By Climent Zampa ,AFP
SIMFEROPOL — Under mounting pressure from Moscow, a defiant group of pro-Ukrainian activists, journalists and minority representatives in Crimea continue to protest the annexation of the peninsula by Russia.
“We know very well that we are being watched,” said Anna Shaidurova of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, an anti-Moscow news website based in the Crimean capital of Simferopol.
“It’s become dangerous to work here,” said her colleague, Natalia Kokorina. “But we are independent and our priority is to tell the truth.” The truth for this 25-year-old, a Ukrainian flag on her desk, is that “Crimea has submitted to an occupation. We are not afraid to say it.” The journalists never speak about work on the phone, on which a “strange echo” can sometimes be heard.
The pressure started in early March when they began to receive threats from pro-Russian militants. Since the peninsula’s annexation, the website has been effectively “blacklisted” with its accreditation at the Crimean parliament withdrawn.
Despite the current appetite in the Kremlin for media control, Shaidurova tries to reassure herself: “We are the last opposition site. If they close us, that will be a step too far.” In a hall of the Majlis, the parliament of the minority Crimean Tatar community, the talk is equally defiant. “The Crimean government is criminal, illegal in Ukraine and they operate against international laws,” said Abdurahman Eguiz, who was elected to the Majlis last year, representing a pro-Western fringe in the community. “I am one of those who says the Tatars should not take part in this puppet government,” he said.
As a sign of resistance, he has refused to speak Russian in government buildings. He speaks only Ukrainian, he says, “because this is Ukraine.” There has been no pressure from the new Russian authorities “for now,” he says, because Russia “has something to prove to the world.” But he is certain that the threats will come “once all this is under control.”
Such symbolic efforts have done little to arrest the rapid changes occurring all around them.
This week, the authorities began replacing Ukrainian street signs with Russian ones.
For some, resistance comes in the form of helping those who want to flee.
Ruslan Zuyev, a local pastor, has found himself moonlighting as a professional house mover in the past few weeks.
He says he has helped at least 200 people pack up their homes and move, most of them Ukrainian soldiers who have felt forced into leaving the peninsula since Russian forces took over their military bases.
In a glacial early morning cold, Zuyev is helping a colonel and his family leave their home in a Simferopol suburb and has just finished a 10th journey up seven flights of stairs.
“Kiev is doing nothing for them, they have no money, no help to leave,” he said breathlessly. He says he is motivated by “love of his country,” but faces daily confrontations with pro-Russian locals. “They ask us what we are doing here and why we are helping the soldiers. Some take photos. “What we are doing is dangerous,” he added, but he shrugs it off and heads back up the stairs for another pile of boxes.