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Chief Rabbi of Ukraine: The world must not ignore the suffering of the Crimean Tatars the way it once ignored ours

Halya Coynash
Our cry must be heard, so that the horror of the past is not repeated here and now. Our voice must ring out because the world is now silent about the fate of the Crimean Tatars. This was the message on May 18 from Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine

Our cry must be heard, so that the horror of the past is not repeated here and now. Our words must ring out because the world is now silent about the fate of the Crimean Tatars.  This was the message on May 18 from Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine speaking at the remembrance gathering in Kyiv for the Victims of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatar people.  The words were to a world which once again is bitterly failing to react when an entire people is in danger.

The Chief Rabbi’s speech:

“In the first instance from the Jews of Ukraine, and from Jews throughout the world, I want to say that we are with you, those who have gathered today. The main thing is that we must make sure that our voice is heard through the whole world.  What we felt during the Holocaust when all nations were silent is being repeated now.  They killed Jews and nobody got up, nobody said anything, nobody wanted to save them.  And today the main thing for me as a Jew living here in Ukraine and that I say everywhere is: “Where are you? Where are all the nations? Where is the United Nations? Where are other countries? They are all busy with their own problems.

The cry must come from here so that it is heard throughout the entire world, that we will not be silent, that we will not allow those things that had seemed in the past to be repeated. Why is nobody shouting? Where are all the aid or human rights organizations?  Today, on a day when they think about how there must not be discrimination of LGBT, where is the day on stopping discrimination of the Crimean Tatars? Why do we not hear this voice? 

We must not be silent until this issue is resolved. The resolution lies in the fact that people should live in their own land. Nobody has the right to drive people away.  Particularly when this is a repetition of what happened once. Why then is everybody blind and deaf, why do they hear nothing and see nothing? We are obliged to begin a campaign today so that it is heard through the whole world, so that what happened is never repeated.  So that we can know that the Crimean Tatars are able to live a free life with pride and spend their life in their own land, in Crimea which we will always consider to be Ukraine. Thank you. “

The speech can be heard here:

Since Russia invaded and occupied Crimea, all those who oppose annexation and affirm that Crimea remains Ukrainian are at risk, and some, like Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, are imprisoned after show trials in Russia.  It is, however, undoubtedly true that the Crimean Tatars who are the main indigenous people in Crimea have suffered the most and are very often targeted by the occupying regime. 

One of the reasons is bitterly poignant.   While others have been driven into exile, this is not an option for most Crimean Tatars. In the words of Lilya Budzhurova, a prominent journalist and former Director of TV ATR, the Crimean Tatar channel which Russia forced to close in Crimea: “It’s impossible to leave our homeland.  We were too long returning”. 

Joseph Stalin’s Deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar people in 1944 has rightly been recognized by Ukraine as genocide.  Almost half the population died during the deportation and in the first years of exile.  It was only really after Ukraine’s Independence that Crimean Tatars were able to return to their homeland.

The ban on remembrance events marking the anniversary on May 18 began two months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and a number of Crimean Tatars are now facing charges simply for trying to hold the traditional remembrance car rally from Simferopol to Bakhchysarai on May 18, 2016.

Veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev was 6 months old at the time of the Deportation.  He devoted most of his life to the peaceful struggle for his people’s right to return to their homeland, and paid for this with 15 years in the Soviet labour camps.  In April 2014, he was banished from Russian-occupied Crimea and has now also had criminal charges against him initiated in Russia, effectively for trying to cross into his homeland.  The Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis or representative assembly Refat Chubarov was banned two months later.  Later Russia also issued an arrest warrant against him on charges of ‘public calls aimed at encroaching upon Russia’s territorial integrity’.  This is otherwise known as stating that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine.  They, and the Mejlis, which represents the vast majority of Crimean Tatars, was adamantly opposed to Russian occupation.  

The major offensive against the Mejlis began in September 2014.  In January 2015 Akhtem Chiygoz, the Deputy Head of the Mejlis, was arrested.  He and other Crimean Tatars remain in custody on legally grotesque charges concerning a pre-annexation demonstration over which Russia has no jurisdiction.   Another Mejlis leader Ilmi Umerov has been formerly charged with the same ‘public calls aimed at encroaching on Russia’s territorial integrity’ and could face up to 5 years’ imprisonment.  The Mejlis has now been banned as ‘extremist’, with one of the reasons presented being the Mejlis’ aim which is the reinstatement of the Crimean Tatar people’s national and political rights as part of Ukraine. 

Most of the people who have been abducted and / or disappeared without trace have been Crimean Tatar.

There have been waves of armed searches of Crimean Tatar homes and 14 Crimean Muslims, all but two of them Crimean Tatars are in custody facing likely long sentences on invented ‘terrorism’ charges.  The disappearances, armed searches and arrests seem aimed at terrorizing Crimean Tatars and forcing them into exile or silence. 

All this is met at best by words of ‘concern’ or ‘condemnation’ from western countries and international bodies, at worst by weak reports like that from the Council of Europe, published on the same day that the Mejlis was, without a court ruling, first ‘suspended’.  

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