Crimean Tatars mark Stalin deportations despite Russia ban
Defying a Russian ban, hundreds of Crimean Tatars on Wednesday commemorated the Stalin-era deportation of their relatives from the Black Sea peninsula 72 years ago.
The commemorations took place just days after Crimean Tatar singer Jamala won the Eurovision Song Contest for Ukraine with a harrowing lament for the 1944 deportations of the peninsula's Muslim inhabitants.
Crimea's 300,000 Tatars were among the most vociferous critics of Moscow's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and largely boycotted a disputed referendum in which the region's Russian-speaking majority chose to split from Ukraine.
Following the annexation, the new Russian authorities introduced a ban on spontaneous rallies to remember victims of the deportation.
Under Stalin, the Crimean Tatars -- a Turkish-speaking Muslim community -- were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported to Central Asia and Siberia.
Nearly half of them died of starvation and disease.
Mourners across the peninsula on Wednesday defied the ban to gather in the regional capital Simferopol and other cities to remember their relatives and pray.
"My family lost my father's little brother, who was just five at the time, and my grandmother," Ulviye Shevkiyeva told AFP.
Like hundreds of others, Shevkiyeva turned up at a memorial stone near Simferopol's railway station from where members of the ethnic minority were taken away in cattle cars in 1944.
- 'Tears used against us' -
"My grandmother died in a railcar and her body was simply unloaded at some station in Kazakhstan. We cannot cry together these days so I just came here," she said.
Emine Avamaliyeva, a member of the Mejlis, the Tatar assembly which has been banned by Russia, said after the annexation, her people had to honour lost relatives under threat of arrest.
"This is what we've come to. We go to the memorial one by one, fearing a search or arrest," she told AFP.
"We feel like hostages who cannot even cry. Even our tears and heartache can be used against us."
In Bakhchisaray, the Crimean Tatars' historic capital, several hundred people also gathered near the railway station, some waving flags, to observe a moment of silence, watched by riot police.
In Ukraine, supporters also held a minute's silence.
The peninsula's pro-Kremlin authorities held their own commemorations to honour the victims, with Orthodox churches and mosques holding prayer services.
The Tatars began returning to Crimea in the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms and became Ukrainian citizens after independence in 1991.
© 2016 AFP