By Anton Naumlyuk, freelance correspondent for Radio Svoboda (text and photos)
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
In three and a half years of annexation in Crimea, about a hundred children have been left without fathers, who went missing or have been arrested by the Russian authorities. Together with the adults, they are experiencing [home] searches, arrests of their relatives, and trials, which they attend to see their fathers or grandfathers. They are assisted by the organization “Bizim Balalar” (“Our Children”) which already has 66 suddenly grown-up kids in its care. The number of such children in Crimea grows with every year.
Simferopol, summer of 2016, a apsychiatric clinic. The facility has restricted access, the entrance is guarded, and relatives are allowed to visit only briefly and on a strict schedule. In its wards, in addition to actual patients, are people currently undergoing psychiatric examination to determine their legal competency. A little girl approaches the grillwork door, behind which stands her grandfather Ilmi Umerov. She reaches between the bars with her skinny arms, hugs him, and kisses his hand, where she can reach. “Well, why are you silent,” asks her aunt Ayshe. “Say something.” But the girl only smiles, still silently, hugs her grandfather and does not step away from the bars until visiting hours are over.
“Children are afraid to go to school, and adults, that masked people with automatic weapons will come after their children.”
Ilmi Umerov, former head of the Bakhchysarai district and a deputy chairman of the Mejlis, which is banned in Russia, is accused of calling for separatism, over an interview with the Crimean-Tatar television channel ATR, where he talked about the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the need for international pressure to return the peninsula [to Ukraine]. “Essentially, I want to restore the territorial integrity of both Russia and Ukraine,” Umerov said in court. “I do not recognize the referendum that was conducted in violation of all international norms. I have no complaints against the borders of Russia as of 1991 [VoU Ed: the year of Ukraine’s independence]. But I believe that the events of 2014 violated international law and, most importantly, the laws of Ukraine, from which the territory of Crimea has been torn away.” The court sent Umerov to a psychiatric clinic for compulsory assessment. Umerov spent three weeks at the hospital, where relatives visited him several times a day, bringing food. He refused to eat in the clinic, suspecting that food there could be laced with psychotropic drugs. His granddaughters came to visit him at the hospital together with the adults.
“No one in Crimea can feel safe.”
After undergoing the forced assessment, Umerov spent some time restoring his health, which suffered during the stay at the clinic. Following that, he received guests at his house, who gathered for a Dua – a collective prayer. For Crimean Muslims, the Dua, essentially, remains the only way to come together and pray for the fate of arrested and missing Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists in Crimea. A row of benches stood in the courtyard of [Umerov’s] house in Bakhchysarai; a Crimean-Tatar flag was hung on the wall. One of Umerov’s small granddaughters met everyone at the entrance, offering them water and juice. When the prayer began, she sat in the female half with everyone who was praying.
“Do you love your home?” – they ask Umerov. Next to him, his granddaughters are running among the evergreens, on a lawn covered with insect protection so children can play there. “Yes, this house was designed by my wife, we love it very much,” he replies. “Does your family feel safe?” – they again ask him. He is silent, then replies, “No. No one in Crimea can feel safe.”
On May 31, the Kyiv District Court in Simferopol began reviewing Umerov‘s case and held a preliminary session. The maximum [incarceration] term under Article 280.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation – “public instigation of separatism” – is five years. Umerov’s lawyer Nikolai Polozov, was taken off the Umerov case by the FSB investigators and called as a witness instead. He has no doubt that the court will issue a guilty verdict, but hopes for probation. The first court session was closed; Umerov’s granddaughters waited for their grandfather at home. He is currently under pledge not to leave town, and was able to come home after the trial. Many other children of Crimean Tatars are less fortunate.
“Dad is sitting there, in an isolation cell, among fleas and ticks.”
Nineteen people in Crimea are being tried in the large case against the Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic organization, which has been banned in Russia. For the most part, these are traditional Muslims, whose large families were left without a breadwinner after their arrest. The first wave of mass arrests took place in January 2015 in the Sevastopol region. Afterwards, searches and arrests swept through Yalta, Alushta, Bakhchysarai, and Simferopol. One of the people detained in February 2016 was Crimean human rights activist Emir-Usain Kuku. The activist says that the FSB had tried to recruit him, and came to search his house after he had refused to cooperate. On February 11, in the early hours of the morning, the enforcers broke the door to Kuku’s house, threw him on the floor and searched him. The scene was witnessed by his young son Bekir and daughter Safie, who later retold what happened.
“Some people dressed in black came in, you could hardly see their eyes, one of them was carrying a huge stick, like a crowbar, and others – some kind of weird machine guns,” recalled Bekir Kuku on his ninth birthday. “If daddy were here, we would have a big birthday celebration, we would buy gifts. But he is sitting there, in an isolation cell, among fleas and ticks. “He would really like to come home, and see his son turn nine.”
Several months after the arrest, a man showed up at Bekir’s school. He waited for the boy after classes, stopped him, and started telling him that his father “is a bad man and will spend a long time in prison if he doesn’t start cooperating.” Later, it became known that the man was acting by request of Aleksandr Kompaniytsev, officer of the FSB, formerly of the SBU.
The family and lawyer Alexander Popkov filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office and the FSB, but the law enforcement reacted very peculiarly: by accusing Emir-Usain Kuku, who was in the SIZO [remand prison] at the time, of the “poor exercise of parental responsibility” for “allowing the child to be harassed by an unidentified man.” The prosecutor’s office initiated a pre-investigation, and the Crimean Juvenile Office demanded that the mother bring the children to be questioned about their father’s failure to take proper care of them. When they refused to come, the inspector of the Juvenile Office started waiting for the children at their school, so as to catch them without their mother. Human rights activists have interceded on behalf of the family, and Amnesty International has demanded that the prosecution of Kuku and his children be stopped. After this, nobody has tried questioning Bekir further, but to this day, nothing is known about the results of the pre-investigation.
“Children are afraid to go to school, and adults – that masked people with automatic weapons will come after their children,” says attorney Aleksandr Popkov.
Bekir, like other children of arrested Crimean Muslims and activists, is well versed in the trial process and understands such terms as “preventive measure” and “appeal.” These children come to each court session to see their fathers, as no family visits are allowed in the SIZO. Often, they are not allowed to enter the courtroom, under the pretext that “seeing their father behind bars can affect the child’s psyche.” Together with the adults, they stand in the corridor to see their father as he is led to the trial. Sometimes they manage to touch his hand. All these children witnessed the [house] searches, and the arrests also occurred before their eyes.
“In total, about 100 Crimean children have been left without a father since 2014; 66 of them receive monthly assistance from the “Bizim Balalar” – “Our Children” organization.”
“Our children’s childhoods ended on February 11, in just a few minutes. Ilyas is the man of the house is now,” said the wife of another arrested [activist], Muslim Aliev. Next to her are her four children, including the teenager Ilyas, who, after his father’s arrest, became the “head of the household.” Some families have three or four children. The family of Enver Mamutov, who was arrested in Bakhchysarai, has seven. At the time of arrest, his youngest daughter was only 2 months old; her mother brought her to the courtroom to show to her father – from afar, through the bars – while the court was ruling on Mamutov’s continued detention. Safie, the daughter of the already convicted Rustem Vaitov, was born after his arrest, as was the daughter of Teymur Abdullayev, who was born nine days after his [house] search and detention. In total, about 100 Crimean children have been left without a father since 2014; 66 of them receive monthly assistance from the “Bizim Balalar” – “Our Children” organization.
“Bizim Balalar” was established in May 2016 after mass arrests in Bakhchysarai, where four families were left without a father. The initiative came from Crimean journalist Lilja Budzhurova, who was supported by many. The organization is not registered with the Ministry of Justice, so as not to be subject to the strict Russian legislation on public organizations; it acts as an association, and its transparency is monitored by the Council. Every month, Lilja Budzhurova and Elzara Islyamov meet with the wives of arrested Crimean Muslims and activists, and hand them funds for their children. Unlike the “Crimean Solidarity” organization, which was created to help Crimean political prisoners and their families, “Bizim Balalar” purposefully emphasizes that it has nothing to do with politics and deals only with the needs of children. Every month, 5,000 rubles [USD 85] is raised for each child in the organization’s care; another 12 thousand [USD 200] is raised to help them start the school year. The organization also invites child psychologists to hold sessions with children. “Bizim Balalar” don’t limit their help to arrested Crimean Tatars: they also help, to name a few, the children of the convicted director Oleg Sentsov, and those of Reshat Ametov, an activist who was the first to die for picketing against [Crimea’s] annexation in 2014. Every year, the number of children supported by “Bizim Balalar” increases ever more.
The children of Crimean political prisoners, mostly Crimean Tatars, who are persecuted for their pro-Ukrainian position or on religious grounds, know what searches and arrests are like. They come together to court hearings with the adults, and also pray for their fathers at the Dua, like everyone else. Several months ago, the Crimean courts started trying defendants in the case of “Hizb ut-Tahrir” behind closed doors. Now only lawyers are allowed into the courtroom. Together with the adults, children gather at the courthouse, but now they cannot even catch a glimpse of their arrested relatives. They face the same problems as the adults: weekly searches of activists’ houses, trials, harassment and persecution. For these children, Crimean childhood has proven to be very short.
At the time of the annexation, there were 4800 orphans in Crimea; by the end of 2016, that number was less than 400. According to Aksana Filipishina, the representative of the Ukrainian Ombudsman for the Protection of Children’s Rights, only a few dozen orphans could be taken to the mainland over the three years, while the rest had Russian citizenship forcibly imposed on them.
Source: Radio Svoboda
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