Caught between wars: Russian invasion of Ukraine puts Crimean Tatar Muslims at risk again
The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic Muslim people who were forced from their homes in 1944 and 2014. The minority group now fears the effects of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Russia declared war against Ukraine on Thursday. Making the announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their weapons and return to their homes. The commencement of war has raised concerns over civilians who are living in Ukraine, especially the minority Crimean Tatar Muslim community.
The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic Muslim people, who have been forced from their homes in 1944 and 2014. The minority group now fears the effect of Russia-Ukraine war.
Erfan Kudusov, 53, was in his twenties when the Crimean Tatars returned to their homeland after more than 45 years in forced exile.
“Older people, when they first stepped off the plane, they kissed the land. People were crying with happiness; they were back in their homeland,” he told Al Jazeera.
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But in 2014, thousands of Crimean Tatars were forced to leave their homeland again following Russia’s annexation of their homeland.
CRIMEAN TATARS AND FORCED EXILES
The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula, on the northern coast of the Black Sea. In 1944, under the orders of Joseph Stalin, all 180,000 Crimean Tatars living in Crimea were forced onto cattle trains and exiled to Uzbekistan.
According to an estimate, about half them died either during the journey to Uzbekistan or from subsequent disease and starvation during their first two years in exile. This deportation was recognised as genocide by several countries, including Ukraine.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the peninsula became part of Ukraine, and the Crimean Tatars were able to return to their homeland.
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However, it wasn’t an easy return to the land they once knew. The community faced several challenges, such as being blocked from buying or renting homes.
Apart from forced exiles, the Crimean Tatars also faced stigma and discrimination after decades of Soviet propaganda had labelled them as Nazi collaborators. The stigma was propagated despite tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars having served in the Red Army.
RUSSIA’S ANNEXATION OF CRIMEA
In March 2014, Russia officially annexed Crimea after a disputed and internationally rejected referendum. Following the annexation, the occupying forces immediately began to crack down on Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists.
The Russian authorities also banned the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar representative body, labelling it an extremist outfit.
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About 10 per cent of Crimean Tatars have moved from the peninsula since the annexation, often to Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine, or Kyiv.
CRIMEAN TATARS IN UKRAINE
Several establishments around Kyiv now display the Crimean Tatar flag. Kamila Yurchenko, who works at the Religious Administration of Ukrainian Muslims, described the minority as an integral part of Ukraine’s “multinational” Muslim community.
There are estimated to be 100,000 practising Muslims in Kyiv alone, many from Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.There are about 400,000 Muslims in Ukraine, with the majority being Crimean Tatar.
The future of these Tartar Muslims now largely depends on the outcome of this war.
“Ukraine is our motherland, and we worry what will happen to it and what will happen to us,” said Yurchenko.