Thirteen years spent in a reservation
By Tamara Chagayeva
Sixty-three years ago, in February, the Chechen people suffered a tragedy that only began to be talked about half a century later. The wholesale deportation of people according to their ethnic origin, later categorized as genocide, inflicted an irreparable loss on many later generations. Yet exactly fifty years later, Chechens had to endure all the horrors of genocide for a second time - during two wars that were among the cruellest and bloodiest in the history of mankind.
That is how those events are remembered by eyewitnesses of the tragedy who experienced them in the early years of their youth. Throughout the whole of their lives they have carried this pain, not daring to share it with even their closest family members born after the deportation. And no one knows how to explain this long silence – whether it was caused by a fear of traumatising their families with such tragic stories, or by a fear of the authorities, who always tried to keep those dark pages of history out of view.
The following are the recollections of Nura Tsutiyeva, one of the witnesses of the deportation, who currently lives in New York. If you find her story interesting, you can read the recollections of two more witnesses, Satsita Magomadova from Shatoy and Adiz Astalov from Sayasan, in the next issue of our Russian-language magazine for Chechens, Chechen Society Today, which will be published shortly (see http://journal.watchdog.cz). All of these people are approximately the same age – the deportation took place in the early years of their youth.
Nura Tsutiyeva's recollections (recorded by Tamara Chagayeva):
February 1944 came. I remember that at the very beginning of the month the weather turned clear and sunny – the snow melted everywhere, the roads and paths dried out. All the able-bodied men were now being called up to work on repairing the road that led through our village of Starye Atagi into the mountain districts. In those days it was mostly the women and children who stayed at home. At this time, the rumour of a forthcoming deportation passed through our village. People often talked about the subject, but hardly anyone believed such a thing was possible.
On February 23rd 1944, on a clear and sunny morning, I was going to the school to give the children their lessons. As I walked, I heard a sharp knocking at a window in one of the houses – some anxious women were making signs to me, asking me to come inside for a moment. They were distant relatives of ours.
When I entered the house, they kept interrupting one another as they began to tell me conflicting stories about an impending deportation. Someone had apparently managed to warn them in advance.
I remember saying to them: - ‘Don’t worry, after all, they can’t just arrest everyone and send them away. Perhaps there are people who are suspected of something... What have you got to do with it?’
At that moment three military men walked in. From their shoulder stripes I could see that two of them were senior in rank, and one was a soldier. One of the senior officers said straight off, without looking at anyone, in a peremptory tone: ‘Get ready quickly! You can take the most essential clothes, and also some things from your beds. Tie up your belongings in a bundle. The trucks will be here soon, and they must be loaded at once. You’re being deported – there’s an official decree.’
When she grasped the sense of what had been said, the mother and her two daughters who were younger than me, and also her teenage son (the head of the family had died several years ago) began to sob loudly. I tried to reassure them, offered them my help and started to gather things in a bundle. When the women had calmed down a little, I told the servicemen:
‘I need to go home. I don’t live here.’
The most senior one shouted:
‘No one is going anywhere!’
After a few moments I made another attempt to explain the situation to them calmly:
‘I was on my way to the school to give the children their lessons. These are their exercise books. I have a mother at home, a younger sister, a niece – the daughter of my brother, who was killed at the front. We have all our documents.’
A little later the most senior officer ordered the private to escort me to the house. There were a very large number of soldiers on the street. Walking in at the front door of our house, and trying to remain calm, I said to my mother:
‘It looks as though they really are going to deport everyone. Mother, don’t worry. Your daughters are grown-up now, we’re healthy and educated. We won’t come to any harm.’
Just then an officer aged about fifty entered our house, and introduced himself as a captain. He was wearing a black leather raincoat. First he asked if there were any men in the house. I began to explain that our father had died long ago, and our brother had been killed at the front. He sat down on a chair, took a large sheet of paper from his field bag and read out a Decree of the Presidium the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, according to which the entire Chechen people was to be deported. After that he proceeded to examine our documents – our dead brother’s letters, his photographs, and then transferred his gaze to his daughter.
‘I think we’re going to sort you out, and you’re coming back to the motherland,’ he said, and fell silent.
In her bewilderment, mother reached now for one thing and then for another, went into the kitchen and back into the living room again. And did so several times. Noticing her confusion, the captain advised her:
‘Gather up your best clothes, take some bed-linen, and food for about ten days.’
No one could have got that much food together in those difficult days of wartime. We made a bundle of a few maize flat-cakes, a little cheese, some onions, and maize flour. The captain showed us where to take the things, and left the room. Mother lost heart completely. She looked and listened apathetically, as though she were completely disconnected from life.
In the afternoon the weather began to change abruptly: the sky was overcast with grey clouds and it was much colder outside. Everywhere there was the lowing of unfed cattle and the barking of anxious dogs. It seemed that nature itself was protesting against the unprecedented crime that was being committed.
We carried our bundles to the place that had been indicated, and then went back to the room: there it was warmer, though the stove had not been lit in the house since morning. We made do with a small suitcase which contained clothes, and above all our documents and photographs, including our brother’s letters from the front and from hospital.
I was unable to stay at home. I felt restless. When I went outside, I heard loud weeping from the direction of the neighbours. Women were crying in the yard of my cousin’s house. I quickly went over to them saw a short lieutenant who was frightening the mother and daughter with his violent shouting.
‘Why are you shouting like that? Can’t you see that they don’t understand you? They don’t know Russian!’
I tried to speak quietly, because I didn’t know what to expect from him. I didn’t listen to him, as I felt a deep hatred for him and his like. Today he was a ‘hero’ because he could exercise his power with impunity, and because there were no men-folk, not only in their house, but also in the entire district – all the men had been taken away again, allegedly to repair the mountain road. I tried to calm the women down, explained what was required of them, helped them to take their belongings to where ours were.
The trucks that were to take us to the train had been delayed. Now we learned from our neighbours that the soldiers were refusing to let them take essential items with them, confiscating the women’s gold jewellery and their family heirlooms, whether it was the chest band for a dress, the belt of a national costume or anything else of any value.
In the afternoon a whole crowd of people with rucksacks marched through the centre of the village. We who were being deported guessed that these people were going to move into our homes, and would take possession of all it had taken us an entire lifetime to acquire. I very much wanted to know why such a fate had been prepared for us, what guilt had been incurred by a whole people which was being torn away from its rightful place in the coldest month of year, and being sent off in conditions of penal servitude to some unknown destination. And all this was taking place at the very time Soviet troops were moving triumphantly to the Western borders of the Soviet Union. A people weary with all the difficulties of war, the endless losses, the very grave material situation, was waiting, just as all people were, for the end of the war, the return home of fathers, husbands, brothers, sons. And now this people itself was being sent into the unknown.
It was getting on for evening when the open freight trucks entered the village. The first to be lifted into the trucks were the young children and old folk, and then the rest of the people began to climb into the rear of the vehicles. We were driven to the railway station, where the wagons of a goods train stood. As we got down from the truck near the wagon in which we were to travel, large flakes of snow began to fall. There was a sense of intolerable sadness.
My sister and I decided to leave mother with our niece not far from the wagon, and we put the suitcase beside her, planning to take it onto the train later. Somehow we had to find a place in the wagon: we realized that on a goods train there couldn’t be any seats in the usual sense of the word, but we had to find a corner for our family. Where mother was, soldiers were constantly running to and fro, checking the proceedings. Meanwhile mother held the little girl in her arms, anxiously observing what was going on around her. When at last we managed to find a place in the wagon, I ran off to fetch the suitcase and mother and our niece. The suitcase was gone: taking advantage of a woman’s bewilderment and the fact that she was attending to a small child, the soldiers had carried our suitcase off. And we had thought that here, next to the soldiers, it would be safer...
We had lost the clothes, the photographs, and our brother’s letters from the front.
There were a hundred and twenty people in our wagon. The train stood at the station all night, until six in the morning. When dawn arrived, light began to penetrate the two tiny windows. People began to investigate their belongings. When they heard about the lost suitcase, they were worried. The men who were acting as leaders told everyone to untie their bundles in order to make sure there wasn’t a pilferer among the wagon’s inmates. Everyone was very sympathetic to us about what had happened. We were finally convinced that the suitcase had been stolen by soldiers.
The doors were tightly closed from the outside, and only the soldiers escorting us could open them. On the first day of our journey, when the sun began to go behind the horizon, the train stopped somewhere in the steppe. We were allowed to get out for one hour. When we emerged from the wagon, we could hardly recognize one another – everyone was black with coal dust (these wagons were normally used to carry coal). We managed to wash ourselves somehow in melted snow, but we didn’t look any better – it was no simple matter to wipe the coal dust off one’s face.
As we travelled on, two or three people were allowed out of the wagon once a day to fetch drinking water for everyone. Once a day we were permitted to get out of the wagon. Stops of this kind lasted about an hour. An armed guard was immediately established around the train. Of course, at every opportunity people asked the question that was most important to them: ‘Where are we being taken?’, to which the soldiers invariably replied that they didn’t know anything.
People in the wagons began to fall ill, and a few days later we learned that old people who had been overwhelmed by the journey had begun to die. They were buried right there, in the steppe, close to the wagons. When we had been travelling for more than two weeks, the train sometimes stopped on the outskirts of a village somewhere. We would hear the medical workers shouting from outside:
‘Are there any sick people?’
They didn’t come into the wagons, of course: there, beyond the wagon’s cramped and stuffy interior, lay another world, and hardly anyone from that world dared to step on to ‘our’ territory. By now there were sick people in many of the wagons. But who will abandon a family member in the knowledge that one may never see them again, that there will no chance of giving them a funeral or even knowing where they are buried? So the sick relatives were kept on board the train, and later they were joined... by the dead... I knew that in the next wagon a woman was carrying her first child, a three-month-old baby boy, in a suitcase. The little one died of hypothermia.
A week before we arrived at our destination, our mother fell very seriously ill. She lay in the corner of the wagon with a high temperature, exhausted by the endless, incredibly difficult journey, by all the misfortunes that had fallen to our lot, and by that uncertainty of what awaited us in this alien land. We all understood that she was worried not for her own life, but for us, her children and granddaughter.
On the second day of her illness, mother was unable to speak. I looked at her and was unable to help her. I couldn’t even hand her a mug of hot water, to thaw some of the arctic cold from her insides. I went down to the other end of the wagon, wiped away my tears and returned again, hiding my reddened eyes. I was the eldest child, and that meant I was responsible for the others. But what could I do in that confined space? All the women had very long hair, yet we were in conditions where it was not even possible to wash it. It may be imagined what happened to human beings in the course of a journey that lasted an entire month.
At last, at 11am on March 22, we were allowed to detrain at the city of Leninogorsk in the East Kazakhstan Oblast. It was real snowy winter, with frost of Siberian proportions. This was a sight to behold: deportees exhausted by the journey, hardly able to move their feet, carrying their sick family members outside. A bed-like contraption was set up right there on the snow, and the sick people were placed on it with great care. The sick and dying lay outside almost every wagon of the long train. The soldiers who had been escorting us made a leisurely count of the deportees, then gave the lists to the officials from the city commandant’s office. We all crowded around mother, trying to warm her with our bodies and protect her from the piercing cold.
I remember three Russian women coming up to us and saying:
‘Tell us, girl: why have you been deported?’
‘We don’t know why we’ve been deported,’ were the very first words I was able to get out through my frozen lips.
The compassion in the eyes of these women and their sympathetic gaze had an effect: with those women I shared the thoughts that had tormented me throughout the journey. What crimes could justify the deportation of an entire people - not just individuals, and not even individual families, but an entire people! At a time of vicious war, when soldiers were needed at the front, when this long train could have served to bring victory over the enemy closer, and these people, uprooted from their native villages, could have been used to good purpose at the front. And at a time when many of our men-folk were fighting bravely there – some of them had been killed and remained on the battlefields. One example was the only son of my mother, who at that moment lay on wretched rags in the snow of Kazakhstan.
‘We’ve also been deported, as kulaks. Many of our people have perished in prisons and camps or died of illness. We’ve been living here ever since. Believe us, we greatly sympathize with you.’ Muffling themselves up in their simple clothing, the women wiped away their tears.
The new arrivals’ first concern, which affected solely the deportees, was to find beds for the sick people at the local hospital. With great difficulty we succeeded in getting mother taken there. All around there were people waiting to be admitted. Apparently another train had arrived before our one. Typhoid had broken out among the deportees. Many hospitals were given the status of isolation centres. There was a shocking lack of beds. I remember how, trying to control my sobs, I attempted to persuade the head physician of the hospital to admit mother. The doctor was walking quickly from another building on a hurried visit to the hospital. I remember him saying curtly as he passed:
‘You can’t come in here!’
I didn’t immediately realize that I was holding onto his white coat, jumping ahead of him and explaining that we had no one left except mother. I felt I was surrounded by a thick mist, and that there was no way out. And all of a sudden I clearly heard the words:
‘Bring her mother inside!’
All my life I have remembered that doctor with the deepest gratitude: at the most difficult moment he didn’t leave mother under the open sky.
I helped to bring her into the bathroom, to bathe her, to put on her hospital clothes, and then together with the nurses carried her up to the second floor. As soon as we got her into bed I calmed down. She was still very weak. Sitting down beside her, I pretended that we were all fine, and that all she needed to do was get better.
For a day and a night we were put in a cold, empty building that had a cement floor. We later learned that it housed a military factory which had been evacuated from Moscow. We were shivering with cold, we were hungry, and our new dwelling did nothing at all to make us feel that we had in any way escaped from the difficult journey that had lasted a whole month.
The next day, all of us, tired and exhausted, were sent to the bathhouse. Many people were falling ill. The stress we had endured throughout the month was evidently taking its toll. I also felt the effect of this. Our warm clothes, which had been taken away to be disinfected, turned out to be completely unwearable when they were returned to us. I experienced all the events that took place after we arrived at our destination as an oppressive, interminable dream.
Then they began to house us in the empty buildings and assign jobs to us. No one was interested in what education we had, or what profession we followed. One after the other, we were all given labour-intensive and low-paid work.
Thus our grey and monotonous life in an alien land began. Life in a reservation. When a person could be sent to prison or into exile, or even further, to Siberia, for the slightest offence. If one didn’t report to the commandant’s office in time, one was punished, if one didn’t put in enough work days, one was punished, and if one travelled without special permission beyond the limits of the village where one had been sent, one received a long sentence in the labour camps. Such were our lives in the course of those thirteen long years.
Translated by David McDuff.
Note: After this article was published, we were informed that the Russian original appeared a year ago in the magazine DOSH.
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· Chechens in Austria commemorate Deportation Day, protest war (PW, 22.2.2006)
· Dozens in Prague commemorate 61st anniversary of Chechen deportation and call for peace