Crimea: 'All We Can Do Is Try To Defend Our Families'

BAKHCHYSARAI, Ukraine — The room looks like the basement of a frat house. Food scraps and half-empty plastic bottles are strewn across decrepit school desks. A disco ball hangs limply from a hook in the middle of the ceiling. Dirty, tattered curtains cover dirtier window panes, as men come and go, pacing across the room.

There are no parties here. This basement is for strategizing: Sitting behind a desk in the corner, one man is hunched over a large ledger, carefully filling in names, schedules, and responsibilities. Two others — tense and worried — are poring over a map of the neighborhood.

The regional headquarters of the “self-defense units” of the Crimean Tatars, in the Ceyhan Quarter of the town of Bakhchysarai, Crimea, stays busy throughout the night. It is here, in the local youth center, that people come to receive their instructions before heading out on patrols. They drop by for a quick snack and a coffee between shifts, clutching their plastic cups by an old electric heater.

Small volunteer units of usually three or four local residents stand watch during the night, on three-hour shifts, at strategic locations — intersections, main roads, back roads — throughout the neighborhood. They keep track of suspicious movements or individuals, in an attempt to head off any situations that could escalate into open conflict. Ever since the clandestine Russian takeover of Crimea more than two weeks ago, organized groups of Tatars — a Muslim ethnic group native to Crimea, that makes up 12 to 15 percent of the population — have been on guard, waiting for their pro-Russian “self-defense unit” counterparts to make a move. There are about seven to eight of these posts in the Ceyhan quarter, but many more throughout Bakhchysarai and other parts of Crimea.

“We try to keep people in our community safe, but we don’t use any weapons,” said Ayder Abdulaev, the coordinator of the Ceyhan headquarters. “Our whole effort is to try to avoid provocations of any kind. Nobody wants war.”

Read more from Pulitzer Center grantee Dimiter Kenarov, who is currently in Ukraine for his project: “Ukraine: Crimea Under Siege


The brave face cannot hide genuine fear among Tatars that Russian rule could mean curtailed freedoms.

In a shop at the end of a potholed dirt road in Belogorsk lined with modest bungalows, manager Niyara, who did not want to give her surname, said people had been stockpiling food.

“People are really worried,” she said. “I have a child, and I myself am scared.”

Niyara fears that Russian Crimeans may now try to seize back property from Tatars that they believe is theirs.

“A lot of our houses are unregistered, and Russian regulations on that kind of thing are very, very strict.”

-Crimea’s Return to Russia Leaves Tatars Fearful of Future