SIMFEROPOL – As war drumbeats increase in Ukraine, Muslim Tatars in the autonomous Republic of Crimea are voicing concerns over separatist demands by the region's Russian ethnic majority, fearing a return of 1944’s exile.
“If there is a conflict, as the minority, we will be the first to suffer,” Usein Sarano, 57, told Reuters.
“We are scared for our families, for our children. This could be a new Yugoslavia.”
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Last week, thousands of Tatars took to the streets in a rally to stress that Crimea shall not be divided.
Tensions escalated after clashes erupted between rival groups rallying next to one another, with people wielding Russian, Ukrainian, Crimean and Crimean Tatar flags getting involved in clashes.
The rival groups protested for and against the new national authorities in Kiev, with some supporting autonomous Crimea’s independence from Ukraine while the local Muslim community of Crimean Tatars expressed support for the new Ukrainian authorities.
As Russia flexed its muscles to threaten a looming intervention in the autonomus region of Crimea, the fears of Muslims escalated, watching cautiously the dramatic developments in Ukraine.
“Putin's a power-hungry madman,” Rustem, a Tatar pensioner, said.
“He's been stirring up differences here for a while,” Rustem added.
The Tatars, who have inhabited Crimea for centuries, were deported in May 1944 by Stalin, who accused them of collaborating with the Nazis.
The entire Tatar population, more than 200,000 people, was transported in brutal conditions thousands of miles away to Uzbekistan and other locations. Many died along the way or soon after arriving.
The Soviets confiscated their homes, destroying their mosques and turning them into warehouses. One was converted into a Museum of Atheism.
It was not until perestroika in the late 1980s that most of the Tatars were allowed back, a migration that continued after Ukraine became independent with the Soviet collapse in 1991.
More than 250,000 Tatars now live in Crimea, about 13 percent of its population of 2 million people.
The Tatars’ return has repeatedly touched off legal clashes over restitution of land and property, much of which is now owned by ethnic Russians.
Adding to Muslim concerns, a suggested separation vote on March 30 was deemed a bad idea for many Muslim Tatars, rejecting the idea of separation.
“I don't even recognize the idea of a referendum,” said Nimatulayeva Khadirova, a retired Tatar who taught the Russian language.
“What will they do, think up a new one every year?
“All of my neighbors are Russian and they all come to my house for coffee all the time.
“We are Ukrainian citizens now and we want to remain so. What's wrong with the way things are?” Khadirova asked.
As the tension soars in the isolated Black Sea peninsula, the fear of exile looms reviving the bad memories of 1944.
“After their invasion of Crimea on 18 May 1944, the Russians expelled the Crimean Tatars from the region,” Idil Izmirli, an expert on Islamic identities in Crimea from George Mason University, told the World Bulletin.
“They raided the parliament and the council of ministers, and then raised a Russian flag.”
The rising number of Russian soldiers in the area has also ripped Muslims from feeling safe in their country.
Although “western sources report that there are 6,000 troops in Crimea, my relatives say that 15,000 soldiers are located in there,” Izmirli, who said that her relatives in the Crimea don’t feel safe, said.
“Soldiers are everywhere and airports are closed.”
The Islamic expert has called for Turkey's and US mediation.
“We want Turkey to close the straits and not to let the Russians pass' and demanded US President Barack Obama put more pressure on Russia,” Izmirli said.