The coastal city of Kherson in southern Ukraine became the first major city in the country to be taken over by Russian forces on February 2. The invasion forced the city’s mayor, Igor Kolykhayev, to instruct residents to now carry out the instructions and orders of the Russian occupying forces.
This news came the same day the United Nations announced that 227 Ukrainian civilians were killed during the first week of the invasion. However, the Ukrainian government places that number at over 2,000.
The Russian occupation of Kherson prompts fresh concerns for the city’s 289,000 residents, particularly Crimean Tatar Muslims – a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority that fled to the Ukrainian city after the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The territory is considered their indigenous homeland.
It’s estimated that 10 percent of the 266,000 Tatar population have relocated from Crimea to Kherson and Kyiv during the past seven years, following a crackdown by occupying Russian forces.
10 percent of the 266,000 Tatar population have relocated from Crimea to Kherson and Kyiv during the past seven years.
The recent invasion, which began on February 24, delivered further suffering to the long-persecuted minority on February 28, when a 17-year-old Tatar Muslim boy became the first civilian to be killed in Kherson by Russian forces.
A video shared on social media shows his father crying over his body, saying, “I speak Tatar. I have nothing to say to the Russians. May Allah save us from these [Russian] devils.”
The following day, Crimean Tatar Muslim commander Isa Akaev, who leads the volunteer battalion in Crimea, called on Russian Muslims to join the Ukrainian side. For the Tatar population, Russia represents an existential threat, since Russian and Soviet leaders have long expressed an intent to annihilate the ethnic minority.
Almost 100 years to the day, Vladimir Lenin, the founding leader of the Soviet Union, declared his intention to commit genocide against the Crimean Tatars, vowing, “We will take them, divide them, subjugate them, digest them.”
In 1944, Lenin’s successor – Joseph Stalin – rounded up the total population – then numbering 180,000 – and forced them onto cattle trains to be exiled to Uzbekistan. Roughly half died from disease and starvation during their first two years in exile.
In 1944, Joseph Stalin forced the entire Tatar population into exile in Uzbekistan.
A Soviet colonel at the time, Colonel Maklov, described the situation for Tatar deportees as “catastrophic” due to a lack of housing, food, clothes, and the prevalence of infectious disease. The Ukrainian government is one of four countries to recognize their deportation as genocide.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Tatars returned to their ancestral homeland, where they had lived in relative peace and tranquility. In March 2014, two days after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian government recognized the Tatar’s representative body – the Mejlis – a democratic institution which was formed to convey their issues and address their grievances.
Two years later, in 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the elected body of the Crimean Tatars, the Majlis, was banned and shut down by Russia as part of repressive measures against the Crimean Tatars.
Whereas the Soviets falsely accused the Tatars of being “traitors” and “Nazi collaborators,” Russian-Crimean authorities have branded them “separatists” and “terrorists.” These accusations served as a pretext to implementing a raft of discriminatory laws against them, including banning them from public gatherings and denying them access to religious books.
In 2017, HRW reported again that Russia had “intensified” its persecution of the Tatars, saying it has “subjected the community and their supporters, including journalists, bloggers, activists, and others to harassment, intimidation, threats, intrusive and unlawful searches of their homes, physical attacks, and enforced disappearances.”
When I interviewed a Tatar Muslim man who fled to Turkey in February 2018, he told me how he was arrested and beaten after merely expressing criticism of the Russian occupation to a friend at a local coffee shop.
“I don’t belong to any separatist or extremist group,” he said. “What Russia is doing is not right, and I think many more [Tatar Muslims] will try to leave their homes soon.”
In 2017, the United Nations released its first report on the human rights situation in Crimea, concluding the conditions faced for Tatar Muslims had “significantly deteriorated under Russian occupation.” The UN then called on Russia to cease its persecution of the ethnic minority, under the pretext of combatting terrorism and extremism.
In 2017, the UN concluded the conditions faced for Tatar Muslims had “significantly deteriorated under Russian occupation.”
Ultimately, these calls fell on death ears. However, Russia’s persecution of the Tatars has only increased. Human rights groups found the religious minority – which represents only 12% of the total Crimean population – accounted for a disproportionately large majority of arrests – 138 out of 200 – made by Russian-Crimean authorities in the first half of 2019.
Tatars have also been smeared as “Nazi collaborators” in the territory’s school textbooks, and Russian Federation authorities are seeking a “de-Turkification” of Crimea. This includes plans to rename the territory with Russian sounding names, “Tavrida” or “Tavriya” – which will separate the Crimean Tatars from the “land on which they arose and evolved,” as noted by Interpreter Magazine.
But now that the Russian occupation has expanded to Kherson, home to roughly 30,000 Crimean Tatar Muslims, renewed fears of a further crackdown or even genocide are commonplace.
Their future is inextricably tied to the outcome of this war.