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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Slavs Block Crimea Return, Tatars Say

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine - The Crimean peninsula is threatening to become the former Soviet Union's latest inter-ethnic battleground after a week of sporadic violence between police and Crimean Tatars.


Thirty Tatars were arrested and dozens of policemen injured last week in clashes, at illegal Tatar settlements and in fighting between police and Tatars around the Supreme Soviet in Crimea's capital, Simferopol.


"They do not want us to return. They are the inheritors of those who exiled us", Mustafa Gemilev, a Tatar leader, said of the Crimean authorities.


The recent trouble began on Oct. 1, when police cleared an illegal Tatar settlement at Krasny Rai - Red Heaven. After several demonstrations, last Tuesday a group of several thousand disenchanted Tatars mountained protest at Simferopol's Supreme Soviet to demand the release of 28 of their number, who had been arrested in a previous clash. During the demonstration, Tatars attacked police lines. The police reportedly fired three gunshots, injuring one Tatar in the arm.


The civil strife in Crimea, a peninsula of dachas, party sanatoriums and Communist pensioners, is about land. The Tatars, descendants of Russia's 13th century rulers, were one of the ethnic groups deported, en masse, by Stalin during World War II. In May, 1944, more than 200, 000 Tatars, the entire ethnic group living in the Crimea, were ordered to Central Asia. Tens of thousands - the Tatars say half the population - perished en route.


Spurred on by Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, many began the trek home to their Black Sea homeland in the 1980s, often at their own expense. However, they returned as unwelcome guests and continue to face a hostile reception from a regime of Communist diehards; Scare stories circulated amongst the Slavic population that the Tatars would evict Russians who had taken the Crimean's homes.


"We are like American Indians, trespassers on our own land", said Yussof Kortalev, 26, a Tatar mechanic who arrived in the Crimea from Uzbekistan four months ago. Born a few years after the conception of the Soviet Union, Amik Takov, a small and sprightly man, is one of the estimated 200, 000 who has trekked from Central Asia to the Crimea. The elderly Tatars tell moving stories of being deported as children without their parents. Takov is no exception. He spent three years looking for his mother and sisters after being exiled to Uzbekistan.


In most countries, Takov, 64, would be approaching retirement. Here, he is building, with the help of his son, a house on the side of a barren piece of land on the edge of Stroganovka, a village a few miles from where he was born. In the words of his wife, Alexandra, they want to complete the house so they can "die on our own land".


The Takovs have no permit and can, technically, be ordered from the land by Crimean police. Although the Tatars say their relationship with local Russians and Ukrainians is good, they fear the actions of the Crimean authorities. "After the events of this month, I am afraid that they can come, in the night or day, and clear us from this land", Alexandra said.