The validity of other people’s dreams

This winter my friends’ children in England have been obsessed with a game called Magic: The Gathering, in which (to put it briefly) a group of wizards travel from plane to plane within a multiverse, fighting battles. Each plane has its own rules, founding myths, vocabulary and attributes; the longer you play the more planes there are and the more rule cards you collect, which you can spend happy hours categorising and putting in order in a box, as though the world and its many planes or countries can fit in a box where each country’s set of rules adheres to its own logic and makes sense within the overarching scheme of things.

I thought about this game again this week when Russian president Putin formally recognised the passports and internal documents of the self-declared ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine (‘DNR/LNR’). In terms of Magic this I suppose would be the equivalent of a new plane which has split off from another and been hovering in a state of semi-being suddenly getting an unallocated place in the box, founding myths, inhabitants, borders and all, its undeclared war (because of course every plane in Magic involves war) now ready to be fought by multiversally-recognised rules.

People in the ‘DNR/LNR’ can now be born, get married, and die. They have documents which state that they exist and they are ‘from here’, with which they can then travel somewhere else. Thus does a state dream itself into existence.

I’ve already thought that travelling across Europe overland feels a bit like shuffling through Magic planes which have been rearranged by several consecutive hands. Prague to Kyiv: passing though tidy, homogenously Czech towns that were once home to Sudeten Germans; through pretty Slovak towns renovated with EU money, that were Czechoslovak not so long ago; through snowy icicled towns where stray dogs run by the railway tracks, that used to be Polish but where now a Ukrainian flag flies from a brick factory chimney. You think, really aren’t all countries just someone else’s dream; planes of existence running to someone’s invented set of rules?

I saw the new Russian flags atop brick factory chimneys in Crimea in March 2014, or raised on army bases the day after the Ukrainian flag was lowered and Ukrainian soldiers who’d been there for more than 20 years were forced humiliatingly to leave, or to switch allegiance to Russia. Russia now claims Crimea is an inviolable part of itself and is sentencing anyone who says otherwise for ‘separatism’. It’s invented a whole new set of cards and shoved them unceremoniously into the box, to replace those that were placed there in 1991 (a plane called Ukraine), and 1954 (a plane called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), and 1917 (Crimean People’s Republic, Taurida Socialist Republic, etc.), and 1783 (Russian Empire) and 1441 (Crimean Khanate)…

I’ve seen the ‘DNR’ flags atop everything in Donetsk in east Ukraine, a new invention based on a flag of a revolutionary republic in the 1920s that never happened. I’ve seen the five or six or seven different flags of battalions and Cossack communities flying at armed separatist checkpoints in small towns in neighbouring Luhansk region. My home is my castle. My checkpoint is my republic. My gun is my country.

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‘DNR’ founding myths – display from the (largely destroyed by shelling) regional museum in central Donetsk, 2015

A country, it turns out, is an act of will. And an act of violence.

I once saw in some WW2 museum examples of the currencies the Nazis introduced in each of the European countries they occupied. It was one of the first things they did. How weird, I thought. How bureaucratic and pointless when there’s a war going on.

Now I understand the point. I’ve seen it made in Crimea and East Ukraine, in non-recognised Transnistria and Abkhazia. Change the trappings – the flag and the time zone, the currency, the passports, the stamps, the acronyms, the uniforms – and you force the idea, the impression of a country.

It starts in the everyday transactions everyone has to carry out to survive, and it ends up inside their heads.

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Balloon with the Abkhazia flag in a souvenir shop, Sukhumi. The unrecognised ‘Republic of Abkhazia’ backed by Russia split from Georgia in 1990s in a vicious war

How do the makers of Magic invent new fantasy planes? They start, I guess, with a geographical or physical or metaphysical framework, a story (this side attacked that side, this side has this power, that side has that power) and a set of indexed rules and trappings which allow broadswords/telepathy/immortality/dragons (or whatever) to exist.

When you impose your fantasy plane by force, you can’t create and impose geographical/racial/moral/metaphysical boundaries out of force of imagination alone. So you fight for your borders and impose your definitions through the trappings, and the trappings become the definition and the border.

And then in your country’s schools and through its media you start teaching those moral and historical and physical boundaries or differences you’ve invented, and repress any alternative versions, until they become self-fulfilling prophecies. You create a nation of people who are different from everyone else, who can be born and get married and die only within the rules of that country – and any other you can persuade or force to recognise it.

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Central square, Tiraspol, Transnistria

There is no one in separatist-controlled Donetsk today to give a newborn baby a Ukrainian birth certificate. That baby born in Donetsk and given a ‘DNR’ birth certificate does not exist as far as any country is concerned – apart, now, from Russia.

How will this baby think of itself when it grows old enough to think? As a ‘De-eN-eRovets’? A second-class Russian? A would-be Ukrainian? Will it believe the ‘DNR’ story, the founding myth, that it fought heroically (with a bit of Russian help) against Ukrainian fascists and the CIA, for the inviolable right to watch American films in cinemas dubbed into Russian? Will it know what ‘home’ and ‘country’ and ‘nationality’ are?

I talked to a nationalist Ukrainian historian not long ago, who told me that after Greater Poland collapsed,  in 1772 the Austro-Hungarian empire conducted a census of its new land of Galicia (now West Ukraine), and found that 90 percent of its inhabitants could not say what nationality they were. They said they were ‘local’ or ‘from here’ (a few called themselves Rusyns, which my historian said traced back to the kingdoms of Kievan Rus, geographically centred in today’s Kyiv, from which what is now Russia traces its history).

In 1930s Volyn, heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, the same question to most inhabitants got the same answer: ‘from here’. “Russia called them Polonised Russians, Poland called them Russified Poles,” said the historian. “The nationalists set out to educate them that they weren’t just ‘from here’, they were Ukrainians.”

What’s wrong with the answer ‘from here’? It’s beautifully practical and realistic; it implies a sense of ownership, of belonging, of home.

And yet what ownership did these people have over the ‘here’ where they lived, if for example their birth certificates and passports called them Polish or Russian; if they were forced to speak Russian or Polish instead of the language ‘from here’?

In fact the languages of the west Ukrainian Carpathian valleys, uniquely ‘from here’, are a glorious mixture of Ukrainian with Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Russian. Some villages have been part of four different countries or states in the last 100 years. They even had their own independent Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, which has to be the shortest-lived dream of a state in history – it lasted all of one day, between 15–16 March 1939.

Lots of people managed to die for that dream, even in one day.

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War memorial in Tiraspol to those who died fighting for the unrecognised ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ or Transnistra, 1990-1992

Magic is a multi-player game. In clubs all over the world players get together to hop from plane to plane, collecting artefacts and skills and fighting wars. (My friends tell me most players are teenage boys or middle-aged men; it strikes me that the game would appeal to people who want to find order, and would like to fit the world and all its planes and countries and peoples and emotions neatly in sections in a box). I like the way these players leave their backgrounds behind when they get together to play. They’ve become ‘from here’ – from this multiverse world of Magic: the Gathering. Obviously the game relies on people agreeing beforehand to the rules of each plane and of the overarching scheme of things. Otherwise the whole fantasy world comes crashing down.

It is terrifying to realise that the actual world we live in relies equally on this mutual acceptance of rules, which can come crashing down so very easily. When that happens ‘From here’ is not an answer, because it turns out that some people are more from here than others. Suddenly a flag, a passport, an official stamp is the thing you’re fighting for, and what makes you exist. You scrabble around for the cards that tell you what story you’re believing in this week, what you’re worth, where you can travel next, and some fucker has taken them out of the box and shoved in a whole new set.

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A box of Magic cards

A picture and a thousand words

So in one of those interesting social media juxtapositions, I’ve have these two posts by and about (two different) photographers popping up next to each other in my facebook timeline:
“A Russian photographer of a Russian state propaganda agency gets a World Press Photo for some “conflict between self-proclaimed republics and the official Ukrainian authorities” […] The “funny” thing is, this war (and it is a full-scale war) would have never happened without Russian propaganda (in other words, his employer). Moreover, the agency and the separatists are funded from the same pocket (in other words, Kremlin).”
“The series of pictures I have submitted do explain the fanaticism that has driven the largest war in Europe in a generation, the transformative effects of war on both the pro-government and separatist fighters, and the tragedy of the most vulnerable – those civilians trapped on both sides of demarcation zone – technically frontline. I document three groups’ experiences: those workers and other civilians living on the ‘cease-fire line’, collectively punished by Kiev, which has imposed a pitiless economic embargo, those fighters from Ukrainian battalions, a mix of moderate supporters of a Western leaning Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian nationalists, and the pro-Russian rebels, frustrated by Putin, who led them to believe in a bright future of close ties to the Russian world, but has not delivered what he promised.”
I’m not going to link, because I don’t know either of the photographers whose work is discussed and couldn’t begin to judge their merit or motivations. I’m just going to make a few remarks from the depths of my cynical soul.
These two posts about pictures are in fact all about words. Consider, for example, ‘Russian’, ‘pitiless’, ‘rebel’ and, indeed, ‘war’.
Neither Ukraine, Russia or any other country officially calls the east Ukraine conflict a war. You might say that’s a technicality when approaching 10,000 people have died in it and humanitarian photographers are busy documenting the fallout. But even from a humanitarian point of view it does really matter to – in just one example – the 700 plus detainees on both sides who because this is not a war, have no protection whatsoever as war prisoners.
Words really, really matter. I wish I could take ‘humanitarian’ pictures and feel good about myself and win a few awards. Hell, I wish I could feel good about writing stories to ‘give a human face’ or some such cliche. But this conflict has a history, semantic and visual and political and yes, humanitarian. Or should that be human.
Few photographers and writers are experts in neutrality. We don’t just throw our work out into the world like a naked babe. We clothe it in assumption, insinuation, association – because we’re just human too.
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While we’re on the subject of contextless war photos… (Preparation for 9 May WW2 commemorations, Kyiv 2015)

Fortunes of war

It was in July 2015, during a meeting in the town of Kriviy Rih with relatives of Ukrainian soldiers missing in the east Ukraine war, that I met Luda Lazarenko and Natasha Herasimenko.

The two women were a bit apologetic. They realised they were fortunate because – after an initial three hellish months of silence – they knew where their son and husband were: held by separatists inside the former SBU (Ukrainian security services) building in Donetsk. They got to speak to Sasha and Kolya quite regularly on the phone. The two mobilised soldiers were on a confirmed list of prisoners for exchange, unlike the missing ones who figure in numerous competing lists, neither dead nor alive, reduced to a million rumours and the incomprehensibly cruel percentages of a DNA match.

I didn’t write about Luda and Natasha then. I assumed, as they did, that Sasha and Kolya would be released soon.

It’s now 9 February 2017; two years ago to the day that Sasha and Kolya were captured. The two women I first met 19 months ago thought they were fortunate, because the men were on a confirmed list for exchange; they thought they were lucky because they knew where they were, and got to talk to them on the phone.

But a list is just a list, not a guarantee or even a promise. In Summer 2016 Sasha and Kolya, and all the other prisoners in the former SBU building, stopped calling. They’ve been moved to a remand prison in Donetsk, to be tried for something like ‘crimes against humanity’, or ‘attacking innocent civilians in Donbas’. Because they are not, by law,  prisoners of war, with the protections that entails, not when no one officially calls this thing they were sent away to fight in a war.

Every time I meet Natasha and Luda, there is something more important going on. Even when they come to Kyiv to protest outside the presidential administration, somehow the reason they’re there is not quite important enough. Their cause gets hijacked by alleged ‘provocateurs’ and ‘Russian agents’. It gets hijacked by that high-profile former prisoner Nadia Savchenko and her political ambitions, and by journalists out to smear her. Their lives got hijacked by the Minsk accords, which are supposed to release all prisoners while ending the war that cost them their liberty, but which have become a huge intractable geopolitical bargaining chip, as Sasha and Kolya and Natasha and Luda are tiny, individually insignificant bargaining chips.

After one of those protests broke up in August 2016, and all the journalists left, Luda and Natasha started a hunger strike. Two mothers and two wives stood by the railings outside the presidential administration with handwritten ‘hunger strike’ notices pinned to their chests. Next to them on the railings hung their handbags, shiny and square and completely inappropriate for street protest.

Wives and mothers of imprisoned soldiers demonstrating in Kyiv

They made me think of Reshat Ametov, the Crimean Tatar who began a one-man protest against Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The picture on his facebook page, still there two years after he was abducted and killed, shows him sitting in a public square with just such a handwritten ‘hunger strike’ notice. It’s from an earlier one-man protest, his brother told me. He was always protesting. “Don Quixote tilted at windmills. It was something like that.”

Crimea and ‘provocation’ and ‘Ukrainian agents’ made Russian president Putin say last August, just around the time of the women’s protest, that there was no point in holding Normandy Four meetings to resolve the Ukraine conflict. That’s the Normandy Four of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany who agreed the Minsk accords. Who supposedly hold the key to unlocking the doors so that Sasha and Kolya and all the other prisoners, on both sides, can go home to their families. That important man Putin decided “There’s no point.”

Luda and Natasha went back to Kriviy Rih. The two mothers, in their fifties, found it too hard physically to starve. “So it was just us two wives, and there was no point,” Natasha said. A bit apologetic, like when I first met her. Tilting at windmills without even a Sancho Panza to remark on it. Defeated again by not being important enough.

I feel a bit apologetic myself, banging on about these people. Like them, I know there are worse tragedies. I know their stories are just two far from the worst of a hundred thousand awful stories from this war. They’re not even the worst prisoner stories.

What about this one: last year Ukraine quietly released several men it had been holding in relation to the conflict – and torturing – in secret prisons. This was after an international scandal raised by the UN and human rights organisations.

These secret, unacknowledged detainees were never officially charged with anything, although some of them fought for separatist militias or organised so-called ‘referendums’ on founding the separatist ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’ Luda and Natasha and other relatives of separatist-held prisoners were angry and confused – why had Ukraine just released them, when they could have been exchanged for their own prisoners?

But, these people were never on the separatists’ list of people to exchange. The ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ might have used them, but it didn’t want them back. Nobody wants them; not Ukraine, not the separatists, not Russia – not even, in one man’s case, his wife, who apparently turned him in to the Ukrainian security services in the first place. If Sasha and Kolya are not by law prisoners of war, these people are not by law ‘separatists’, ‘terrorists’, ‘Russian saboteurs’, pardoned or released prisoners, or even – since at least one has had his passport confiscated – presumably, Ukrainians.

Oh the fortunes of war.

The truth about war II

It used to be that with each fresh bout of violence in east Ukraine, with each shelled trolleybus or school or ambulance, every new batch of civilian casualties, each side would rush to blame the other.

Ths time, as fighting has flared up again, I am hearing people saying that it doesn’t matter who started firing first; which side kicked off the latest surge in artillery and tank barrages.

That was my own opinion more than two years ago, for reasons explained here. Now people are saying it for another reason. They are saying it is irrelevant to talk at all about two sides in this war, because there is only one side.

In pro-Ukrainian media and discourse, the warring side is Russia. In Russia, the warring side is Ukraine.

This I think is the first time in Ukraine (and largely in western media) there has been really no mention of another side to the deaths and heroics of the last week. Coverage is all of Avdiivka (on Ukraine controlled territory) and the damage done there by artillery  provided by Russia. You wouldn’t think from the reports that the Ukrainian army is actually firing at anything. Because Ukraine isn’t a side in this war. The only side is Russia, but Russia is also not literally there, not in terms of houses and people and pet dogs over in non-Ukraine controlled Donetsk and Makiivka where Ukrainian grad rockets are landing across the not-legally-there border into the non-existent republic of the ‘DNR’. I suppose it’s pretty hard to cause any damage when the only warring side isn’t officially there.

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Ukrainian collection of war ‘souvenirs’, Dnipro 2015

Vice-versa, Russia media continues to cover the war as though it owned it, at the same time as insisting that the people fighting and dying are all from the one side, Ukraine; Ukrainian houses and people and pet dogs in Donetsk and Makiivka being shot at by their own Ukrainian army and soldiers based around Avdiivka. Those official Russian organisations of Russian veterans of the east Ukraine war represent only volunteers, of course; obviously nothing is crossing the miles of non-Ukraine controlled border between the non-recognised ‘DNR’/’LNR’ and Russia except humanitarian aid; ‘I hope they have enough ammunition’, said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov last week of the ‘DNR’ army, in one of the more disgusting pieces of mendacity – and the bar is already sky-high – in this conflict’s vile lying history.

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‘LNR’ roadside collection of war ‘souvenirs’. Luhansk 2014

And if you read all the comments made by everyone, from the politicians to the soldiers to the media pundits to, even, the civilians getting killed, the really amazing thing is that this one-sided war is in fact not about either Ukraine or Russia. It is all about America and the new US president.

I used to think that war, stripped to the essentials, was a matter of A killing B before B kills A.

Then I came to understand that war is a matter of A (or B) killing C in order to made D believe that B (or A) is worse than A (or B).

This last week my understanding of war has evolved again. War is a matter of AB engaging in some jointly inaccurate, inefficient and wildy expensive game of heavy artillery for the purpose of trying to work out if and what D might be thinking (and, might D join A/B in some killing elsewhere, of E perhaps).

C meanwhile gets killed just because of being in the way. C is barely relevant anymore even for the purposes of war propaganda.

C is Diana from Makiivka, a born rescuer, who rescued a corgi when the streets were full of shelling and put a pink bow round its neck; despite her care the dog escaped on another night of shelling, came back pregnant and provided an unexpected windfall when Diana sold the pups over the internet, in the middle of a war.

C is Svetlana, a born warrior who nevertheless stayed at home while her gentle poet brother went and joined the ‘DNR’ militants and came home in a coffin; Svetlana hoards her ‘DNR’ flags in her flat in a frontline town like Avdiivka, dreaming of the day she can leave her husband and son and hospital job, and ride away to the wars.

C is baba Lyuba, who moved into a bomb shelter two years ago in Donetsk and is probably still there because it provided her with a new home, a family she’d never known; watching Russian TV together on a tiny screen underground, teaching her 5-year-old adopted son to hate Ukrainian fascists.

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Home in a bomb shelter, Donetsk 2014

C is Dima, whose house in Donetsk is like a treasure chest, full of mosaic and woodcarving that his father began and he carried on, whose garage is home to a gleaming pale-blue 1950s Volga and a flutter of crooning fan-tailed pigeons; with every crash of artillery the mosaics tremble, those decades of loving work of father and son to create something beautiful are so very fragile.

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Pigeons. Donetsk, 2015

(PS Both sides in East Ukraine collude in making coverage of this war one-sided. In particular it is now almost imposssible for non-Russian journalists to get to the ‘DNR’, as this article makes clear; while those who have been there have ended up on a Ukrainian list of so-called terrorist sympathisers. So this is not an attack on journalists.)

#guilty

Last week it was #freeKurbedinov. This week it’s #saveAvdiyivka or #saveAvdiivka or even #saveAvdeevka.

Emil Kurbedinov is a Crimean Tatar lawyer representing the majority of other Crimean Tatars and Muslims in Crimea who, since Russian annexation in 2014, face politicised charges of ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’ or ‘sabotage’. Last week he was arrested himself. Phone calls, emails, tweets and facebook posts flew. Activists informed international human rights bodies and UN and EU agencies. Officials in Brussels or Geneva sent messages back to delegates in Ukraine.

#freeKurbedinov was born, struggled, failed to trend.

Avdiivka or Avidiyivka or Avdeevka is a town in East Ukraine, on the frontline of the war between Ukrainian government forces and – by proxy – Russia, that’s dragged though innumerable battles and ceasefires since 2014. Fighting has increased again, leaving around 17,000 people without water or heating in -18 temperatures. Journalists are digging out their flak jackets. The International Red Cross posts a statement; the OSCE gives a press conference. Analysts make links with Trump’s weekend phone call with Putin, in an attempt to make this world news.

#saveAvdiyivka or #saveAvdiivka or #saveAvdeevka limps into being, handicapped from birth by an orthographic identity crisis.

Meanwhile there’s the ‘Muslim ban’, there’s the French primaries, there’s Brexit, Syria, and beautiful photos of shiny ice in Japan. There’s someone’s cousin diagnosed with cancer, a sibling trying to escape an abusive relationship, that fabric you’re going to make into a dress, oh and today’s the last day of January so you can start drinking again tomorrow.

How can I make you care about Emil Kurbedinov and the Crimean Tatars, who lost their home and against all the odds got it back, only to lose it again? Over the last couple of years as a journalist I’ve been perfecting the single sentence which explains who the Crimean Tatars are, what religion they practice, why they’re being repressed by Russian authorities in Crimea, where Crimea is and who de jure and de facto controls it. That lets you place these people and their home in a context of sorts. It probably won’t make you see why I think they matter.

As for Avdiivka or Avdiyivka or Avdeevka – To be honest, without checking my notebooks I’m not sure if I’ve been there or not. I visited so many shitty shelled post-Soviet frontline towns in 2014 and 15, places where there’ve been no decent jobs or road repairs or hot water for decades, where people are apathetic and stuffed with rage and lies, and capable of such heroics, such tragedies, such devastating humanity. How can I make you care about a town I can’t remember myself whether I’ve been to, with a name no one can agree on how to spell?

#freeKurbedinov, #saveAvdiivka. Why isn’t the world doing anything to help annexed Crimea, war-torn east Ukraine? Don’t you feel guilty, world, that you don’t care and you’re not doing anything?

Today I read the following quote from 1938, from a German woman (wife of a communist MP) beaten and interned in the Nazis’ female concentration camp, Ravensbruck. ‘If the world was not protesting even against the brutal annexation of foreign territories, was it likely to protest against the whipping of some poor women who had protested against it?’ she said.

#stopRavensbruck.

Long before hashtags, a big part of the world did protest and intervene, eventually. It led to the UN and the International criminal court, the OSCE, the EU. But the world has changed so much since then. Libya, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine. Fox News, RT, social media. Hashtags.

Somehow we’ve reached this moment: meeting an Iranian immigrant to Russia in a Nazi prison-camp memorial in Crimea, which has recently been annexed from Ukraine by Russia and is consequently under EU and US sanctions, I tell him that Second World War memory in my native England is less visceral  because the battles and camps were not located in England. And he says, with a knowing smirk: ‘Yes well, isn’t that typical of England and America, always fighting your wars on other peoples’ territory.’

The world got so big and so fractured. And so much of social and public life (or do I just mean social media life?) is consumed by guilt over not doing enough about it, or over doing too much. People and countries are crying out to the West, the EU, the UN, guilt-tripping them to #save and #free with photos of corpses and tweets from six-year-olds. And people and countries are accusing the West, the EU, the UN of cynical intervention intended only to line pockets, achieve influence, assuage guilty consciences, enslave the masses.

Then there’s that mass which has decided to not feel guilty, to tear down the ICC and the UN and the EU so as not to care. America/England/France/wherever I live first. The rest of the world is too big, and I can’t cope with it.

#freeKurbedinov. #saveAvdiivka. #keepsanctions.

Oh that pathetic little hashtag, Catholic confessional, saviour of the world.

When will there be good news?

Good news coming out of Russian-annexed Crimea is very relative, and even more short-lived.

On 25 January there was some good news from Crimea. Relatively. The Kyiv district court in Simferopol refused to extend the pre-trial prison term of Redvan Suleimanov, arrested in July 2016 on very unconvincing charges of sabotage. He would have to be released by the end of January because the investigation had failed to provide materials within the required seven days of the previous detention term’s expiry.

So you understand why this is good news in Crimea these days: under a regime which makes it abundantly clear that anyone can be arrested and sentenced, regardless of any truth of what they did or didn’t do, no one arrested on politicised charges of extremism or terrorism or sabotage or mass unrest has been found innocent. No one, once taken into pre-trial detention on these charges, has been released on bail or even house arrest. Around twenty people accused of such offences have been held in the horrible conditions of pre-trial prison for a year or more. They have not been allowed visits from their families. Two have been removed to prison in Moscow. The family of another Ukrainian arrested for sabotage in November didn’t know which prison he was in at all for over a month after he was arrested.

Suleimanov’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who represents the majority of Crimean Tatars arrested in Crimea for ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, reported the good news about his client on social media. On 26 January, the next day, he reported a house search by the FSB (Russian security services) of another Crimean Tatar activist.

On his way to the house, and while his own house was also being searched, Kurbedinov was arrested himself. He was charged with ‘public display or propaganda of banned symbols’, for a post on social media from 2012-13 (long before Russia annexed Crimea), and sentenced to ten days administrative arrest.

So relative is good news in Crimea these days, where anyone can be sentenced for anything, this honestly felt like a kind of good news. It is awful news, the arrest of the most prominent lawyer (out of a very small group) defending Crimean Tatars and others. But –  only ten days. Only administrative. It could have been so much worse.

Friends laughed at my naivety over this, and in welcoming the news about Suleimanov just the day before. Rightly. On 27 January, the same Kyiv district court in Simferopol heard Suleimanov’s case again. Kurbedinov of course, was not there to represent him. In his absence, the court extended Suleimanov’s pre-trial prison term.

Tilting at windmills

It’s Reshat Ametov’s birthday today. He’d be 42. He was abducted and killed in Crimea in 2014, and this video clip shows the people who, to a greater or lesser extent, colluded in his murder. We don’t know to what extent, because despite the evidence of this video, they’ve never been put on trial for his abduction. No one has. The case is indefinitely on hold.

The cameraman featured in this film has also never come forward. If he’s still in Crimea, I’m not sure I can entirely blame him; he’d probably end up standing trial himself for ‘inciting mass unrest’ or ‘attempting to overthrow the Russian government by force’. This is not a joke. Since I wrote about the Ametovs in 2015, several people in Crimea face precisely these charges with far less ‘evidence’ against them than even a video showing them filming something that should not be filmed.

Below is a piece I published in June 2015 about the Ametovs and the film. it’s no longer available online so I’m sharing it here. It looks oddly naive now; only three cases of obvious miscarriages of justice?

Perhaps that cameraman will read it…

I never knew Reshat Ametov. I know his brother Refat, and can’t help thinking that his description of Reshat as a tilter at windmills applies just as well to himself.

Over the last year, Refat Ametov has spent uncountable hours obsessively watching and re-watching the same clips of video footage.

Shot in Crimea on March 3 2014, they show his younger brother, Reshat, standing in front of soldiers in unmarked uniform guarding the Crimean Cabinet of Ministers in Lenin square, central Simferopol. Passersby, journalists and men in camouflage and with red armbands mill around the square; police sirens sound in the background. For over an hour, Reshat Ametov just stands there. Then some of the men in camouflage take his arms and lead him to a black car that has just driven up, and he is not there anymore.

This video footage is the last time Refat can see his brother alive. Reshat, 39, a Crimean Tatar father of three who had been making a solitary, silent protest against the Russian occupation of Crimea, was found brutally murdered almost two weeks later, on the eve of a referendum on Crimea joining the Russian Federation.

Now Refat hopes clues in the footage could help find the killers of his brother, who international human rights organisations call the first victim of the Russian annexation.

Russian soldiers in unmarked uniform had just taken over government buildings throughout the peninsula on February 27 2014. Calls for unification with Russia were opposed by the peninsula’s indigenous Muslim people the Crimean Tatars, but any organised opposition was threatened by rapidly-formed brigades of locals and people from Russia, calling themselves Crimean people’s self defence militias. These are the men in camouflage or with red armbands clearly seen in the March 3 video footage, who take Reshat and drive away with him in the car. His body was found 60 km away, near the village of Zemlyanichnoe in Belogorsk region, on March 15.

Over a year after Russian annexation, no one has been charged over Reshat’s kidnapping and death. Despite the evidence of the video footage, much of which went out live on the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR, Crimean government head Sergei Aksyonov announced he was confident the self defence militias were not involved. Authorities opened a case into murder but not abduction, and suspended the investigation in November 2014, officially because they can’t find a suspect. The story has completely dropped out of Russian and Crimean media – where independent outlets, including ATR, have been raided and shut down.

“Crimean mass media won’t cover it in principle, and people from civil society organisations or the authorities won’t touch this case, because it’s a hundred percent lost,” Refat said from his home near Simferopol. “The people who did this serve Russia.”

Yet Refat, who before the annexation worked as an electrician, has not given up. He has been hunting out more evidence in a one-man investigation he hopes will finally bring his brother’s kidnappers, torturers and killers to justice.

“You have to know what they did to my brother,” he said. The evidence he has collected includes hard-to-view photographs from the post-mortem showing the multiple injuries Reshat suffered. “He was tortured over ten days. They stuck a spike through his forehead to kill and get rid of him. Before that he was alive, through all of what they did…When people know that, they feel something different, right?”

When, on March 5, a friend alerted him to the video showing his brother’s abduction, Refat first sent his and Reshat’s family to safe locations. He found out which division of the self defence militia had been on guard on Lenin Square that day, and found their headquarters. “I was there, and Reshat was [taken] there too, I guess,” he said. “I asked them for help, and they actually tried to help me, they were just simple, local guys.” The militia members he met offered to look for Reshat among the prisoners being held in basements around the city. They claimed to find nothing.

Refat tried to track down people visible in the video footage who might be able to offer evidence or clues. The footage shows several journalists at the scene. In particular a cameraman, visible only from the back, follows the group with Reshat to the car, apparently filming his abductors close up. Finally Refat’s obsessive searching turned up another shot in which this cameraman’s face, and that of another journalist working with him, is visible.

In 2015 the British TV documentary series Unreported World produced a short film to try to uncover these journalists’ identities. The film resulted in one lead to a Spanish journalist, which however turned out to be false.

Refat and the family’s lawyer Emil Kurbedinov believe new evidence these journalists may possess could help reopen a case. Because the investigation was into murder, instead of murder with abduction (a category in Russian law) the three individuals seen in the existing footage taking Reshat away are legally considered witnesses and not suspects.

“The investigator couldn’t get anywhere near them,” Refat said. “There were some kind of people and that’s all; they were there and then they weren’t; it’s a fairytale of course, like the car was there and then it wasn’t.”

“It ends up that they didn’t abduct [Reshat], except that’s absurd,” he added.

Olya Skrypnyk, deputy head of the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission, said that a separate investigation into abduction should have been opened. “We know there are people who are in the video, and we know the investigator says they are members of the self defence who are responsible for keeping public order, and so they decided to temporarily remove [Reshat]. But the case contents show that it’s abduction,” she said.

Skrypnyk said the murder investigation procedure should also have treated the three men from the self defence militia as participants or accessories, leaving the court to decide on their degree of involvement. “But the investigation never even reaches this point,” she said. “The investigation is protecting the suspects. They will never come to court even if a murder suspect is found.”

Possible new evidence from the cameraman shown filming could change that. “Then we’d really be able to see who did it, and that they are abductors,” said Refat.

He and Kurbedinov both called on the journalists to come forward. “Why do they keep silent, where are those video files?” asked Kurbedinov. “They should carry out their professional duty and produce these recordings.”

The Ametov case, according to Skrypnyk, is one of three major cases in post-annexation Crimea showing manipulation of evidence and procedure (the others concern the murder of Ukrainian army officer Stanislav Karachevsky in April 2014, and the trial of Aleksandr Kostenko, a pro-Ukrainian activist charged with injuring a riot policeman in Kyiv in February 2014). Meanwhile numerous international human rights organisations have issued damning reports of human rights violations in Crimea since Russian annexation.

Many of the violations, which include house searches, detentions and charges of ‘extremism’, and disappearances, are directed against Crimean Tatars, who make up about 12 percent of the Crimean population and who largely boycotted the March 2014 referendum to join Russia. This entire ethnic group was deported in 1944 just after the Soviet Red Army had liberated Crimea from German occupation; the deportation and next few years in exile wiped out an estimated 46 percent of the nation. Refat and Reshat Ametov’s grandfather was a decorated Red Army reconnaissance officer who went into exile with his family, and Refat and Reshat were born in central Asia.

The Crimean Tatars were allowed to come back from the late 1980s, but faced many challenges to resettling. Before March 2014 Reshat had belonged to a working group which promoted Crimean Tatar rights in Crimea. He had been pushing the local village council to implement a Ukrainian decree which granted Muslims a separate plot for burials.

“He wasn’t involved in politics, but he really cared about things,” said Refat. “He never wanted to fight; he always wanted to do everything by law.”

Reshat had told his brother about his plan to protest the Russian occupation. “I understood how dangerous it was; I said no, it’s too late,” his brother recalled.

On Friday February 28 2014 Reshat put a post on his facebook page: ‘Going on Monday to the Cabinet of Ministers to stand in protest. Have you got the guts???’

That was his verdict and his death sentence, says Refat. “He understood that there was no support anywhere. He wrote his last phrase, and went.”

Refat believes his brother’s silent one-man protest, which he carried out as soon as Lenin square was opened again after several days of complete closure, was motivated by his desire to see legal justice done. “I’m sure he stood there just because he was convinced he had a right to. Why didn’t he have a right to be there? He’d always had that right, on any day…”

Refat repeatedly returns to his brother’s love of justice and his solitary action, with the same obsessiveness with which he has watched those hours of footage showing Reshat in front of the soldiers before he is taken away. “Only my brother took action. He was alone, the only one who went out,” he said. “They say Don Quixote fought with windmills. It was something like that. And in reality, no one else did it except him.”

While Russian media dubbed the Russian soldiers who took over the peninsula ‘polite people’, human rights reports single out the self defence militias for especial censure. According to the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission, since March 2014 they have been involved in the abduction, harassment and torture of Crimean Tatars, journalists and 20 Ukrainian activists; attacks on non-Moscow Patriarchy Orthodox churches; searches of mosques and madrassas, and raids on commercial buildings and businesses.

The Field  Mission notes evidence of force in the disappearance of at least nine other people in Crimea since March 2014.  In two cases, witnesses saw the men – Crimean Tatars – being forced into vehicles and driven away by people in uniform. None of these cases have been solved.

Meanwhile the Russian-backed Crimean authorities have proposed several laws and amendments to legalise the self defence militias and exempt their actions from liability. The militias now have the status of a state public institution, in practice directly subordinate to Crimean head Sergei Aksyonov, who has distributed medals and certificates for ‘faithful performance of duty in protecting public order’.

“For over a year, not a single member of the self defence has been called to account for anything,” said Skrypnyk. “Instead, they receive thanks and awards.”

Skrypnyk, from Crimea but now based in Kyiv, says that monitoring human rights on the peninsula, which she calls “a theatre of the absurd,” is increasingly difficult. “When we’re asked to give any kind of evaluation of the situation as lawyers or human rights activists we can’t, because it’s outside of any recognisable human rights framework,” she said. “It’s outside the framework of any kind of legislation, it’s outside even Russian legislation.”

In this context, Refat Ametov’s dogged pursuit of justice can seem as Quixotic as his brother’s one-man protest. He and Kurbedinov are currently waiting to be granted access to the suspended investigation files, which number thousands of pages. “I’ve already lost a year. I haven’t been earning anything; I don’t know what I’m living on,” Refat said, when asked how he found time for his investigation.

But he has no thoughts of giving up, wherever the investigation leads. “It’ll be deeper and more difficult information; it’s hard for me to even think about it,” he said. “But whatever I find out can’t be any more terrible. I just don’t know what I’ll do with what I find out. I don’t know what will happen then.”


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