On September 27th 2014, 18-year-old Islyam Dzhepparov poured coffee for his father Abdureshit at home in Belogorsk, Crimea, before leaving the house to visit his uncle’s family nearby.
At 7pm a neighbour drove into Dzhepparov’s yard. He said he had just seen Islyam and another young man being searched by men in black uniforms, who forced the pair into a van and drove away. The second youth was Dzhepparov’s nephew, 23-year old Dzhevdet Islyamov.
Nineteen months later, on 24th May 2016, Umer Ibragimov was at home in Bakhchisaray, Crimea, waiting for his son Ervin to come back from dropping off a friend.
Just 300 meters away, CCTV cameras outside a shop caught the moment, at 10.22pm, when Ervin’s car was pulled over by men wearing traffic police uniform. After a search of the vehicle, the men forced the 30-year old into a van and drove away. Umer found his son’s abandoned car next morning, the key still in the ignition.
None of the three men have been heard of since. No one has been charged with their abduction. Two fathers have been left desperately searching for answers.
Untangling these two tales of enforced disappearance reveals a picture of Russian-annexed Crimea where many live in fear of arrest, lawlessness and repression, even as those officially responsible for order and human rights insist there is no problem.
Around eighteen unsolved disappearances and deaths are cited by Abdureshit Dzhepparov and other human rights activists as evidence of human rights violations by authorities since Russia occupied and annexed Crimea in March 2014.
First among them is Reshat Ametov, whose abduction by Crimean “self-defence militia” (paramilitary groups formed in late February 2014) was caught on camera in Simferopol on March 3rd 2014. His body, showing signs of torture, was found on March 15th. Although the men in the video are identifiable, no one has been charged with his kidnapping or murder.
Other cases include Timur Shaimardanov and Seiran Zinedinov, pro-Ukrainian activists who vanished within days of each other in May 2014; Eskender Apselyamov, who left his house and never came back on October 3rd 2014; Edem Asanov, found hanged on October 6th 2014 a week after he went missing; Mukhtar Arislanov, abducted in Simferopol on August 27th 2015, and Ruslan Ganiyev and Arlen Terekhov from Kerch, who disappeared in December 2015.
All these men were either openly opposed to annexation, or influential in non-Russian religious or civic communities, or they are from Crimea’s indigenous Muslim group, the Crimean Tatars.
“I think there is an element of accident; a person was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Ilmi Umerov, who headed Bakhchisaray administration until he resigned in protest against the Russian rule, said of the disappearances. But this apparent randomness is also a deliberate technique by those behind the incidents, he went on. If enforced disappearances affect only active regime opponents, then others assume they are safe if they keep quiet. “But when there is this element of accident, any person or their child or relative can end up among [the disappeared]. And this creates an overall sense of fear.”
The fear is palpable and the disappearances have had an enormous effect on the Crimean Tatars’s close-knit community of 250,000, most of whom do not support the Russian rule. Drivers no longer open their car doors when stopped by the police, but show their licenses through the window. One Crimean Tatar couple from near Bakhchisaray told me they had sent their grandson to university in Russia rather than in Crimea, because they were too afraid to let him move away to Simferopol as a young Crimean Tatar man.
After their mass deportation in 1944, two generations of activists in the Crimean Tatar National Movement struggled with Soviet authorities to return to Crimea, finally achieving their aim in the late 1980s. Now, since annexation the Crimean Tatar representative body, the Mejlis, has been banned as an extremist organisation and dozens of Crimean Tatars have been hit by fines and court cases. The disappearances further deter anyone from showing dissent and resemble a policy Russia has perfected in the North Caucasus.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Russia/North Caucasus project director from the International Crisis Group, has monitored thousands of enforced disappearances by authorities among Muslim communities in the North Caucasus region, where the resulting climate of fear means it is now almost impossible to collect information about cases.
Crimea is clearly nowhere near this level of repression. The peninsula has been under Russian rule for less than three years, and Abdureshit believes that publicising each arrest and disappearance is helping to prevent more cases.
“We go round Crimea and encourage people to be open,” he said. “We explain that if you keep it to yourselves, no one will take it on and more people will be imprisoned. Here, when the first case happens the whole world knows.”
People who disappear in the north Caucasus are usually those authorities think are radical but have no proof against, or influential young people who have studied or travelled abroad, according to Sokirianskaia. “Or they think this person knows something, and they can extract this information from them under torture.”
Sometimes, she said, it is profitable to disappear rather than arrest or kill people, because their absence can be explained by saying they have gone to fight in Syria.
Abdureshit Dzhepparov holds himself very still and speaks very quietly; it is hard to imagine that he has spent much of his life leading mass demonstrations and challenging police and presidents as a Crimean Tatar National Movement activist.
Neither of Abdureshit’s sons wanted to follow in his footsteps. The oldest, Abdullah, was always out in the garden playing war games. The younger Islyam wanted to be a surgeon. Once when he was about 16 his father took him to a meeting of National Movement activists. “I asked him on the way back, “’How do you like our work?’” Abdureshit recalled. “’Do you want to carry it on?’ And he said, ‘No. I want to be an ordinary person, I do not want this, I am tired of your Movement.’”
Two years before Islyam was abducted, his older brother left home and never came back. It turned out Abdullah had gone to fight against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, and most likely died there in spring 2013. Dzhevdet, the nephew who vanished with Islyam in 2014, also went to Syria with Abdullah, returning to Crimea in summer 2013.
Abdureshit found out about Abdullah’s death from Mukhtar Arislanov, who went to the same mosque in Simferopol. Arislanov disappeared on August 27th 2015; two witnesses saw men in uniform put him into a silver van and drive away. It was 11.30 am. He had popped out of the house with just his mobile and 1,500 roubles to pay the electricity bill and buy fish.
“It is like the earth opened and he fell in and it closed again,” his sister Nurfiye Karakash told me.
Crimean authorities suggest that most disappearances of Crimean Tatars are connected with Syria, or with the conflict in east Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“Where are our Muslims, our combative people, the Crimean Tatars?” asked Crimean Human Rights Ombudsman Ludmila Lubina, stabbing her desk with her finger for emphasis. “They are in Ukraine fighting against Donbas and Donetsk, and they are with ISIS.”
Lubina said that in 2015 Crimean police identified in Syria more than a hundred Crimean Tatars reported missing by their families, and another 72 fighting in Ukraine.
There is a small Crimean Tatar battalion in Syria, although a minimum amount of research shows that it is not aligned with ISIS (the Islamic State). Sokirianskaia said she thought it numbered less than a hundred.
Abdureshit’s son and nephew, Ervin Ibragimov, and most of the other 18 cases of disappearance in Crimea, are not among those supposed hundred or 72 cited by Lubina.
Ervin Ibragimov trained in law and was a town councillor, a member of the regional Mejlis, and of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars which meets regularly in different countries. Coming from a younger generation, he was set to take over from older Mejlis members who are now either banned from Crimea or face prison sentences.
Ilmi Umerov from Bakhchisaray (currently charged with extremism) said Ibragimov was working towards taking the place of Akhtem Chiygoz, who led the Bakhchisaray region Mejlis before being arrested in early 2015 on charges of inciting mass unrest.
“The authorities had to increase the feeling of fear among Crimean Tatars, and they chose [Ervin] because he was very active,” Umerov said. “No one doubts it was the work of our Crimean FSB [security service].”
Ervin knew he had attracted the attention of Russian law enforcement agencies, his family said. But he thought the increased surveillance was related to a commemorative meeting on May 18th, the day the Crimean Tatars were deported in 1944 (Russia has banned any mass meetings on this day).
“He thought he would be brought in for questioning, like in a normal country,” said his father Umer. “It never occurred to him they might kidnap him; if it had, he would never have got out of the car that night.”
Since his abduction, messages of support have poured in from around the world. “It makes me proud,” said Umer. Ervin, he thought, was inspired to activism by growing up in a Crimean village in the late 1980s where the returned Crimean Tatars worked together to build new homes and lives. “He came to it by himself,” Umer, a bus driver and former Soviet soldier who served in Afghanistan, told me. “All I did was let my son go.”
Lubina said she had received “masses of letters” about Ibragimov’s case, which has been the subject of an Amnesty International campaign. But she has not engaged with his or other disappeared cases, other than to collect statistics, as “the relatives do not ask me.”
And the statistics, she says, show there is nothing to worry about in Crimea, because not only Crimean Tatars go missing, but also other nationalities.
“No country has managed to cancel crime, has it?” she said, listing numbers from January 15th 2015, of 13 Crimean Tatars considered missing with possible criminal involvement, along with 119 Russians and 24 Ukrainians. “If we take the percentage of missing Crimean Tatars from the general population, you can by no means say that there is an ethnic motive for people going missing,” she said.
The authorities’ reaction has not always been so dismissive. After his son and nephew disappeared in 2014, Abdureshit Dzhepparov persuaded Crimean government head Sergei Aksyonov to personally visit Belogorsk, and agree to regular meetings with a new human rights contact group chaired by Abdureshit.
The meetings continued until the following spring. Then in April 2015 one of the group’s six key representatives, Emir-Usein Kuku, was attacked on his way to work by plain clothes law enforcement officers who tried to force him into a van, in what looked very much like another abduction attempt (the incident was caught on camera by neighbours, whose presence presumably foiled it).
After the contact group publicised this attack, Aksyonov cancelled future meetings. In February 2016, Kuku was arrested on charges of belonging to an Islamic terrorist organisation.
Abdureshit, a life-long activist, continues to run the contact group and chairs a second group, Crimean Solidarity, which unites relatives of the disappeared and political prisoners with lawyers, journalists and human rights monitors.
It is a way of coping. “I do it so I do not have time to think about how to live further. In my free time I start thinking about my son, and my second son. Is he alive or not alive, killed or not killed, how did they kill him, how have they tortured him,” he said. “It is better to be busy, so I have no time to think.”
In Bakhchisaray, the Ibragimov family fill their days sending appeals to everyone they can think of, and calling Ervin’s phone number that never answers. His younger brother Osman does not go out alone, for fear of meeting a similar fate to Ervin.
“It happened opposite the house, someone must have seen something but they all keep quiet,” Umer said. “People are afraid, although before we were not afraid. We walked around freely at night and now at 10 or 11 if someone’s not home you start to call: ‘Where are you? Who are you with?’ You start to worry.”
He excused himself to smoke – this former soldier’s only outward sign of nerves. “You sit here like a stone, not showing emotion,” he said. “There is no protection for us now. You think you can protect yourself. But in fact, you cannot protect anyone.
Lily Hyde is a British writer who has been living in and travelling around Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and the far east for over fifteen years. In addition to writing fiction, she covers Ukraine affairs for international media including The Guardian, The Times, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, New Internationalist. Lily also works as a consultant in public health and human rights.