Status: non-person

By Vanora Bennett
Source: The Times
Date: January 27, 2000


Zarema and her family had three choices. Live illegally on the streets in Moscow where they and all Chechens are hated; return to Chechnya and risk being killed; or move across the border as refugees. This is their story, writes Vanora Bennett.

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Zarema is giggling and whispering in my ear, a caustic commentary on the evening's political television show. It is nearly ten o'clock on a winter's night in Moscow and both the Russian men in our harshly lit metro carriage look drunk and half-asleep. But I see her give them a watchful look.

"After the war, do you think you could ever go home to Chechnya?" I ask. It is a tactical error. At just the wrong moment, the train stops and the noise it makes stops too. The word "Chechnya" sounds suddenly loud. Both men sit up. They are not interested in me, with my fair hair and innocuous foreign accent. But they stare at Zarema, briefly aggressive, with white knuckles and narrow eyes.

Yet Zarema - pretty, witty and 29 - did not train as a secondary school teacher for nothing. Calmly, she raises one eyebrow and one finger in reproof. "Sh," she mouths, and talks about something else. The moment of tension passes. The train sets off again and the two men loll forgetfully back in their seats. "Sorry," I mutter, ashamed. She grins.

Zarema is a prime target for race rage in the Moscow metro because she is Chechen. The separatist leaders of her anarchic patch of Muslim land on Russia's southern edge were at war with Russia for nearly two years in the mid-1990s. Last autumn, Moscow's army marched back in to try to recoup its earlier losses. This has proved popular in Russia, bolstering a harsh racism which holds that all Chechens are blacks and, therefore, fierce savages. Zarema and her family of mild-mannered accountants and teachers want no truck with the wilder separatist warlords (though they have little respect, either, for the Russian Army's terrifying behaviour in Chechnya). They think of themselves as ordinary citizens of Russia and would do anything for a quiet life. But they are already living precariously, scattered over thousands of miles, as a result of the last war, and now they face a double threat: Russian guns if they go near Chechnya and naked Russian hostility if they stay away.

Zarema looks too Mediterranean for this blonde city, even though she is wrapped up in hat, scarf, boots and gloves, the all-enveloping clothing of a Russian winter. So she never goes out alone. When the members of her family who have made it to Moscow set off somewhere in a group, they take precautions. They phone ahead to say what time they are leaving and what time they expect to arrive; when they do arrive, they phone home to say they are safe. Zarema's thuggish-looking neighbours have already reported her family to the police once this winter, with the unlikely accusation that the neat Muslim women have been "pissing on the staircase". Zarema's gentle, nervous brother, Musa, who before the war was a middle manager in Grozny, the Chechen capital, has found a claustrophobic rented flat in a suburban high-rise for his family. He lives next to three sullen youths who loiter threateningly on the staircase every evening, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, beer cans in hands, half-blocking his way, spoiling for a fight. It seems only a matter of time before trouble starts.

From London, I had been following the war news and worrying about what I could do to help Zarema's big and exuberant family.

We had been friends since a moment in the first war when I came across them escaping from Grozny. They had survived a terrifying fortnight of urban battle between the fighters in green headbands, who darted between ruined houses with guns and grenade-launchers, and the deadly explosions and helicopter hunts of the Russian military. They had walked and hitched 50 miles to the Chechen border and safety. The baby niece whom Zarema was holding, born during an air raid in yet another siege 18 months earlier, was feverish and tearful; Zarema's stout, elderly mother limped. Yet Zarema herself - coolly chewing gum, in sunglasses, her mouth a slash of defiant red - was so poised as she settled the others into their plane seats that at first I thought her lacking in all normal feeling.

I was touched, as the plane came down over Moscow, to realise that I had been wrong: tears were after all trickling silently down from behind her huge lenses. Quietly, I passed her a Kleenex; equally quietly, she dabbed at her face with it. I found out later that Zarema, endearingly, still treasures her tough-kid reputation in the family. She was grateful that I had not blown her cover by commenting on the rare tears.

Later, once they had settled into her married sister Rosa's tiny Moscow flat, Zarema and I organised medical treatment for the sick baby. After that I was adopted as one of the family. The sisters in Moscow cooked up elaborate messes of garlicky pasta and chicken on the gas ring whenever I dropped by. In Chechnya I would stay with Zarema's father, a stubborn old patriarch who refused - despite the war and the kidnappings and killings that swept the region afterwards - to leave the family house that he had built with his own bony hands. Like all elderly Chechens, he had bitter memories of a boyhood destroyed when the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin deported his whole people, in cattle wagons, to the distant Central Asian steppe. All he wanted now was to live out his days in the home he came back to after 13 years in exile. His house had peach trees in the garden and a kitchen roof blown half-off by a Russian shell. Mr Khamidov and his little cat were the last living beings on his street.

Now the next war was starting. While the family tried to work out how to get their father out of Grozny, I was wondering how to get at least Zarema, who has not been able to get a job since leaving Grozny, out of Russia altogether. I thought that she could stay with my husband and me in our small house in London. She could do an English course, equipping herself for a better job at home later; she could also help to look after the baby I am expecting in the spring. "Oooh, Vanora, you thought of me?" Zarema squeaked excitedly when we first talked about it by phone, and promised to look into ways of organising the right travel documents.

It was only when I went back to Russia at Christmas (partly to show my husband the country where I had lived for seven years but which he had never seen) that I realised how naive I had been to think that it could all be sorted out so easily.

The old hatred had grown more ferocious since, in the autumn, four apartment blocks across Russia had been blown up and 300 migrant workers killed. No one had claimed responsibility but the politicians went along with a general suspicion that Chechens might be to blame. Ordinary people chewed over the popular conspiracy theory that the real culprits were their security police, former members of the KGB hoping to foment a new war that their boss, who had just become Prime Minister, could run. But whichever version of the truth they supported, almost everyone was in favour of a crackdown on Chechnya - and the bloodier the better.

Russia never became the paradise of racial, or economic, equality that its Soviet masters once proclaimed. But the old targets of popular suspicion - the religious, the Jews and the rich - have been replaced since the Soviet collapse by new scapegoats. Today the "outside enemies" are the ethnic groups whose existence threatens the new Russia's sense of unity. These days that mainly means Chechnya, and often it means individual Chechens.

It is as if the anger that Russians feel, not altogether unjustly, at Chechnya itself - for trying to break free of Russia, or for becoming a miniature rogue state peopled by kidnappers - has been refocused into a great mass rage at individual people. The popular image of the enemy is no longer the separatist fighter with his Kalashnikov and green headgear but every man, woman or child who has ever been near the place. "There is a strange revanchist attitude fuelling this war, a distorted Russian nationalism," Svetlana Gannushkina, a human rights worker and one of the few Muscovites to oppose the war, tells me. "A huge number of people believe Russia is fighting not Chechnya but the Chechens."

This hatred was making it virtually impossible for ordinary Chechens to leave Russia for abroad. Officials would not give them documents. Worse, it had even become difficult for the hundreds of thousands living in Russia - which, in theory, is their own country as much as Britain is home to people from Northern Ireland - to stay in their homes. The documents for that were being withdrawn too.

To Westerners, being without a document sounds a trifling problem. In Russia it is a calamity. The Soviet Union may be dead but much of its stifling, totalitarian bureaucracy is still in place. All citizens must still, at all times, carry an "internal passport", a booklet full of stamps and signatures which spells out every detail of their lives to any passing policeman who cares to demand a look. This intrusive document lists where they live, for whom they work, what their qualifications are and to whom they are married. Until recently it even noted their ethnic group. The internal passport is not just a record of a citizen's choices, either; citizens have to apply for permission to live in their own homes. If a bureaucrat refuses that permission, for whatever Kafkaesque reason, the citizen has to leave his home - for anyone without the right ID in Russia quickly becomes an "unperson".

In Moscow, the Chechens collectively became "unpersons" on September 13 last year when the city's squat, smiling Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, issued Order Number 1007. It said that all "incomers" - up to a million provincials and foreigners temporarily resident in the capital - must reapply for their residence permits as a precaution against terrorism. A fat dossier of references, permits and receipts had to be collected, each needing to be queued for and most needing to be paid for. Anyone who failed to run through the marathon of bureaucratic obstacles within three days would lose the right to live in Moscow.

So Zarema's plans to go abroad had been shelved while she scrabbled desperately just to avoid being sent back to the war zone. The bureaucrats to whom she was applying did not help. They phoned her landlord to ask why he was "harbouring" Chechens and to ask him to withdraw his reference (he refused). They asked her sister-in-law for a written statement explaining why she had left Chechnya. ("Because of the war, of course," she said, baffled. "Oh no," the bureaucrat answered sagely. "You can't use the word 'war'.") The more corrupt demanded bribes. The threat they used to extract money was that the Moscow police would raid houses, planting guns or narcotics as a prelude to arrest, unless the applicant coughed up. Finally, when they had run out of excuses, the police dealing with Zarema's first application had simply thrown it away. "They just told me they weren't going to register any Chechens," she says. "They told us to get out."

Zarema tried again, through another office, and did eventually get a new temporary permit. But by the time I rang her doorbell in Moscow, the flat was almost empty. Most of the others in her family had not managed to renew their papers. With nowhere else to run, they were forced to return to Grozny.

Say it out loud, this is genocide

IT FELL to Musa, the brother, to chaperone his mother, two sisters and three nieces on the risky trip back south. He is freer to travel than others in the family since his wife is ethnically Russian, and he has found it less hard to get residence papers in Moscow. He was also the only one who knew what to expect from the Chechen capital. He had been commuting between Moscow and Grozny all summer, trying to persuade their father to leave and to make a new home away from Chechnya.

Musa had taken his own wife and two children to Moscow a year before. When he returned to Grozny in May, he was appalled by the changes in the city where he had grown up. The destruction from the wartime Russian attacks he remembered - entire districts nothing but broken façades and weeds, signs on shattered houses still pleading "People Live Here", rubble and bullet-holes everywhere. The human changes shocked him more.

His middle-class friends, intellectual types who had once worked in management or administrative jobs, had vanished. The streets were virtually empty: an often-repeated statistic had it that nine out of ten people had fled, leaving fewer than than 40,000. Anyone still there spent hours every day worrying about reports of acquaintances kidnapped by gangs extorting ransoms; the night, with its soft footfalls and cracks of gunfire near by, was an unquiet time.

Those who had stayed behind, apart from the many retired Russian factory workers with no relatives outside to escape to, were youths on a mission from God. Black flags waved over some city districts. These were the flags of the Wahhabi sect, an import from Saudi Arabia which was taking a grip among the fighters. Ordinary Chechens, whose form of Islamic belief is folksy and mystical in inspiration, do not have much time for the radical, purist, legalistic Wahhabis; but young men driven to rage and hatred by the brutality of war (the 1994-96 hostilities claimed 80,000 lives, mostly Chechen) find comfort in the sect's certainties.

"It's not that there were so many full-scale fighters. I'd say there were no more than 10,000, or 15,000 at the very most, in the whole of Chechnya," Musa recalled. What was bewildering was the extent to which ordinary people in Grozny had been radicalised by the harsher Islam that has taken hold since the first war. "On my first day I got up, shaved and went to have a look round. But when I got to the centre I realised everyone was staring at me. It took me a while to realise why: because it was months since they had seen a clean-shaven chin. Every man except me had a long Islamist beard," he remembers with a wry smile.

Musa's father, however, still had no intention of getting out. To every entreaty from Musa, Mr Khamidov only replied, plaintively: "You want to leave me without a roof over my head, don't you?"

Two things eventually changed the old man's mind. One was that Chechnya's most popular warlords, the homeboy hero Shamil Basayev and his Arab friend, Khattab, signed up about 1,000 men for the summer and went over the Chechen border to tamper in the affairs of the neighbouring Muslim region, Dagestan. "People knew all summer that teenage boys were being recruited from the Wahhabi areas," Musa recalls. "Anyone could see that there would be a new war with Russia if the commanders started trouble in Dagestan. So the clan elders went to Shamil Basayev and asked him to drop his plan. But he took no notice." Respect for elders is an integral part of Chechen life. But today's separatist leaders, some Chechens complain, are so self-assured and so rich in money and weapons that they sneer at the old reverent ways that once held their society together.

Mr Khamidov, over 70 and a stickler for this particular tradition, was shocked. He was also shocked, though perhaps less surprised, when Russian planes began bombing parts of Grozny again after Shamil Basayev's military attack on Dagestan failed. "At last even he saw what all this was leading to," Musa said. "War was inevitable. The Russians weren't going to touch Shamil Basayev but the little people were going to catch it for sure. As the last great exodus began, this autumn, my father finally agreed it was time to leave Grozny forever."

THIS SCENE of panic and flight was what the women of the family, thrown out of Moscow, found when they arrived. Reunited, they stayed just long enough to plot their escape. The emergency plan that the family hatched, at speed, was to get back out of Chechnya and to buy a house somewhere not so far away that it felt foreign but not so close that they would be engulfed in the next war. They counted out their combined savings: $3,000, a cushion against the abyss. They packed the car with food, linen, cooking pots and as many of Mr Khamidov's books as they could fit around their bodies. With their father in the front seat, they set off for the western border and the safety of another Muslim region, Ingushetia.

But they were just too late to escape trouble. The new war was already starting. About 100,000 troops were pouring into northern Chechnya on what was billed as an inordinately large "anti-terrorist operation" (on the ground it looked just like war; the previous war, too, had been called a crackdown on "bandits" by Moscow). In defiance of international law on refugees, Russian troops at the border were not letting Chechens out of Chechnya. "There was a queue ten miles long with women, children, the sick, the wounded, all in their cars," Musa said. "Some people had brought food, and people came out to the cars from nearby villages with water. But in the end, after three days, the troops changed their minds and let us all out."

The family's joy at escaping was tempered by the grim scenes all about them in Ingushetia. This little region, normally home to fewer than half a million people, suddenly had an extra quarter of a million refugees. There are very few aid agencies working there, as many foreigners are scared of being kidnapped by Chechens. Russian agencies, too, are little involved. Victoria Katliff, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which at the end of 1999 had a programme to provide relief for 150,000 people, spoke of some refugees' refusal to seek aid. "There are many people who are not assimilated in the official structures but who are just families living in a field," she said. "It's a question of pride." But Musa's wife Nadya, a chubby, red-cheeked chatterbox, is scathing about humanitarian help. "Apart from black bread and tents there's nothing there," she says.

Small wonder that the family feels trapped between two tyrannies. Yet compared with many (up to 30,000 civilians still hiding in Grozny under relentless Russian bombardment, or the Chechen men between ten and 60 now being searched and detained by Russian troops if they try to leave Chechnya), the Khamidovs have been lucky.

They found a little house ("Well, it's more of a hut really," Zarema says darkly) just near Ingushetia's airport. They bought it from a pair of elderly Russian peasants anxious to sell up and retire somewhere safer. It is short of mod cons. It has two rooms upstairs, a cow barn downstairs, a wood-burning stove and no running water. Musa has gone back to Moscow but both his parents, their two elder daughters and those daughters' three daughters are now living there.

Musa worries that the Russian Army will attack Ingushetia and spread the fighting that is now contained inside Chechnya farther afield. He worries that the State will stop paying his parents' pensions, leaving them to starve. And he worries that the crime and violence that plagued Grozny might spread westward with the refugees. "I would love to get my family out to something better. But what can we do?" he says, spreading his hands. "For now it's best that they stay quietly there. Only God can foresee how the situation will develop."

Chechens, in Moscow and the south, are trying to work out contingency plans and escape routes. But these are hard to come by.

Zarema has hunted for an agency that she can pay to get her a passport for foreign travel, but to no avail. All she has unearthed are stories of women who have paid Russian men to marry them so they can re-register as ethnic Russians and get travel documents. "You pay someone enough and he'll agree all right," she says with her tough-girl swagger. "Larisa, for example, paid $2,000 two years ago for a fictitious marriage. But my friend Maretka was offered the same deal for $500." She laughs, but not happily. "It's a lottery." Despite her defiant talk, Zarema is not looking for any such shady deal. Her strict parents would be certain to veto a fictitious marriage.

Meanwhile, her sister Rosa and Rosa's husband Isa have been looking into the possibility of applying officially for passports for foreign travel - a separate document altogether from the internal passport, but also one that is only granted after immense bureaucratic exertion on the part of the applicant. They want to stay with cousins in Germany.

Without a passport for foreign travel, there is no chance that Western embassy staff will grant any Russian national a visa to travel to their country. "No point. They wouldn't get out of Russia without a travel document," says one diplomat. "They don't even get past the airport check-in without papers that Russians recognise as valid."

Yet there is no real chance of a Chechen in Moscow getting a passport to travel. The deputy head of one district passport office, Sergei Podolsky at suburban Khomovniki, says it is possible in theory for someone such as Zarema, with a temporary residence permit for Moscow, to apply for a foreign passport. But this isn't true in practice. Since September, under an interior ministry ruling that Svetlana Gannushkina of the human rights group Civic Co-operation shows me, there has been a "temporary freeze" on issuing foreign passports to Chechens.

Isa is away in Ingushetia while we are in Moscow, trying to get documentation from the friendlier bureaucrats there. But that is no good either. Gannushkina tells me that the federal foreign passport office in Ingushetia has been closed down altogether.

"None of the Chechens are being given a way out. They are just going round and round, from one circle of hell to another. In Chechnya they are being killed. In Ingushetia they are forced to live in appalling conditions. In other regions of Russia they are treated as the enemy. And they are not allowed to go abroad. This is genocide, and the word must be said out loud," Gannushkina says angrily. Surrounded by fantastical piles of books and dusty briefings, we are lunching off sausage sandwiches and tea in her Moscow flat.

"If they were allowed out, those Chechens might be in a position to tell the story of what they have lived through," she adds. "I think they are being herded back to the war zone like this because of an unvoiced wish on the part of the Russian authorities not to let any information leak out about what they are doing down there."

That night, after our metro ride, we drop Zarema off at her apartment building. It seems clear now that nothing can come of any plan to get her to England. "I will think of something," she promises. But as the lift door starts shutting on her, her smile abruptly switches off.


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