May 26, 2014

Crimean Tatars: Refugee Vows To Keep Tatar Culture Alive Through Art

Thousands of Tatars fled Crimea prior to its annexation by Russia. One of these refugees, Rustem Skibin, now vows to use art to keep Tatar culture alive.

Below is an article published by 7News:

In a leafy suburb of Kiev, I go to meet Rustem Skibin.

He is a leading ceramic artist from Crimea. But on this day his beautifully painted bowls and plates are not on display in an exhibition, they are on a small table in a lounge room, waiting to be wrapped up and packed away as he and his wife move from their friends' flat to another place they have found.

Skibin and his wife are refugees, and have been since they fled Crimea in the days before its breakaway from Ukraine and its annexation by Russia. Thousands of fellow Tatars fled then too.

Back in Crimea they lived in an adobe house just outside the capital Simferopol. He turned it into a Tatar gallery and meeting place for artisans ... a marker of cultural identity for the Muslim ethnic minority.

For Tatars, just being visible in Crimea, surviving, yet alone thriving, is a major victory.

Especially given the horrific events of 1944, when Joseph Stalin's troops staged a swift, brutal, mass deportation to wipe Tatars from Crimea.   

In just over one horrific day, more than 200,000 people were thrown out of their houses and shipped off, many to forced labor camps. About half died, within months, of hunger and disease.  

The episode is branded into the community's consciousness. 

And when Skibin and his friends saw tanks roll into town, they feared the worst.

"My friends and I felt we were in danger, we thought something was in the air," he said.

"We saw big Russian vehicles moving up and down the streets and we thought they might stop and clear us away, like what happened to the Tatar people when they were rounded up in a day and deported. We thought that could happen again."

As Skibin and his wife, mother and sister were weighing up whether to leave, nothing was clear - they knew pro-Russian militants had taken over administrative buildings, military bases, turned off Ukrainian TV stations, turned off the internet and were stopping people at checkpoints.

But he had another concern - his art.

"I didn't know if someone would come to my house and destroy everything," he said. 

"I was the only man there and I didn't know if I could protect it all. 

"The collection is valuable, not because it's my work, it's because it's part of the Crimean Tartar culture, it's part of our heritage. It makes us a community. It makes us whole."

'They dare not speak their own language'

Skibin said both the police and Russians were not letting Crimean Tatars into the peninsula.

"For instance, one of our leaders, Mustafa Dzhemilev, wasn't let into Crimea," he said.

"Crimeans have been beaten there. The justice system doesn't work. Everything is aimed towards repressing, neglecting and ruining our culture."

His mother and sister have since returned. They found it too hard to be away from home.

But Skibin says they dare not speak their own language, for instance, on public transport because it attracts abuse from pro-Russians.

They now live with their bags packed in case they need to leave again quickly.

"I feel sadness, pain, depression," Skibin said. "Everything is burning in my heart when I think about it. 

"I want to strike back. I'll do what I can. I'll fight back with my weapon – which is my culture. That's what I can do."

Last week in Simferopol, the Tatar community came out to mark the 70th anniversary of the mass deportation in defiance of authorities who feared such a display would ignite clashes.

Helicopters circled overhead as thousands rallied and prayed, a sign there is a long way to go before peace and trust return.

Skibin spent the day in the eastern city of Lviv, overseeing a Tatar crafts workshop, making sure his culture and people are not forgotten.