ukraine.
Refat Chubarov, the leader of Crimean Tatar Mejlis, a representative body of the ethnic group, was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison by a Russian court in June for inciting mass unrest for protesting the annexation in 2014 .
“Moscow continues its policy of crushing the Crimean Tatars, and all these repressions, including arrests and long prison terms, are aimed at suppressing the will of the people and forcing them to leave Crimea out of fear for the future of their children, ”said Chubarov, who was forced to leave the Black Sea Peninsula in 2014.
Chubarov accused Moscow of encouraging people from other regions to settle in Crimea, with more than 500,000 Russians who have settled there since annexation.
“Before our eyes, the Russian authorities have artificially altered the ethnic makeup of Crimea,” he said.
In 2016, Russian authorities banned Mejlis as an extremist organization. In 2017, an international tribunal asked Russia to revoke the ruling, but it ignored the ruling.
“Moscow has totally ignored all decisions, appeals, recommendations and decisions of international organizations and tribunals,” Chubarov said.
In an effort to draw international attention to the plight of Crimea, Ukraine established the Crimean Platform, which holds its first meeting in Kiev on Monday, bringing together senior officials from 44 countries and blocs, including United States, European Union and Turkey.
“(This) is a platform for constant dialogue which aims to consolidate the international and Ukrainian effort to unoccupy Crimea,” Ukrainian First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emine Dzhaparova, told the PA.
Ukrainian authorities claim that the massive construction projects launched by Russia in Crimea are aimed at militarizing the peninsula.
“Crimea is a military base with Ukrainian citizens held hostage,” Dzhaparova said.
“To be a Crimean Tatar is to keep a genetic memory of the pain my people have suffered,” said Susana Jamaladinova, a singer who, under the stage name Jamala, won the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest with a song sad deploring the Soviet deportation of 1944.
“An ethnocide is underway in Crimea – even memorial gatherings are prohibited for Crimean Tatars,” said the 37-year-old singer, born in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan.
In May 1944, nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatars, who then represented about a third of the Crimean population, were deported to the steppes of Central Asia, 3,200 kilometers to the east by Stalin. The Soviet dictator accused them of collaborating with the Nazis – a claim widely dismissed by historians as a sham. It is estimated that half of them died in the next 18 months from hunger and harsh conditions.
Other ethnic groups who faced similar massive deportations on Stalin’s orders were allowed to return to their native lands soon after the death of the Soviet dictator in 1953, but the Crimean Tatars were only allowed to return. shortly before the Soviet collapse of 1991.
Kudusov said his father was 2 during the Stalinist deportation and his own twins were that age when he and his family fled Crimea in 2014.
“It looks horrible and surreal,” he said. “But my family experience shows that Crimean Tatars always come back to Crimea.”
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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