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Taking Land

To the modern day visitor, Crimea's seaside attractions look like any other holiday destination once enjoyed by the Soviet nomenklatura a brash mixture of fading glory and vibrant hedonism. But behind the beaches and hotels in this predominantly Russian part of Ukraine, a long and painful story of deportation and return is gradually unfolding.

Attached to Ukraine and Russia by a series of narrow land-bridges, the Crimean Peninsula, with its craggy cliffs and semi-arid plains, has always been a world onto its own. Its prime position on the edge of the Pontic Steppe and the temperate microclimate along its southern shore made it an irresistible prize for waves of invaders. Goths, Huns and Khazars swept through in the early middle ages, Kievan Rus took control in the 10th century and even distant Genoa fought its rival Venice for control and held Crimea for two centuries. The Crimean Tatars, a Turkic people who adopted Islam in the 13th century, founded the Crimean Khanate in the late 15th century which became one of the most powerful states in Eastern Europe. Feared for their fighting spirit and slave trading, they controlled much of Northern shore of the Black Sea at the height of the Khanate's power. It was not until Katherine the Great of Russia despatched her armies South, beating back Ottoman advances, that the Crimean Khanate came under the control of the Russian empire and started to go into decline.

Even though the Tatar population had shrunk significantly by the mid 20th century they, like the Chechens and so many other unfortunate ethnic minorities throughout the Soviet Union, aroused Stalin's paranoia and were accused of collaborating with the Nazi invaders. On the night of 18th May 1944, 200 000 Tatars were rounded up, herded into cattle cars and deported to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, not to return for over 40 years.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990s, Crimea's Tatars began to drift back to their ancestral homes, but found themselves dealing with a newly established independent Ukrainian state that had little time or resources do deal with yet another post-Soviet readjustment. Due to their four-decade long absence, the Tatars also found it difficult to reintegrate into the place they had been forced to leave.

Stopping short of open hostility, Tatar-Ukrainian relations remain strained. Ownership of land is a major issue, much of it a legacy of expropriations during Soviet times and the loss of official records. Individual Tatar communities have settled on state land, building tiny symbolic houses around their settlements that no one lives in, simply to claim the land as theirs. Their Islamic faith, vigorously suppressed under Communism, has once again become a major focal point for their identity. But public religious expression is limited by a lack of funds and official permission to build mosques.

Travelling with the Swiss NGO Zoi, who work "to explain and communicated connections between environment and society", Alban Kakulya visited the illegal settlement of Nikita as its inhabitants try to revive a long lost past.

Longer text available upon request

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