Posts Tagged 'Crimea'

Fifth columnists and neo-Nazis

Astounding article here from ‘Crimean Pravda [Truth]’ newspaper – a gigantic rant about neo-Nazis and fifth columnists infiltrating Russian Crimea through the perfidious back-door of intellectual tolerance. The topic of all this bile is an announcement on the website of Simferopol’s Vernadsy University department of Crimean Tatar and Eastern literature, of an event celebrating the Crimean Tatar writer Cengiz Dağcı.

I’ve never read Dağcı –his books are only available in Turkish, as is any biographical information about him. I know many Crimean Tatars highly praise his books (all set in pre-war Crimea, as far as I know); they also say he spent much of WW2 in German prison camps before finally ending up in England where he spent the rest of his life. In the USSR his books were banned as by a Nazi collaborator – which this article also contends he was. I can’t comment on that, but would be really interested and grateful if anyone who knows the facts about Dağcı’s life could do so.

All I can say for sure is that Dağcı was a man who wrote some books in Turkish, never got to see his native Crimea again, and died in 2011 in England.

This article, about one planned event about one man at one faculty of one university, starts with a list of Russian military units (Black Sea Fleet, Novorossiysk Airborne Assault Division, Kamyshin and Ulan-Ude separate assault and assault brigades, 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army of the Southern Military District, 2500 paratroopers and 600 units of military equipment) apparently currently engaged in training exercises in Crimea to tackle “an increased terrorist threat” but also, the writer thinks, to offer a “polite warning to misinformed ‘partners’”, like foreign media writing nasty things about Crimea, such as about the arrest and disappearance of Crimean Tatars.

“There is not, nor will there be any license to trade in Russian slaves, as in the good old days, and building a ‘worldwide Caliphate’ is banned – so of course if that’s oppression…” jokes the author. But “It’s time to worry not about ‘oppression’ of anyone in Crimea, but about excessive tolerance to Nazi criminals.” The faculty of Crimean Tatars and Eastern literature is “inherently vicious” and a hotbed of “Ukrainophiles and Mejlisovtsi” – the latter a word I’ve only just come across referring to people from the Crimean Tatar governing body the Mejlis (which has been banned by Russia) and clearly parallel to ‘Banderovtsi’, those supposed followers of Stepan Bandera and would-be massacrers of innocent Russians in Crimea.

In short, Russian soldiers without insignia “prevented a brutal massacre on the peninsula three years ago and since then have reliably protected Russian Crimea from the encroachments of the external enemy and his stupid accomplices, neo-Nazis. At the same time, on the homefront among the young generation, Crimeans are being offered to perpetuate the memory of Nazi criminals, thus educating future collaborators.”

I can’t believe I’ve just spent time translating this crap. The trouble is, you hear the same rants from people on the streets in Simferopol. This is the atmosphere ‘Ukrainophiles’ and ‘Mejlisovtsi’ have to live with in Crimea, every day. I would not like to be in the shoes of the staff of the department of Crimean Tatar and Eastern Literature right now.

Unsanctioned meetings

I recently joined a local historian for a guided tour of central Simferopol, in Crimea. She was a woman in her 50s who told me – it was almost the first thing she said to me – that “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] is a strong leader, and we adore him.” The tour, with six or seven middle-aged local women in tow, started by the statue of Generalissimo Suvorov – who fought the Turks in Crimea for Catherine the Great – apparently still “looking towards Karasubazar and Kaffa, for Turkish enemies” of the Russian empire. “But now Crimea is in safe hands again, and there’s no need to keep watch anymore.”

I was really puzzled why, when she stopped to tell us about a church, a former palace, Crimea’s first cinema, the former Ukrainian central bank building (which still has a fancy sign outside saying that’s what it is), the guide would herd us into an unobtrusive huddle on the other side of the road, or even round the corner, so we often couldn’t actually see the building in question. She seemed ill-at-ease.

I finally realised she was worried that we might be mistaken for an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ – a punishable offence in Russia – like the group of teenagers in Crimea who gathered this week for a football match, and were reported to the police. Recently ten people were arrested for five days for holding an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ after they spontaneously came to stand outside their neighbour’s house when it was being searched by Russian security services.

“Russia is watching us very closely, to make sure we have no illegal groupings here,” the guide told me after the tour was over. She’d refused to let me pay for the tour, she was just delighted to show her beloved hometown to a foreigner, so I invited her for tea. She took me to a Crimean Tatar café.

She told me she and her neighbours had used to be so afraid each 18 May, when Crimean Tatars had held big, peaceful meetings in the centre of Simferopol to mark the deportation of their nation as wartime ‘traitors’ in 1944 – the atmosphere, she said, was like a tinderbox just waiting to catch light.

She was glad that these meetings are banned now. “Now it’s all civilised, they have their monuments and sacred places where they’re allowed to [meet].”

Over Crimean Tatar sweets, she talked about how the Crimean Tatars had collaborated with the Germans during the war.

I mentioned General Vlasov.

“Mass collaboration was only observed among the Crimean Tatars,” she said. “And the Ukrainians.”

She was a nice woman in many ways, and genuinely knew a lot about Simferopol’s history, and Simferopol’s hearsay. She had a Tatar surname, and told me she was proud of it.

She made me feel sad.

sevastopol mural

2016 ‘Russia Day’ mural, Sevastopol, Crimea

 

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.”

War takes a holiday

A photographer friend who has covered the war in east Ukraine since it began wrote to me recently from Odessa, where she spent much of the summer: “What is strange: no one spoke about the war. Not even one person. I felt it was unfair. And I always felt there was ghost of war right behind me and no one saw it.”

Kyiv too is full of ghosts, and no one talking about them. Every now and then you look up from the new bars and cafes full of beautiful people enjoying themselves and see the ‘bomb shelter’ signs on the walls; ghosts from August 2014 when everyone was convinced Russia was about to openly invade and attack Kyiv. Every now and again you wonder why all the money being spent on new bars and cafes isn’t being spent on wheelchair access to them; you look for the ghosts of wounded soldiers and civilians who will never drink there. Every now and then a crash wakes you in the night or morning, and instead of assuming it’s fireworks or thunder you know it’s the sound of explosions. (Sometimes it is: there are different kinds of war).

read between the lines graffiti

Kyiv graffiti

But who wants to talk about it? The horror and dread got boring, the war drags on like a ghost that can’t grow up, can’t change, can’t die.

War is boring. It’s a tedious corny song that has no chorus and no end. It’s boring listening to identical stories of horrific atrocity and violence from the sufferers of both sides, perfected by two or by twenty years of repetition and  propaganda. It’s boring hearing the same appeals from the same mothers and wives still asking someone, anyone, to help find their missing or release their captive loved ones. It’s boring being lectured that you can’t go to a march for gay rights or a religious procession or a music festival because ‘don’t you know there’s a war on’. It’s boring feeling guilty for having a good time, it’s boring being asked for money to help wounded soldiers, it’s boring trying to care about the daily casualty figures.

No one wants to know anymore. Those editors in the UK or the US write ‘this feels like we’ve covered it before’. Fair enough, they’re a long way away. But in Ukraine itself no one is interested. ‘It feels like we’ve covered this before’. Who wants to hear yet again about the suffering of those people stuck in the limbo of ‘grey zones’ in east Ukraine, being shelled? Who wants to hear again about Sasha or Kolya still in prison in Donetsk when they’ve been in prison in Donetsk for over a year and nothing has changed – what more is there to say?

Wives and mothers of imprisoned soldiers demonstrating in Kyiv

It’s boring being in that prison, stuck with the same faces you’ve seen for over a year, stuck with the same guards who might or might not treat you decently. It even gets boring to go through the unbearable hope and disappointment every time you’re allowed to make a phone call to a relative and ask ‘What’s new?”

It’s boring outside being shelled; that gut-deep terror that this next one might actually kill you gets so boring that you don’t even bother going down to the cellar to hide anymore. It’s boring trying to sort out the paperwork to get a measly pension from one side or the other. It’s boring waiting hours in line to cross de facto borders, and even more boring talking about it.

It’s bewilderingly boring working out how to talk at all about a war that isn’t a war, an invasion that isn’t an insurgency that isn’t civil that isn’t military, about one country that is at the same time two or three. It’s boring knowing that whatever you say or write, you’ll be accused of being biased, unpatriotic, a Russian spy, a Ukrainian fascist.

Other people’s grief is boring. Your own grief is boring.

The war whines along quietly in the background, a dull song no one wants to listen to but that you can’t get out of your head. Like the ‘bomb shelter’ signs still there beside the fashionable graffiti and the café names and the people getting on with life, hanging out, enjoying sleepy summer August.

And then someone decides it was boring being boring, and makes up a story about ‘terrorist attacks’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘armed incursions’, and we go from indifference to panic in zero seconds.

Nothing happens in August except holidays. We took a holiday from the war, those of us who could. But the war didn’t take a holiday.

Cemetery for unknown soldiers from the east Ukraine war

When history turns its attention to Crimea

“If history turns its attention to Crimea someday, and if one Crimean Tatar searches for another, my writings may surface. It is quite all right, if this does not happen. Crimean Tatars lost their flag, their glory, and their land. What if I were to lose a few nights without sleep and days in grief …”

Thus wrote the Crimean Tatar linguist and academic Bekir Çobanzade (1893-1937), in a preface to a book of poems that was never published in his short lifetime. In 1937 he was convicted by Soviet authorities of supporting separatist national republics, involvement in terrorism, and being a foreign agent, and executed.

He was rehabilitated in the 1950s; I can’t help thinking that if he were alive today in Russian-ruled Crimea he could easily be sentenced again for those same alleged crimes. After all, the new authorities cancelled an academic conference to be held there in his honour in Summer 2014, apparently alarmed that it was a ‘provocation’.

Rare photos from 1930s Crimea - from a 2014 exhibition in the Crimean Tatar history museum in Simferopol

Rare photos from 1930s Crimea – from a 2014 exhibition in the Crimean Tatar history museum in Simferopol

I find those words he wrote painfully touching in their modesty. History has indeed turned its attention to Crimea – and so has that ineffable mix of politics, music and kitsch that is the Eurovision song contest, with Jamala’s win with a song about the Crimean Tatar deportation. I do hope that someone somewhere now is reading Bekir Çobanzade.

More on Crimean Tatar collective memory and literature, including my book Dream Land which is indebted to those memories, on the British Library European Studies blog. 

(And here is a Foreign Policy article I wrote in March about the Crimea Tatar battalion and blockade.)

When will this be a book

Surreal moment, in a gigantic muddy field where an electricity pylon has been blown up by saboteurs, as two mud-covered jeeps arrive with a load of large scary men in camouflage from volunteer paramilitary groups, knives in belts, an automatic rifle in the back seat – and one of them stares at me very hard and I’m looking back nervously and he says: ‘Are you Lily Hyde? I’ve read your wonderful book.”

I can write funny little stories of strange meetings in muddy fields in south Ukraine with fans of my book, Dream Land. But the people that book is about, the Crimean Tatars and their national struggle to live in their homeland – that is the real, big story; that is happening now; not funny at all.

The man who said “I’ve read your wonderful book” had to leave Crimea with his family last year, when Crimea was annexed by Russia and he was detained by ‘Crimean self-defence militias’ (and what’s the difference between them and ‘Ukrainian voluntary battalions’ like the ones in that field…?) This was long before this man had anything to do with any paramilitary groups shouting either “Velikaya Rossiya” or “Slava Ukrainy”. At the time, he worked for non-government organisations on euro-integration.

Another man I met near that muddy field, driving from Crimea to mainland Ukraine, could not stop talking: “I know I’m being a bit mad,” he said, “but it’s the freedom of being here, it’s like being able to breath again.” He had come to support the blockade of Crimea by Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian voluntary battalions, and he wouldn’t tell me his name – not for my newspaper report anyway, this man who belongs to one of the most outspoken nations I know. Today, while he is in mainland Ukraine, breathing freely, his home back in Crimea is being searched by Russian security services.

This is not in fact a story; it’s not in a book. No punchline, no neat ending, no marketing strategy and author signings. It is losses and mixed allegiances and stranger alliances, shattered glass electricity conductors in a vast sea of mud, the horizon lost in freezing fog, one lonely tent flying the Crimean Tatar flag.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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