BY DAMHURI MUHAMMAD
“We are afraid that Russian authorities will decide again that we are a disloyal people and something terrible will happen to us. If ethnic cleansing starts again, there will be no one to protect us,” said Zarema, a surviving journalist living in Crimea.
In an interview reported by www.eeas.europa.eu (March 18, 2022), she asked for her name to be anonymized for security reasons. Zarema is a real Crimean Tatar, a Muslim ethnic minority who has inhabited Crimea for hundreds of years. Ethnic cleansing meant by Zarema is a historical tragedy in May 1944, when all Crimean Tatar were forcibly deported from the Crimean peninsula on the orders of Joseph Stalin, simply because they were suspected of having a conspiracy with the Nazi. More than 200,000
Tatar Muslims having to leave their homeland for Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan. They crammed into cattle trains and it is estimated that half of that number died in the harsh 3200 kilometers journey, including from starvation and disease. The deportation lasted only three days, during which NKVD agents went house to house collecting Crimean Tatars at gunpoint and forcing them to enter sealed-off cattle trains.
From the latest research conducted by Andrew Straw (2022)—at the department of history, University of Texas, USA—it is known that the suffering caused by the massive deportation of Crimean Tatars was slightly reduced due to the new policies after the Stalin regime passed, but the rehabilitation actually did not stop the intimidation of them. In September 1957, Moscow authorities granted Crimean Tatar the right to stay in Soviet territory, but did not organize their return, nor did provide logistical support. The citizenship law enforced an internal Soviet passport system to ensure the official status of the Crimean Tatar population. To be recognized as residents of Crimea—their ancestral land—Crimean Tatar must register for a passport. How can people return to their homeland, but must have a passport? However, several Crimean Tatars did enlist in the 1970s-1980s, and most of them settled in rural areas, and engaged in protracted battles for housing and reclaiming their confiscated lands.
The rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars proceeded smoothly (without bloodshed) after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the Crimean peninsula became part of Ukraine. Their repatriation is being handled with policy and logistical support by the Ukrainian government. They were also given political rights by establishing a representative institution called the Mejlis. They have since also been recorded as part of Ukraine’s Muslim population, which according to a 2011 Pew Forum study report numbered around 393,000. According to another report, in 2012 an estimated 500,000 Muslims lived in Ukraine, of which 300,000 were Crimean Tatars. They can live the Islamic way of life. Weddings are performed according to Islamic rituals, halal food is served, and Islamic education for children and adults and other facilities are provided.
However, the peace they enjoyed did not last long. In March 2014, the corpse pieces of a Crimean Tatar named Reshat Ametov were found outside the Simferopol region. The mutilated bodies were found on the day Russia annexed Crimea. He is a protester who has been detained and persecuted many times. Ametov was buried on March 18, 2014, the same day that Putin triumphantly declared the annexation of Crimea, and pledged to protect all ethnic groups on the peninsula. The new Moscow-backed Crimean government soon took on Crimean Tatar culture and identity. All Tatar-language media are closed. Crimean Tatar language was exterminated. The Mejlis was declared an extremist institution.
One of the most painful blows for them was that the Tatars were barred from holding events to commemorate the mass deportation of their people in the Stalin era. “Today we are no longer allowed to hold this memorial. We can’t even mourn and honor our deceased family,” Zarema complained.
The cycle of suffering for the Crimean Tatar has not stopped. Sirens signal air strikes since Russia invaded Ukraine (February 2022), for Zarema like an alarm that reminds her people to immediately enter the latest wave of suffering.“The peninsula of Crimea is now practically closed. It is not possible to get out of there, nor is it possible to enter. If you come here, you will either become a corpse or a murderer. Therefore, refuse. Do not go into the Russian army,” said Mustafa Dzhemilev, a prominent Crimean Tatar figure in an interview reported by www.newlinemag.com (March 12, 2022). Mustafa is a Crimean Tatar diaspora based in Kyiv, a human rights activist, who is currently a registered member of the Ukrainian parliament. He, who has spent 15 years in prison since the Soviet era, and has been nominated multiple times for the Nobel Peace Prize, is also banned to enter Crimea until 2034. Since February 2022, everyone in Crimea has been ordered to be ready to fight (attack Ukraine). What kind of persecution will befall the Crimean Tatar Muslims if they refuse the order?
“Older people, when they first stepped off the plane, they kissed the land. People were crying with happiness; they were back in their homeland,” said Erfan Kudusov, about the happiness of the Crimean Tatars upon arriving in their homeland after more than 45 years of living in forced exile. But in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, Kudusov, along with tens of thousands of other Tatars, had to leave their homeland once again.
Expelled, returned home, persecuted endlessly, fled many times, and in an atmosphere of war that is now getting more and more terrible, it is not certain whether they still have a chance to meet again with their family which seemed to be locked in Crimea. The cycle of repeated persecutions against Crimean Tatar Muslims from 1944, 2014, and 2022, is like a calendar of misery where from time to time there are always red moons, and blood-colored years, and there is no certainty when it will end.
Damhuri Muhammad, is doing post graduate from Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. Lives in Jakarta, Indonesia.