Ali Khadzali stands among the blown-out buildings of his hometown, Kharkiv, about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Ukraine’s border with Russia.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February, Khadzali has worked with a team of six volunteers to provide humanitarian assistance and evacuate people from areas hit hard by the fighting.
Khadzali, a warm, 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 back from the city, but intense shelling has reduced much of the northern suburbs to debris.
The distant rumble of artillery still reverberates through this now empty neighbourhood. Nearby, a large playground with colourful swings and seesaws is strangely intact, framed by high-rise buildings blackened and scarred by weeks of bombardment.
Khadzali was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, to a Ukrainian mother and a Syrian father. He would regularly visit Syria until war broke out there in 2011. In 2015, Russia’s intervention in Syria’s now 11-year-old civil war tipped the scales in favour of the Assad regime.
“Both of my homelands, Ukraine and Syria, were invaded by Russians,” Khadzali says.
Joining the war effort
In 2015, Khadzali became a chaplain – an imam offering spiritual services within a military context.
The previous year, the Maidan revolution saw Ukrainians take to the streets to protest against the pro-Russian government of President Victor Yanukovych. His forces responded with a brutal crackdown that killed more than 100 protesters and injured thousands. Yanukovych was overthrown and soon after, Russian-backed separatists took up arms in the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, beginning an eight-year war and precursor to Russia’s invasion in February 2022.
Spurred on by his “Islamic brothers” to take on the new role, Khadzali had wanted to find a way to help his country and felt that he could best do that by supporting the small number of Muslim troops scattered in 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 provision of halal foods, and offered religious instruction, psychological support, and guidance about human rights to troops. “Simply talking with troops,” he says, has been a crucial part of his duty. “That may even be the most important thing.”
He still carries out these duties, but today his role is even higher stakes – he often spends his time helping people in dangerous 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 only about 1 percent of the predominantly Christian country of 44 million people, many have joined the war effort following Russia’s invasion. Many are driven by a history of Russian injustices against Muslim communities and support for what is seen as an open and tolerant Ukraine.
The majority of Ukraine’s Muslim population are Crimean Tatars, Sunni Muslims of Turkic origin. For those who fight, it is also a fight to return to their homeland, Crimea – a peninsula of steppe land jutting out into the Black Sea and buttressed by mountains in the south – annexed by Russia in 2014.
Crimean Tatars: tortured recent past
Islam has a long and important history in Ukraine not only as a religion brought by itinerant traders and missionaries and sustained by pockets of minority communities but as the basis of statecraft. As the religion 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 recent past. During the second world war, Stalin tolerated no threat, real or perceived, and deported entire populations deemed to have collaborated with the Nazis to other regions within the vastness of the Soviet empire.
Among those targeted were the Muslim populations of Chechnya and Ingushetia – today both Russian republics in the northern Caucasus – who were forcibly removed from their homelands in 1944.
Today, Chechen soldiers fight on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict – a mini proxy war within a war, pitting the troops of Chechen strongman and Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov against Chechens sympathetic to the separatist movements of their homeland.
Chechens fighting on Ukraine’s side, mostly as foreign volunteers, see an opportunity for revenge after two bloody wars for independence that started in 1994, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and lasted until 2009 and saw Russian forces raze the Chechen capital, Grozny, to the ground.
On May 18, 1944, just days after the Red Army drove Axis forces from Crimea, Crimean Tatars were collectively rounded up by the secret police and deported, accused of Nazi collaboration. Even Crimean Tatars in the Red Army and those with the status of “Heroes of the Soviet Union” were not spared.
Families were thrown into sealed, airless cattle wagons and exiled to remote parts of the Soviet Union, mostly in Uzbekistan.
The entire population of roughly 200,000 Crimean Tatars was hauled off. Thousands died on the arduous journey, and many thousands more from malnutrition and disease on the collective farms and prison-like labour camps they were sent to.
The family of Isa Akaev, a commander of a volunteer unit serving in Ukraine, was among those sent from Crimea to a collective farm 100km (62 miles) from Samarkand in Uzbekistan.
Akaev, 57, stocky, bearded and pious, is a father to 13 children and a father figure to a larger group of fighters. During a break from his duties in the capital Kyiv, he recalls first learning about the deportations in the 1970s in Uzbekistan where he grew up.
He was about 10 years old, and an ardent member of the Young Pioneers – the Soviet answer to the Scout movement that groomed children for a future in the Communist Party.
He had visited his homeland of Crimea to attend a Pioneer camp, and at a cultural show-and-tell said to his teacher that he would bring something to represent his Crimean Tatar heritage, only to be told that there was no such thing.
When Akaev returned to Uzbekistan, confused, he went to his mother, who though upset told him to ignore the incident. Among many expelled families, communal exile was a long-suppressed secret. Some preferred not to unearth old traumas. Others did not want to draw attention to themselves by retelling an unsanctioned history.
But Akaev’s grandmother, perhaps more defiant and weary of self-censorship in her later years, told him the full story.
She once pointed to the red Pioneer scarf he proudly wore around his neck and called it a “Soviet collar”. He never wore it in front of her again.
“She often spoke of Crimea,” says Akaev of his grandmother, “about its beauty, its nature, and about its seaside,” long beloved by the Russian elite as a setting for their luxury dachas.
While post-Maidan Ukraine has recognised the deportations as genocide, Russia has been reluctant to let Crimean Tatars remember their history as they choose. On May 18, 2014, thousands 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 preparing to annex Crimea, Akaev, who ran a business selling metal roofing, wanted to form a militia to fight the Russian occupation.
Ill-prepared, the Ukrainian army gave up the peninsula almost without any fight. Many commanders were nowhere to be found or sided with Russia, like the second in command of the Ukrainian navy.
Akeav says he tried to appeal to local Crimean leaders to support an armed resistance but says those efforts got nowhere. Before long, he realised he was being followed by what he believed were Russian agents.
He decided 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.”