Activists manning Crimea blockade vow to stay put
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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