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