UARU
The Cost of Crimean Annexation is Life: Special Project
4 April, 2019
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These report and film are about how the annexation has changed, and sometimes broke, the lives of people who live on the peninsula. I arrived in Crimea on the day of the so-called "referendum" on March 16, 2014, where I talked to people in Bakhchisaray, Simferopol, Yalta and Sevastopol. Since then I have been to the peninsula at least once a year, telling about the first political prisoners and the beginning of repressions against the Crimean Tatars. I describe the economic conditions and everyday life, which was imposed on the Crimeans. I cover what it is like to remain Ukrainian in the Crimea, and even about the Our Crimea movement activists, who started to criticize the authorities.

After 5 years, in March 2019, I returned to those people whose stories I told over the first few months of the annexation.

***

“Oksana died,” I am told, after I showed the clip recorded in May 2014.

“I can’t physically bear this! We are forced to lower the [drug] dosages. This translates into constant pain, constant weakness! There is nobody to help us,” she told us then. We met with Oksana in Simferopol five years ago. Our meeting point was near a hospital that used to help drug addicts until 2014. For seven preceding years Oksana was on a program that offered substitution therapy - instead of street drugs patients receive methadone under a doctor’s control. This practice exists in many countries, but it is prohibited in Russia. Before the annexation, there were 800 such patients in Crimea. In the spring of 2014, they begged for help. They lasted three years in the occupied Crimea.

“Her mother tried to save her. But she couldn’t. [The woman] died right in the hostel. Loneliness broke her. When I heard the news, I broke down in tears. Even though men don’t cry,” Ihor tells us (name has been changed to protect identity). He is also a former patient - one of the few, who temporarily moved to continental Ukraine, but was later forced to return to Simferopol to take care of his father.

Yalta, Crimea, March 15, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Yalta, Crimea, March 15, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

It took a lot of convincing for Ihor to speak to us. It’s a risk, but what matters is that there is no hope of returning those people who passed away.

"People aren’t interested in hearing that someone died in Crimea, after everything went so well, they attended a ‘referendum’," he explains. But he still asks if there is a chance that the topic might be revisited after his story emerges.

"Hundreds of people died a terrible death during these years: one hanged himself, another jumped from the eighth floor," continues Ihor. There is no exact number as to how many of the 800 are dead. The charity fund Alliance of Public Health, which took care of drug addicts in Crimea, stopped counting deaths in 2015. By then about 120 former patients had died, according to them. These figures feature in the UN documents. The topic was raised at international meetings, Russian officials acted irritated and insisted that all affected were provided with assistance.

Yalta, Crimea, March 15, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

In 2015, it became more difficult to access patient information, which was stored in medical institutions under Russian control. The parents of the dead ceased all communication with Ukrainian journalists. A year later, searches began in the families of those patients who moved to the mainland or previously gave comments to the media.

"I met a friend recently and found out that Misha from Maryino, a rather well-known person, had hanged himself. Zhenya was put in jail, she was caught with street drugs. Later, she died too. I know a family, who had a baby born after they started taking methadone as per the program. Now they have switched back to street drugs; and their child was abandoned with his grandparents. My husband’s classmate died here in Yalta, right on the street. And there are so many I’m not aware of in Kerch, Yevpatoria and Feodosia... if from those 800 a couple of hundred are still alive - this would be very good news," Inessa recounts her acquaintances, and asks not to show her face and change her name for the publication. She says she's not worried for herself, but for her son: "The state always has one cartridge more. My father taught me this."

Both Ihor and Inessa are adults, who remember both the USSR and the nineties. They lived a creative life and did not care about politics. Crimea was a place of freedom for them, which lacked elsewhere. "I believe that the government of Crimea and Russia killed these people. They keep celebrating the ‘spring’; five years have passed. I pray to God that no one falls into the same vice that these people fell into," says Ihor at the end of our conversation.

Yalta, Crimea, March 15, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Families of "Enemies of the People"

I go over a school textbook called External World. My attention is drawn to the fact that there is no Kyivan Rus, only Ancient Russia. A child has drawn Kyiv on the map. Putin’s portrait was shaded.

"The main thing is to watch your mouth around children. Or to teach them that whatever is heard at home, can’t be told to a stranger" - I pay an ordinary Crimean Tatar family a visit. In 2014, they were frank in admitting their fear of repressions. A year on, they knew it was better to keep words to themselves. After every Facebook post (even if not under your own name) you can get reprimanded at work. At home over a cup of coffee and tea, people can discuss both Ukrainian elections and the occupation with neighbors. Pensions are different for everyone - there are decent ones. But there is no avoiding high costs. Most complaints concern medicine: "Previously, you could go to a specialist, now you have to visit a family doctor. What’s more, almost nothing is free."

Crimea, March 13, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Crimean Tatars also help arrested Ukrainians: Oleh Sentsov’s mother, who lives near Bakhchisaray and Volodymyr Balukh’s family. Hromadske presented the first film about him in 2015. Balukh hung up a Ukrainian flag on his house, then a street sign labeling the street in honor of the Heavenly Hundred. The occupant authorities tried to remove it. Balukh was sentenced to 3 years and 7 months of general regime colony in a fabricated case.

We head to Serebrianka to visit Balukh’s mother. It’s a village north of Yevpatoria. On leaving Simferopol we notice a new airport and a grand construction of the Tavrida highway. It will connect Kerch with Simferopol, Bakhchisaray and stretch out to Sevastopol.

Over these days Volodymyr was transferred from Russian Yaroslavl to the Tver region. His mother finds it difficult to maintain contact with her son, but admits he did call the day before: “He only ever asks: how is your health, mom? Yet he doesn’t tell anything about himself.”

After paying for utilities, his mother transfers the rest of her pension to her son because he refuses to eat prison food. He says: “I will not eat out of the terrorists’ hands, I won’t have anything from their troughs.”

Nataliya Balukh, mother of political prisoner Volodymyr Balukh, Serebrianka, Crimea, March 14, 2019.

Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

A t-shirt with a picture of her son is hanging from the locker. There is also a postcard with a portrait of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. "Vovka [Balukh] read Ukrainian literature from a young age; everything was Ukrainian. Ukrainian was taught, although the school was Russian, - his mother recollects. - Everything was Ukrainian here, but when Russia came, all of a sudden everyone turned out to be Russian. But everything is changing. People have now had a taste of Russia. Previously, they used to say: Russia will come, we will have new tractors. But there’s nothing, we have to pay for everything."

Balukh’s mother still remembers those neighbors who ran to the village council to complain about her son. But she is grateful to those who support their family - there are many of those too. "I will not ask Putin for pardon, because my son won’t understand it. We have faith in God and the people. We couldn’t possibly handle this alone."

Framed photograph shows Volodymyr Balukh with mother Nataliya, Serebrianka, Crimea, March 14, 2019.

Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

It is easy to become a “terrorist” in modern Crimea, especially if you are a Crimean Tatar. As early as spring 2016 lawyer Emil Kurbedinov explained: “If you are involved with Mejlis - you get accused of extremism, if you are religious - it’s terrorism.” Іystematic detentions of the Crimean Tatars began one year after the annexation. More than 70 political prisoners, mostly Crimeans, are currently in prisons in Russia and Crimea. When I spoke with the relatives of the first detainees, many believed it was a mistake. At first, wives and children were cautious, later they started talking about their grief - they wanted to be heard. Then the Crimean Solidarity movement was organized, mostly from relatives of political prisoners. There is also the Bizim Balalar organization ("Our Children"), which provides financial assistance to children under the age of 16 on a monthly basis. At one of the first meetings in March 2017, there were 40 such children. Now, there are 111 of them.

Nataliya Balukh, mother of political prisoner Volodymyr Balukh, Serebrianka, Crimea, March 14, 2019.

Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

We come to see the wife of one of the first detainees. I have known her for a long time: she is tough and uncompromising. I am surprised, but this time she is not ready to give an interview. Earlier, wives and children were not affected, but now they get their share of persecutions and searches. During the last one, women were forced to undress, which is especially humiliating for religious Muslim women.

She tells us about an infinite number of humiliations, through which people have to pass - sometimes petty, but not less painful. For instance, when Russian guards deliberately blocked passage in the courtroom, so that young children could not see their dad's silhouette.

Last time, Ukrainian border guards held them for four hours at the checkpoint. They demanded permission from the father for a minor child to leave. Never mind, he was in jail. It took her a long time to convey he was a political prisoner. Besides, she had to ask repeatedly if the Ukrainian border guards would genuinely accept a document from the Crimean prison.

A man is smiling from a picture on the fridge. I recall how I re-photographed this image from a mobile phone screen five years ago. At the time no one had photos of the detainee. It is now the fourth year without a husband for this large family.

Crimea, March 15, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Crimea, March 15, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

#TheirCrimea

"I would understand it if the Ukrainian government turned off all energy resources. We are ready to suffer, because our parents, who were deported, suffered a lot more. There was neither gas nor water there," said Lenur Osmanov, administrator of the cafe Musafir in Bakhchisaray. in March 2014, the morning after the so-called "referendum". Five years later Osmanov assures that he stands by his words: "No need for any concessions. I'm waiting for the show. I want to watch them run off with all their junk."

Lenur Osmanov, Simferopol, Crimea, March 13, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

For two years following the occupation of Crimea, Lenur was working at Musafir. But one of the best Crimean Tatar cafes on the peninsula had to close. "When the first search took place at our cafe, 15 masked men came. I asked them: what are the machine guns for? They said: it’s for their safety. Wait - I said, I'm the only man here, the rest of the team is female."

Numerous court hearings regarding land and property rights followed. But the owners were unable to properly re-register them in the new legislative field. At the same time, two successful Musafir cafes opened in Kyiv. Lenur looks at the photos on Facebook: "I would have gone to Kyiv and become a waiter, if it weren’t for the family, and the real estate. I won’t sell it. I'd lose everything."

Lenur Osmanov, Simferopol, Crimea, March 13, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

An experienced manager has had to work as a taxi driver for some time. It is one of the most popular occupations in Crimea.

A blue Crimean Tatar flag is flying over the Musafir cafe in Bakhchisaray, just as did five years ago. I watch my video: on the day of the pseudo-referendum Russian military enginery was passing by on this very spot. The owners of the cafe are not planning to sell - they hope to save everything and return.

Bakhchisaray, Crimea, March 13, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Closed cafe Musafir, Bakhchisaray, Crimea, March 13, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Bakhchisaray, Crimea, March 13, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

We do not just talk to the critics of the regime. But they are the hardest ones to pin down. Over these five years, most of the Crimeans have deliberately stayed away from politics. Talking to a journalist about prices or doing business can be deemed an "assessment of developments," thus once again we have to call our interviewee by another name - Oksana.

We are inside one of the modern restaurants of Yalta. Oksana has been in this business for years. She organizes cultural events. She explains that previously there were 40% of guests from mainland Ukraine, 30% - from Russia, and the rest were foreigners. Now 95% of guests are Russians.

Though I have to say that since last summer many of our friends from mainland Ukraine have started visiting us. Banks and terminals are up and running. There’s no need to bring along bags full of cash. Investments are coming back gradually. There is hardly any smuggling because everything is under control. Prices are the same as in Moscow. Large companies have are reopening their offices here. Small business is resurgent, especially the food industry: private bakeries, vineyards, cheese-makers.  

Yalta, Crimea, March 15, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Yalta, Crimea, March 15, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

“Leaving simply to express your life stance means attributing yourself to some political stratum. I believe it’s fundamentally wrong. My friends and I believe we are Crimeans, we are from Yalta. We have our sea and mountains. We were born here. There are people, who left for Kyiv. Their businesses did not pick up; they had to come back. But there are others who left and stayed [in Kyiv],” Oksana recounts.

She clarifies that the youth tries to move to Moscow or Saint Petersburg after school. Ukraine is not very accessible because of the problems related to border-crossing. It’s complicated and if your children are studying in Ukraine it is very problematic to transfer money to their accounts or even to send a parcel.

“It’s hard to draw conclusions - whether it got better or worse. Do I have to keep telling myself that we’re screwed? There are things that can’t be changed: the sea, the woods. And we, the people, didn’t change. We still try to travel, we try to be open to the world. The only thing that’s changed is emergence of a feeling that we are constantly watched by the Big Brother. Still we try to stay neutral and support each other. I’m not sure that it’d be a good idea to leave everything behind: the parents, the houses, our estates and look for a bright future, where we are probably not welcome,” she adds.

Yalta, Crimea, March 15, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

There will be no second decade of occupation

“Legendary Sevastopol, impregnable for enemies, Sevastopol, Sevastopol - the pride of Russian sailors,” sang a group of pensioners on Nakhimov square the day after the so-called “referendum”. They complained about the “Right Sector” Ukrainian nationalist movement and their inability to read medical prescriptions in Ukrainian.

During those days, presence of the Russian soldiers in the city was concealed. Today there is Russian military enginery and uniformed men on this very square. Rhetoric is not about the participants of the so-called "Crimean Spring" anymore, but about the special task forces and Russia. At a celebration organized by the pro-government bikers organization Night Wolves, the head of the occupying power of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov emphasized: "Nothing could have been possible without Russia’s involvement, and Vladimir Putin personally led the operation."

Sevastopol, Crimea, March 16, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Sevastopol, Crimea, March 16, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

We meet with Andriy Mykolayovych (name changed) near the Hotel Ukraine. Each balcony boasts a Russian flag. The former Ukrainian military is now in retirement. During the annexation, he helped keep in touch with the Ukrainian units. He proposes we move away from the "official Sevastopol" and listen to the people in the market, for example - "they are freer there."

As we enter the market and some stores, we fail to encounter any food supplies that are not Russian - there are neither Ukrainian, nor other imports. Andriy Mykolayovych recalls the saleswomen discussing Ukrainian elections a few days ago. Their favorite is Tymoshenko, because "she makes good promises." But the saleswomen refuse to talk politics in my presence. The most politically engaged Crimeans, whom we met, support president Poroshenko. They watch Ukrainian channels ATR (Crimean Tatar) and Pryamyy (literally “direct”).

It is expensive to go to vote even for the most cognizant of Crimeans. You have to register in Kherson, then vote, and repeat the process in the second round. It adds up to almost a hundred dollars - half of their pension.

Russian TV channels are broadcasted all over the place. The hosts emphasize ongoing construction: two power plants, for instance. For the launch of one of them, the Balaklava thermal power station, Putin came on the anniversary of the annexation. A journalist asks people in hospitals and stores: "So have things improved or is it merely propaganda?"

Sevastopol, Crimea, March 17, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Sevastopol, Crimea, March 17, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Andriy Mykolayovych draws our attention to the changes: the whole trolleybus park has been modernized, for example. But he adds that there is no point in comparing prices and wages then and now... The most important thing is the belief that you will not be screwed over and that there is a genuine improvement in the quality of life in the rest of Ukraine.

"I broke, as many others did. I went through several surgeries. It's hard to fight back in such a state, and at my age too. But the main question: what for? Resistance is possible if there is a belief that it’s not in vain. You can only win here technologically and intellectually. You can’t take it by force," he continues. But he adds that he doesn’t expect any changes in Crimea: "I only look to Kyiv. I am very worried that Putin has reached his goal of making Ukrainians aggressive. There is no aggression without fear. But we should not be afraid. They attack those who are weaker. We should not be playing by their rules."

Simferopol, Crimea, March 14, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE

Five years ago Crimean citizens began to receive Russian passports. It was possible to refuse Russian citizenship and get a five-year residence permit instead. Andriy Mykolayovych is one of those. This year he will find out whether he is allowed to stay in Crimea any longer. He has two administrative warnings. Both are artificial, but formally it is a sufficient ground to ban him from living on the peninsula.

I finally ask him why he stayed in Crimea after all.

"I did not think the Western world would be so impotent; NATO turned out to be a "paper tiger." I did not think it would last so long. But even now I believe that there won’t be a second decade of occupation," - he explains. And he adds that he is prepared to leave Crimea if they force him to.

Simferopol, Crimea, March 14, 2019. Photo by Anna Tsygyma / HROMADSKE