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Tatar Men Disappear In Crimea, And Families Fill With Dread


The day we arrived in Crimea, they were searching for Edem, 25 years old. He vanished, last seen at a bus stop on the way to his job as a lifeguard at a spa. He's Crimean-Tatar, part of a Muslim community that resisted Russia's takeover of this place. Now some people wonder if this is punishment. Edem is one of a handful of Tatar men who've gone missing. Tatar families are filled with dread. We went to Crimea, a place falling deeper under Russian control. And we saw how when borders change, lives change. And it's especially true for the Tatars. Ernes Ayserezli is afraid. He's the young, Tatar father we heard on the program yesterday. He is 26 years old, about the same age as Edem.


GREENE: How afraid are you that that could happen to you?

ERNES AYSEREZLI: It's hard for me to tell which is the common feature, you know, of people who go missing. So if it is by speaking out, anything criticizing power, government, I think you are at risk. So I try not to go alone anywhere I go.

GREENE: It's not that Ernes is even all that political. He has posted on Facebook each time a Tatar has gone missing.


AYSEREZLI: Nowadays, every time I post something on social media or even like something on social media, I remember my father's words; son, please be careful. Do not get into any trouble.

GREENE: It has been tense for the Tatars since a referendum back in March. Russia claims nearly everyone in Crimea, 97 percent, wanted Russian rule. It was a Soviet-style result. Many Tatars, who are 10 percent of the population, boycotted the vote. And now they are trying to assert their presence quietly.


UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Praying in foreign language).

GREENE: These men are praying in a mosque outside Simferopol that has just opened. The paint is fresh. The windows still have construction labels on them. But these men were determined to hold the first prayers here to send a message that Crimea belongs to them too.


UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Praying in foreign language).

GREENE: There is someone noticeably missing here, Mustafa Dzhemilev. He's the Crimean Tatars' spiritual leader, a man this community turns to in tough moments. He's not here because a few months ago, after the takeover, Russian authorities barred him from Crimea, calling him an extremist. He's now living in exile in Kiev. His wife, Safinar, stayed behind. She's doing what her husband would have done to reassure the community.


GREENE: If you want to find her, you go to the town of Bakhchysarai. It's the historic heart of Tatar culture, an hour from Simferopol. We're approaching a three-story, stucco building that's behind an iron gate. And a woman appears up in the window.



GREENE: Salaam Alaikum, a Muslim greeting in a Christian country.

GREENE: What did she say out the window? She's going to come down?


GREENE: She comes down to open the gate for us, an older woman with closely cropped, auburn hair. She begins talking about her husband before we ask.

DZHEMILEV: (Through translator) Now we are separated. The Russians separated us.

GREENE: How hard has that been?

DZHEMILEV: (Through translator) You mean occupation? Very hard. The most terrible thing that is happening now is that people are disappearing. They are kidnapped. And there is no such structure or organization that can help us to find them.

GREENE: People like Edem, the young man who vanished on his way to work. Now, Safinar has remained in this house by herself as a living symbol of normalcy, continuity. People from the Tatar community will call her up just to see if she's still there. As we stand at her front gate, she points to a neighbor across the street, leaning down next to his car, maybe changing a tire. No, she tells us. He's keeping an eye on things in the neighborhood and reporting back to the Russian government.

Are you worried about - worried about your safety?

DZHEMILEV: (Through translator) Yeah, we put cameras, and security guys come every evening so that I am not alone in the house.

GREENE: She walks us around the house, fumbling with keys, unlocking and locking doors. She shows us her husband's office, his empty desk, still the smell of pipe tobacco and also a room full of gifts from Western leaders who, she says, vowed not to let Crimea fall to Putin. And so I ask her, did they break that promise? She turns and glares.

DZHEMILEV: (Foreign language spoken).

GREENE: Why, she says. It's not over yet. That defiance in her voice is a great example for this community. But even she has moments of weakness.

DZHEMILEV: (Foreign language spoken, crying).

GREENE: She's talking about the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, which has all but disappeared from Crimea. Whenever she does see one, she says it gives her an injection of strength. We say goodbye to Safinar Dzhemilev at her front gate. Two days after this visit, in the early morning, a text message shows up. It's from our Crimean interpreter. Today is the funeral of one of the kidnapped boys, Edem - Edem Asanov. He was found in an abandoned warehouse, hanged. We drive to the small village of Saki on the west coast of Crimea, and we arrive at the funeral gathering at his home.

There are probably a few dozen neighbors and family friends and others who have come here and have just been standing here. I mean, it looks like they just want to show this family support. It's just - it's so quiet and so somber, a lot of people just sort of walking around this muddy courtyard sort of not knowing what to do with themselves. Edem's body was carried away and buried a few hours earlier. We're told by family friends here that the local authorities wanted to rush things along, perhaps to avoid drawing attention to Edem's death. Close relatives are still inside the house. They're with a Muslim cleric, and you can hear them.



GREENE: Standing in the muddy courtyard, Asanov's father, his face stricken beneath a white skullcap. One friend after another comes up to hug him. His son wasn't known as a political activist. He worked at a spa, gave much of his salary to his parent's.

EDEM ASANOV: (Foreign language spoken).

GREENE: My son was a good boy, well behaved, the father says. I don't know why it had to happen this way. We see a familiar face among the mourners. It's Safinar Dzhemilev. She's driven more than an hour to be with this family, to play her role of consoling and reassuring. A death like this? -she says she fears it's part of a campaign to frighten the Tatars and drive them from Crimea, just like Stalin did.

DZHEMILEV: (Foreign language spoken).

GREENE: I told you, she says, and it's all coming true. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.