Mar 18, 2015 3:49 AM

Crimea exiles fight to keep Ukraine unity message alive

The Associated Press

SHCHASLYVE, Ukraine (AP) The tormentors stuck scotch tape to his eyes and locked him in a dank room. For 11 days, Andrei Schekun said, they beat him, shocked him with electrodes and scalded him with burning metallic plates.

He said the torture took place as Crimea voted in a referendum to secede from Ukraine a year ago Wednesday. Schekun's crime: campaigning to persuade his fellow Crimeans to reject absorption by Russia.

Schekun's crusade for Ukrainian unity, which he continues today in exile, began as pro-Moscow sentiment among the majority ethnic Russian population reached fever pitch on the peninsula. Demands for a split from Ukraine spiked within days of the February ouster of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Although most Ukrainians resented the president with feverish intensity for his predatory rule, people in regions such as Crimea and eastern Ukraine, with dominant ethnic Russian populations, viewed him with more sympathy.

Russian state television stations already fed them a steady diet of stories about unrest being led by rabid Ukrainian nationalists bent on oppression of the Russian population. Ill-intentioned Ukrainians, the Russian networks warned, were poised to descend upon Crimea.

Schekun's activism in drumming up support in Crimea for the anti-government protests that toppled Yanukovych was enough to make him suspect. Soon flyers appeared in the courtyard outside Schekun's home in the Crimean town of Bakhchysarai describing him as a traitor.

"Everywhere in the district where we lived, they stuck up leaflets with his face, calling him a bloodthirsty traitor and a fascist, and all kinds of other things," said Schekun's wife, Lyudmila, speaking from their new home outside Kiev. Schekun, along with his wife and three sons, are among the roughly 20,000 people who Ukrainian officials say have left Crimea for the mainland since the region was annexed by Russia.

On March 9, one week before the referendum, plain-clothed policemen detained Schekun at a train station in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, as he awaited the delivery of Ukrainian flags and symbols. The group was from a self-described militia charged with ensuring the referendum on joining Russia proceeded smoothly.

"They thought we wanted to derail their referendum," he said. "They thought we were some kind of terrorist group or something."

Pro-Ukrainian activism inside Crimea has become an even more dangerous proposition since then.

Last week, a small group of Crimea residents marked the day of Ukraine's national poet Taras Shevchenko by gathering outside his statue in Simferopol with Ukrainian flags. That minor act of defiance earned them 40 hours hard labor.

The peninsula's Tatar minority, whose leadership resisted Russian annexation, says it too has been subjected to intimidation that has ranged from petty official harassment to beatings, kidnappings and murder.

Speaking at a United Nations conference in Geneva on Monday, the human rights envoy for Ukraine's parliament, Valeriya Lutkovskaya, described Crimea as a "peninsula of terror."

"People are afraid to express their opinion," Lutkovskaya said. "They feel fear for their life and future, fear to espouse their faith and speak in their native language."

According to the most recent census, carried out in 2001, ethnic Ukrainians make up one-quarter of Crimea's population. From a distance, exiles feel at a loss to help and say they are disappointed with the Ukrainian government's failure to keep Crimea near the top of its agenda.

"Unfortunately, there is at the moment no single government executive body that deals with Crimean matters," said Eskender Bariyev, a member of the Mejlis, a self-governing body of Crimean Tatars.

With government initiative lacking, Schekun says it is up to activists like him to shore up the morale of Ukrainians still in Crimea: "They need our moral support," he said. "They need to hear us say 'We haven't betrayed you, we haven't abandoned you.'"

It's hard to keep up the fight in a rented apartment outside the capital. But Schekun remains upbeat about his mission.

"We will not let the government forget," Schekun said, joined by his wife in emphatically finishing the thought, "that Crimea is Ukraine."


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