We should have known

I wrote this in August 2008:

This weekend, along with most of Ukraine, I’ve been sweltering in the heat and watching tanks lumbering along the streets of Kiev accompanied by cheery brass band marches.

It was a military parade, the first in seven years, to celebrate Ukrainian independence declared in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. But I was thinking, as I’m sure were many people, about similar scenes in Georgia, a country not so far away which declared independence just as Ukraine did in 1991.

In Georgia people have been standing on the streets watching tanks too. But not on parade there; it’s an invading army they’re watching.

And in Crimea, in South Ukraine, I think maybe Safi is wondering, yet again, if she’s going to lose her home and her family to a war.

Safi doesn’t really exist. She’s the heroine of my book, Dream Land, and this was a blog post I wrote for my publisher, Walker, to promote both the book and a little more knowledge about its subect: Crimea and the Crimea Tatars. I wrote:

Safi’s story might feel a long way away. Not many people in Britain have really heard of Crimea or of Crimean Tatars, just as not that many people knew much about Georgia or had heard of South Ossetia before the war there started three weeks ago – and then suddenly it was in all the newspapers, on all the TV channels. But for children like Safi, these places are home; made up of all the roads and houses and people that they know, where they feel safe.

There are parallels between Georgia and Ukraine and Crimea. Like in Crimea, the ethnic problems today in Georgia are to some extent a legacy of Soviet policy. Like in Georgia, some inhabitants of Crimea now want to be part of one country, some part of another. Many people hate their neighbours because they have a different nationality or ethnic background. Watching the tanks this weekend, some people in Ukraine worry that a war could start in Crimea just as it did in Georgia.

I’m not particularly proud of this post, but what most strikes me about it now is its naivety. Even while I was writing it, I never really believed Russia would move to invade Crimea the way it invaded Georgia. At the time, I’d just come back from Crimea. I’d spoken to people – Russians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, all over the south-west and coast of the peninsular. No one wanted to talk about Georgia and South Ossetia. Absolutely no one. I wondered if they were sticking their heads in the sand, or just fed up of media frenzies, and wanting to get on with their lives.

If I feel stupid about my own naivety, I am seeing it echoed all over the world. No one quite believed this was going to happen in Crimea, it seems – not even the people whose job, surely, it is to know.

On friday, I was watching Yanukovich’s press conference with a Ukrainian friend; we were laughing and disgusted. That was only three days ago. Now, I’ve never felt further from laughing.

The girl Safi I wrote about back in 2008 isn’t real – except she is. She’s a kind of shorthand for all the real people I know in Crimea – all the ones I don’t know too, but who are facing a possible war.

We’re hearing a lot about the ethnic Russians in Crimea, the Russian-speakers, the ones who apparently require the Russian army to make them feel safe. I don’t believe this for one minute. I cannot believe they believe it.

But we are hearing next to nothing about the Crimean Tatars, Russian speakers too, who have faced prejudice and violence from both Russians and Ukrainians ever since Stalin accused them of collaboration with the Nazis and deported the entire population in 1944; ever since they returned to Crimea in the 1990s and rebuilt their lives from scratch. What do they need to feel safe? Not Russian soldiers. Not media prejudice or media silence.


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