Speech by Sevgil Musaeva: Crimea yesterday, today and tomorrow

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Crimea yesterday, today and tomorrow: Human rights violations and the role of Crimea in the European security system

Speech delivered by Sevgil Musaeva, Ukrainian journalist from Crimea, chief editor of Ukrainska Pravda, at the conference Unheard Voice of Crimea, which took place on Christiansborg on 21 March 2023.



” When strangers are coming…
They come to your house,
They kill you all
and say,
We’re not guilty,
not guilty.”

These words come from a song by my close friend Jamala, the Ukrainian singer and Eurovision Song Contest winner.

She wrote this song in 2016 and dedicated it to her grandmother, Nazylhan.

Her grandmother was deported from Crimea in 1944, along with all the Crimean Tatars living on the peninsula. The indigenous people of Crimea were deported overnight, thousands of kilometres from their homes, to Central Asia and the Ural mountains on the orders of the Soviet Union’s leadership. Their journey was forced and far from pleasant, in horrible windowless boxcars that were usually used to transport cattle.

Jamala’s grandmother lost her youngest child on this journey. And my own grandfather, who was 13 at the time, lost his mother. She died in a freight car without food or water; her body was not removed for several days, so my grandfather did not let go of her hand, hoping that she had just fallen asleep.

After their long journey to Central Asia or the Urals, the Crimean Tatars were settled in separate, closed villages with no proper sanitation or food.

In the first few years after the deportation, more than 50 per cent of my people died.

This tragedy affected several generations of Crimean Tatars, including mine.

My parents were born in the deportation, and so was I. I was two and a half when the Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to their historic homeland.

Leaving behind their old life, my family started life anew – in our native land.

But for nine years now, neither I nor Jamala nor my other Crimean friends have been able to go home. Because in 2014, Russia occupied Crimea.

Once again, Russia has deprived us of the opportunity to live in our land. And now the only thing left is our childhood memories.

In 2022, Russia launched the largest war on the European continent since World War II. Every day, civilians and soldiers are killed in the war in Ukraine, and our cities and infrastructure are being destroyed. When Ukrainian cities are liberated from Russian occupation, mass graves and victims of torture are found there. The Russians rape Ukrainian women and children.

“When strangers are coming…
They come to your house,
They kill you all
and say,
We’re not guilty,
not guilty.”

These words from a song describing the tragedy of the Crimean Tatars that happened almost 80 years ago are relevant again.

How and why did this happen?

Journalists must seek answers to the most difficult questions.

Today, I too will try to do that.



In 1944, Joseph Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars from Crimea on charges of collaboration with the Nazis.

With that decision, he stigmatised all Crimean Tatars. The truth was that most of the deportees were women, children, and elderly people, because the men were fighting in the Red Army. But for decades, Soviet propaganda used the image of traitors to deprive Crimean Tatars of the opportunity to return.

This is how the myth of the Russian history of the Crimean Peninsula was created. For decades, the indigenous people of Crimea had no voice among these lies. They had no right to tell their truth. For a long time it was forbidden even to discuss the forced deportation of the Qirimli (Crimean Tatars).

Similarly, the Soviet Union tried to hide the truth about another horrific crime, the two Ukrainian Holodomors. The Holodomor was an artificial famine engineered by the Bolsheviks in Ukraine which resulted in the deaths of around 5 million people. First Soviet propaganda lied about the actual genocide of the Ukrainian people, and then Russian propaganda followed.

Because lies and propaganda are one of the tools of the Russian military machine.

When Russia began its occupation of Crimea in 2014, Russian propaganda lied about “Nazis” who had come to power in Kyiv and posed a threat to the people of Crimea.

Russia used the same strategy to start the war in Donbas.

Then, for eight years, the Russian propaganda machine dehumanised Ukrainians, which gave rise to the full-scale invasion in February 2022 under the slogans of denazification and demilitarisation.

It was only after witnessing the horrors of war crimes in Ukrainian cities and the killing of civilians that many governments banned Russian propaganda channels from broadcasting in their countries.

Until then, no one seriously understood the dangers of Russia’s destructive information policy; no one realised that in the 21st century, brainwashed Russians would start killing Ukrainians for being fascists. But this image wasn’t just put together in a year or two. Russian propagandists had spent years, and billions of dollars, on this.

Russian propagandists are an integral part of Russia’s policy of aggression, and they must be held fully accountable for their crimes. Just like the owner of Free Radio and Television of the Thousand Hills, the radio station which incited the genocide in Rwanda.

Lack of response to human rights violations

Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014 was accompanied by abductions of journalists and civil society activists, as well as the use of torture.

The Russians’ first victim was a Crimean Tatar, Reşat Amet. He might have been presumed missing had his mutilated body, showing signs of torture, not been found by a random passerby.

We became aware of this Russian crime by accident.

But Russia usually tries to commit crimes in complete silence. That is why in the first year of the war, it cleared the peninsula’s information space of all independent media and began the criminal prosecution of all Crimeans who disagreed with the occupation.

In the first year, tens of thousands of people were forced to leave the peninsula because of the threat of arrest. In 2016, the Mejlis, the representative body of the Crimean Tatars, was banned from Crimea and branded an extremist organisation.

Then Russia began to replace the population, relocating government officials and former military officers from various parts of Russia to Crimea.

Human rights organisations have been reporting violations of international humanitarian law on the peninsula for years. But they were not taken seriously. Reports on the situation in Crimea received no attention. It was convenient to turn a blind eye to them.

Because these are just arrests, just the persecution of one ethnic group, just the oppression of the Ukrainian language in Crimea, just the build-up of military equipment, just a few hundred political prisoners, only a few of whom talk about torture and abuse after their release.

Under the eyes of the entire civilised world, Putin turned Crimea into a military base. But why create a military base if not for an all-out war?

And now Putin is using this occupied part of Ukraine to attack peaceful Ukrainian cities. Russia launches deadly missiles from the occupied peninsula almost every week.

Could this have been prevented? Yes. If human rights and their violations were really important to the international community, Russia would long ago have been subjected to sanctions that hit its economy hard.

We have to remember our mistakes and learn from them – everything that starts with a first, seemingly minor, human rights violation that is left without a rapid and effective response will sooner or later lead to tragedy.

At first glance, there seems to be no connection between Reşat Amet, the first victim of the occupation of Crimea, and the hundreds of Ukrainians tortured in Bucha, Irpen and Izium – horrors that have shocked the world. But the connection is real.

The future system of international security must be based on the toughest possible response by governments and international organisations to human rights violations. This will allow us all to prevent such tragedies from being repeated. Governments that systematically violate human rights should be isolated from the civilised world.

And here I would like to move on to the third and most important point.

Lack of punishment and accountability for historic crimes

When I was growing up in Ukrainian Crimea and dreaming of becoming a journalist, I was impressed by the book The Second Chechen War by the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (published in English as A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya), in which my fellow journalist described the events of the Chechen anti-terrorist operation. It would be easier to say “war”, but Russia never wants to call the war it brings to Chechnya, Georgia or Ukraine a war. It wasn’t just Politkovskaya’s courage that struck me. I was most struck by the descriptions of what the Russians did to the civilian population of Chechnya.

“Isa lives in Selmentauzen. In early February, he too was taken to a concentration camp on the outskirts of Khattuni. Cigarettes were put out on his body, his nails were ripped out, and he was beaten with Pepsi bottles full of water, targeting his kidneys. Then they threw him into a pit called the “bathtub”. It was filled with water (it was winter, by the way), and smoke bombs were thrown at the Chechens who were dumped there.

There were six of them in the bathtub. Not all of them managed to survive.

The junior officers who conducted collective interrogations told the Chechens that they had nice butts and raped them. They added that it was because “your women don’t want to go with us”. The Chechens who survived now say that their whole lives are revenge for their ‘nice butts’.”

This is an extract from Anna’s book, written in 2002. In 2007, on Putin’s birthday, Anna Politkovskaya was shot in the back of the head.

When I was reading this book, I could never have imagined that as a Ukrainian journalist and editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda, I would have to hear and record the same things from my fellow citizens in 2022 in Ukraine.

During this year of full-scale war, I have heard stories of torture, rape and death from villagers and residents of cities and towns in different regions across my country. Whether in the outskirts of Kyiv, in the small town of Trostyanets on the border with Russia, or in the Kharkiv region, they are all equally horrific.

Amputated body parts, broken limbs, electrocution, sexual exploitation of women for food, the rape of men, children and elderly people, execution for refusing to cooperate, firing on peaceful evacuation convoys, hanging, interrogation with hammers and sledgehammers.

All these have been described to me and my colleagues by the residents of liberated cities or people who have managed to escape the occupation.

It’s largely thanks to journalists that we have learned the truth about these crimes. Yet Russia continues to lie, claiming that this is all staged and fake.

But we know the truth. Because in Bucha, the Russians shot the unarmed father of my colleague, Valerii Kizilov; in Irpin they killed my classmate, documentary journalist Brent Renaud; in Izium they tortured the famous children’s writer Volodymyr Vakulenko. In Kherson, orchestra conductor Yurii Kerpatenko was shot dead.

They left mass graves in Bucha and Izium. There are hundreds of tortured and killed people there. And we still don’t know the whole truth, because part of our country’s territory is still occupied by the Russians. We still do not know how many civilians Russia has killed in Mariupol. But we are talking about tens of thousands of people. All of Mariupol is one big mass grave, the largest mass grave on the European continent today.

Today, the only way for Ukraine to protect its people in the occupied territories is to free them from Russian occupation.

The case of Maksym Butkevych, a former journalist and, until recently, human rights activist, illustrates just how desperate the situation is.

For many years, Butkevych has been reporting on human rights violations in the occupied part of Donbas and calling for the release of Crimean political prisoners. But when the full-scale war broke out, he joined the army. He was captured by Russia in May, and last week a court in occupied Luhansk sentenced him to 13 years in prison.

Butkevych is not the only human rights activist being persecuted by Russia. Russia has also arrested lawyers in Crimea who defended the rights of Crimean political prisoners. And a year and a half ago Nariman Chelal, the deputy chairman of the Mejlis, was imprisoned on trumped-up charges. In autumn 2022, a Russian court sentenced him to 17 years in prison.

Who should protect people’s rights when human rights defenders are behind bars?

Today, Europe is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. This only became possible because of many years of ignoring and silencing the problem, because of many years of compromise.

This war became possible because evil went unpunished. Russia has not been held accountable for the crimes of the 20th century or the crimes of the early 21st century.

“When strangers are coming…
They come to your house,
They kill you all
and say,
We’re not guilty,
not guilty.”

To prevent these words from being relevant in 10 or 80 years, Russia and the people who have committed crimes in Ukraine must be held accountable.

Unless we want this impunity to lead to terrible crimes in the future.

And I would like to end this speech with the words of my friend Nariman Celal, which he wrote in the early days of the full-scale war.

“Even in a situation of unfreedom, we must remain free from within. Do not believe that you are not able to change anything. Do not believe that another future is impossible. I believe in it. Even when I am behind the walls of a prison.”