Living in Russian-occupied Crimea, 28-year-old Asan Khalilov was heading to work one October morning when his usual commute took an unexpected twist. He was handed a summons, ordering him to report to a Russian military station that was recruiting soldiers to fight in the war against Ukraine.
“At that moment, a Russian military raid was going on in the village, summonses were handed to everyone they met. The next day, I was obliged to come to the military registration office,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Khalilov is a Crimean Tatar, a Turkic Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula that has largely opposed Russian rule since Crimea was illegally annexed in 2014. After President Vladimir Putin’s call to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Russians to fight against Ukraine, mobilization also took place in Crimea.
Rights groups say the recruitment drive is tantamount to genocide as it disproportionately targets Crimean Tatars, forcing them to fight on the frontlines of the war, where they could be killed. This is Russia’s way of exterminating a community that has been a thorn in Moscow’s side, they say.
Mr. Khalilov’s parents insisted that their son not show up at the military office and immediately leave Crimea. He is now living with his sister in Kyiv.
Sending their son to a safer place was not only something they did out of necessity, it was also a painful reminder of the family’s past. In 1944, their ancestors and other Crimean Tatars were deported from the region under an order by Joseph Stalin, who smeared the group as Nazi collaborators.
“My parents always insisted that we live in Crimea. Because this is our homeland, to which we have been returning for so long,” Mr. Khalilov said. “For the Crimean Tatars, now is a big test – the second mass and conscious wave of departure from Crimea has begun after 2014.”
Since the start of mobilization in late September, at least 3,000 draft notices were handed out in settlements densely populated by Crimean Tatars, a community comprising about 13 per cent of the peninsula’s population of two million, according to Tamila Tasheva, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Permanent Representative in Crimea. Ms. Tasheva, a Crimean Tatar, is currently based in Kyiv.
“Since the beginning of partial mobilization, we have received dozens of appeals from villages such as Stroganovka, Sarasu, Saki, Azovskoye, Mayskoye, where summonses were handed to fathers of large families, sole breadwinners of families with disabilities, men aged over 60,” she told The Globe and Mail.
“And this is just the beginning. The military commissar of Crimea said that the mobilization is not over yet.”
The exodus prompted by the partial mobilization is a public expression of the community’s disapproval of its participation in the war against Ukraine. While some, such as Mr. Khalikov, managed to flee mobilization, others haven’t been so lucky.
“We know about thousands of our people who are now standing at the borders of different European countries and cannot enter the territory of European countries with Russian passports or expired Ukrainian documents, for example,” Ms. Tasheva said.
Mustafa Jemilev, long-time Crimean Tatar leader and Ukrainian member of parliament, who has been in exile in Kyiv since 2014, told The Globe that he has no doubts that the forced mobilization is outright revenge toward Crimean Tatars for their protest of the peninsula’s annexation.
“From the very beginning of the occupation, Crimean Tatars have been totally boycotting Russian ‘referendums,’ ‘elections’ and conscription into the army, and therefore are subjected to the greatest repressions from the occupation authorities, including abductions, murders and prison prosecution,” Mr. Jemilev said.
“And now, under the guise of ‘mobilization,’ the same Stalinist deportation and genocide are taking place.”
According to Ms. Tasheva, who co-founded Ukrainian human-rights organization Krym SOS before becoming Mr. Zelensky’s representative, Russian mobilization in occupied territories such as Crimea is an international war crime.
She referred to the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits an occupying state from compelling an occupied population to serve in its ranks. Nevertheless, over eight years of occupation, Russia drafted more than 30,000 Crimeans into the Russian army. According to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, at least 139 Crimeans who fought on the side of Russia have died in Ukraine since February, and 22 people are currently prisoners of war.
Ms. Tasheva also accused Russia of committing another crime by encouraging its citizens to move to the occupied region. According to official statistics from the Permanent Representative office, 500,000 to 800,000 Russians have moved to the peninsula since its annexation in 2014.
“The Russian Federation is deliberately changing the ethnic landscape of Crimea, which will complicate its reintegration into Ukraine in the future,” Ms. Tasheva said.
“The Ukrainian state will have to solve the following question: what to do with the citizens of the Russian Federation who illegally moved to occupied Crimea.”