'All We Can Do Is Try to Defend Our Families'

Behind enemy lines, the motley Tatar self-defense units of Crimea anxiously patrol a homeland they fear will be ripped from them once again.

BAKHCHYSARAI, Ukraine — The room looks like the basement of a frat house. Food scraps and half-empty plastic bottles are strewn across decrepit school desks. A disco ball hangs limply from a hook in the middle of the ceiling. Dirty, tattered curtains cover dirtier window panes, as men come and go, pacing across the room.

There are no parties here. This basement is for strategizing: Sitting behind a desk in the corner, one man is hunched over a large ledger, carefully filling in names, schedules, and responsibilities. Two others -- tense and worried -- are poring over a map of the neighborhood.

The regional headquarters of the "self-defense units" of the Crimean Tatars, in the Ceyhan Quarter of the town of Bakhchysarai, Crimea, stays busy throughout the night. It is here, in the local youth center, that people come to receive their instructions before heading out on patrols. They drop by for a quick snack and a coffee between shifts, clutching their plastic cups by an old electric heater.

Small volunteer units of usually three or four local residents stand watch during the night, on three-hour shifts, at strategic locations -- intersections, main roads, back roads -- throughout the neighborhood. They keep track of suspicious movements or individuals, in an attempt to head off any situations that could escalate into open conflict. Ever since the clandestine Russian takeover of Crimea more than two weeks ago, organized groups of Tatars -- a Muslim ethnic group native to Crimea, that makes up 12 to 15 percent of the population -- have been on guard, waiting for their pro-Russian "self-defense unit" counterparts to make a move. There are about seven to eight of these posts in the Ceyhan quarter, but many more throughout Bakhchysarai and other parts of Crimea.   

"We try to keep people in our community safe, but we don't use any weapons," said Ayder Abdulaev, the coordinator of the Ceyhan headquarters. "Our whole effort is to try to avoid provocations of any kind. Nobody wants war."

There haven't been any serious confrontations yet, except for scuffles between Tatars and Russians at a mass protest in front of the Crimean parliament on Feb. 26, but there other reports of intimidation, taunting, and occasional vandalism. Most worryingly, some Crimean Tatar houses in Crimea have been branded with X-marks -- a particularly ominous sign for a traumatized people. In 1944, on the pretext that some Crimean Tatars had collaborated with Hitler's armies, Stalin ordered the forceful deportation to Central Asia of their entire population, roughly 200,000 people, half of whom eventually perished. Before the deportation, similar X-marks had been used to tag Tatar households.

In his late 50s, dressed in an old brown sheepskin coat and a traditional Tatar black fur cap, Abdulaev has a diffident, almost shy demeanor, and a soft voice. He looks more like a schoolteacher than a seasoned fighter. He and his family returned here in 1989, a year after the Soviet Union officially allowed exiled Tatars back into Crimea; they've been trying to rebuild their lives since.

"This is our native country and it took us a long time to get back home," he says. "We have nowhere else to go and we are determined to stay here, whatever happens."

Bakhchysarai's Ceyhan quarter (also called 7th district) is a small, impoverished area -- home to about 1,000 people, Abdulaev estimates, most of them Tatars, but some Russians and Ukrainians, too. The neighborhood's worn-down dirt roads meander through rows of half-finished cinder-block houses, some of them built illegally -- an issue that has long been a flash point between the Tatars living here and the Russians.  After their return from Central Asia, many Tatar families, lacking land or funds, were forced to squat; their former properties had been taken over by Slavic settlers decades ago. The conflict has been simmering quietly in the background, but now, with the recent political developments, it has taken on a sharper edge. Old grudges between neighbors have suddenly become more urgent, with more pronounced ethnic overtones. As one Tatar man from Ceyhan said, "The masks have fallen."

Not everyone is as determined to stay as Abdulaev: Ukraine's state border patrol estimates that hundreds of people -- most of them Tatars -- have already fled Crimea for mainland Ukraine or Turkey, according to the Kyiv Post. The new pro-Russian government in Crimea has been trying to allay fears by promising the Tatar minority larger representation in the local parliament, language rights, and financial assistance -- benefits that the Ukrainian state refused to grant them for nearly quarter of a century. But many in the Crimean Tatar community remain suspicious, with betrayals and false promises too fresh in their memories.

"We are all very worried," a member of a Tatar self-defense unit, who preferred not to give his name, said. "Nobody is protecting us, so we have to protect ourselves."

It is hard to imagine, however, that the Tatars in the Ceyhan Quarter could really protect themselves against much. Many of the volunteers milling in and out of headquarters are kids just out of high school, eager to prove their manhood. The older men, too, are hardly combatants, dressed in cheap jackets, jeans, and worn-out shoes. Standing for hours on end in the cold dark, shivering and unarmed, they seem hardly a match for anyone who might wish them harm. Their only weapons are mobile phones and walkie-talkies, and the occasional wooden club or iron rod.

"All we want is peace. We are peaceful people," said Arsen Ramazanov, a 37-year-old Tatar volunteer, doing the early night shift. "We don't have weapons and we don't need weapons. If you want to shoot at us, shoot. What can we do? Fight against the Russian army?"

There isn't much they can do except warn each other of any incoming danger. But even communication has been difficult. Although the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar governing body, is in charge of the overall structure and function of the Tatar security strategy, many of the local residents have been spontaneously forming self-defense units, without notifying their erstwhile leaders -- a sign, perhaps, that if tensions in Crimea take an ugly turn, the Mejlis may not be able to control how the Tatars respond.

"We need the presence of monitoring groups to guarantee the dialogue between the different groups here," said Ali Khamzin, the head of the Department of Foreign Relations at the main office of the Mejlis in Simferopol. "We have self-defense units and we are ready to act, even if there are machine guns against us, but we have a different strategy now. We need to resemble those little fish that swim with the sharks."

The sharks are not far off. Down the main road, connecting Crimea's capital Simferopol to Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea Naval base, Russian military trucks, armored vehicles, and hardware, are zooming up and down throughout the night, emitting a roar that can be heard from Ceyhan Quarter. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Abdulaev and his motley band continue to assign out shifts, prepare coffee, hand out cookies, and pray for the best.

"We are pawns in this game," said Nariman Osmanov, a 42-year-old from Ceyhan Quarter on the second hour of his shift, as he watched a Russian infantry vehicle speed past. "All we can do is try to defend our families. Nothing else."

This project is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Photos: Boryana Katsarova

Democracy Lab

Republic of Fear

Welcome to the Orwellian world of pre-referendum Crimea.

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea — The last time I spoke with Crimean activist Andriy Shchekun, I had no inkling that it might be my only opportunity to do so for a while. The next day, on March 9, he disappeared, along with two of his colleagues and his son Serhiy -- apparently spirited away by the pro-Russian security forces that have emerged all over this Ukrainian province ever since Russian troops began taking over at the beginning of this month.

Shchekun and his friends had been organizing rallies in support of keeping Crimea within Ukraine. Ever since pro-Russian forces made their grab for power late last month, he and his fellow activists have been on the receiving end of anonymous phone calls or graffiti threatening bad ends for those who would resist. "There are people in civilian clothes or in the uniforms of the Russian self-defense forces who try to scare people coming to our meetings," he told me. "Many Ukrainians and Tatars are receiving death threats. They're acting like bandits, but there are also many decent Russians who support us and don't want to be part of Putin's Russia."

A few days later I had an opportunity to ask Dmitri Polonsky, the new Crimean minister of information, what had happened to the Ukrainian activists. His response was utterly Orwellian: "There is no Ukrainian community in the Crimea, so there are no missing community leaders." Like all the rest of the people who have suddenly emerged over the past few days to staff the region's new administration, Polonsky is a Russian.

Polonsky's perverse logic tells you all you need to know about the situation in Crimea in the days leading up to Sunday's referendum, when the peninsula's inhabitants will be going to the polls to vote on whether they want to become a part of the Russian Federation. As the referendum drew closer this week, the atmosphere in the capital, Simferopol, and other parts of Crimea has grown increasingly sinister and oppressive.

On Feb. 27, Russian troops emerged from their bases in a sort of slow-motion coup, effectively occupying the peninsula and paving the way for the establishment of a new regional government run by a hitherto marginal pro-Russian politician named Sergei Aksyonov. In the weeks since then, Moscow has brought in additional troops by boat, plane, and helicopter to reinforce its hold over the territory. Ukrainian forces have been blockaded on their own bases by the Russian troops, estimated to number 26,000.

Last weekend the leaders of the self-proclaimed government of the Crimean Autonomous Republic announced that they were establishing their own army, which they inaugurated at a public ceremony in a park that commemorates the dead of World War II. As the eternal flame flickered in front of them, the men, wearing spanking new uniforms and boots and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles still glistening with packing grease, swore an oath of allegiance to the Crimean Republic.

Events since then have been moving fast. The Crimean parliament, working behind closed doors, voted to declare independence. The Russian parliament then approved a measure enabling the territory's annexation by Russia. Parliamentary leaders have said the legislation required for finalizing the move will be approved next week.

The referendum will give voters just two options: whether they want Crimea to join the Russian Federation or whether they want the peninsula to stay as part of Ukraine but under a 1992 constitution which lets them govern themselves.

Few here doubt the outcome. Russians make up just under 60 percent of the region's population of two million. Ukrainians comprise another 24 percent, while the Crimean Tatars, the people who have the oldest historical claim to the peninsula, account for another 12 percent. Members of the Ukrainian and Tatar communities have said that they won't take part in the referendum. Yet many told me that their internal passports, which serve as basic identification documents, have been taken away by people posing as officials who claimed to be updating electoral voter lists. Without their passports, these voters won't be able to participate in the referendum anyway.

The pro-Russian forces haven't only been neutralizing opposition activists. They've also cracked down on local media, shutting down newspapers and TV stations that don't toe Moscow's line. All flights from Crimea to the rest of Ukraine have been canceled. Many Ukrainians who are loyal to the government in Kiev have been leaving the peninsula for Ukraine.

Andrei Andrusov, though an ethnic Russian, is a former commander in the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol. He is also married to a Ukrainian. After leaving the navy some years ago, he resumed his law studies and began working as a human rights lawyer. Like many other ethnic Russians from the peninsula, he traveled to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to participate in the pro-democracy protests in Independence Square, the "Maidan." He was also an organizer of pro-democracy protests in Crimea in support of the movement to oust then-President Viktor Yanukovych.

"When I returned to my apartment in Sevastopol last month from the Maidan, many of my neighbors knew about my activities," Andrusov told me. "They shunned me. Some of the Russians I've regarded as friends for 30 years refused to talk to me, calling me a traitor to Russia."

On March 11, Andrei was working in Simferopol when he learned that two mysterious men were looking for him. A friend in the Crimean security services contacted him and told him to leave as soon as possible, saying that his name had turned up on a list of those to be arrested by pro-Russian forces.

The only flights out of Crimea now are to Moscow, and trains are correspondingly crowded. Train passengers are subject to random inspections and questioning by thuggish supporters of the new government, Cossacks and volunteer "self-defense units" who work for the self-proclaimed Russian Crimean leader Aksyonov, a former criminal with the gangster nickname of "Goblin."

Andrei managed to get train tickets for his wife and himself. On March 12, carrying one bag with all their essentials, they boarded a train, leaving everything else behind. Just before midnight he phoned me: "We're in Free Ukraine. I've never been so happy." He signed off with the slogan used by the Maidan protesters: "Glory to Ukraine!" I could hear him crying.

As the new authorities have ratcheted up intimidation and violence against their communities, the Ukrainians and Tatars have held only a few small rallies to denounce the referendum. The rallies are often attacked by pro-government thugs.

At one such demonstration I watched as pro-Russian forces screamed obscenities, their faces twisting in rage when they spotted TV cameras from western media outlets, who are easy to pick out. Several western TV companies, including Associated Press TV, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and Italian SKY TV, have been physically attacked; in some cases the assailants also stole their equipment. One French Canadian journalist was taken off the streets by uniformed "volunteers" and handcuffed for hours before being released. A Bulgarian journalist was roughed up by others who shoved a pistol in his face.

The pro-Russian rallies are large. Their participants include many ordinary Russians, some attending with their children, who say that their language, religion, and culture have been shortchanged during the years of rule from Kiev. Few of them, however, are able to offer concrete examples of any sort of discrimination. Even Russian TV, which has been distorting the news in a way that would have made Goebbels blush, has failed to find a convincing case, despite scouring Crimea and Ukraine for weeks.

There is an unsettling feeling that people have been bombarded with so much Kremlin propaganda that they've become delusional, and now believe things that, at some level, they must recognize can't be true.

Many Russian activists complain that Kiev has done little for the peninsula since 1991 independence. They bemoan bad roads and skimpy pensions and welfare payments. They complain about corrupt politicians stealing from official funds. But that has been the case throughout corruption-infested Ukraine, where local authority leaders divide up most of budget transfers from the central government among themselves, leaving the miserable leftovers to the citizens. In Crimea, where the administration has been dominated by ethnic Russians since independence, the officials consist primarily of ethnic Russians who have been stealing from their own people.

Vladimir, 38, a taxi driver, pointed at some of the Russian soldiers -- the same soldiers whose presence Putin refuses to admit. "If these guys weren't here," Vladimir told me, "We'd have already been conquered by the fascists from Ukraine. They were already here, ready to take over."

He said he had seen some of the fascists, carrying a Nazi flag. When I expressed skepticism that someone would dare to show an SS flag in the midst of a fanatically pro-Putin crowd, his voice rose. "Yes!" he said, "I saw it myself. They were ready to raise their flags outside our parliament but our soldiers came."

It's not certain, though, that all of Crimea's ethnic Russians want to live in Russia or under Putin. A fair referendum might actually produce a vote to stay in the new Ukraine, which is one reason why it's not going to happen.

Nikita, 25, a software development programmer, told me: "I'm proud of my Russian and Jewish roots, but I'm a Ukrainian citizen, and I want Crimea to stay Ukrainian. My friends and I supported the overthrow of Yanukovych."

Sveta, 24, an ethnic Russian lawyer, has a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother: "But they both want Crimea to remain in Ukraine," she told me. "Russian-speakers have never been persecuted here. None of my friends -- whether they're Russian, Ukrainian or Tatar -- want to live under Putin's dictatorship."

The United States and the European Union have said that they refuse to recognize the referendum because of the extraordinary circumstances under which it has been organized. There will be no independent monitors from organizations such as the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, whose military observers came under fire from Russian forces last weekend when they tried to enter the peninsula.

I asked Polonsky, the minister of information, why the referendum is being held nonetheless. "The referendum is being conducted according to exactly the same standards that are applied everywhere else in the world," he told me. "How do Western countries and organizations get off telling us how to organize the referendum and to live our lives?" No one, he insisted, had shot at the OSCE monitors. He also assured me that Crimean Tatars were stealing their own passports to discredit the referendum.

Stalin ordered the entire Crimean Tatar population deported to Soviet Central Asia in 1944 for alleged collaboration with wartime German occupiers. Some 300,000 Tatars were herded onto train wagons under the most brutal of conditions. An estimated 46 percent died during transport or in the first year.

The exiles began returning home in 1989, during the era of Mikhail Gorbachev. The migration increased after Ukraine's independence from the USSR in 1991. There have often between tensions between the returnees and the Russian majority, who have traditionally had little sympathy for the Crimean Tatar plight.

Sayeed, 25, a Tatar historian, was just a few years old when he arrived in Crimea. "I feel myself a Ukrainian although Ukraine hasn't done very much for us," he told me. "But we can expect even less under Russia. We Tatars and the whole of Ukraine are trapped in a big game being played out between Russia and the West. We don't want war and bloodshed here, but that's exactly what this referendum could bring." One can only pray that he's wrong.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images