Dec 16, 2010

Crimean Tatars: A Unique Ukrainian - Tatar Partnership

How Life of Mustafa Dzhemiliev the Leader of Crimean Tatars Illustrates the History and Approach Regarding National Adherence.

Below is an article published by Star:

Mine was a Ukrainian neighbourhood until its gentrification, starting in the early 1990s with the arrival of middle-aged professionals toting toddlers.

Still, Bloor Street West retains its old character with family-run delis, the annual Ukrainian street festival and such institutions as the Ukrainian Canadian Credit Union, Ukrainian Canadian Social Services and — steps from the Runnymede Public Library, which stocks Ukrainian books and newspapers — the venerable Ukrainian Canadian Art Foundation. Its gallery was packed last Thursday evening with about 150 people who had come to listen to a legendary figure.

Mustafa Dzhemiliev, 66, is a survivor of the Soviet Gulag. He spent 17 years in dungeons and death camps, including in Siberia. He was released only after his name was (fifth) on the famous list of 23 dissidents that Ronald Reagan handed Mikhail Gorbachev at their 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, demanding their freedom.

Dzhemiliev — pronounced Ja-mee-li-yev — is the leader of the Crimean Tatars, one of the two indigenous peoples of Ukraine. Not to be confused with the other Tatars, they live on the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea.

His remarkable story begins in 1944. He was 6 months old when his parents were among the 200,000 Crimean Tatars deported by Stalin to Central Asia (as were other minorities, such as the Chechens). More than a third of the Tatars died on the way.

At age 18, Dzhemiliev refused to serve in the Soviet army in protest. He was jailed for three years.

He was to be imprisoned six more times, often condemned to solitary confinement. Deprived of warm clothes, he was always cold. Never given enough to eat, he got malnourished — a condition made worse by his protest hunger strikes. The longest lasted 303 days, which he survived only because he had been force-fed.

In 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimean Tatars began returning to their homeland. Their old homes and lands all occupied by ethnic Russian settlers, many lived in tents.

In 1991, with Ukraine’s independence (advocated editorially by the Star, the first North American daily to do so), the Crimean Tatars had high hopes of regaining their centuries-old autonomy, lost with the Czarist annexation in 1783.

They began the national rebuilding process with 250 representatives electing a 33-member Majlis (assembly), which elected Dzhemiliev as chair. He has been re-elected thrice since.

In 1997, he was also elected to the Ukrainian parliament in Kyev, and re-elected in 2002, 2006 and 2007.

Grassroots democracy and non-violence are central to the Crimean struggle, Dzhemiliev tells me. “We are proud that not a single opponent of ours has been killed by us,” despite repeated pogroms by the Czars and then the Communists, who took turns turning Tatar mosques into churches or military barracks, and burning all their books and artifacts.

This Mahatma Gandhi of the Crimea, or a Nelson Mandela, has been bestowed many international honours, including the UN Nansen Medal (given to Canada in 1986 for our humane handling of refugees). Dzhemiliev used the $100,000 to build two cultural centres and start stipends for students.

Retaining their culture and language is a priority. But resources are limited. A third of his 280,000 people are unemployed. A minority in their own homeland, they constitute only 13 per cent of the population and have even less representation, 3 per cent, in the local government controlled by the majority Russians.

A mosque approved in 2004 for Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, is still stalled, with one official excuse after another over zoning, noise and traffic issues. In protest, Tatars have been bringing a brick each, inscribed with the names of the dear deported of 1944.

But Dzhemiliev is patient. He speaks softly, never tiring of retelling the story of his people. A short, wiry man with a leathery face, today he’s wearing a charcoal grey suit circa the 1960s — a figure from the past sitting atop a contemporary post-Soviet fault line.

Most Russians in Crimea have been or are with the Russian naval fleet in Sevastopol on the Black Sea. Many want to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Moscow is funding them and is also reportedly handing out Russian passports (as in South Ossetia, Georgia).

Caught in this dangerous game, Dzhemiliev is clear that Tatars want to remain part of Ukraine. “We want national and territorial autonomy within an independent, democratic and stable Ukraine.”