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Banned Remembrance

The Crimean Tatars find a way to commemorate their ancestors’ deportation, in the face of riot police and an official ban.

by Halya Coynash 19 May 2014

The limited force of words, even those from Western leaders expressing solidarity with the Crimean Tatars, has become poignantly clear on this – 70th - anniversary of their forced deportation from their homeland. On 16 May, two days before the commemoration, Crimea’s self-proclaimed leader, Sergei Aksenov, issued a decree effectively banning remembrance ceremonies. Had it not been for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, representatives from the EU, United States, and elsewhere would have been among the many guests joining Crimean Tatars in remembering the victims of a terrible crime.


The Mejlis, the executive body of the Crimean community, decided on 17 May not to hold the traditional mass meeting in the center of Simferopol, which on the anniversary “was fenced off and guarded by ranks of Russian riot police and pro-Russia ‘self-defense’ units standing alongside armored personnel carriers,” according to Reuters.


The flag of the Crimean Tatars waves over a remembrance event earlier this month. Photo from the website of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People.


The dilemma for the Mejlis was terrible. Before the commemorations, Mejlis leader Refat Chubarov pointed out that Simferopol had been filled with spetsnaz [specially trained units] and in a clearly threatening move, Russian OMON riot police held “training exercises” in the middle of the city on 17 May. The risk of bloodshed was enormous, as was the blow the ban constituted, as Chubarov explained.


“Can you imagine – in each region there are places where people come to honor the dead, places with memorial stones, and Crimean Tatars on 17-18 May don’t have the right to go there together to pay their respects, to honor those people!” he said. “I don’t know what kind of person you have to be to not think of the consequences! I don’t know how to stop people so they don’t go there. It’s like telling everybody ‘Don’t go to your holy places, don’t visit your dead.’ If they prohibited you, how would you act?  Force can stop everything, or not everything – it won’t stop the human spirit.”


He likened the ban to Jewish people being prohibited from honoring the victims of the Holocaust or Ukrainians from remembering those who were starved to death in Holodomor.


Chubarov said that for the first time in 23 years the Crimean Tatars found themselves forced to explain to the authorities how important it is for a community to retain memory, how important it is for the living to gather on a particular day and pray together for the souls of the dead. 


Chubarov dismissed the excuses given for the ban – events in southeastern Ukraine, supposed “possible provocation by extremists,” and disruption to the tourist season, and noted that the ban was scheduled to end just in time for the festivities scheduled for the Great Russian Word festival on 6 June.


As a 17 May meeting between Chubarov and Russia’s human rights ombudsman, Ella Pamfilova, did not result in the ban being waived, it was clear that the move had at least the tacit approval of the authorities in Russia. 


At an emergency meeting that day, the Mejlis decided to cancel the huge gathering in Simferopol, as well as the remembrance action planned for that evening, asking people instead to light candles in their own homes. The Mejlis determined that smaller remembrance ceremonies would be held on 18 May in villages, settlements, and in district centers. The gathering that should have taken place in the center of the Crimean capital this year would take the form of an All-Crimean prayer gathering, in the afternoon outside a mosque in a neighborhood of Simferopol.


In fact, it was impossible to stop people from coming, and large gatherings were held in many parts of Crimea, with more than 10,000 coming to the prayer gathering at the mosque on the outskirts of Simferopol. All events were peaceful acts of remembrance but did not take place without heavy-handed measures from the occupation authorities. Military helicopters flew low over the gatherings in Simferopol and Bakhchysarai, trying to drown out the speakers, and plain-clothed individuals openly videotaped the participants.


Well-known Crimean Tatar journalist Osman Pashaev, Turkish cameraman Dzhengiz Tizgan and several other journalists were detained and reportedly beaten by “self-defense” vigilantes, who took the men to a police station where they were interrogated by Russian FSB and officers from the department for fighting extremism. Their “extremism” apparently lying in covering remembrance ceremonies for the victims of a monstrous crime.




Russian President Vladimir Putin’s peculiar attitude to the truth, seen in his denial of Russian military involvement in Crimea, has been equally demonstrated in his dishonest assurances of respect for Crimean Tatar rights. The UN’s latest report on the human rights situation in eastern Ukraine and Crimea specifically mentions many serious violations against the Crimean Tatars. These include, of course, the ban on veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev returning to his homeland. Over the last week there have been a disturbing number of searches of Crimean Tatars’ homes, supposedly on suspicion of “terrorism.”  


It seems that Russia and its puppet government in Crimea are concentrating on those few Crimean Tatars who have agreed to cooperate with the occupation regime. Since the Mejlis and the Crimean Tatars categorically condemned the invasion and consider Crimea to be Ukraine, the regime appears to be bringing in Tatars from Kazan in Tatarstan.


Many Crimean Tatars have been faced with dismissal or losing their land if they do not accept Russian citizenship, and there was enormous pressure to buckle under and accept, as Putin told certain selected Tatars on 16 May that their future was now linked with Russia.


How long this may be the case is, tragically, unclear. The repressive measures of the last few weeks, however, make it unlikely that more than a handful of Crimean Tatars will see Russian rule as anything but a tragedy. 

Halya Coynash is a journalist and a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, where a version of this commentary previously appeared.
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