A man holds a sign reading 'Illegal referendum' (L) and women hold a Ukrainian national flag as members of the Crimean Tatar community take part in a demonstration rally in front of a Ukrainian military base in the town of Bakhchisarai, some 40km south of Simferopol, on March 14, 2014, two days before a referendum in Crimea over its bid to break away from Ukraine and join Russia. (VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, Crimeans will vote in a referendum about whether to join the Russian Federation, or remain part of Ukraine. Almost no one imagines that the result will favor Kiev over Moscow. The question is whether that is, in fact, what Crimeans want: With the peninsula occupied by violent pro-Russian forces and regular Russian military forces massed just over the border, people in Sevastopol and Simferopol say there’s only one safe choice.

“They are beating people up who are for Ukraine,” said Natasha, a member of Simferopol’s Jewish community, who agreed to give only her first name when we spoke via Skype this week. “Russia came in against the law. They scared everyone, came in with arms and in tanks, and took over the stations. Now, all you hear on the radio is from Russian stations saying, ‘Everything is normal.’”

But everything is decidedly not normal. In Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based, the streets are now patrolled by anti-Ukrainian Drushina—self-protection—units. “The government buildings, they are all full of soldiers, completely armed,” a Jewish resident named Nadja, who also asked that her last name not be used, told me when we spoke. “They are guarding it for Russia.”

On Wednesday, a government worker in Simferopol said her office was stormed by gunmen who wore camouflage and identified themselves as members of a Drushina unit. One threatened to shoot through her office door if she didn’t open it, and hit her with his machine gun as he herded her into a room where she and her colleagues were kept for an hour. “They were really aggressive,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “They told me not to come back. I don’t know what is going to be.” She wants to leave Simferopol, but she says she has no money to leave, and nowhere to go. I asked if she was pro-Ukraine or pro-Russia. “I am pro- no one,” she said. “I am really scared.” She said she will not vote in the upcoming referendum.

In Moscow, Jewish leaders are preparing for a possible exodus from the Crimea if the situation deteriorates further after Sunday’s vote. “After Sunday, we are ready for them,” said Rabbi Boruch Gorin, a Lubavitch rabbi and spokesman for the Russian Federation of Jewish Communities. On Friday, as Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Paris that Moscow continues to have irreconcilable “differences” of opinion about the situation, Gorin declined to comment on how Moscow was handling the crisis. “It is one of the rare moments that we are sure that we, and all Jewish leaders, have to keep silent about the political part of the issue and concentrate much more on the humanitarian part,” he told me. “The question is so complicated, so sophisticated. Now, every word can be used not for good. That’s why from the side of responsibility, Jewish leaders don’t have to intervene.”

In the meantime, Gorin’s Crimean colleague Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Lipszyc has already fled Simferopol with his wife, Leah. The city’s Reform rabbi, Misha Kapustin, is leaving with his family on Sunday. “We don’t feel safe and comfortable to stay in the occupied Crimea,” Kapustin explained via email. He was too busy packing to speak.

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