Born in exile, Rustam Skyabin returned to his ancestral homeland Crimea in the mid-1990s, only to find his family – almost 20 years later – like his earlier family.
The 45-year-old ceramic artist is among thousands of ethnic Tatars who have fled Crimea for mainland Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow annexed the peninsula and made it part of Russia.
Muslim minorities opposed Russia’s takeover, fearing a repeat of Soviet-era repressions, such as mass deportations, which moved Skybin’s relatives to Uzbekistan in Central Asia.
Today, many of those fleeing say their fear of Kremlin rule is being fueled.
“If we look to the past, they did everything to prevent our people from existing,” Skybin told AFP in his workshop with elaborately painted crockery in Kiev.
“And what they are doing now does not guarantee that it will change. In fact, now there are repressions, political orders, imprisonment.”
Most of Crimea’s nearly 300,000 Tatars boycotted a disputed vote set up by Moscow in 2014 on reunification with Russia.
The authorities cracked down on the Ottoman minority following the takeover, banning its traditional gathering, the Mejlis, shutting down a Tatar television channel and taking activists into custody.
The arrest this month of Majlis deputy chief Nariman Dzheliyal on charges of conspiring to blow up a gas pipeline along with several other activists was a fresh blow to the beleaguered community.
“This situation has dealt a painful blow to the families,” Skybin said of the action and the escape.
history repeats itself
Although he now has a stable life in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, his mother and sister returned home and their marriage broke up. Fearing for his safety, he has not been to Crimea since 2017.
“Opportunities to go or cross the border are dwindling. We all want to see each other and we are all cut off from each other,” Skybin told AFP.
Russia, which has imprisoned more than 90 Tatars, has dismissed allegations that the arrests are politically motivated, saying it only targets Islamists or pro-Kiev “terrorists”.
Speaking to Russian journalists this month, the head of a Tatar cultural society, Aivaz Umerov, described Crimea as a “multi-ethnic” society where different groups live in “harmony”.
Still, the Kremlin regime has forced an estimated 10 percent of Tatars to leave Crimea since 2014, an exodus that rights activist Alim Aliev, 33, described as a “brain drain”.
“The most active people have left: students, youth experts, businessmen, political and cultural figures and journalists,” said the co-founder of Crimea SOS, a non-governmental group.
It is a fate that many in the community who lived on the peninsula for centuries have repeated throughout their history.
Hundreds of thousands of Tatars fled the peninsula to escape religious and political persecution after Tsarist Russia annexed Crimea in 1783.
Under Joseph Stalin, he was accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and exiled to Central Asia. About half died of starvation or disease.
They returned under Mikhail Gorbachev and became Ukrainian citizens after independence in 1991. Then came the Russian annexation.
“Once again, people have been taken away from the opportunity to stay at home or go to their homes,” Alive said.
Skyabin, whose artwork borrows from ethnic Tatar motifs, watched in flight parallel to the forced displacement of his family in 1944.
“You leave your home and possessions behind and go into the unknown,” he said. “We experienced what our grandparents told us.”
‘we will return’
Tatars say they feel safe in Ukraine, but they worry that their children and grandchildren will forget their mother tongue.
Askander Budzurov, born in Uzbekistan and fleeing Crimea after Moscow’s takeover, said that Kiev has become a “second home” for him. But he lamented the lack of schools teaching in his native language.
“I don’t even know how five to seven-year-olds will learn a language,” the 61-year-old said.
Tatars say most Ukrainians have shown mercy to them and that there are enough mosques and halal food in the country. This year, the government has set aside funds for the promotion of Tatar culture for the first time.
Nevertheless, many dream of returning home.
“Our parents and grandparents waited 70 years to return,” said ceramic artist Skybin. “And we’ll be back too.”