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Their Fears Are Coming True: People Are Disappearing in Crimea Now That Russia's in Charge

Oliver Bullough

The rules of Crimean Tatar hospitality decree that a host serve a guest coffee, then tea, while discussing the news. Abdureshit Dzheparov is too steeped in the ways of his people to do otherwise, though his cup sat untouched, the steam drifting away in the cold air, as he described the evening of September 27, when he last saw his son.

“A friend of mine had come by. He was on his way to Sudak. We sat down for coffee like we are now. My son was here; my son made us coffee. And then afterwards he looked in and asked if he was needed. If not, he would go see his cousins,” Dzheparov said, his voice flat and face drawn. He had barely slept in days.

Dzheparov's son Islam, 18, went to check up on his widowed aunt and her children, who also live in the settlement of Sary-Su, on the edge of the town of Belogorsk, less than an hour's drive east of Simferopol, Crimea. Islam went most evenings, Dzheparov said. Sometimes, as on this occasion, his 23-year-old cousin Dzhevdet came along for company.

“At seven that evening, around seven, a car came along and beeped and I was like, 'Why don’t they come in?' I went out and there were two young lads in the car, and one said, 'Your son, I saw him, he was kidnapped, he was thrown in a van and taken away.'"

Dzhevdet was gone too. The young witnesses said three men wearing masks had bundled them into the back of a blue Volkswagen Transporter with tinted windows. Neither of them has been seen or heard of since.

The abductions of Islam and Dzhevdet are two of “at least seven” since May, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Of that total, five were Crimean Tatars and two were pro-Ukraine activists. Those numbers do not include Reshat Ametov, 39, who was led away by three men in military-style clothes on March 3 after local television showed him protesting the Russian takeover. His tortured body was found dumped outside Belogorsk on March 16.

In March, when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops—at first, ones wearing uniforms without identifying insignia so they could pretend to be locals, and later in all their glory—to annex Crimea from Ukraine, most of the peninsula’s indigenous Tatar population was worried. They have long blamed Moscow for their forced deportation from the peninsula in 1944, during which almost half them died, and worried of a repeat tragedy with Russia back in power.

The Tatars only came home in the 1980s and 1990s, when communism was collapsing. They never got their homes back or compensation of any kind. They mostly now live in houses they built themselves, on land they seized from the state. In these jerry-built quarters, the streets are unpaved, and often unlit, and they have few ties with their Russian neighbours.

These Russian-speaking neighbors broadly supported the Kremlin’s takeover, saying life would be far better under Moscow, which pays higher pensions and has secured more robust economic growth than Ukraine since independence. Nonetheless, most Tatars and their leaders opposed Moscow’s annexation, rejecting Putin's repeated insistence that everything would be fine.

Everything is not fine.

The reports of abductions and disappearances in Crimea are familiar to anyone acquainted with Chechnya, another region where Putin exerted his authority in defiance of the indigenous population. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that Russia abducted and killed young Chechens, though Russian officials have never admitted it. In 2004, one man was snatched from a provincial departure lounge while he awaited a flight. His family only realized he was gone when he failed to arrive in Moscow to celebrate the New Year.

The Tatars, accustomed to the gentler politics of Ukraine, are stunned by the disappearances. They swap rumors and try to solve the puzzle. They worry about their losing their rights, not least because Russia has banned Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, the leaders of the Medzhlis, the Tatars’ own elected assembly, from returning to Crimea. The Russian approach to investigating has also not helped calm their fears. The Investigative Committee, powerful organization often called “Russia’s FBI,” confiscated Dzheparov’s computer and called him in for questioning about his criminal record (he doesn’t have one, but was repeatedly arrested in Soviet times during the Tatars’ campaign to return home). He said they had suggested he and his son are religious radicals.

They are Sunni Muslims like the vast majority of Crimea’s Tatars, but Dzheparov insisted neither he nor his son are unusually religious. “Look at my books,” he said, pointing to shelves full of law textbooks, history books, and Russian classics. “They want to make us look like we are secret reactionaries or something, but by son was raised like this.”

Sergei Aksyonov, who became head of the regional government during the Russian takeover, came to talk to Dzheparov after an outcry on social media over the boys' disappearance, and promised to do all he could to help find them. No one has claimed responsibility for the abduction, but Dzheparov believes it was a state-sponsored raid. No one else’s vehicles, he said, have tinted windows.

“One investigator said the destiny of the children would depend on my behavior. I said I was happy to be under constant surveillance, to be fully under their control, to be where my son is now, as long as that meant he was here,” he said.

Two local police officers turned up while Dzheparov and I were chatting. They were responding to a complaint from Dzheparov’s niece (Dzhevdet’s sister) who said a car had tailed her, and that a female passenger had told her to get in if she wanted news of her brother. The girl refused, and ran home, terrified. The neighbors were terrified too, and refused to talk to the officers.

“It has never been like this with the Tatars, this has never happened before, there has always been solidarity,” Dzheparov said. “Tell me, in your experience of Chechnya, was it like this? Will my boys ever come home?”

I did not tell Dzheparov about my meeting earlier that day with another Tatar father, Seitumer Zinedinov. Zinedinov’s son Seimar vanished in May, while trying to locate another friend who had already gone missing. Zinedinov, a handsome, stocky truck driver, fidgeted compulsively with a pack of cards as he described his son’s life.

“He went out of the house to the crossroads to talk to Timur’s wife. He was coming home, and he had to walk seven blocks,” he said, laying out seven cards in a row and counting them off. “They got him here.” His finger skewered the fourth card, the seven of hearts.

Seimar was grabbed and bundled into a red Daewoo Lanos, which had been parked in the same spot for so long that no one paying it any attention: “I went to the FSB, they said that if he was kidnapped and someone asked for money. I should tell them. There have been 12 different investigators now. They change them like they change their gloves, no one wants to be connected to this.”

He was in no doubt that Seimar’s disappearance and the others were staged to scare the Tatars, to divide them and force them to give up their opposition to Russia. Almost five months have gone by now without word, and his wife has taken ill from the stress. She no longer goes out.

Zinedinov was trying to stay calm.

"We survived the communist times, Stalin, Lenin," he said. "We will survive this Putin too."