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The Ukrainian Muslims combating in opposition to Russia

Kharkiv, Ukraine – Ali Khadzali stands among the many blown-out buildings of his hometown, Kharkiv, about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Ukraine’s border with Russia.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion started in February, Khadzali has labored with a crew of six volunteers to supply humanitarian help and evacuate folks from areas hit onerous by the combating.

Khadzali, a heat, charming 30-year-old, wears a skullcap, a hoodie, and cargo pants. He is on a break between the day’s duties early one afternoon in mid-May. Russian forces have been pushed again from town, however intense shelling has lowered a lot of the northern suburbs to mess.

The distant rumble of artillery nonetheless reverberates by this now empty neighbourhood. Nearby, a big playground with vibrant swings and seesaws is surprisingly intact, framed by high-rise buildings blackened and scarred by weeks of bombardment.

Khadzali was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest metropolis, to a Ukrainian mom and a Syrian father. He would usually go to Syria till battle broke on the market in 2011. In 2015, Russia’s intervention in Syria’s now 11-year-old civil battle tipped the scales in favour of the Assad regime.

“Both of my homelands, Ukraine and Syria, were invaded by Russians,” Khadzali says.

The Playground Where We Meet Ali Khadzali [
Buildings in an empty neighbourhood in Kharkiv present the scars from weeks of bombardment [Micah Reddy/Al Jazeera]

Joining the battle effort

In 2015, Khadzali grew to become a chaplain – an imam providing non secular providers inside a navy context.

The earlier yr, the Maidan revolution noticed Ukrainians take to the streets to protest in opposition to the pro-Russian authorities of President Victor Yanukovych. His forces responded with a brutal crackdown that killed greater than 100 protesters and injured 1000’s. Yanukovych was overthrown and shortly after, Russian-backed separatists took up arms within the Donbas areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, starting an eight-year battle and precursor to Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Spurred on by his “Islamic brothers” to tackle the brand new position, Khadzali had needed to discover a method to assist his nation and felt that he might finest do this by supporting the small variety of Muslim troops scattered within the Donbas. “What could be a better way than playing a part that connects with the army in a country at war?” says Khadzali.

As a chaplain, he led prayers, ensured the availability of halal meals, and provided non secular instruction, psychological help, and steering about human rights to troops. “Simply talking with troops,” he says, has been an important a part of his obligation. “That may even be the most important thing.”

He nonetheless carries out these duties, however at present his position is even greater stakes – he usually spends his time serving to folks in harmful front-line areas.

“We have a list of people in need of help, and we check up on them weekly,” he says. “For example, we get medicine to elderly people who need it, and groceries … When you help one family, your telephone number gets to 10 families who need aid.”

Although Muslims make up solely about 1 p.c of the predominantly Christian nation of 44 million folks, many have joined the battle effort following Russia’s invasion. Many are pushed by a historical past of Russian injustices in opposition to Muslim communities and help for what’s seen as an open and tolerant Ukraine.

The majority of Ukraine’s Muslim inhabitants are Crimean Tatars, Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin. For those that combat, additionally it is a combat to return to their homeland, Crimea – a peninsula of steppe land jutting out into the Black Sea and buttressed by mountains within the south – annexed by Russia in 2014.

Ali Khadzali In Northern Kharkiv
Khadzali, who was born in Kharkiv, has seen each of his homelands of Syria and Ukraine invaded by Russia [Micah Reddy/Al Jazeera]

Crimean Tatars: tortured latest previous

Islam has a protracted and essential historical past in Ukraine not solely as a faith introduced by itinerant merchants and missionaries and sustained by pockets of minority communities however as the premise of statecraft. As the faith of the Crimean Khanate, which lasted from the 15th to 18th century, Islam left an indelible political and cultural imprint.

Yet Crimean Tatars have a tortured latest previous. During the second world battle, Stalin tolerated no risk, actual or perceived, and deported total populations deemed to have collaborated with the Nazis to different areas inside the vastness of the Soviet empire.

Among these focused have been the Muslim populations of Chechnya and Ingushetia – at present each Russian republics within the northern Caucasus – who have been forcibly faraway from their homelands in 1944.

Today, Chechen troopers combat on each side of the Russia-Ukraine battle – a mini proxy battle inside a battle, pitting the troops of Chechen strongman and Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov in opposition to Chechens sympathetic to the separatist actions of their homeland.

Chechens combating on Ukraine’s facet, principally as overseas volunteers, see a possibility for revenge after two bloody wars for independence that began in 1994, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and lasted till 2009 and noticed Russian forces raze the Chechen capital, Grozny, to the bottom.

On May 18, 1944, simply days after the Red Army drove Axis forces from Crimea, Crimean Tatars have been collectively rounded up by the key police and deported, accused of Nazi collaboration. Even Crimean Tatars within the Red Army and people with the standing of “Heroes of the Soviet Union” weren’t spared.

Families have been thrown into sealed, airless cattle wagons and exiled to distant elements of the Soviet Union, principally in Uzbekistan.

The total inhabitants of roughly 200,000 Crimean Tatars was hauled off. Thousands died on the arduous journey, and lots of 1000’s extra from malnutrition and illness on the collective farms and prison-like labour camps they have been despatched to.

Isa Akaev At A Suburb In Kyiv
Isa Akaev grew up in Uzbekistan in an exiled Crimean Tatar household [Micah Reddy/Al Jazeera]

‘Soviet collar’

The household of Isa Akaev, a commander of a volunteer unit serving in Ukraine, was amongst these despatched from Crimea to a collective farm 100km (62 miles) from Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

Akaev, 57, stocky, bearded and pious, is a father to 13 youngsters and a father determine to a bigger group of fighters. During a break from his duties within the capital Kyiv, he recollects first studying concerning the deportations within the 1970s in Uzbekistan the place he grew up.

He was about 10 years previous, and an ardent member of the Young Pioneers – the Soviet reply to the Scout motion that groomed youngsters for a future within the Communist Party.

He had visited his homeland of Crimea to attend a Pioneer camp, and at a cultural show-and-tell mentioned to his instructor that he would deliver one thing to characterize his Crimean Tatar heritage, solely to be advised that there was no such factor.

When Akaev returned to Uzbekistan, confused, he went to his mom, who although upset advised him to disregard the incident. Among many expelled households, communal exile was a long-suppressed secret. Some most well-liked to not unearth previous traumas. Others didn’t need to draw consideration to themselves by retelling an unsanctioned historical past.

But Akaev’s grandmother, maybe extra defiant and weary of self-censorship in her later years, advised him the complete story.

She as soon as pointed to the purple Pioneer scarf he proudly wore round his neck and known as it a “Soviet collar”. He by no means wore it in entrance of her once more.

“She often spoke of Crimea,” says Akaev of his grandmother, “about its beauty, its nature, and about its seaside,” lengthy beloved by the Russian elite as a setting for his or her luxurious dachas.

While post-Maidan Ukraine has recognised the deportations as genocide, Russia has been reluctant to let Crimean Tatars keep in mind their historical past as they select. On May 18, 2014, 1000’s in Crimea defied a ban to attend rallies to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportations amid a heavy police presence.

Fight to return home

In February 2014, as Russia was getting ready to annex Crimea, Akaev, who ran a enterprise promoting steel roofing, needed to type a militia to combat the Russian occupation.

Ill-prepared, the Ukrainian military gave up the peninsula almost with none combat. Many commanders have been nowhere to be discovered or sided with Russia, just like the second in control of the Ukrainian navy.

Akeav says he tried to enchantment to native Crimean leaders to help an armed resistance however says these efforts received nowhere. Before lengthy, he realised he was being adopted by what he believed have been Russian brokers.

He determined to flee to mainland Ukraine, setting off from the Crimean capital of Simferopol in a dramatic escape. ​​

“I bought a ticket from Simferopol and boarded the train in Dzhankoy, the next stop after Simferopol,” he says. “I went to the fitting room in a nearby store, changed my clothes, my colleague put on my clothes, and those who were watching followed him, he got into my car. I came out of the fitting room in his clothes.”

For Akaev and his household, and about 30,000 Crimean Tatars who’ve fled Crimea since 2014, this can be a repeat exile.

“God says to fight those who have driven you from your homes. For me, this is the motivation to fight Russia … We have to return to Crimea, and we will return.”

Shortly after leaving Crimea, Akaev helped arrange a small squad with Muslim fighters to combat alongside the Ukrainian armed forces in Donbas.

‘Ukraine is a country fighting not only for its independence but for the ideas of freedom and democracy in general,’ Akaev says [Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

Crimea squad

At the start of Russia’s invasion in 2022, Akaev launched a video wherein he’s surrounded by masked, armed comrades. He urges Muslims to not combat for Russia on this battle, warning those that do this “there is a lot of land in Ukraine, and there will be enough space to bury everyone.”

His detachment, known as Crimea, was about 15 fighters robust in the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, and now has about 50 principally Muslim Crimean Tatar combatants. Akaev says they largely do reconnaissance work, scout newly liberated areas for remaining Russian troopers and different threats, and function checkpoints.

As Russian forces started withdrawing from round Kyiv in late March, his males have been among the many first to enter the village of Motyzhyn, the place they got here throughout the grizzly scene of probably battle crimes – a mass grave with our bodies of civilians allegedly tortured and executed by Russian troops who had served in Syria. The head of the village council, who had stayed to coordinate the defence of the world, was amongst these killed, alongside her husband and son.

“Our guys in the reconnaissance discovered this as they were walking in the woods, searching for Russians left behind, and one of the fighters noticed that a hand was sticking out of the ground,” Akaev says. As he cleared the grime together with his foot he noticed the physique. “And then they found the corpses of other people.”

Said Ismagilov, 43, lives about 40km (25 miles) away in one other place that has grow to be synonymous with Russian atrocities – Bucha. He moved there from war-torn Donbas in 2014, after his hometown of Donetsk was taken over by pro-Russian separatists.

The day after Russian troops pulled out of the Kyiv area, Ismagilov returned to his condo, which had been totally wrecked by occupying troopers.

For 13 years, Ismagilov was one of the vital influential Muslim leaders in Ukraine – the Mufti of the Ukrainian “umma” for the nation’s neighborhood of Sunni Muslims. Around the time his time period led to March, Ismagilov turned in his non secular robes and turban for a set of standard-issue navy fatigues. In an image taken within the first weeks of the battle, the bespectacled former Mufti sits smiling amongst comrades in camouflage, a yellow band wrapped round his proper arm figuring out him as a member of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Force.

Ismagilov has been within the thick of the battle within the Donbas, driving a truck transporting medics and evacuating the wounded.

“I am of more use to my country doing this than if I were closing my eyes in quiet prayer somewhere far removed from the conflict zone,” he tells Al Jazeera by telephone talking near town of Lysychansk earlier than it was taken by Russia.

He has appealed to Muslims the world over to denounce Putin’s “unjust war of aggression” in a web-based video. “Support Ukraine, support with funds, support with information, support militarily,” he mentioned.

Ismail Ramazanov In Kyiv
Ismail Ramazanov’s combat in opposition to Russia started in 2014 when his homeland of Crimea was annexed [Micah Reddy/Al Jazeera]

Repression has touched all Crimean Tatar households

Like Akaev, Ismail Ramazanov’s combat in opposition to Russia started after it annexed Crimea.

“I left my small homeland to protect my big homeland. I know that without a free Ukraine, there will be no free Crimea,” the 36-year-old tells Al Jazeera.

Ramazanov sits together with his good friend, Anna Eismont, an activist, at a café in downtown Kyiv, and speaks over conventional Crimean Tatar pastries and tea.

He recounts how as an activist and citizen journalist he drew consideration to the plight of political prisoners in Crimea. He recorded arrests and harassment of activists by Russian authorities, organised flash mobs and different protests, and picked up bail cash for arrested dissidents. As an act of defiance, he and different activists usually collected fines in cash and handed them over in plastic baggage or buckets to frustrate officers.

But he additionally drew the eye of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and ended up in jail for his political actions. In January 2018, within the early hours of the morning, Ramazanov was dragged from his household home by FSB brokers, blindfolded, bundled right into a white van, and brought away. He was badly crushed earlier than his pretrial listening to the following day and imprisoned for six months whereas awaiting trial.

Ramazanov says FSB brokers tried to border him by putting pistol cartridges and “extremist” literature in his home, and he confronted prices of “incitement to enmity or hatred” underneath legal guidelines used to goal unbiased voices.

Russian authorities crack down on critics by branding them as “extremists” and “terrorists” in accordance with human rights organisations.

According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of many oldest rights organisations working in Ukraine, such ways are a typical response to criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Since annexation, tales of abduction have grow to be commonplace. Entire households have been harassed and intimidated to silence people. As of May 2022, there have been 123 documented Crimean political prisoners – 98 of them Crimean Tatars, in accordance with the rights group Crimea SOS.

“There is no Crimean Tatar family that Russian repression has not touched,” says Ramazanov.

A modest change within the regulation allowed his attorneys to finally get the case in opposition to him withdrawn a yr after his arrest and he left for the mainland.

When the full-scale battle broke out, Ramazanov joined a volunteer unit of the Territorial Defence Force safeguarding and patrolling the Kyiv area. “I’m part of a much larger effort now,” he says.

Anna Eismont, 26, has been sourcing items and elevating funds for Ukrainian troops [Micah Reddy/Al Jazeera]

Sourcing drones for the troops

Eismont has additionally joined the battle effort. The shy-but-determined 26-year-old has been working behind the scenes as an activist sourcing items and elevating funds.

She has been an activist ever since she joined the Maidan revolution at 18.

Working independently and thru Ukraine-based assist organisation Anomaly, she has been actively procuring medical provides, automobiles, meals, drones, thermal imaging units and different gear for troops, which she personally types and checks.

“I sent first aid kits to soldiers in Chernihiv, and when I saw the photos of them with the kit, I felt like there was a part of me there with them,” she says with delight.

During the Maidan revolution, Eismont, like so lots of her friends, was wanting to play her half in altering the course of Ukrainian historical past. An in depth Muslim good friend she met through the revolution, who later died combating within the battle in Donbas, performed an outsized position in her path since, and, her conversion final yr to Islam.

During the peak of violence in Maidan, her good friend despatched her removed from the sq. to gather one thing. She later realised he had needed to maintain her away from hazard.

Although she spent a lot of her childhood in Crimea, it was solely after annexation that she grew to become immersed in Crimean Tatar tradition by activism to help Crimean Tatar households.

“I helped several families from Crimea to move and adapt to life in Kyiv,” she says.

In 2019, she stepped up her efforts to assist Crimean Tatar households along with Anomaly’s crew of overseas volunteers – what she calls “a kind of international volunteer battalion”. They taught English programs for Crimean Tatars and their households, troopers, volunteers and common folks, she says. Alongside this, “it was brick by brick, and I gradually came to understand that I wanted to convert,” she says.

It was by one such course that she met Ramazanov, who was a scholar, and a powerful bond between the 2 was cast by activism and volunteer work.

Eismont and Ramazanov’s social media posts present frequent appeals for donations and a gradual stream of navy provides being despatched to the entrance, with Ramazanov usually making the deliveries.

Their focus recently has been on supplying drones, which play a key reconnaissance position on a battlefield. So far, Anna has despatched drones to battalions in Kherson, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhia, Izyum, and earlier, round Mariupol.

The returnees

In Crimea, generations of Russian imperial and later Soviet rule led to the Russification of the peninsula, with Russian immigrants taking up Crimean Tatar homes left empty by the deportations. Ethnic Russians are by far the biggest group, adopted by Ukrainians after which Crimean Tatars, who make up slightly greater than 10 p.c of the whole.

The reminiscences of Soviet oppression nonetheless hang-out many Crimean Tatars. After Stalin’s collective punishment, oppression underneath Putin is only a new chapter in a historical past of persecution.

For youthful Crimean Tatars who have been born after repatriation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the intergenerational wounds nonetheless really feel uncooked. Deported communities like Chechens have been allowed to return earlier, however the ban on Crimean Tatars returning was not lifted till 45 years after their exile.

Ismail Kurt-Umer was born in 1991 in Crimea and grew up in Bakhchysarai, the traditional Khanate capital, as Crimean Tatar households have been making their historic journeys home.

For many returnees, the journey again was solely the start of a really difficult adjustment. Foreigners of their homeland, Crimean Tatars’ marginalisation mixed with engrained falsehoods about historic betrayal meant households have been unwelcome and struggled to search out houses and jobs.

“Other Crimeans could be very hostile to us returnees, and many seemed to believe the propaganda all those years later, seeing us as traitors,” says Kurt-Umer.

Kurt-Umer was born within the yr of Ukraine’s independence at a time when society was opening up and difficult previous prejudices. Unlike so most of the older technology, he grew up listening to tales of the hardships of exile.

His grandfather was a adorned soldier within the Red Army and fought throughout a lot of the second world battle, however was given simply three days to depart Crimea after he returned. The Soviet Union, completely content material to attract fighters from amongst these it had condemned as traitors, despatched Kurt-Umer’s father to combat within the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

In 2014 Kurt-Umer joined Ukraine’s military, however as a classically skilled singer within the navy ensemble.

“Looking back,” Kurt-Umer says, “I think something in me wanted to be part of the armed forces because of the annexation. Everyone has a duty now, and I may not carry a gun but I contribute in a different way.”

Ismail Kurt-Umer At A Cafe In Kyiv
Ismail Kurt-Umer says his position as a singer within the navy ensemble is constructing morale [Micah Reddy/Al Jazeera]

Singing for Crimea and Ukraine

Like Eismont, Kurt-Umer is a part of the technology who got here of age through the Maidan revolution and Ukraine’s pivot away from Russia. For a number of years, he would sing at occasions commemorating the months-long rebellion, performing the Ukrainian conventional track, Plyve Kacha, a couple of mom and her son who’s departing for battle, as a requiem.

Since Russia’s invasion, Kurt-Umer has been touring and performing with the band and recording music movies. He sees his position as a part of a nationwide effort to construct morale and instil a way of Ukrainianness in folks’s hearts.

On a sunny spring morning in May, Kurt-Umer sat in a café in downtown Kyiv. The chestnut timber have been in bloom, and the streets have been filling up once more.

In sharp distinction to his daring stage persona, Kurt-Umer is pensive, almost shy. In a video from earlier this yr, Kurt-Umer sings a militaristic model of the Salawat on the head of his military band, his echoey muezzin’s voice set in opposition to the heavy beat of drums.

Kurt-Umer has been launched as a Crimean Tatar at performances and has been moved by the reception he and the ensemble have obtained on excursions of the nation – right here was the military of an overwhelmingly Christian nation foregrounding its Islamic and Crimean Tatar heritage.

Insignia On The Khadzali'S Jacket
Insignia on Khadzali’s jacket identifies him as a volunteer imam chaplain. The writing above reads ‘imam chaplain’, and under is ‘Ukraine’ [Micah Reddy/Al Jazeera]

A battle for freedom

For lots of Ukraine’s Muslims, the nation’s non secular tolerance and move in direction of extra open, democratic politics additionally lies behind their help.

“Ukraine is a country fighting not only for its independence but for the ideas of freedom and democracy in general,” Akaev says.

Crimean Tatars and others who’ve been on the sharp finish of Russian imperialism say they know what’s at stake on this battle.

Ukraine is way from excellent, Ismagilov says, and there may be a lot to be achieved to construct belief between completely different faiths. “But Muslims are well aware of what will happen if Russia occupies their territories,” he says. “It will be the same as in the Russian-occupied Crimea, where Muslims are disappeared and given long prison terms.”

For Khadzali and others, the battle has proven the energy of a united society. It has introduced folks collectively, says Eismont, and introduced concerning the solidarity that Crimean Tatars, having endured all “the troubles together”, already shared.

“Only together you can win and survive. This is what we Ukrainians lacked,” she says. “We as a nation realised this with the beginning of the full-scale war. When trouble came to every home, the war became painful for every Ukrainian – and we are united now.”


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