Fear and uncertainty for Crimean Tatars under Putin

In the dying days of the Soviet Union, Milyara Settarova was a young activist who took part in historic demonstrations in Moscow demanding Crimean Tatars be allowed to return home from Central Asia, where they had been deported under Stalin.

Twenty-seven years later, the feisty 51-year-old is up in arms again, protesting Russia's takeover of Crimea.

"I do not trust Russia," said Settarova, who teaches her native language at a university in Simferopol, the Black Sea peninsula's main city.

"I don't believe that this state will give us more rights than we already have," she told AFP.

She said many Tatars have still not forgiven Moscow for the horrors their families went through under deportation in 1944.

Crimea's 300,000 Tatars largely boycotted a disputed referendum last month in which nearly 97 percent of voters -- mainly from the region's Russian-speaking majority -- chose to split from Ukraine.

This week the minority's assembly, the Mejlis, agreed to cooperate with the peninsula's new authorities but also said they would consider conducting their own plebiscite on broader autonomy.

The Tatars' spiritual leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, who is a Ukrainian lawmaker, told a session of the UN Security Council this week his people were extremely worried about their future and even their lives.

"The possibility is rather high of bloody inter-ethnic conflicts, or to be more precise of the slaughter of Crimea's Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians which may unfold in Crimea in the coming days," he said.

Citing the UN Refugee Agency, Dzhemilev said 5,000 Tatars had already fled the peninsula of some two million people.

Under Stalin, Tatars, a Turkish-speaking Muslim population, were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported to Central Asia.

Nearly half of them died of starvation and disease.

The Tatars began returning to Crimea under Mikhail Gorbachev and became Ukrainian nationals after independence in 1991.

They have since experienced a cultural revival but still wrestle with problems such as land ownership and continuing exclusion.

Some said they were encouraged by Ukraine's pro-EU uprising, which ousted Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in February.

But that optimism turned to dread with Crimea's subsequent absorption into Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to allay their fears, saying Tatar would be elevated to the level of a state language on the peninsula and steps taken to end their marginalisation.

Local authorities promised them posts in the regional government.

But the Tatars insist that is not enough and seek a quota system to ensure a share in power.

- 'Years to treat stress' -

Many said the crisis stirred painful memories.

Zera Ametova, a doctor from the town of Bakhchysaray, the Crimean Tatars' historic capital, said the sight of Russian armoured personnel carriers and armed soldiers last month proved too much for many too bear.

"This is a stress that will take years to treat," she told AFP.

She said she had seen a spike in health problems among her Tatar patients, and blamed the crisis for hastening her 82-year-old father's death.

He died of a stroke on the eve of the March 16 referendum, which has been denounced as illegal by Ukraine and much of the international community.

"He survived war, hunger, deportation," said Ametova, 54.

"He watched television and cried. He really took it to heart."

Two weeks before her father's death, one of Ametova's three sisters also ended up in intensive care after the crisis deepened her depression, she said.

"She took 20 sleeping pills," Ametova said. "She said 'I am tired of living.'"

Ametova lamented that just as her people were getting back on their feet, their world has been turned upside down again.

"I do not understand Putin's politics. Does he want to help us? Or does he want to win new lands?" she sighed.

"I don't understand the chaos I am living in."