|yahoo images, 2015|
But I have one great human rights warrior to add to the list for 2016: Mustafa Dzhemilev, the courageous and long-time nonviolent fighter for the rights of the Crimean Tatars. He has been imprisoned, tortured, spent years in gulags. He continues to fight. The Ghandi of his people. His pain and struggle are etched on his face, but he remains unbowed.
I learned that he was nominated for the award in the past, which I hope won't exclude him from consideration in the future. The Tatars, an ethnic (Tatar) and religious (Muslim) minority on the Crimean peninsula, are forced once again to fight for their survival. Literally. Dzhemilev, at 73 years of age, continues to lead the struggle.
Exiled forcibly with his family (he was a young child) upon Stalin's deportation order in May 1944, along with some 250,000 other Tatars, he grew up in Uzbekistan to become a fighter for the rights of Tartars to return to their homeland.
I can't imagine being forced from home one dark night, suddenly, viciously, at the barrel of a gun, with nothing but the clothes on your back, and maybe a handicraft item grabbed while fleeing, hidden away to pass on to kids and grandkids. A reminder of a homeland and a tortuous past. One family told me this story when I visited them in Simferopol, and showed me a common but beloved household item that had been passed along in this way.
In 1989, Dzhemilev returned to Crimea, joined by thousands upon thousands of other Tatars. They began to rebuild homes, communities, and social and cultural institutions. A fleeting moment of joy. The Ismail Gasprinskiy Library, a UNESCO heritage site devoted to preserving Tatar culture, is one shining example. The vibrant beauty of iconic Bachysaray, a main tourist attraction with the stunning palace and historic grounds of the Crimean Khan (15th to 18th centuries), surrounded by awesome cave dwellings, another.
I can't imagine returning to Crimea after living in exile somewhere in Central Asia for decades, your land confiscated, your heritage dimmed. I can't imagine trying to rebuild your life, step by step, stitch by stitch, brick by brick, and then being forced to live once again under a Russian occupation. What an unbearable shock.
That's what happened early this year, when Putin began his deadly stealth campaign on Ukrainian land, when he occupied, invaded and took over Crimea. He ramped up the propaganda, along with secret services operatives, mercenaries, and weapons, to a fever pitch. A once peaceful and relatively prosperous part of Ukraine became a war zone. Crimea "belonged" to Russia, Putin pronounced, again at the barrel of a gun and with brutal violence. I suppose like Alaska "belonged" to Russia at one time. But grounds for an invasion today? Grounds for breaking international treaties and humanitarian laws? Grounds for violating the territorial integrity of another country?
Today, the Crimean Tatar people are under an oppressive Russian rule on the land of their ancestors. Putin has taken over part of modern Ukraine for his own delusional purposes. It's a heartbreaking tragedy, and an international crime.
Putin got away with it. Crimea is now ruled with an iron fist by a totalitarian regime enforcing Russification on every level. The Tatars are being victimized beyond endurance. Killed, disappeared, threatened daily, their neighborhoods and institutions taken over by Russians, some destroyed. It's happening in eastern Ukraine, too, in Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts, in other cities: stealth, invasion, violence, convoys of Russian heavy weapons and soldiers, special ops; bombs here and there, violent brawls in parliaments, on the streets, in government offices; explosions in Khargiv, in Odessa, Mariupol. The sounds of Putin's war, with no end in sight.
Putin is a war criminal strutting on the terrain of freedom like a mad dog.
So Mustafa Dzhemilev, this elegant, brilliant and nonviolent fighter for justice, was recently denied entry into the homeland for which he has fought all his life. How devastating beyond words.
He had been in Poland, receiving the first Leah Walesea peace prize. He was stopped at a border check point by Russian soldiers, as five thousand Tatars, who had come to welcome him, watched--helpless, infuriated, defiant. Their hero. Treated like a common criminal. Forbidden to return to Crimea. Putin's victory.
A surreal rerun of a terrible tragic history. Crimea. So beautiful. So haunting. So violated.
The world needs to recognize what has been lost. The dreams that have been shattered by Russia's invasion. The tragedy of ethnic Ukrainians who dare not speak out. The tragedy of the Crimean Tatars, a peaceful people, whose homeland has been repeatedly wrested from them. The hopes dashed. The fabric of a unique cultural heritage destroyed. The struggle that Mustafa Dzhemilev symbolizes.
SOME SOURCES (copied and pasted but have to type in):
http://crimeantatarlibrary.blogspot.com/2012/03/international-mother-language-day-at.html. A blog by Peace Corps friend Barbara Wieser who served in Crimea. She also recommends the International Committee for Crimea (ICC).
http://www.rferl.org/content/crimea-tatars/26595092.html. Tatar scholar attacked; historic library forced to close by Russians. Not sure of the status of the Gasprinskiy library now.