My war began on February 27, 2014, with the morning news of the capture of the Council of Ministers of Crimea and the Supreme Council of Crimea by „unknown individuals“ in camouflage without insignia and armed with weapons. At the time, we didn’t refer to these events as „war“ as the fighting was not concentrated around the peninsula. But Russia had been carefully preparing its machinery of repression to launch it immediately. Reshat Ametov was the first civilian victim: he went to a peaceful protest against the occupation of the central square of Aqmescit (Simferopol) and a few weeks later, his beaten body with signs of torture was found in the woods. This event was shocking for the whole country and hard to comprehend, and today, Ukrainian land is again surrounded by thousands of innocent people killed by Russians. These stories of war crimes may seem like just statistics to some, but for us, each one is an open wound on our hearts and the numbers continue to grow every day.
Over the past nine years, Russia has been turning Crimea into its own colony through militarization, population resettlements, change of identity, destruction of cultural heritage, suppression of freedom of speech, and undermining of representative institutions of the indigenous people. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, the peninsula has become one of the main launch pads for rockets aimed at other parts of Ukraine and a role model for the occupation of new territories.
Under occupation the peninsula has become disconnected from the mainland. People are becoming more isolated, living in different realities: children born during the occupation have already started school, the Russian media is constantly brainwashing the population with propaganda, security forces have created an atmosphere of total fear and mistrust which resulted in the isolation of the population, forcing them to focus only on everyday issues. The Crimean Tatar community, for whom the questions of dignity and freedom are of existential importance, is left to either lose their historic homeland again, or to protest and be subject to constant repression.
The war has put Crimea back on Ukraine’s agenda as well as to the consciousness of its residents, who sense that liberation is inevitable. Tectonic plates that were separating have begun moving quickly towards one another. The acts of genocide committed by the Russians in Bucha and Mariupol are reflected in the painful inscriptions on benches in Sevastopol. People of advanced age read prayers (dua) for the dead, and families on the peninsula find ways to transfer money for volunteer initiatives. I also remember the September missile strikes in Novofedorivka, and then in other places on the peninsula, when my Crimean Tatar friends went from one to another for festive tea and shared the same memories as their compatriots in Kyiv or Dnipro. My unquenchable relative drank sweet homemade cherry liqueur on the porch, while others at weddings turned on the patriotic Ukrainian song „Oi u luzi chervona kalyna,“ which ultimately resulted in arrests and fines.
In this abnormal normality, a free and subjective Ukrainian political nation is being formed, which is resilient and no longer views itself as the victim, becoming an example of struggle and courage for the world. For Ukrainians, this is a war for their existence and future state, and similarly for Crimean Tatars, who on both sides of the artificial border in Chonhar are struggling to protect their identity and land from the occupiers. There is no third option: either we defeat the enemy or we do not exist. In the Crimean Tatar language we call war “Cenk”, which began in Crimea and will come to an end on the peninsula.
During this period of full-scale war, I often find myself having flashbacks to 2014. War can be brutal in its effect on human relationships. I’ve observed how family connections are torn apart, long-standing friendships disappear, and sometimes, strangers become closest to one another. In 2014, I went through a process of re-evaluating my relationships and surroundings, which helped me understand the importance of the question „Who does Crimea belong to?“. Some people worked the hotlines of our Crimean aid initiative and received hundreds of calls a day, others took people to pro-Ukrainian rallies. Meanwhile, there were those who started producing Russian propaganda about Crimea or openly or quietly supported it, appearing at pro-occupation propaganda rallies as the leader of this or that collaborationist faction. Behind each of these examples are people who still are or were close to me.
In 2022, I added another question to „Who does Crimea belong to?“ to help distinguish my own people in the whirlwind of events. The question is, „What are you doing for our victory?“ and sometimes it yields unexpected answers. In early March, I needed to find a place for a large number of people to stay for one night in Vinnytsia. All the hotels and hostels were full, so I reached out to friends for help and was given some contacts. I called one number and explained that I needed to house eleven people for the night. After a brief pause, the person on the other end consulted with someone and responded, „Well, we can only take four people. We will put two to sleep in our room, and two more in my mother’s room.“ I paused to confirm that this was a hostel or shelter in Vinnytsia, but it turned out I had dialed a different number and was speaking with residents of a village in Central Ukraine! We laughed and I thanked them for their willingness to help from the first phone call.
This period of my life is focused on action, with little room for reflection. At times, my purpose becomes unclear, but thoughts of the future provide me with the motivation to keep going. I am driven by the prospect of the complex and interesting work that will come with the de-occupation of Crimea. I often imagine my first days back on the peninsula. My parents‘ house will be bustling with the voices of family, my father grilling his signature barbecue, and my mother preparing manti and Napoleon cake. Amidst the commotion, my friends will grab me and take me to greet and listen to the sea. Afterwards, we’ll all gather around a large table in our yard, where my people, who are currently in trenches, in captivity, in migration, and in occupation, will be seated.
See you soon in our free Bakhchisarai! It no longer sounds like a mantra, but like a real plan.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan