Friday, April 19, 2013

Chechen Men **Edited**



I woke up this morning to the news that one of the two Boston Marathon bombers was dead, and that his brother was on the loose.  Many of the channels on my TV are showing the coverage of the shoot-out that took place overnight, with scenes of SWAT teams fanning out on streets, yellow crime-scene tape everywhere.  People are told to stay in their houses, schools are closed, public transportation suspended.  I can’t remember anything this gripping, so terrifying in recent memory.  I’m sure people are scratching their heads, too.  Russians?  Too many people were quick to jump to the conclusion that the bombings had been carried out by Muslim Jihadists. 

Do the names “Beslan” and “Chechnya” ring a bell?  In September of 2004, this happened: 

On the opening day of school in a small town of Beslan, in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, Chechen separatists (many wearing explosive belts and underwear) seized a primary school.  Not only were there teachers and students there, but also parents escorting their kids to school for the traditional “Knowledge Day”.  Nearly 600 people were held captive in a gymnasium that had been wired for explosives.  Executions took place, including that of a newborn baby.  The prisoners were kept for four days, with no food or water.  No one is sure what happened on the fourth day, but there were explosions and a fire broke out on the gymnasium roof, causing it to collapse on the hostages below.  It is theorized that a terrorist on the roof had his foot on the “dead man’s switch” of a bomb; the Russian authorities shot him, resulting in the bomb’s detonation.  There are conflicting stories, however, and no one was sure if the inferno was caused by the Chechens or by the storming Russian military, or the combination of both.  In either case, the horrifying result was more than 380 people dead.

I could go into the history of Chechnya, but suffice it to say that in the case of Beslan, a local warlord was intent on Chechen independence from Russia, and recognition by the UN of its status.  Why anyone could think that taking innocent men, women and children hostage would accomplish these goals is beyond comprehension. Conflicts continue in the area to this day. 

The area is geographically on the fringes of the Middle East; the population is predominantly Muslim.  When you look at a map of the area, you’ll see that Turkey is just southwest across the isthmus from Chechnya.  Azerbaijan is south, and below that, Iran.  If you head east from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, you cross Daghestan to the Caspian Sea, and across that, is Kazakhstan.

The Beslan siege happened in September of 2004.  In late October of that same year, we headed to Kazakhstan to complete the adoption of our daughter, Melanie Karina.  There seemed to be a pattern forming: we had traveled to Kazakhstan in 2001 to adopt our older daughter, Lisa, right after 9-11.  We seemed to constantly travel in the shadow of international unrest. 

After we had completed the adoption process, Melanie’s dad traveled back to the US to be with his mother and father, who had moved into our house to care for our other children while we were away.  His father had had a fall, fracturing a vertebra, and David was needed at home.

Susanna, Liz and Melanie in Almaty
I remained in Almaty for the final steps of bureaucracy required to take Melanie home.  My mother had flown there to be with me, to help with the practicalities of caring for a two-year-old.  In between consulate appointments and passport photos, we shopped and visited museums, trying to absorb as much of my daughters’ native country as we could.

We were driven to a local museum, which also housed a merchant who sold rugs; exquisite Kazakh, Persian and Indian rugs.  I wrote this entry on my blog at the time:

(Vitalik was the driver assigned to us.  He was a quiet, but imposing man: over six feet tall and nothing but muscle, with a military haircut.  He told us later that he had formerly been on President Nazerbaev’s security detail.  As a parting gift to us, he presented us with a military officers' hat that he had worn while in the service).

“Today we woke up to rain. For having been here nearly 34 days, we have had only a day or two of inclement weather. It's actually kind of pretty, with the yellow fall leaves everywhere, and the shiny slick streets. Okay, the traffic jams kind of take away from the picturesque flora, but hey, you can't have everything, can you? This morning we were up at the dawn of crack ... Melanie had an early wake-up call, so I think I have committed the first parental taboo: I took her into my bed to go back to sleep. Will she ever sleep in her crib again?! I was semi-comatose when she woke up (had already been roused once by the barking dogs) so I was on auto-pilot. I have no idea what time it was, but it was near to o'dark thirty, and she did go back to sleep. The phone woke me up at 7:30; Charlotte calling.

Susanna and Mel, Almaty
"Then it was up for the day!
 Dilnoza from the (adoption agency) office called, and we had to be there at 11:00 to fill out some paperwork for the US Embassy on Friday. Vitallik drove us there; and then once again, we went to the Ramstore (the local department/grocery store). It's becoming our second home. Vitallik apparently has some kind of discount card that he uses every time. I haven't figured out how much it is.  We then paid a visit to the apartment of "Silk Road Sasha" who has started a little business of Kazakh rugs, dream quilts and paintings on silk fabric.

"After that we set out to a rug dealer. Everyone who has ever spent time in Kazakhstan knows about the great deals you can get on Oriental rugs ... from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and many of the other "stans". We pulled up to the museum of art, where a very nice young guy named Azamat had a store. It was a small shop, and Azamat enthusiastically pulled out rug after rug. So many to choose from! Where do you begin? There were some made of wool, some of camel hair, some of llama. There were rich dark burgundies and greens, rusts and oranges. 



Fruit vendors, Almaty
"While we were looking, a motley group of scary-looking men walked in, bearded and wearing Muslim 'caps', felt shoes and long coats. They started asking questions of Azamat, not waiting for us to finish. I figured, well we're just women, to heck with us ... After looking at some rugs, they walked out. A moment later they walked back in. One of them asked Azamat, in Russian, where these women were from. (I can understand Russian a heckofalot better than I speak it!) Being the cheerful friendly sort I am, I answered 'Amerikanska' but mom said, 'Canada!'  Behind the Muslim man I could see Vitallik motioning to me not to talk, and making the shush signal.  Frightened, I didn't say any more ... and the men walked out yet again.  Vatillik, speaking  in a low and serious voice, said, 'Chechen Men!' Chechen men?  The ones that blow up schools with small children in them?  Yikes almighty. And I just told them we were Americans! Good grief, can't I shut up once in a while? Last I heard Americans were not on the Chechen's 'friendly' list. We could see them milling around outside the shop, and I was scared to leave.


"We finally made our selections and haggled with Azamat. While we were talking, the men started to come in the shop again, and Azamat gruffly told them to wait outside. I was scared to death about leaving the money with Azamat, wondering if the Chechens were going to rob him or something. There was a policewoman sitting at a table in the lobby of the museum, which made me feel a little better. I hoped they weren't lying in wait by our car ... but much to our relief, when we left to leave, they were nowhere in sight.
  [I nevertheless felt that their eyes were somehow on us.  Thankfully we were insignificant people, not worth bothering with.] 

"You read about these things on the news ... about the school in Beslan, the planes going down in Russia; as horrific as those incidents were, they may as well have been on Pluto to us suburban US housewives. Granted, these guys were probably just tourists in Kazakhstan to buy rugs, I don't mean to make hasty generalizations and jump to conclusions. However, when you're up close and personal with Chechens, and reality hits a couple of feet away from you, your blood tends to run just a little cold. And the fact that Vitallik and Azamat were on their guard about them makes me realize that there is an element of "prejudice" against Chechens in Kazakhstan. 

So now we're home, having a quiet afternoon on a rainy afternoon. Melanie is down for a nap, and I'm right behind her. I'm washing a few clothes, and otherwise practicing my domestic talents. I am very ready to be home; to sleep in my own bed, hug my other children, and introduce them to their new sister! This has been a long and difficult trip, but I wouldn't have traded it for anything.”

Many people today woke up to learn that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers were from Chechnya.  I’m sure this was unexpected; people probably haven't even thought of Chechnya in a decade.  So often in this day and age, it is easy to think of the usual suspects: Al Qaeda. Granted, historically there has been a connection between the Chechen rebels and Al Qaeda.  However, we need to try to control ourselves from jumping to any conclusions about associations. Evil is evil, regardless of any religious affiliation.  We need to keep our mental paintbrushes clean, and not try to paint anyone into a judgmental box.  

There are no words to describe the cold sick feeling in my heart.  For an optimist who believes in the inherent goodness of humanity, it is a crushing blow to see that evil keeps rearing its disgusting head.  

1 comment:

Elizabeth Evans said...

There is a lot of misguided prejudice in my thoughts from 2004. The Chechens' beef was with Russia, not the United States, so I really had nothing to fear on that level. The only other issue was our money; Americans are known to travel with gobs of cash. Or they could have just been interested in us. Either way, their behavior was unsettling, and I followed our drivers' actions by shutting up; he knew best.