Crimean Tatars struggled hard to return to the land of their ancestors
Outside the window of the minibus, the landscape of the city is slowly moving – the city which has been an object of a foreign army invasion for several days already. Sunny Simferopol has brought a crowd of people outdoors. People who came out for a walk, snatching at the opportunities of the weekend.
Retirees with string bags are hanging around the marketplace. The longest line is the one standing by the shop called “Mir druzhby narodov" („The World of the Friendship of Peoples"). Many of the buyers have orange-and-black ribbons (honouring the heroes of the Great Patriotic War) pinned to their lapels. As if in defiance, the driver of the minibus tunes the radio to a channel playing American pop hits.
Moving to the rhythm of Madonna’s song, we pass by several banks. What strikes the eye is the sight of long lines, often consisting of several dozen persons: lines of people waiting to withdraw savings from their accounts. Many of the ATMs are not working – there is no cash left in them.
Where are the Tatars?
I want to find the Tatar settlement in Simferopol but none of the Russian people I asked can show me the way. Many of them simply say is no such thing exists in the city.
Finally I ask the driver whether he knows where the Simferopol Tatars live.
– Why are you asking? – he looks at me with suspicion. I explain that I am a Polish journalist and would like to talk to Crimean Tatars. He calms down and says with a smile that I am lucky, as we are actually approaching the place I am looking for.
It turns out that the driver, the 52-year-old Rechber, is Tatar himself. He came to the Crimea from Uzbekistan in the early 90‘s. He sold his property he had worked for all his life, took his family and returned to the land of his ancestors However, he doesn’t conceal the fact that being a Tatar in the Crimea is hard. – Russians cause us problems all the time, they humiliate us, don’t respect us. And now they spread propaganda about us beating them! What slander!
He supported the revolution in Kiev from the very beginning, because – he emphasises that – it was a fight for justice, a battle with the corrupted system. Now he fears for his future.
I get off the minibus and step into deep mire. In Fontany, the Tatar settlement, the roads have not been paved. The district appeared in the open field at the outskirts of Simferopola in the early 90’s, when – after more than 40 years – the Tatars were finally able to return to their homeland.
Most of them came from Uzbekistan, where almost 200,000 Crimean Tatars were deported to in 1944 upon Stalin’s order.
The mass eviction started at dawn on May 18; it concerned mostly women, children and elderly people, as men were at the front. All the property was confiscated, every family was allowed to take no more than 50 kg of luggage with them. They were not allowed to take money or clothes and were given half an hour to pack up. The whole eviction campaign lasted for three days.
Among the evicted were the parents of Ulker, who is now 63; he is an engineer and was initially in charge of construction of the Fontany settlement. We are sitting in his flat situated in the first apartment block built for Tatars in Simferopol. Though the house was built in 1991, its condition is bad. Ulker shows me the plans of the settlement he had drawn up. The authorities approved the plans yet they were never put into practice.
Dreaming of homeland
– There was supposed to be a Tatar Cultural Centre here, and there – a school. Have you seen what it looks like now? It’s under construction. They started construction in 1993 and haven’t finished yet. Kiev has always given us little money, but until Yanukovych came to power, we had been respected at least. Starting from 2010, there has been a total free-for-all. Everyone builds where he wishes and the way he wishes, as long as he gives money – it’s money that rules in Crimea now, the engineer complains.
Ulker lives in a three-room flat with his wife and his younger son’s family. This makes six persons. The elder son, his wife and children live two floors below. – We all need to be close to each other, that‘s how it is. All in all, there are 120 families in the apartment block, and everybody knows everybody, people visit each other. We have learnt that we should be together, give each other support, otherwise we won’t survive, – emphasises Ulker.
All the good things built in Fontany are the result of fundraising among the Tatar community. I ask him what he thinks about the Ukrainian state. He says the same as all the Tatars I talked to before him: Ukraine is their state, Ukrainians are a people that respects Tatars. Russians constitute a threat. Memories of deportations and murders are still alive.
At a certain moment, Ulker comes up to the bookcase and takes out three volumes standing between the collection of Leo Tolstoy’s works and the Encyclopaedia of Islam – those are the volumes of a historic novel devoted to Bohdan Khmelnitsky. He smiles and says this was the first book he read upon his return to the Crimea. He wanted to know what this country was like. From that time on, Ukraine has become his state.
We are sitting in the living-room with his wife, watching the Crimean TV channel, ATR ,which the Crimean Tatars defend from the occupants, Yet another series of news concerning Russia’s actions. Zinuria, who has been married to Ulkera for 40 years, often closes her eyes and shakes her head distrustfully. At a certain moment she joins the conversation: „I want you to write about our lot, about how hard it is to be a Tatar in the Crimea. I was a doctor but during all those years I was never promoted. The Russians won’t let us make our way in life, they’ll only leave us the most primitive jobs. People live on tourism, drive minibuses, work at construction sites, because there are no other jobs.
I ask her whether young Tatars flee from the Crimea. – No, why should they? We had been waiting for so many years to be able to live in the Crimea again... It’s our land, our homeland, here the bones of our ancestors lie. During all those years that passed after the eviction, everyone that could, tried to return to Crimea. Ulker tried to send us to the Crimea in 1978 but he wasn’t allowed to. So we moved to Kuban‘, as it was several-thousand kilometres closer. And we started waiting, like many people did. Now we are back on our land, and still we can’t get any peace.
Questions about future
I leave the flat of Ulkera and Zinuria and go straight to the building of the Crimean TV. I pass by Fontany settlemets. Several large apartment blocks, a huge empty space, lots of stray dogs, mire, many one-family houses built from handmade bricks. There’s a flag of the Crimean Tatars fluttering proudly over one of the few playgrounds.
Having reach the building of ATR, I see over a dozen Tatars at the gate. They are all talking excitedly about the Friday decision of the Russian Federation Council that gave Vladimir Putin its consent to employ armed forces in Ukraine. – West and Europe just sold us out! We wanted to enter the EU at any price, and what have we got now? Are we going to live in Russia? – worries 47-year-old Ernest.
Disappointment and anger for the western world are widespread among the Tatars. They are waiting not for the reaction of Washington or Brussels but for the actions of the Muslim world.
– Maybe at least our brothers in faith won’t leave us alone, says 33-year-old Osman. Like most of the Tatars who gathered at the building of the Crimean television, he works in the tourism industry. Upon hearing the decision of Russia, he immediately got in his car and drove off to join his friends standing at the TV channel’s gate. Cars kept arriving regularly, bringing food and warm clothes.
One of the Tatars arrived in a wagon from which he sells coffee in the street every day. Now everyone can have a warming drink for free. Osman takes out his cell phone and shows pictures of his family. He has three children, the youngest daughter is eight months old. Thus far, Osman had been firm and angry, now he has tears in his eyes as he speaks. „So, what are we to do? I am not afraid for us, the old ones, but what will happen to children? What kind of future are they going to have? In Russia? We can’t do anything on our own, we’d be shot dead in five seconds...“
Despite the feeling of hopelessness, Osman and Ernest, as well as the rest of Tatars, stayed at the TV channel’s gate throughout the entire night. A few kilometres away, in Fontany, fires were lit in several places and men gathered around them, ready to protect their families.
On Saturday, due to the decree of the Federal Council, the Crimean fear gained a face. A face of a Russian soldier.