Across this ancient Crimean town of 25,000, surrounded by apple orchards and shadowed by graceful minarets, there are few signs of the tension that grips its Muslim Tatar inhabitants. But inside their rebuilt houses, cafes and mosques, every Tatar has a chilling story to share as they face likely annexation to the country whose rulers once drove them into exile.

A housewife tells of men who came in the night last week and scratched a cross on her front gate. A shopkeeper describes an official who took his Ukrainian passport and said he would get a Russian one after Sunday’s referendum on Crimean annexation. A Muslim cleric says worshipers are taking turns guarding their mosque from dusk to dawn.

“No one is sleeping through the night,” said Musa Naziz, the young imam at the 300-year-old Taktali Jami mosque, built by his Turkic ancestors and left in ruins many times since. “The Russian authorities say they will respect us, but how can we believe them? The land in our area is full of their troops, just waiting. If they come for us, this time we won’t leave. We will fight back.”

Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, with its historical ties to Russia and its 60 percent Russian-speaking population, is an easy target for annexation. Moscow’s greatest worry is the estimated 300,000 Crimean Tatars who began resettling here in the 1980s and are passionately opposed to rejoining the power that persecuted them from czarist to communist times.

Many people in Crimea — a multi­ethnic region of about 2 million people — are not happy about the prospect of annexation, but only Tatar leaders have announced a formal boycott of the referendum. In the Crimean capital, Simferopol, there is little organized opposition to the Russian-backed referendum juggernaut — posters, banners, loudspeaker trucks blaring patriotic Russian songs, and one-sided TV coverage by Moscow-based and pro-Russian Crimean stations.

Several opposition rallies have been held in the capital, drawing enthusiastic crowds waving Ukrainian flags, but they have been mostly grass-roots events with no high-profile leaders. The growing presence of Russian Cossack troops, uniformed militiamen and local vigilante squads in the region has served as mute but powerful intimidation.

“This is like a nightmare we don’t know how to wake up from,” said Richslov Boltunov, a politician visiting Simferopol from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where weeks of bloody protests brought down Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian government just a few weeks ago. “It was such an incredible victory, but here everyone is scared. You can’t see a Ukrainian symbol anywhere,” Boltunov said. “People know the referendum will be falsified and the Russian troops will come. We can’t give up Crimea. We have to do something, but what?”

Enduring opposition

The Tatar minority, a long-
suffering but unified group, is most likely to bear the brunt of pro-Russian sentiment being whipped up by Moscow. Its leaders have repeatedly called on followers to boycott the vote, while cautioning them to avoid violent confrontation, in hopes that world pressure and diplomacy will resolve the crisis.

With Kiev-based channels blocked in Crimea, the Tatar-owned television station in the region has played an important role in covering the situation. The station airs professional reportage, panel discussions and clever ads that feature Russian citizens living in Crimea who hold up their passports and plead with Moscow, “Please don’t come and save us.”

“We are against the referendum, we ask people not to participate in it, and we call for a solution through consultations with the international community,” Refat Chubarov, chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or supreme council, said this week. To proceed with the referendum when Crimea is occupied by troops, he said, “will lead to a deep and prolonged crisis.”

Russian officials and their lieutenants in Crimea have revived old charges against the Tatars that resonate sharply with local ethnic Russians: After World War II, dictator Joseph Stalin accused the Tatars of Nazi sympathies and forced them into exile across Central Asia. Moscow is now hurling this allegation against Tatars and ethnic Ukrainian groups that backed the recent uprising in Kiev, labeling Ukraine’s new leaders a “fascist junta.”

Tatar leaders vehemently deny such historical characterizations, but they hold a more dangerous present-day trump card that Russia is reluctant to test — the presence of radical Muslim elements within their community. If Moscow proceeds with an annexation of Crimea, Tatar leaders insist that they may not be able to keep these radical forces under control.

“We have Islamists, Wahhabis, Salafists and others who fought in Syria” with local rebel fighters, Jemilev Mustafa, 70, a veteran leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement and member of Ukraine’s parliament, warned this week before heading to Moscow for talks with Russian leaders. “We can’t stop people who want to die with honor.”

This jihadist impulse, experts warn, could easily take on a life of its own, provoking ethnic and religious violence in a region where ethnic Russians, Tatars and others have been living peacefully for years.

In a blog post Friday, Victor Ostapchuk, an expert on Crimean history at the University of Toronto, urged Moscow and the world not to ignore the plight of the Tatar minority or its potential to ignite a broader religious war. “The Tatar voice desperately needs to be heard,” he wrote, “both as a matter of justice and as a matter of prudence, to avoid a new grievance in the Muslim world.”

A long-suffering lot

The specter of Islamist violence seems difficult to square with the serene atmosphere of this historic tourist town, where ducks wander across roads, cats sleep on stoops, and residents of all ethnicities say that they get along fine with their neighbors. In contrast, many express concerns about the pro-
Russian forces that have taken over two nearby military bases, with armed troops inside and civilian vigilantes guarding the gates.

Tatar residents interviewed this week described their years of forced, hardscrabble exile in Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, their return to their ancestral homeland over the past two decades, and the work it had taken to rebuild the homes, mosques, shops and orchards that their families had been forced to abandon in the 1940s.

“I am so sorry my house is poor. We are still rebuilding,” said Talat Apastanik, 55, a railroad administrator who returned from Uzbekistan in 1991 with his wife and three daughters. Their hillside house lacks an indoor bathroom and has a tiny yard full of animal pens, but the living room is warmly decorated, with a piano, a lace-covered table and a china tea service. “This is our ancestral home, and we will never leave it again,” he vowed.

On the other side of town, Ava Mametova, 44, sat fretting in the spacious kitchen of her new pink house — one of a half-dozen Tatar dwellings that were marked with crosses one recent night.

Her husband, a commercial flower grower, has no confidence that the local police will protect them, so he and their two adult sons have helped form a neighborhood watch and patrol the streets every night.

Among younger Tatars, who have grown up alongside ethnic Russians, the unaccustomed sense of fear has spread swiftly. On a winding street overlooking a Tatar history museum, a row of pretty cafes and a refurbished zoo, two sisters in jeans hovered on their doorstep. An orange van drove by, playing amplified songs about the Russian motherland. They watched it in silence.

“We have no idea what is going on or what will happen to us,” said one sister, 28, who gave her name as Lenora. “Will the Russians cut off our gas and light? Will their troops come and crush us?”

She said her mother is Tatar and her father is of Russian descent. “There are so many friendships and mixed marriages here. We just want to avoid bloodshed, but this is the land of our ancestors, and we have no place to go. If they try to deport us again, better they should kill us here.”