Enver Umerov, 49, member of the Mejlis and an elected member of the city council. Living side by side and good relations have brought 25 years of peaceful coexistence. But currently he is worried about recent external provocation. / Filip Warwick for USA TODAY
BAKHCHISARAY, Ukraine - Soon after darkness falls, about a dozen men gather around a community hall on the outskirts of this small city known for its stunning bluffs and grandiose Ottoman-era architecture.
The men chew sunflower seeds and smoke nervously, watching for suspicious vehicles amid the tension that's overtaken Ukraine's Crimea region since it was overrun a week ago by pro-Russia forces.
"We spend sleepless nights so our children can rest," explains Ernest Bekirov, 48, an ethnic Tatar and member of a night watch group that formed last week after Russian forces began occupying the town.
Tatars are a predominately Muslim people who trace their lineage back to Turkic and Mongol tribes. There are millions spread out in eastern Russia and Ukraine.
The Tatars once ruled Crimea and their armies and those of the Mongols even sacked Moscow in the 14th and 15th centuries. They fell under Russian domination in 1783 when Crimea was taken from the Turks by Catherine the Great.
They were never treated well under Russia, and even worse under the Communist Soviet Union. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported 200,000 Tatars to the east, mostly Siberia, in 1944 after claiming falsely that they collaborated with the Nazi invasion of World War II.
Half of them died during or after the journey from disease, thirst and hunger. The Tatars returned to Crimea shortly before the Soviet Union fell in 1991, their homes and cultural presence long gone.
Though ethnic Russians are now the majority in Crimea, Ukrainians and Tatars make up a third of its population.
"Relations have been good for the past 25 years - we've had a peaceful co-existence," said 49-year-old Enver Umerov, an ethnic Tatar who was born in Soviet Uzbekistan but returned with his family and was elected to the local city council.
"We've learned how to get along. But currently we are worried about provocations from outside."
The "outside" is Russia, which has sent thousands of troops to seize military bases across Crimea, including this town's Ukrainian military barracks. The Russian soldiers don't wear insignias or show identification, and wear knit ski masks even though the days are warm.
Heavily armed pro-Russia Crimeans have joined in and surrounded small Ukraine bases of soldiers.
"All the people living in Crimea understand that these are soldiers from the Russian Federation," Umerov said. "These uninvited guests with automatic rifles have thrown a tea party on our territory."
Russia's quiet occupation of Crimea's autonomous region enjoys support from many ethnic Russians who appear to accept the Kremlin's explanation that its forces are here to provide stability after an uprising in Kiev replaced the government.
Ethnic Russians here worry when they see television images of protesters and they chafe under past tensions stoked by Ukrainian nationalists who demand that Ukrainian language and culture take precedence over Russian concerns.
But ethnic Tatars, whose political leadership supported the protester-led "Maidan" movement in Kiev, named for the central square where it originated, say pro-Russian activists here are ginning up a threat from Kiev. And they are suspicious of Moscow's intentions.
Ruslan, a 37-year-old who asked that his full name not be used out of fear of retribution, said the trouble here is being manufactured by Russia and spread by its Crimean loyalists.
"This is a new problem - we didn't have this problem a few days ago," he said. "All this - it's coming from Russia. They have come and brought their war here."
Tatars here say there are shadowy henchmen acting on the orders from Moscow prowling about and they may launch violent attacks to prompt ethnic conflict to give Russian President Vladimir Putin justification to intervene further.
"The people of different nationalities who live here would never do such a thing, it could only come from elsewhere," said Ahtem Chiygoz, the leader of Bakhchisaray's traditional Tatar council which liaises between the Tatar community and authorities.
"We are expecting, according to Putin's plan, people appearing to be Crimean Tatars attacking ethnic Russian families - or just the opposite."
Crimea's Tatars oppose separating from Ukraine, said Sulaymanov Mukhamed Ali, a business consultant in Simferopol.
"My personal mission is to keep my people from doing anything violent," Ali said.
Tatars have connections all over the world, including Muslim nations where extremists and radicals have fought insurgencies during the recent decades, and radicals will flood into the Crimea if fighting starts, he said. He compared Crimea with a keg of gun powder "and someone is standing beside it playing with a lighter."
"We are a proud people. We are a bold people, but we don't want any war and are doing everything in our power to prevent it," he said. "But we are men of honor."
The men who have taken over the Crimean government have offered Tatars benefits and guarantees, but "fate has decided we are citizens of Ukraine," he said. "We don't want to raise a generation that would call us traitors who sold out for a sack of potatoes."
On the street, Chiygoz stands with other men this night and monitors the comings and goings of unknown vehicles. Bakhchisaray is a city of about 33,000, an ancient Tatar capital where tourists flock in summer to see its grand Ottoman-era mosques and palaces.
Tatars are still less than a quarter of the population here.
"The main goal of the patrols is not to let any group of provocateurs burst into the homes of families - cause bloodshed - and we'll prevent this, unarmed, with our fists if we have to," Chiygoz said.
There is little chance the Tatars can repel a Russian invasion, though. Standing in the glow of headlights from a car idling nearby, Bekirov says the Tatars can try.
"We know our efforts are small but we Tatars have a proverb," Bekirov said. "Drop by drop one makes a big lake."
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Read the original story: Tatars of Crimea say they stand with Ukraine