The grandparents of Rustem Emirsaliev dreamed of seeing Crimea one more time, before they died. His grandparents made it, many others did not. Decades later, Emirsaliev has the same dream: back to Crimea, the peninsula in southern Ukraine annexed by Russia.
Emirsalijev sighs deeply as he retrieves the dramatic history of the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group traditionally at home in Crimea. His soft voice is drowned out by the cheerful sounds from the dining room of his restaurant near Kievan‘s Maidan Square.
Emirsalijev had a restaurant in Crimea, in Bachtshisaraj. He had to leave that behind. After the Russian annexation in 2014, misery began, he says. “The new rulers oppressed us. We were checked over and over again. Then suddenly we weren’t allowed to sell anything. Then again, there was no restaurant allowed to be on our floor. They didn‘t let us work.”
In the video, you can see what makes Crimean Tatar cuisine special – and why the restaurateur is still hopeful for a return to Crimea:
The restaurant owner was able to escape to Kiev in time, but many other Crimean Tatars are less fortunate. “People disappear and are found brutally murdered. The Crimean Tatars are suffering badly. Either they die, or they get long prison sentences.”
Like his grandparents, Emirsaliev is now living in exile. With the difference that he left himself and his grandparents were deported by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. On May 18, 1944, all 200,000 Crimean Tatars were loaded into cattle wagons and transported to Uzbekistan, 2500 kilometers to the east. Half died along the way.
The Ukrainian entry for the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest was about the deportations. The song was called 1944, singer Jamala won with it.
Emirsalijev’s grandmother was pregnant with Roestem‘s mother when she was on her way to the Uzbek steppes. “They lived there in barracks, without floors. That was really tough,” he says. There, too, many died.
From 1967 onwards, the Crimean Tatars returned to Crimea slowly. But many still did not get permission. Russian President Yeltsin finally lifted all blockages in the 90s.
“So you have the same dream as your grandparents?” , I ask Emirsaliev. “Yes,” he says. “But in my case, it’s a lot more realistic than in the case of my grandparents.”
Zelensky wants to oust Russians
The restaurant owner has already put his hopes on President Zelensky. He does not want a hasty truce, just to put an end to the war quickly. If he has enough weapons from the West, he wants to drive out the Russian military from all over Donbas, and eventually liberate Crimea as well.
But that will take a lot of sacrifices, many Ukrainian lives, I explain to him. Emirsalijev then dives behind the flap of black baseball cap with New York inscription. “I don‘t know that. I’m not a military expert.”