SARY-SU, CRIMEA – Since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, armed men have shown up frequently to search the cinder-block houses, mosque and school in Sary-Su, a settlement of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim ethnic minority that has long suffered from discrimination in the peninsula, which is its historic homeland.
The worst shock came in September, when two men in the town of 3,000 were abducted.
Now the community “is trembling with fear,” said Rebiya Setarova, an 80-year-old Tatar, as she tottered anxiously across a dirt road to check on her son and grandchildren ahead of Friday prayers. “Now I worry for the fate of my son. Everybody worries about the children.”
Police have made no arrests, and the kidnappers’ identities remain a mystery. But Setarova has no doubts about who is responsible: “This is what we get when Russia comes to Crimea.”
The fears and uncertainties of people in Sary-Su sum up how life has been upended for the 300,000-strong Crimean Tatar community. Deported en masse to Central Asia by the Soviets 70 years ago, they began returning to Crimea in the 1980s to rebuild their lives in an independent Ukraine.
Russia’s annexation in March, which many Tatars vocally opposed, overturned their world. Since then, the Tatars’ self-ruling body, the Mejlis, has been disbanded by Russian authorities, its highest-ranking leaders have been barred from re-entering Crimea and dozens of impromptu searches for narcotics, weapons and banned literature have been conducted in Tatar neighborhoods across the region.
Rights experts say Russia is punishing them for speaking out against annexation.
“For their openly critical position, the authorities have been cracking down on dissent,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
It was a warm September evening in Sary-Su when Abdureshit Dzhepparov’s 18-year-old son, Islyam, served him Turkish coffee and left the house. Half an hour later, neighbors were on the phone: They had seen Islyam, along with his 23-year-old cousin, frisked and forced into a dark blue Volkswagen van by men dressed in black.
The van sped away. Neither of the kidnapped men has been seen since.
“When these things happen, you can’t even make plans. Every night, if your children are out . . . as a parent, you can’t sleep until they get home,” said Dzhepparov, who also has a daughter in high school.
Elsewhere in Crimea, at least seven other Tatars have vanished since March, including three who had been active in demonstrations calling for the region to remain part of Ukraine. Two of the abducted were later found dead. The others are missing.
Police have opened investigations into the disappearances. Sergei Aksyonov, Crimea’s leader, has attempted to reassure the Tatars that their community is being treated fairly.
“We have respect for people of any faith or confession, and I can guarantee that there will be no infringements based on nationality on Crimean territory,” Aksyonov said in an interview.
Residents of Sary-Su are worried that the new lives they built from scratch in Crimea could quickly unravel. This settlement by a creek — the name means “Yellow Water” in the Tatar language — sprang up in the 1990s, when families returning from exile occupied empty fields and built their homes.
The pro-Moscow authorities say the searches were intended to look for drugs, guns and literature banned by Russian law. Human Rights Watch noted that many searches, sometimes conducted in the middle of the night, involved dozens of masked men with guns.
In October, when Aksyonov met with Dzhepparov in the nearby city of Belogorsk, hundreds of angry Sary-Su residents massed to vent their outrage over the kidnappings and official actions toward the Crimean Tatars.
“There were snipers on the roofs; the entire city was surrounded by troops,” said Dzhepparov, who was nervous the enraged crowd might get out of hand. “If something had suddenly gone wrong, it would have been a catastrophe.”
Such fears seem well founded. Tatar protests occurred frequently and peacefully under Ukrainian rule, but since Russian annexation, they have sometimes ended in confrontations with ethnic Russians or police.
“Ukrainian authorities were diplomatic and allowed the steam to be let out of the valve,” said attorney Dzhemil Kemishev. “People came out and protested, talked about the things that were worrying them, and things ended there. “But when you’re being told not to do that, it’s like when you don’t lift the lid off a pot of boiling water. Sooner or later it will explode.”