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Monday, December 5, 2016

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — There are no words in the lexicon of the Abdulkerimov family more terrible than “occupation” or “deportation,” two foreign terms with no precise translation in the Crimean Tatar language.

For Tatars, an ethnic group with deep roots in Crimea, the terms are strongly associated with Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s secret police, and together they evoke dark memories of war, exile, deprivation and death. They had seemed all but obsolete in recent years.

Last week’s de facto Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, however, brought history flooding back to many Tatars, recalling the Nazi occupation of Crimea during World War II and the subsequent Soviet deportation of the entire Tatar people, summarily accused by Stalin of being traitors.

“If somebody tells me today that another deportation is possible, I would tell him that he is an idiot and nothing of the kind can happen again,” said Jafer Abdulkerimov, a frail 81-year-old man with bright eyes, a steady voice and a sound memory. “But then again, if somebody had told me before last week that another occupation of our land by a foreign army is possible, I would have told him he was an idiot too.”

Few are seriously suggesting that Russia’s nonviolent military presence in Crimea portends another deportation. But Tatars, who are predominantly Muslim, fear the consequences of a rise in Russian nationalism in the region, a semiautonomous Ukrainian republic with a large ethnic Russian population that is chafing at the ouster of Ukraine’s Kremlin-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovich, and his replacement by a pro-West interim government.

“As Moscow once again intends to gain control over the peninsula, the Tatars become the most vulnerable people in Crimea because we support the interim government and the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” said Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Crimean Tatar activist and member of the Ukrainian parliament.

As with so many groups in this part of the world, the history of Crimean Tatars is steeped in tumult and tragedy.

“Even if we look way beyond the deportation of 1944, we will find many examples in the history of the Crimean Tatars that evoke quite valid comparisons with the events we are seeing today,” said Gulnara Abdulayeva, a Crimean Tatar historian and television anchor.

Russia annexed the Crimean Tatars’ territory in 1783. Repression and deportation followed; over the next half a century, more than 600,000 Tatars were forced to leave, Abdulayeva said.