Odessa's Muslims Fear Violence as Ukraine Falls Apart

“Ukraine for the Ukrainians” — it’s the phrase that scares Youness, a Moroccan student at Odessa's National Medical University.

He's one of an estimated 30,000 Muslims in Ukraine's third largest city, where pro- and anti-Russian standoffs are reaching boiling point.

Odessa is a port city of some 1 million people. Like Crimea, which lies barely 50 miles across the Black Sea, it is a largely Russian-speaking city.

But only a third of its residents are ethnic Russians, meaning that a referendum of the sort that led to Crimea's annexation would not have the same result.

Watch all of VICE News' dispatches, Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine here.

That hasn't stopped thousands from taking to the streets in protest, either at the neo-Nazis who some feel have hijacked Kiev's interim government, or at Russian attempts to swallow Ukraine.

On Friday, at least 31 people died when a building they were in was set on fire during violent clashes between pro-unity and pro-Russia protesters.

This past week, the city's “Anti-Maidan” movement declared the establishment of the Odessa People's Republic. Roadblocks and barricades have already sprung up on the outskirts of town.

Bashar is a local of Syrian descent, who sells halal meat at Severny Market on one of those outskirts.

He said that teenagers are joining the anti-Maidan protests and roaming about, looking for trouble.

"They're a bunch of kids from 16 to 19 who are wearing helmets and carrying baseball bats. They are eager to play war and take part in fights with pro-Russians," he said. "They're not talking shit about Arabic people leaving. At least not for now. But I think if Russia comes here they certainly will. We don't want nothing like that here. We don't want Russia here. All the nationalists should calm down."

The Right Sector, Ukraine's ultra-nationalist paramilitary group, is also active in Odessa. Local cossacks unearthed an arms depot owned by members of the Right Sector containing Molotov cocktails and other munitions.

Supporters of Kiev have declared "full combat alert" in Odessa, warning of an "attack on the city."

Odessa's Connection to Islam

Odessa has a deep connection with Islam.

From 1529 until the late 18th century, when it was conquered by Russia's Catherine the Great, the city was a Turkish fortress called Kocibey. Its Muslim population flourished — as did its Jews, who before the Holocaust made up almost 40 percent of the population.

Until the early 20th century, a Tatar mosque and Muslim cemetery sat in the center of Odessa. But under Soviet rule, the mosque was razed and its Mullah shot. In fact, the Al-Salam Mosque isn't a mosque at all: local leaders refused it a minaret fearing reprisals from local Orthodox Christians. Three quarters of Odessans belong to an Orthodox faith.

The Al-Salam Mosque and Arabian Cultural Center, a grand, whitewashed block built by Syrian millionaire Adnan Kivnan, is Odessa's only current monument to Islam. Officials there, speaking under condition of anonymity, admit that they are monitoring the situation in Crimea with great concern.

Like Crimea, Odessa's Muslim population is mostly comprised of ethnic Tatars. About 200,000 of them were deported from the region to Central Asia in 1944 on Stalin's orders, as punishment for alleged Nazi collaboration. Over half died during the journey.

On April 22, Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Muslim Tatar community, was banned by Russia from returning to Crimea until 2019.

Is Odessa the Next Crimea?

There would be huge benefits to Russia should Odessa be federalized. The city was once the Soviet Union's biggest shipping hub, and still handles up to 40 million tons of cargo each year (Europe's largest, Rotterdam, processes ten times that).

It is also home to Ukraine's largest oil and gas terminal, and would join up Russia's new Black Sea coast all the way to Moldova, which some suggest may be next on Vladimir Putin's wish list.

"We were expecting the Russians to take Crimea. Soon Ukraine will be cut in half, it's only a matter of time. Crimea, Odessa," Fyodor, a Moldovan bus operator from Odessa, told VICE News.

But Fatma, a Syrian who also sells meat at the market said she would welcome Russian rule.

"Russia is a friend," she said. "They helped my country not to be completely destroyed by the US and NATO."

Mustafa Iliasov, a local Tatar, believes that there would be more religious harmony in a federalized Odessa than under the "racist" Kiev regime.

"In general there are over 60 nationalities living here," Iliasov said. "I don't think that will change much even if Russia gets here. Muslims live in peace in Russia. There are whole regions populated by Muslims and I don't hear anyone complaining about it."

Whichever side they take, Odessans are gearing for conflict and the city's Muslims may be in for a tougher time than most.