| Maria Antonova |
BAKHCHYSARAY (AFP) – The day after her husband was arrested, Elvira Ablyalimova woke up to find her home in Crimea surrounded by snipers while a squad of men combed through her belongings for 10 hours, letting nobody in or out.
Russia’s takeover of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine a year ago was hailed by many ethnic-Russian locals, but for Ablyalimova and others from the indigenous Crimean Tatar minority, the new rulers have brought little but fear.
Ablyalimova’s husband Akhtem Chiygoz is a deputy head of the Tatars’ traditional decision-making assembly, the Mejlis.
But he is now under arrest for allegedly organising riots, inciting violence and committing involuntary manslaughter. And those charges are only part of a sweeping probe that has already seen over 150 people questioned and saw Ablyalimova’s family home raided in January.
“It’s purely by chance that our children weren’t here” during the search, Ablyalimova said, sipping tea in her living room in Bakhchysaray, Crimea’s ancient capital.
A Muslim community that comprises about 13 per cent of the province’s population, the Crimean Tatars was opposed to Moscow’s takeover from Ukraine.
They boycotted en masse the hastily-organised March referendum in which the pro-Russian majority voted to join Russia.
Native to the peninsula, the Crimean Tatars were brutally deported to Central Asia in 1944 by Joseph Stalin for alleged collaboration with the invading Nazis during World War II. The return of Russian rule has triggered anxiety.
“After the Russian authorities came to Crimea, things that had never happened in Crimea before started to happen,” said Mejlis member Ilmi Umerov, a longtime head of the Bakhchysaray district who quit when it moved under Moscow’s control.
“These actions are meant to teach us loyalty to these authorities.”
Umerov said four young men remain missing after suspected kidnappings and that four others who disappeared were later found dead. Crimean Tatar survivors of Stalinist repression were not allowed to return and settle on the peninsula until the 1990s, when they began building fragile cooperation with the post-Soviet Ukrainian authorities.
But now, their homeland doesn’t feel much like home anymore. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Tatars have opted to leave, heading to mainland Ukraine, Umerov said.
“In every Crimean Tatar family there is a feeling of fear and lack of security while living in our own homeland,” Ablyalimova said, listing “disappearances, sadistic murders… attacks on media, and arrests on trumped-up charges.”
The probe against Chiygoz stems from a rally the Mejlis called on February 26 last year near the Crimean parliament, just hours before heavily armed soldiers in unmarked uniforms occupied the building, raised the Russian flag and forced the lawmakers to vote for installing a new pro-Russian government.