A nation of camp followers
By Usam Baysayev, special to Prague Watchdog
I don’t like the clean and tidy Moscow-Grozny train. At Khankala – the last station before the Chechen capital – I always wonder if my mood is going to be spoiled by the sight of Chechen girls and women surrounded almost exclusively by non-Chechen males in camouflage uniform, holding automatic weapons... I usually draw the blinds.
I can’t bear to watch as the women fawn and caress, in the hope that the men will buy something from them. It was probably in just such a manner that they degraded themselves, looking the soldiers in the eye, when dozens of men who had been picked up in the course of “mop-ups” were tortured and killed every day at the main Russian base in Chechnya..
No, I am not against commerce as such. Not even between Chechens and Russian soldiers. Similar scenes when played out in urban street markets do not prompt one to close one’s eyes in despair, to shut out the sight. But for the sake of visual comparison, imagine the Jews who organized the sale of goods to the gentlemen officers at the gates of Auschwitz.
In medieval Europe the armies were usually followed by female market sellers. But if I am not mistaken, those market sellers belonged to the armies. Although they might sometimes be prostitutes, they were the wives of soldiers. No bloodshed divided the soldiers from their camp followers. Yet here were mothers, wives and daughters selling their wares – with the approval of their menfolk – to people who had just left the territory of a concentration camp.
In our country, a slogan proclaiming a return to folk traditions has become the cover for a fatal moral deterioration in society. It is of course possible to use the threat of exclusion from the educational process to force all female students to wear headscarves, but this is unlikely to have a serious effect on the moral and ethical basis of the new generation that is growing up. Much more important are the things that happen in real life, the things one sees around one every day. And of those there are many that did not exist before.
For example, it has for some time now been customary in our land to celebrate in public the birth of yet more offspring to some high-ranking official. Shots in the air, motorcades, feasts, christening presents and reports of the “important event”, with congratulations on television... this may be normal in some parts of the world, but not in Chechnya. The birth of a child is not something a Chechen wants to brag and boast about. Especially not in public and without restraint. What would he be celebrating – his prowess in bed? It is such a natural thing, endowed to every man, and as far as I know requires no special personal qualities or merits.
“Vaina kh1ua a mega” is what Chechens say in such instances. In English this translates as “all things are possible for us”. The intonation of the saying is important. It is not affirmative, but contains strong tones of regret and even of bitter self-condemnation.
I don’t like the Moscow-Grozny train, because officers, contract soldiers, members of the special services, and all the other “defenders” of Russian statehood keep stuffing themselves into it like sardines along the way. And none of them, as a rule, are entirely sober.
Three of them took their seats in my compartment at once. A major, a young employee from the military prosecutor's office, and a talkative female medical student. The major – by his own description a “beaten wolf”, had served in Chechnya since 1994.
He argued that the Russian troops had never carried out any “mop-ups” with mass arrests of people. On the contrary, everything was done in a very civil fashion – the villagers’ passports were checked and then the troops went away. Unless, of course, they were fired on from behind the civilians’ backs. Then, of course, there was a firefight, and all the rest ... So if people were killed, the major concluded, the fault was yours. And he denied that there were any abductions of civilians, saying that the Russian soldiers only took men whose guilt was proven. And who had been pointed out to them by the Chechens themselves. There were no executions, he said, and naturally no filtration points with buried and unburied corpses lying around.
In the course of my professional work as a human rights defender I’ve grown familiar not only with the general context of events, but also with the details of individual operations. So at first the major tried to snap at me that the army was not “some kind of charity”, while later he attempted to gain understanding: “What else could we have done?”
Then he began to inform me of all the details of his “fighting” biography. It turned out that in the first Chechen war his unit had arrived in Chechnya from a westerly direction – from Ingushetia. In the spring of 1995 he and the men under his command had been sent to the Sunzha Ridge to blockade the village of Samashki from the north. The major had also taken part in the ensuing bloody “mop-up” of the village.
He said that when they entered Samashki he and his men had not fired a shot; they had “kept their rifles raised”. He claimed that his men were fired on in the village. But even then they had not retaliated against the villagers. And the killing of more than a hundred civilians, the hostage-taking, the looting and destruction of homes? No, they had done nothing like that. On this my interlocutor stood firm. Though he did not deny that in other parts of the village other units might have “not have behaved very well”.
I asked my interlocutor to tell me his name, and the name of the unit he served in. I promised that I would go to the mosque in Samashki myself and talk to the elders there, to the religious and other authorities, that I would get down on my knees if necessary and ask them to rename a street in the unit’s honour. Why not commemorate those who had conducted themselves decently?
The major did not reply. By now we were approaching Khankala, and the dug-in tanks, the armed checkpoints, the troop trains of armoured vehicles flashed by. When the stalls of the Chechen market women appeared outside the window, he seemed to wake up and, with nod at the window, said something that sounded like a quotation:
“Why? This is too much, you feed us so well already.”
Though he was only trying to have a little dig, and not investing his words with deeper meaning, he touched on something that worries many people I know. By permitting today what formerly they despised, the Chechens are slowly turning into a nation of camp followers. If “everything” is now permitted to us, we have no reason for being angry that we are treated like that...
(Translation by DM)