Activists man­ning Crimea block­ade vow to stay put

Kyiv Post - - Front Page -

CHON­HAR, Ukraine – The road south on the way to Chon­har in Ukraine’s Kher­son Oblast seems to lead nowhere. Traf­fic in the flat, des­o­late land­scape is sparse, the nearby rail­way line silent. At a row of de­serted mar­ket stalls, strings of dried fish dan­gle in an icy wind. Graf­fiti on a con­crete block reads: 18 kilo­me­ters to the Rus­sian oc­cu­piers.

This is one of three routes through the nar­row isth­mus that con­nects the Crimean penin­sula to Ukraine, and it is also Crimean ac­tivist Lenur Islyamov’s road home.

When Rus­sia an­nexed Crimea fol­low­ing an in­ter­na­tion­ally con­demned ref­er­en­dum last March, Chon­har be­came a de facto in­ter­na­tional border cross­ing for pas­sen­gers and goods from and to Ukraine.

Now the small road­side vil­lage serves as head­quar­ters for a block­ade led by Islyamov and en­forced by an un­likely al­liance of Ukrainian na­tion­al­ists, in­ter­na­tional mil­i­tary brigades and Crimea’s in­dige­nous peo­ple, the Crimean Tatars, who hope starv­ing the penin­sula of goods, ser­vices and power will even­tu­ally re­turn it to Ukraine. “We were in a des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion; Ukraine had for­got­ten about Crimea and the Crimean Tatars… So we made the de­ci­sion that Ukraine should re­mem­ber Crimea, and we should con­stantly re­mind it,” Islyamov told the Kyiv Post. “We had to take a fight­ing po­si­tion, oth­er­wise we can’t say we are wor­thy of Crimea.”

A cit­i­zen of Rus­sia for 20 years, Crimean Tatar Islyamov built a suc­cess­ful busi­ness em­pire in­clud­ing a bank, a trans­porta­tion com­pany and a me­dia hold­ing that es­tab­lished the world’s first and only Crimean Tatar TV chan­nel, ATR.

Openly crit­i­cal of Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion, the chan­nel con­tin­ued broad­cast­ing in Crimea for a year af­ter March 2014 be­fore it was de­nied a li­cense and shut down. Islyamov him­self briefly served as vice premier in the new Rus­sian Crimean gov­ern­ment last year, un­til he was dis­missed. Since then he has be­come an in­creas­ingly pub­lic fig­ure de­fend­ing Crimean Tatar rights.

“We should be the first to go back to a free Crimea,” he said in the block­ade head­quar­ters’ tent, just a few kilo­me­ters from the new “border” with Rus­sian-ruled Crimea, where he held court over an eclec­tic mix of dour fight­ers from Chech­nya, vol­un­teer Cos­sacks from Za­por­izhya, grand­moth­ers from lo­cal vil­lages pro­vid­ing camp cook­ing, and jour­nal­ists, blog­gers and stu­dents from Crimea.

“It’s our land, and we will die there,” he said.Rus­sia has no land bridge to Crimea, and the penin­sula re­ceives most of its elec­tric­ity and wa­ter from Ukraine.

Af­ter the an­nex­a­tion, there were calls for Ukraine to cut off sup­plies, cit­ing the Geneva con­ven­tion, which stip­u­lates that an oc­cu­py­ing coun­try should pro­vide for the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion.

In­stead, the gov­ern­ment signed an agree­ment with the Rus­sian-run Crimean En­ergy Min­istry to con­tinue pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity, and passed a law making Ukraine a free eco­nomic zone.

Activists com­plain that this ef­fec­tively turned Crimea into a con­duit to fun­nel Ukrainian goods into Rus­sia, so they launched the block­ade on Sept. 20 to stop this and in­ter­rupt a prof­itable con­tra­band busi­ness. Ukraine’s gov­ern­ment be­lat­edly this week or­dered a ban on cargo traf­fic to Crimea.

On Nov. 21, the block­ade upped the ante sig­nif­i­cantly when dam­age to four elec­tric­ity tow­ers in Kher­son Oblast cut elec­tric­ity to Crimea, and activists vowed to pre­vent them from be­ing re­paired. Nearly a week on, Crimea’s two mil­lion in­hab­i­tants are re­ceiv­ing elec­tric­ity for lim­ited pe­ri­ods, schools are closed, hos­pi­tals have shut some de­part­ments and are un­able to pro­vide hot meals for pa­tients.

No one in Chon­har wants to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the dam­age to the power lines sup­ply­ing Crimea. Some said they thought it was caused by high winds on Nov. 21, oth­ers that it was the work of “un­known pa­tri­ots.”

“It’s a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe for Rus­sia,” said Right Sec­tor spokesman Oleksandr Byk in Chon­har. “It proves that Crimea can’t live with­out Ukraine.” Crimea can cover about 30 per­cent of its power needs on its own, while Ukraine has tra­di­tion­ally han­dled the rest.In the block­ade HQ, activists quoted mes­sages of sup­port from Crimean Tatars in Crimea and of­fered a new raft of jokes. “One Crimean Tatar says to an­other, ‘Have you got elec­tric­ity?’” Islyamov said. “The other an­swers, “‘Thank God, no.’”

“We’re sorry for those who are suf­fer­ing from this,” added Zira, a young woman from Crimea who de­clined to give her sur­name for fear of reprisals by those against the block­ade. “But we have our goals, and they are jus­ti­fied.”

Zira and oth­ers say that fo­cus­ing on the il­le­gal­ity of their block­ade and its im­pact on Crimean cit­i­zens ob­scures the il­le­gal­ity of Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and the en­su­ing crack­down on hu­man rights, which has been ex­ten­sively doc­u­mented by in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions like Hu­man Rights Watch and Amnesty In­ter­na­tional. “Is it an act of ter­ror­ism that we closed the roads? We check pass­ports, is that anti- hu­man­i­tar­ian?” asked Islyamov. “Isn’t it anti-hu­man­i­tar­ian when jour­nal­ists are pulled in for ques­tion­ing by the FSB (Rus­sian se­cu­rity ser­vice) in Crimea? In Crimea now you can’t be in an NGO, you can’t own a TV sta­tion, you can’t say what you think – isn’t that ter­ror­ism?”

The HQ’s tents, pitched in a sea of mud, serve as a re­minder for many Crimean Tatars of the early 1990s, when thou­sands re­turned to Crimea from ex­ile. De­ported from Crimea on Stalin’s or­ders in 1944, dur­ing which an es­ti­mated 46 per­cent of the en­tire pop­u­la­tion died, this 300,000-strong na­tion fought a 50-year peace­ful cam­paign for the right to re­turn home. When they were fi­nally al­lowed to, fam­i­lies built new lives from scratch, liv­ing in tents on squat­ted land un­til they could build houses. Many say that liv­ing with­out elec­tric­ity and wa­ter ei­ther here or in Crimea is just a re­turn to old times. Oth­ers see cur­rent events as their chance to prove their met­tle as their an­ces­tors did.

“Our grand­par­ents suf­fered and fought in the war, our par­ents fought to come home to Crimea. What did the next gen­er­a­tion fight for?” said Islyamov. “They were cut off from such an ex­pe­ri­ence, and maybe it’s not so bad that now we have the chance to prove our­selves.”

While activists say the end goal is to re­turn Crimea to Ukraine, their

i mmedi- ate de­mand is that Rus­sia free sev­eral Ukrainian pris­on­ers be­ing held in Rus­sia and Crimea on du­bi­ous charges. They in­clude pi­lot Na­dia Savchenko, film­maker Oleh Sentsov and Me­jlis (the Crimea Tatar gov­ern­ing body) mem­ber Akhtem Chiy­goz, all of whom are in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized as po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Just days af­ter the penin­sula was plunged

into dark­ness, a Rus­sian court up­held Sentsov’s 20-year sen­tence.

Right Sec­tor spokesman Byk said his or­ga­ni­za­tion re­al­ized it could take decades for Crimea to re­turn to Ukrainian rule. He de­scribed sev­eral stages of the block­ade, from stop­ping the flow of goods to halt­ing not just elec­tric­ity but gas, wa­ter and mar­itime ac­cess.

“In the end we will cut off all re­sources to Crimea,” he said. “An un­for­tu­nate re­sult is that when we get Crimea back it will be a drained piece of land, just as we got it back in 1954,” he added, re­fer­ring to the date when Crimea, dev­as­tated from World War II and a lack of in­fra­struc­ture, be­came part of the Ukrainian Soviet Repub­lic.

“But we have no other choice,” he said.Some of the activists man­ning the block­ade have al­ready been sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies in Crimea for over a year be­cause of their re­li­gious or po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions. One who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity said sim­ply: “We’re do­ing this so we can go home.”

A Ukrainian ac­tivist who is part of the eco­nomic block­ade against Rus­sianoc­cu­pied Crimea holds a scarf that reads “Glory to Ukraine” at the group’s head­quar­ters in Kher­son Oblast on Nov. 25. (Emine Ziy­at­di­nova)

A Crimea block­ade ac­tivist armed with a ma­chine gun stands near a downed elec­tric­ity line near Chon­har, about five kilo­me­ters from Rus­sian check­points to the oc­cu­pied penin­sula, on Nov. 26. (Emine Ziy­at­di­nova)

An ac­tivist plays the ac­cor­dion at the Crimean block­ade head­quar­ters on Nov. 25. (Emine Ziy­at­di­nova)

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