Aziz Ziyatdinov says he doesn’t get much sleep at night these days.
“We don’t know who might come up this road,” says the 30-year-old, gesturing to a steep dirt pathway leading to the tiny pop-up village of Ana-Yurt. His eyes are dark with heavy bags, and he paces nervously, glancing at the horizon unremittingly while he speaks. He prefers when it rains, making it next to impossible for vehicles to ascend the hillside.
“We used to get a lot of sleep. It was very quiet until some weeks ago. Now it is very intense, and not safe for us,” he says.
In 1944, under the pretext that they had aided the Nazis during World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported more than 200,000 Crimean Tatars to Central Asia, where they remained until they began returning shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the land they once ruled.
About half of them died of disease and starvation during their journey to the Far East. Today, around 300,000 call Crimea home. But most believe their livelihood is in danger, now that Russia effectively controls the peninsula and is seeking to take Crimea under its governance.
Since Feb. 27, heavily armed Russian troops – up to 30,000 over the course of the week, according to the State Border Service of Ukraine – have besieged Ukrainian military bases and government buildings, and even closed road access from mainland Ukraine. For at least a day they managed to shut down Simferopol’s airport, and this week took control of media, including main radio and television stations, which now air Russian state-sponsored news in place of Ukrainian news.
The Russian troops are joined by thousands of pro-Russia Crimean militiamen – some with automatic weapons – who are less disciplined and have attacked several pro-Ukraine demonstrators and journalists in recent days.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that the soldiers on the ground are Russian, noting that they wear unmarked uniforms. But he justified asking parliament to vote to allow him to send troops here under the pretext that they would be peacekeepers working to protect ethnic Russians, who account for nearly 60 percent of the population of Crimea, from Kyiv extremists who have seized power of Ukraine through a coup d’état. Russian deputies voted unanimously last week to allow Putin the option of sending military forces onto the territory of Ukraine.
As Crimean lawmakers voted in Simferopol for secession on March 6, pushing up a referendum previously scheduled for the end of the month to March 16, Ildar Ibraimov fretted over what might become of him and his fellow Crimean Tatars should the autonomous republic join Russia.
“It has taken more than 20 years to rebuild our lives, and we are very worried it could all be taken away again,” Ibraimov, a local member of the Mejilis, the governing body for the Crimean Tatars, who returned to Crimea from Uzbekistan in 1991, told the Kyiv Post on March 6.
Already the Tatar’s lives have been made more complicated, with pro-Russia militia targeting and intimidating them. Several homes of Crimean Tatars in Simferopol and the city of Bakhchisaray have reportedly been marked by gouges or painted with a large “X” similar to that used by police under Stalin’s order in 1944 to mark the homes of those to be deported. Some Tatars have found their homes broken into and vehicles damaged.
“In such dark times appear hooliganism, robberies and general destabilization,” Ibraimov says. None of the homes in Ana-Yurt have been tagged with such marks, but at least one wall of a Tatar restaurant in the valley below appeared to have been marked in black paint.
“I don’t go into Simferopol, because I believe these people will attack me,” he said.
Both he and Ibraimov said that they were strongly against Crimea joining Russia, as it would mean “more repression,” and that the referendum was illegal, a sentiment echoed by U.S. President Barack Obama on March 6, who said it “would violate the Ukrainian Constitution and international law.”
Crimean Tatar chairman Refat Chubarov urged residents of the peninsula to boycott the referendum scheduled for March 16 and called the pro-Russia parliament members who voted for separating Crimea from Ukraine “lunatics” who had “lost their minds” and were “fulfilling someone else’s will” in a post on Facebook.
“The Mejlis (parliament) of the Crimean Tatars does not recognize this referendum,” he said.
Ibraimov says the hopes the referendum fails, but he’s not holding his breath.
“We want peace, prosperity and development… and for Crimea to remain with Ukraine,” he said. “But we are preparing for the worst – that we will wake up in Russia one day.
Ziyatdinov and others at Ana-Yurt aren’t taking any chances. They have assembled a security team of men within the town which patrols its streets day and night in rotating shifts, scrutinizing every new car and each strange face that emerges from the valley below.
They know they don’t have the man power or the weapons to stave off an organized attack by the pro-Russia militia groups should they come for them. But they can at least keep a curious few away.
“You can see, we’re not going to win a fight against 100 (men),” Ziyatdinov said. “But we have men on the streets and in each yard, and we can protect from provocateurs.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.