Aluminium Queen - Part 3
Date: April 7, 2002
How much longer can this strange state of "neither peace nor war" last?
If our people and the Russian government are going to go on squabbling like they have done so far, we simple mortals will go on suffering. Those fat, bald men sitting in their ministerial and presidential offices are full of complexes and making heaps of money on the war and all they know of the actual bombing is what they see on the TV screen. It's a war about money, we all know that. Even our Chechen bigwigs are mixed up in it. During the first war I still supported our men because most of them really went to the front with some romantic notions about freedom and independence. Now I don't believe either side. They sacrificed us, the ordinary people, to line their own pockets or they went around shooting like street urchins and playing at real war. Let them die if they like but they have no right to force people like me to do heroic deeds. I don't want to be a hero. I want to die of influenza in an old age instead of copping a bullet in my head now.
Did this long drawn-out war have an effect on the morals, ideals and traditions of the Chechens?
We're quickly turning into a backward and uneducated nation, without the chance of any progress and most importantly, without any joy or sense of humour. I'm uneducated too. But not long ago I found a book in the ruins about how Stalin sent all of us, the Chechens and Ingushes, into exile in 1944. It's interesting how, even though it was the end of World War II, we Caucasians were very well off. We were a fairly developed society and our standard of living was quite high compared with the Russia of those days. If the Russians hadn't launched some dreadful campaign against us every 50 years, wiping out part of the nation, we'd have been a second Switzerland by now.
In 1944, all Chechens were cruelly deported. They lost all their property and some of them were carted off in railway trucks to Kazakhstan just in their underwear. In spite of that you soon became the dominant minority in the Kazakh steppes and had a better living standard than the native population, sometimes even at their expense...
We really do have some special ability to survive in almost any situation. We also manage to cope better than those who theoretically have more opportunities. It is said that a Chechen can build a house from a single stone. I think that the main thing is our community spirit. If a Chechen meets another Chechen anywhere in the world they will help each other as if they were brothers from the same family. Apparently that is what it was like in Kazakhstan. When the Chechen were allowed to return home in 1957, they were left empty-handed once more. They found none of their former property, of course. Russians had made themselves at home in our houses. Even though we started again from scratch, before long we reached far better living standards than them. The Russians here used to do the dirty jobs and often they were literally our servants, and we proudly started to build enormous houses. They always used to live in grubby little dwellings with dirty backyards or in tiny flats with smelly bathrooms. Although they regard us as an inferior people, we build castles. I find it strange too.
It seems as if someone was always cutting the ground from under the Chechens' feet and yet they overcome every obstacle and have resisted all oppression. Aren't these actually excuses in a way? Don't you bear some of the blame for the recent conflicts with the Russians?
I wouldn't say it was our fault we were resettled. And it wasn't us who unleashed the last war either. First Stalin repressed us and in the end it was Yeltsin. Our ancestors used to say that the Chechens would face some catastrophe every fifty years. Now that gap is getting even narrower. After the first war that ended in 1996 we were starting to find our ground again. Lots of people had repaired their houses or flats. And then we got another knock-out blow. They didn't give us fifty years to get over it but struck again three years later. So it doesn't look like we're fated to become a Switzerland.
Have you ever been to Switzerland?
No, and I never will get to see Europe. But I've read a lot about it in the recent period. When we were refugees in Dagestan I had plenty of free time. I read every book on the bookshelves there. I found out a lot of things about the world and about ourselves too.
Is it a blessing or a curse to be born a Chechen?
I'm naturally proud. But nowadays it can actually be a curse to have Chechen nationality marked in your passport. Just try to travel from Dagestan to Grozny with Chechen documents. At every Russian checkpoint - and there are scores of them on the road - they look in your passport. If it says you're Russian or even Chukchi you'll pass with no problem. But if you're a Chechen you can expect humiliation, insults and rough treatment. They say it's the same in Moscow and all over Russia. Why doesn't a Chechen have the same rights as a Russian if they all claim we live in a single state?
Do you bear a grudge against anyone in particular for what has happened to you and your family? Is there some person to blame, or is it an unhappy conjunction of circumstances and accidents?
There is definitely someone responsible for it all. I don't expect it's one person, but there are various groups. Definitely people in the upper circles are to blame, in Moscow, in Grozny and around the world. Because everyone recklessly continues to trade with Russia and gives her millions in loans even though they know many crimes have been committed. I would never visit my neighbour if I knew she beat her children.
Would you like to leave Chechnya for good and settle abroad somewhere?
It would never have come into my head before but now it occurs to me more and more often. I expect by now I wouldn't give a damn if I didn't live in Chechnya but thousands of kilometres from here. The main thing is that there should be no war there. Lots of rich Chechens have left for Germany, Holland or elsewhere. I envy them.
And what about homesickness?
I expect I'd be homesick. But I'd get over it if I knew my children were safe. I'd take any dirty jobs as long as I received regular salary and the children could attend a decent school. So I knew they'd come home healthy, that no one would pick up my husband without reason and shut him up in a concentration camp, so I could walk on the street after dusk. That is what I call freedom.
You're not free here?
Is a snared animal free? My only wish every evening is that I should live to see the morning. All night, grenades and bullets fly over my head. Then in the morning I wish with all my might that I might stay alive until the evening. When I know I can live through every night in peace I will feel free. This is no life - it's a dog's life.
But after all, the main military operations in Grozny are over. Do you still feel your life is directly at risk?
Yes. I sense danger at every step. I expect I'm nervy by now too. But I know this war hasn't by far finished yet.
The remaining guerrilla units are supposed to be paralysed and some of them have fled abroad. The population is tired and so are the troops...
Even if they agreed in Moscow that this was enough for now, people here wouldn't forgive them just like that. Many men have gone missing; they are unburied and unavenged. You Europeans mustn't forget that the law of the blood feud applies in the Caucasus. According to tradition, every man who lost someone in the war should become an avenger and go on seeking the culprit of his relative's death and kill him. Vengeance is also inherited by his children. In this way vengeance becomes an unending process. Of course if one of your relatives dies in an air raid it is hard to distinguish which pilot dropped the bomb. And to take vengeance on the entire air force is a nonsense. So you spend your life repressing the hatred within yourself.
So the constant bomb attacks on Russian military convoys and checkpoints can also be revenge for lost relatives?
Yes. And sometimes the Russians do it to each other. Either they get drunk or someone makes a mistake. The only way to put an end to it is for the troops to leave.
Do you feel like taking revenge on someone?
Yes. Not a long ago my son and I survived an explosion. In October 2000, we were creeping through some bombed flats on a look-out for scrap. From experience I know that something usually survives under the cooking stove. The stove is heavy and even when it is ruined and burnt out it protects the things under it, such as baking sheets, baking tins, etc. We went into the kitchen of the flat. It was in ruins but the cooking stove still stood in its place. I could see something reminding cake tins under it. Then all of a sudden my son yelled: "Mum, there's a hand grenade lying there." First of all I didn't take any notice since I was so pleased with my discovery. And anyway I don't know anything about weapons. And the boy shouted: "If you touch it, we'll blow up!" I was terrified but I wanted to pull out those cake tins quickly and run. I bumped into the hand-grenade, of course. It was primed to go off. All you needed to do was touch it; someone had prepared it very cunningly. It was a nasty little green perisher. As soon as I touched it there was a strange sound. A sort of click. My son roared: "It's going off! Run!" In the corner of my eye I could see him running away. I just managed to leap out and throw myself down behind a half-ruined wall. Then all I remember is a terrible explosion and black smoke. Then silence. I couldn't hear anything. I expect it deafened me for a moment. Before I could collect my wits, a Russian helicopter came flying our way. It occurred to me that it would now start to fire at us. At that moment I would have happily cut the head off to the person who placed that grenade there.
But you escaped, otherwise we wouldn't be talking together now. At that moment did you think more about yourself or your son?
I don't know. It wasn't clear either way. Of course a mother also fears for her own life, not just her child's. But I remember precisely the sense of relief I felt when I saw my child running away. I knew he stood a chance of surviving. And at that very moment I started to think about myself. Something similar had already happened to me during the first war in 1995. I was in a bus going along Lenin Avenue and a Russian APC suddenly appeared near the school No. 18. I can still remember its registration number - 650. I almost lost my son that time too. It drove into us and crushed half of the bus even though it could have easily avoid it - the street was completely empty. It deliberately rammed us. The moment it happened, two things occurred to me at the same instant. To put my arms around my son and protect him with my body or to put my head down between my knees and protect myself. At the end I grabbed my son and held his head in my lap. Nothing happened to us.
You keep saying "Russians" and "Russia" and not in a very friendly way. Do you hate the Russian army and the Russians as a nation?
I hate the people who came here to kill us. And most of them are of Russian nationality. Even though there are plenty of normal guys among them who are even sorry for us. Sometimes I am amazed at the way Russian soldiers behave towards me. Not long ago one of them came and helped me with the hand cart when I was unable to drag it across a bomb crater. I know lots of Russians who lived with us in Chechnya before the war and have still stayed here. Many of them are my friends. But I regard a Russian in a uniform as first and foremost an enemy, a beast with a human face. No one else would be capable of arming himself to the teeth and attacking people who don't even have a penknife in their pockets. Our people are frightened to carry even a can-opener in their pockets in case they get in trouble for that. So we're totally unarmed.
But the partisans aren't unarmed.
So let them fight them. But they take it out on us because they still can't catch them.
Do you believe in God?
Yes. All my children have sacred names. We chose them according to the holy scriptures. We all believe in God.
Why did he send down on you such misery and suffering if, as you say, you did nothing very terrible apart from a few minor sins?
God doesn't want to force people to take the right way. There are many people with dark souls, who do evil. We suffer on account of those people, not because of God.
So God does not have the power or will to save you and punish those with dark souls?
We cannot say that God doesn't have enough power, because his power is immeasurable. He simply made the world that way. He created people of every kind. He made free people and they have to pay for that freedom somehow, such as by not all being ideal. God doesn't want to interfere in everything. He probably says: "Well, you foolish people, you'd better sort it out among yourselves." He knows that one bad sheep will spoil a whole flock. The same applies to the human race. A couple of individuals can make life hell for others. God knows this, but he doesn't want to control us like robots. He gave us reason so we could decide for ourselves and deal with the bad individuals. When we don't manage to, we have to suffer.
So you don't find it unjust that for the past ten years you have lived in poverty and fear just because God created people with dark souls?
It seems terribly unjust to me but I don't blame it on God. After all, you can't be angry with your mother because your brother is a stinker. You have to sort it out with your brother, not with your mother. It is not God but we and we alone who are to blame for our misfortunes. Maybe I also failed to do something I could have done to prevent myself and my children from suffering like this. God is now making it plain to us that we oughtn't to be indifferent to others' misfortunes, that we must be meek and not cruel.
Has the war helped people realise this? Are they meeker now? Has violence turned wolves into lambs?
On the contrary. Something terrible has happened to people. Even my friends have changed. I expect I have changed too. We're not like we were before the war.
What are you like?
We think about ourselves and no one else. Me too. The main thing for me is that nothing should happen to me or my children. When something bad happens to my neighbour I don't turn a hair. Maybe somewhere deep inside me I might even rejoice. That the grenade fell into his window, because if it hadn't been him it might have been me. Besides that, a neighbour's misfortune could mean that we might be able to retrieve something from his bombed home. This is animal-like thinking. Your neighbour dies and without shedding a single tear you start to wonder whether he left behind the blanket he was still keeping himself warm with the previous day.
And doesn't Allah punish you for that sort of selfishness?
I fight it. In spite of all our misfortunes I tell myself that Allah loves me. Because he sent me this flat of our friend, because we found a couple of blankets and mattresses and none of my children have died. They have not even been wounded. I've always told myself that worse than my child dying would be if her or she lost an arm or leg through shrapnel and remained a cripple. God has spared me that. Allah is good.