Tensions as Crimea Tatars to mark deportation anniversary

Tensions as Crimea Tatars to mark deportation anniversary

Simferopol (Undefined) (AFP) - Crimea's Tatars on Sunday commemorate 70 years since their deportation by Stalin, a day of mourning that this year will be marked amid a ban on mass gatherings and tensions over Moscow's annexation of the peninsula.

Tens of thousands gather every year in the regional capital Simferopol to commemorate the tragedy on May 18, 1944, when Soviet secret police began shipping Crimean Tatars to Central Asia.

A Turkic-speaking Muslim group, the Tatars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany during its World War II occupation of the Black Sea peninsula.

Official figures say 193,000 people were deported, but Crimean Tatars put the number at closer to 240,000 -- including many soldiers who fought in the Red Army.

This year the ceremonies are being eclipsed by recent political upheaval and the continued crisis in Ukraine, with some fearing clashes at Sunday's events.

Local authorities have not granted permission for the usual gathering on the main square in Simferopol, and on Friday the local government announced it was banning all public gatherings until June 6 "to eliminate possible provocations by extremists".

Nariman Dzhelyalov, the deputy head of the Tatar governing body, the Mejlis, said some 40,000 people are nonetheless expected.

"People will still come, and if it's banned then they will come already in a mood," Dzhelyalov said.

Many Crimean Tatars opposed Russia's annexation of the peninsula in March and firmly reject the new pro-Russian authorities.

"It is the most important day for Crimean Tatars," said Mustafa Dzhemilev, a hugely respected leader of the 300,000-strong community and a lawmaker in the Ukrainian national parliament.

He said the 70th anniversary was expected to be a "massive commemoration" but authorities locked horns with Tatar leaders over how to go about it.

"They wanted a publicity show, to announce how great life will be for Crimean Tatars (in Russia), but were told no," Dzhemilev told AFP.

"They are afraid there will be Ukrainian flags."

In March the Tatars, who make up about 12 percent of Crimea's population, widely ignored the referendum organised on the peninsula that led to its annexation, and many are still figuring out how to co-exist with the new regime.

The United Nations on Friday voiced deep concern about "serious problems" of harassment and persecution of the Tatar community in Crimea.

Dzhemilev said he has received reports in advance of the anniversary of riot police camped in the outskirts of the city and even Russian special forces troops.

- 'Monstrous genocide' -

AFP correspondents this week observed military trucks used to carry police and interior troops on the highway to Simferopol.

"Without question, it has to do with the rally," Dzhemilev said, fearing clashes between Tatars and security officers.

Dzhemilev, a 70-year-old former dissident who spent years in Soviet prison over his activism for Tatars and human rights, was a newborn when NKVD secret police troops forced his family on a train to Uzbekistan.

"It was a monstrous genocide," said historian Elvedin Chubarov.

Crimean Tatar families, already malnourished after years of Nazi occupation, were crowded on trains for weeks with no drinking water or medical care.

Those who survived the journey had to live in special camps until after Stalin's death in 1953.

And unlike many other ethnic groups deported during Stalin's rule, they were not allowed to return to Crimea until the period of openness in the late 1980s.

When the Crimean Tatars did return -- those who found the money to relocate their entire lives thousands of kilometres -- their homes had been taken over by others, leading to conflicts about land ownership that persist to this day.

"The memory of the deportation is a giant bleeding wound," Chubarov said. "It touched everyone, the entire nation was resettled and every family has its own story of deportation."

Moscow has made overtures to the Crimean Tatars, and President Vladimir Putin even signed a decree to formally rehabilitate people unjustly deported from Crimea.

Speaking to the Tatar community in the southern Russian city of Sochi on Friday, Putin said it was important that Crimea's Tatars not become "bargaining chips" in the dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

But he added: "It is in the interests of the Crimean Tatars today to be in Russia."

Many in the community however say they will never trust anyone in the Kremlin again.

Dzhemilev meanwhile finds himself once again unable to return to Crimea -- local authorities banned him from entering the peninsula after a recent trip outside the region.

"How can a person be denied the right to go home?" he lamented.