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Dreaming of the Motherland: Crimean Tatars Long to Go Home

VICE News visited Ukraine to meet Crimean Tatars who have fled the peninsula since it was seized by Russia. Persecuted for decades, they're still fighting to keep their culture alive.
Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian activists block the road at a checkpoint between Ukraine and Crimea last month. Photo by Vitaliy Nosach/EPA

Rustem Skibin speaks like a man who has the weight of an entire culture resting on his shoulders.

In his small workspace in Kiev's artistic but slightly dilapidated Podil district, the Crimean Tatar potter is fighting to preserve the culture of his people — a Muslim ethnic minority who were exiled from Crimea by Joseph Stalin and who remain discriminated against and marginalized today.

Skibin left his workspace and home in Crimea last year at the height of the tensions, shortly before Russia annexed the peninsula in February and March, a move condemned by world leaders. He felt compelled to flee as he was seeking to preserve invaluable pieces of Tatar art he had managed to collect over time, and the situation was becoming increasingly volatile.

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Unlike many cultures, the Tatars have not been able to hand skills down from generation to generation because of the constant upheaval they have faced in the course of their history.

Until the 19th century Tatars made up the largest ethnic group in Crimea, but in May 1944 they were forcibly deported by Stalin to Central Asia. Within months, about 120,000 Tatars, nearly half of those deported, died from starvation or cold.

"After the annexation of 1944 almost all the non material aspects of our culture were lost," he said. "Basically it was destroyed, it takes a long time to rebuild something like that. A lot of efforts went in to the slow and sure destruction of [Crimean Tatar traditions]."

As well as the deaths from starvation, many Tatars were executed during the mass deportation, including many of the community's academics.

"So all the people who were the carriers of the crafts lost this knowledge," Skibin said. It has been built back up over the decades since the Tatars were officially allowed to return to Crimea in the mid 1980s — but now Skibin is worried the Russian annexation will further destroy the artistic traditions of his people.

Rustem Skibin, a Crimean Tatar and potter, works in his studio in Kiev's Podil district. (Photo by Philippa Stewart)

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported an increase in the harassment and persecution of Crimean Tatars since Russia annexed the peninsula. There are repeated allegations of extrajudicial arrests, disappearances and murder and protests against the regime and Tatar cultural gatherings are effectively banned. An estimated 10,000 Tatars have fled to Ukraine, alongside tens of thousands of ethnic Ukrainians.

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There have been efforts to fight back. Eskender Bariiev, an elected member of the Tatar Madjilis — a body which represents Crimean Tatars to governments and international organizations, and which Russia has accused of extremism— is helping from Kiev to organize a roadblock that was erected between Crimea and mainland Ukraine in September.

Crimean Tatar activists are preventing Ukrainian goods from reaching the Crimean peninsula in protest at the increased discrimination they say they are facing. Organizers say they are now planning to extend the blockade to the sea.

Their actions have proved controversial, with unidentified protesters plunging Crimea into darkness last month by destroying electricity supply towers.

Related: Anti-Russian Saboteurs Plunge Crimea Into Darkness by Blowing Up Electrical Towers

Violence then followed when security forces came to restore the power and, according to the Tatars, beat demonstrators with rifle butts.

"People are forgetting about the problem of Crimea," said Bariiev, who was forced to flee Crimea for Kiev after having criminal charges brought against him for political activism. "It is not on the front pages of newspapers anymore and that is why it is necessary all the time to remind people about Crimea and the Crimean Tatars and the problems that they face."

The blockade was a type of warfare against Russia, he told VICE News. "For us it is really very important to make the aggressor leave Crimea. Under international law, the country that controls the territory has to provide Crimea with everything from goods to the rights of people and freedom of speech."

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Bariiev said activists would make sure humanitarian aid was delivered to Crimeans if it were absolutely needed, but only aid — not weapons, as was thought to be the case with so-called Russian aid deliveries last year. "The Russian Federation sent [trucks] to Donetsk saying they contained meals but to tell the truth they contained arms and bullets," he said.

Bariiev's youngest son Enver was born at the start of the occupation of Crimea.

His wife, Zarema Bariieva told VICE News that after the 2013 Euromaidan protests they had been optimistic about the world their second son would be born into, but those hopes were dashed when tanks started rolling through the streets of Simferopol, Crimea's capital.

"I was in labor in hospital when the tanks were going past outside. "We thought we would open our eyes and be able to say 'Thank God, it was just a dream,' but it turned out to be the truth."

Related: Vladmir Putin Went Deep-Sea Diving in a Miniature Submarine Off the Crimean Coast

The family's house was among the first to be searched, because of Bariiev's involvement with the Madjilis.

"They weren't trying to find anything, the motivation was to scare us to death," Zarema said. "They even searched Muslim schools where the children were sleeping in dormitories."

Zarema's oldest son, Emir, interjects at this point, telling VICE News that (despite being just 4 years old), he already knows he was "lucky that I was only in the kindergarten then," and so was still sleeping at home.

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"Day after day they reinforce the fear," Zarema said. "They are creating such conditions that even people who didn't want to leave are now thinking maybe it is necessary."

For many older Tatars, the thought of leaving Crimea is too much to bear after the battle they faced to return to the motherland after their 1944 deportation.

"Some members of the Tatar population have said it is necessary to stay in the motherland because it was so difficult for us to return the last time," Bariiev said.

"Being patriotic is one thing but then people start thinking there are no guarantees of staying safe in Crimea. Nobody guarantees you or your kids will not be sent to prison."

Eskander, Zarema and their boys dream of returning home to Crimea. (Photo by Philippa Stewart)

The decision to keep their family together, though, has led to concerns about the two boys not growing up around their own culture.

"We are trying to preserve our culture and also give the kids the opportunity to communicate because it is not enough to only speak Tatar in the home. We try to speak Crimean Tatar at home but it is very difficult," Zarema said.

"We are trying to do our best but it is very difficult to make them speak Crimean Tatar because they watch television that is in Russian, and they aren't surrounded by people who speak the same as them."

The family dreams of returning home. "As soon as the situation is solved we want to go back home the very same day, we want to pack our things in cases and go back home," said Zarema. "We want to go to the motherland, we fought for it, we struggled for it for such a long time — our grandparents who moved had faced this struggle. I never thought we would also have to face it."

And, even though he is only four, Emir is keenly aware of the importance of his motherland.

"I was born at home. In Crimea," he says solemnly, before heading off to find his toy dinosaur.

Follow Philippa Stewart on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart

Related: Crimeans Celebrate Annexation with Patriotic Flash Mob and Soviet Nostalgia