Crimean Tatars, the indigenous Muslims of Ukraine and the country’s largest ethnic minority, have joined the fight against Russia’s invasion. Tatars serve throughout Ukraine’s military ranks and as civilian volunteers offering humanitarian help.
Tatars are Turkic-speaking Muslims who have lived in Crimea since the 13th century. Russian rulers have persecuted them for almost 300 years. One of the greatest tragedies in Tatar history was their genocidal expulsion from Crimea by Josef Stalin in 1944. About 200,000 Tatars are said to have been forcibly deported to Central Asia by the notorious Soviet secret police, the NKVD, in cattle cars. According to estimates, half died before they even reached the inhumane labor camps where the Soviets forced them to work and dwell.
Tatars were allowed to return to Crimea in the late 1980s, but most did not go back to their homeland until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In 2014, Tatars faced Russian aggression once again, when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army annexed Crimea.
In 2022, many Tatars have helped Ukraine defy its invaders. This is the latest Tatar struggle for freedom from Russian imperialism. The memory of pain and a history of repression form the basis of Tatar support for Ukraine’s defense, though Muslim neighbors with similar historical experiences — like some Chechens — have openly joined their oppressor’s side.
New Lines spoke with Mustafa Dzhemilev, a venerated leader of the long-persecuted Crimean Tatars. Dzhemilev is also a member of the Ukrainian Parliament and a celebrated human rights activist. He has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, including this year. Dzhemilev spent 15 years in prison camps in the Soviet Union, and he once went on a 303-day hunger strike.
Despite experiencing imprisonment and systematic political persecution throughout his life, Dzhemilev continues to raise awareness about human rights violations and the oppression of his people. He resisted Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and has staunchly opposed its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The Russian authorities have illegally denied him entry to Crimea, his homeland, until 2034.
Dzhemilev was in Kyiv on May 6 at the time of this interview. He spoke by video about the horrors of violence and the war crimes Russia is perpetrating across the country. He also addressed the situation of Crimean Tatars, and he shared his views about Ukraine’s immediate and future needs, including military support and sanctions. [Continue reading…]