BAKHCHISARAY, Ukraine: Only six days ago, Tatars of Ukraine’s Crimea came out in their thousands, chanting “Allahu akbar” in a show of loyalty to the new authorities in Kiev and opposition to separatist demands by the region’s Russian ethnic majority.
But now, with Moscow’s military forces having unexpectedly seized control, the indigenous Muslims of the isolated Black Sea peninsula have all but vanished from the public square, keeping their heads down to avoid being sucked into war.
“If there is a conflict, as the minority, we will be the first to suffer,” said Usein Sarano, 57, as the midday call to prayer rung out from the 16th-century stone minarets of a mosque in Bakhchisaray, once an ancient Tatar capital.
“We are scared for our families, for our children. This could be a new Yugoslavia.”
Last Wednesday, thousands of Tatars turned out in the streets of Simferopol, the regional capital, marching in favor of Kiev’s new government at a counter demonstration to one held by Russian separatists. Some people were hurt in the disorderly crowd.
The next morning before dawn, unidentified armed men seized the Crimean parliament in a mysterious raid, since revealed to have been the start of a military operation launched by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to take control of the region.
Since then, there has been no sign of further Tatar protests. The community’s leader Refat Chubarov – once outspoken in his opposition to the prospect that Russia might try to seize the peninsula – chose his words carefully at a news conference in Simferopol Saturday.
“We must do everything to prevent the atmosphere of fear and distrust in Crimea from escalating,” he said. “Crimean citizens, together with their neighbors regardless of nationality, must keep the peace.”
A Tatar pensioner who gave his name only as Rustem said the community had been told by its leaders to keep a low profile because of the political uncertainty.
“Putin’s a power-hungry madman. He’s been stirring up differences here for a while,” said Rustem, standing in the shadow of the Kebir-Jami Mosque.
The mosque, which served as a bookbindery under the Soviet Union, was built in 1508. It is Simferopol’s oldest building and a testament to the Tatars’ deep roots here.
A distinct people native to this mountainous peninsula who are cousins to other Turkic speakers across Asia and European Russia, the Crimean Tatars were very nearly wiped out on Moscow’s orders, first by the Tsars and then the Soviets.
“From the moment Russian Empress Yekaterina II sent her troops here to annex this territory, our sorrows began,” said Enver Sherfiyev, 26, sporting a black-knit cap and beard outside the mosque, and recalling an 18th century Russian conquest that every Crimean Tatar can still relate.
In 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population to central Asia, thousands of miles away. Many thousands died en route.
Bakhchisaray, with its elegant mosques, became a ghoulish Soviet tourist attraction, entirely emptied of people.
It was reborn in the late 1980s, the beginning of a restoration that saw most Crimean Tatars return from exile to their homeland, first under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then after Ukraine became independent.
They settled among Slavic neighbors, including a much larger number of ethnic Russians, many with connections to the Black Sea Fleet. Tatars now make up roughly 12 percent of Crimea’s total population of 2 million or so.
With bitter memories of their treatment by Russia, they have long prided themselves on their loyalty to Ukraine, boasting that their votes provided the margin of victory in Crimea in a 1991 referendum on independence from the Soviet Union.
Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities now plan a new plebiscite for March 30, which will make the peninsula “sovereign,” widely seen as a prelude to separating it from Ukraine as a Russian protectorate like breakaway regions in Georgia and Moldova.
“I don’t even recognize the idea of a referendum. What will they do, think up a new one every year?” said Nimatulayeva Khadirova, a retired Tatar who taught Russian language.
“All of my neighbors are Russian and they all come to my house for coffee all the time,” she said. “We are Ukrainian citizens now and we want to remain so. What’s wrong with the way things are?”