Crimean Tatars Fear History May Repeat Itself

As Russia's takeover of Crimea goes unchecked, the region's minority Muslim population is growing anxious. After a similar trauma not long ago, Crimean Tatars bear little trust toward Russian leaders.

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In Crimea itself, the Russian takeover is working its way into many aspects of life. The new pro-Russian authorities have canceled the Ukrainian Civil Code, including all property documents. And there are rumors that anyone who refuses to accept a new Russian passport might have their property confiscated. That echoes the deepest fears of Crimea's Muslim minority, the Tatars.

NPR's Gregory Warner reports they have experienced that trauma before.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When Bakhitgul Kachka first heard the story of the Crimean Tatars, she was living in Kazakhstan, then the Soviet Union. She fell in love with a Tatar guy she'd later marry. At dinner with the guy's parents, his mom told her about how her people were deported from their native Crimea during World War II when Stalin accused them of collaborating with the Germans.

Families were loaded on boxcars and sent, in the hot sun and freezing nights, on a month-long journey to the Urals. Thousands died of starvation and disease along the way.

BAKHITGUL KACHKA: (Through translator) And the most horrible part of the story, all the men from Crimean Tatar families, they were serving for the Soviet Army. And those people who were deported, they were actually their family members. And when their husbands, their fathers came back from the service, they couldn't find their families.

WARNER: This history she learned at her future mother-in-laws kitchen table couldn't be found in any Soviet textbook. And from that moment on, Bakhitgul, then just 18 years old, stopped trusting the Soviet Union.

In 1989 when the Soviet Union fell, Tatars started returning to Crimea. And now, Bakhitgul, with the zeal of a convert, runs a guest house in the Crimean village of Bachyserai, serving Tatar food against Tatar tapestries, in rooms built according to an ancient Tatar architecture.

Here, over a cup of spiced coffee, she tells me that the distrust that her adopted people feel for Russia has not abated. They boycotted Sunday's referendum vote en masse. And when President Putin announced Tuesday that Crimea would be annexed, Bakhitgul started storing away valuables.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOSING DRAWERS)

WARNER: Forget the laptops or the cash, she says. She's hiding away what can't be replaced. Like a 200-year-old headscarf, called a marama, woven with real gold and silver. And then this...

KACHKA: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF A MORTAR AND PESTLE)

WARNER: ...an ancient looking mortar and pestle for grounding coffee beans.

Now, it may seem odd that people in 2014 could fear the rattle of the cattle car. But Ali Ozebash, a lawyer and Tatar community leader, says cattle cars are not today's methods.

ALI OZEBASH: (Through translator) The first method they can use is to create conditions so intolerable for life that people emigrate on their own.

WARNER: He says there's already been incidents of the second method: physical violence, people beaten, property torched. One Tatar man was found dead with signs of torture. These crimes blamed not on Russian troops but on pro-Russian paramilitaries, so-called Crimean patriots in gangs untouched by police.

OZEBASH: (Through translator) Because these marginal elements don't fear punishment, of course they will expand, will kill, will rob people until the wave of violence is all around us. And Russia does nothing to provide order here. And Ukraine cannot do anything.

WARNER: President Putin has made specific promises to extend protection to the Tatar minority. Nevertheless, the Tatar leadership is meeting to decide whether to accept Russian passports and work with the new government, or continue their opposition, risk being branded fascists and possibly have their property taken away, just as Stalin did 60 years ago.

KACHKA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Bakhitgul, the hotelier, tears up a bit talking about calls for support that she's received from former Western guests in her hotel.

KACHKA: (Through translator) Now we understand that, of course, we are not alone. The whole Ukraine is with us and the whole world is with us. But, you know, almost all of my friends here are Russians and none of these Russian people have called me and told me that Bakhitgul, you are not alone. We will not allow somebody to offend you. We will stay all together. No one of the Russians living here have supported us.

WARNER: At those darker moments, she says she takes her Russian black terrier for a walk along the ancient mountains of her adopted village, Bachyserai. It comforts her to tell herself she'll never leave.

KACHKA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Bachyserai is my last love, she says.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Simferopol.

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