“I call and he says don’t worry, he tells me ‘all’s fine’,” says his mother Ayshe. “When he goes to Ukraine, we don’t sleep until he comes back, in case they don’t let him cross the border. The worst would be if they detain him, and then we won’t even know where he is.”
Dzhelyal is coordinator of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, the elected governing body representing Crimea’s 250,000-strong Muslim indigenous people who returned to the peninsula nearly 50 years after their deportation in 1944 by then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Dzhelyal’s job didn’t used to be so precarious. Until March 2014, the Mejlis had 33 members and more than 2,000 regional representatives throughout Crimea. Its office in central Simferopol was one of numerous properties owned or leased by the affiliated, wealthy Crimea Foundation. Some said the Mejlis, grown corrupt and out of touch with the people it was supposed to represent, had developed a sense of complacency.
But after the Mejlis opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, it lost everything. The office was confiscated; the Crimea Foundation dissolved. Nine members are on the Ukrainian mainland, in Russia, or in self-imposed exile.
One is in prison, and more than 10 have been charged with criminal and administrative offences in Crimea. A regional representative has been abducted; his current whereabouts are unknown. This summer, the Mejlis itself was outlawed as an extremist organization.
A constant state of worry
Like anyone on the peninsula who opposes Russian rule, Dzhelyal lives in a state of constant worry — about house searches, fines, prison sentences, exile or, worst, disappearances. “There’s this atmosphere of caution and fear now,” he says as he prepares to start his working day. “It’s very hard to overcome.”
Officially, the Mejlis’ powers have been passed to members in Kiev, but Dzhelyal still considers himself an elected representative of his people. He travels daily from court case to emergency meeting, from interviews with officials to questioning by security services.
Moderate, European-leaning, with mild blue eyes behind his spectacles and a background in political journalism, Dzhelyal is one of the Mejlis’ most personable members. He has managed thus far to publicly oppose Russian annexation, while carefully avoiding the kind of language that led Ilmi Umerov, a fellow Mejlis member, to be charged with separatism. “Don’t confuse caution with cowardice,” he says. “That’s the problem you face every day and try to resolve: Are you a coward, or are you just being wary?”
At 36, Dzhelyal is young enough to challenge the charge that the Mejlis is old and out of touch. His house is sufficiently modest to escape allegations of corruption.
His enemies have sought other vulnerabilities; not long after we met, a secretly-shot video appeared on Facebook showing him apparently drinking alcohol at a wedding, with the commentary that he was not fit to represent the Crimean Tatar people because he was not a good Muslim.
A day in the life
Dzhelyal’s first meeting of the day sounds innocuous enough: It’s with the children’s charity Bizim Balalar (Our Children). He drives there via back roads; he’s not avoiding surveillance but traffic jams. Cars are far cheaper under Russia than they were when Crimea was part of Ukraine; everyone has bought one and the peninsula’s outdated road system can’t cope.
The meeting is in SimCityTrans, once the headquarters of a local transport and media empire owned by Lenor Islyamov, a Crimean Tatar businessman. Like the Mejlis, SimCityTrans has suffered under Russian rule. The empty offices are decorated with posters for Crimean Tatar TV station ATR, which shut down in March 2015 when it was denied a Russian broadcasting license. (It now broadcasts from Kiev, and is watched via satellite in every Crimean Tatar household I visited).
Lilya Budzhurova, formerly a celebrated ATR political journalist, now runs Bizim Balalar. The charity, like the Mejlis, has no premises or official registration. It helps the families of those who have gone missing or been imprisoned on politicized charges since 2014. With 69 children under its care, the day’s meeting is less about providing clothing and toys than about lawyers and social campaigns to draw international attention to their plight.
There is also an annual children’s concert to discuss, and a new music clip to watch, featuring Crimean Tatar singers and musicians performing a traditional song, which reduces most of the meeting’s attendees to tears. “We need a reason to meet together, and it can only be a cultural reason now,” says Budzhurova.
A new reality
When the meeting is over, Dzhelyal heads to another impromptu office where the Mejlis can meet — a small, dejected patch of park outside the Crimean Supreme Court in Simferopol.
Akhtem Chiygoz, another Mejlis deputy, has been detained since January 2015, charged with inciting mass unrest at a public meeting in Simferopol on February 26, 2014 (before Russia annexed Crimea). It’s in this court that his trial has been dragging on. Friends, colleagues and activists gather almost daily to discuss the day’s news and show support.
Today is a good day: Chiygoz’s trial is the only one scheduled involving Crimean Tatars on politicized charges. The day before there had been three, including an administrative hearing for yet another Mejlis member, Mustafa Maush.
Maush was fined 750 rubles (about €11) for attending a meeting in the home of Ilmi Umerov, the Mejlis member on trial for separatism. As well as congratulating Umerov on his birthday, the group — all of whom have been fined — spoke with the Kiev-based Mejlis by Skype.
The fines are small, but the impact is large. “It’s not just about paying a fine,” says Mejlis member Zair Smedlyayev. “It’s about saying, don’t think about meeting even at home, because next time there’ll be another fine, and then there will already be criminal proceedings.”
Maush was elected to the Mejlis in 2013. “I never had time to actually work there,” he tells me outside the court, “because a new reality came, and I refuse to work within it.”
Stop political repression
Not all refused. Six former members of the Mejlis agreed to work with the new Russian Crimean authorities after 2014. They now hold government positions, including deputy Crimean parliament speaker and head of the Crimean state committee for interethnic relations and deported peoples.
Chiygoz and Dzhelyal were also wooed by the new regime, which cites the building of a new mosque, the recognition of two Muslim festivals as official holidays and the acceptance of Crimean Tatar as a state language in Crimea as proof that the Russian state wants to help the Crimean Tatars.
Chiygoz and Dzhelyal remain unconvinced that life under Russian rule can offer them anything positive. National memories of repression, beginning with Catherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea in 1784 through to Stalin’s deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar nation in 1944, are strong.
“The authorities would like it if we went with flags to parades, applauded a new monument to Catherine the Great and probably kissed a photo of Stalin,” says Dzhelyal. “And we say, no, stop political repression, stop searches, let people be free to go to mosque, and this can be the basis of our dialogue, to sit down and discuss problems that affect the Crimean Tatars and decide their solution.
“But we see the authorities don’t need this,” he adds. “They need obedience.”
All the phones for the Crimean committee for interethnic relations and deported peoples were turned off during the several weeks I tried to reach them for comment.
A temporary situation
After the court, it’s time to pick up Dzhelyal’s two daughters from school. His third child is due imminently, a happy family event clouded by politics. When the baby is born, Dzhelyal will face the same difficulties as any new father in Crimea who wants his child to be a Ukrainian citizen; he’ll have to persuade the maternity hospital to issue two certificates (illegal in Russia), and take one to the Ukrainian mainland to exchange it for a Ukrainian birth certificate (also technically illegal under Ukrainian law, but surmountable with a court process).
“I can’t see the logic,” Dzhelyal says. It’s the first time he’s shown exasperation. “If I, living in Crimea, want Ukrainian citizenship for my child, Ukraine should be glad. But instead they just demand extra paperwork.”
Dzhelyal travels frequently to Kiev. It’s an important reminder, he says, that another world exists. “Our biggest task now is not to get lost in this chaos, and not to get used to and agree to this temporary situation,” he says. “Our opponents try to convince us that it’s eternal and for always. That’s the biggest trap.”
Author: Lily Hyde