A cycle of reports about the life of Chechen asylum-seekers in Brest
What makes people leave their houses, break the usual way of life, to leave for nowhere, obeying the blind hope? To escape from torture by electric current, from beatings, from the endless stream of threats. It is hard to imagine that representatives of one and the same ethnic group tell each other: ‘We will arrange the reality for you here that will be worse than in 1944’, meaning the deportation of Caucasian nations to the Siberia, held by Stalin’s order. People in power threaten their fellow citizens with repetition of this terrible experience seventy years later. The majority of these people come from Chechnya. However, the asylum-seekrs from other Caucasian republics can be also found here, including the people from Ingushetia and Dagestan.
We will give them a chance to tell themselves about the circumstances that have brought them to ‘Brest transit’.
We had to flee Chechnya, since my father-in-law had been fighting there. He escaped long time ago. Presently, he resides in France. However, the securiry forces started to pressurize us. They demanded from us to tell the place of his present residence. They interrogated us, tortured, forced us to sign some papers that my father in law had fought in Syria and Ukraine. My wife has a scar on her head after the tortures.
I had a business of my own with several stores. The authorities closed them down by force. I don’t have any job. We lack means for living. And we have a child. We had to sell everything quickly and flee.
We came to Brest 1.5 months ago. Since then, we have made 25 attempts to cross the border. All in vain. We tried to use an attorney’s services. We met quite a few people at the railway station, who presented themselves as lawyers and proposed their services. However, most of these people appeared to be cheaters. I met Marta first. She promised to help me get across the border, but finally she cheated me on USD 500. And I wasn’t the only victim of her fraud, as far as I know.
I gave her all documents she asked for and waited for two weeks. Then she called me up and said: ‘You make an attempt and pass tomorrow’. We came to the railway station on the following morning and found other 25 people waiting there. She had told all of them that they could pass across the border that day. Nobody came abroad by the end of the day. She couldn’t help anyone, but still kept collecting money from new people.
There was a pregnant woman in one family and she felt unwell one day. And they were allowed to cross the border by chance. And Marta told them it was her who had helped them to get abroad. She doesn’t take the receiver now.
Some Sasha works together with her. He can be found at the railway stations, proposing his lawyer’s services all the time. And he cheats, taking the clients’ money, too. So shameful! We met him the other day and told him that all 6 of us, cheated by him, would submit a report to the police.
Sasha started telling us that Marta had helped people to get abroad before. I retorted that I had spent more than a month there and still saw the people he defended. I asked him why he did it like this. I asked him why she collects new clients, being unable to help anyone. And he told me: ‘I swear with my cross that she is a good person. I will learn everything tomorrow and call you back’. And he never called me back. We are sitting and waiting for the possibility to cross the border. There are spread rumors about some human rights defenders, who allegedly help the people. Also they say that some people from Poland help with some documents so that people can get abroad. However, in reality you see how it looks like over here.
The whole story started when I got acquainted with a man, who had a store with automobile spare parts. He invited me to work together. I lived close from the place, amd I worked for almost two years in the store. He called me approximately twice a month, when the new goods arrived. The goods arrived, we unloaded them, and went home. I had an assistant there.
Once he dropped a load on his leg. I told him to go to hospital, since I could do everything myself and there wasn’t much work left. When he was leaving, the owner proposed him to take him to hospital, and they left together. I stayed there to finish the work, and the assistant was left in hospital for the night. Having finished the work, I came home and gave the wages to my wife.
Somebody knocked on the door at 9 o’clock in the morning. I opened the door, and the police intruded into the house. I asked them what had happened. They asked my name and seized me as soon as they understood that I was the person they were looking for. I kept on crying and asking them for explanations of the reasons for the attack. All five of them started beating me instead of providing me with any response. They pulled me out of my house. My wife and my neighbours ran out and asked them why they were beating me and where they were taking me. And the police told them it wasn’t their business.
One of them asked another to pull a bag on my head. They put the bag on my head, handcuffed me, and brought be to the district police station.
I was worried, being unaware of what had happened. It appeared that three people in masks intruded into the store after its closure, took all goods, including expensive tyres, from there and stole around 1.5 million RUB from the cashier desk.
I asked them to listen to me, telling that I had finished the job and went home and that I knew nothing about the robbery. They started beating me and torturing me until 5.00 in the morning. Then, the brough me to court. I asked the judge: ‘What is my blame?’ And he responded: ‘You refused to show your documents to the police’.
I tried to explain to the judge that I had been beaten and that it was a lie about the documents. They told the judge that I had fallen on bushes at the moment of detention. When the judge sentenced me to 15 days of administrative arrest, they whispered that it was nothing in comparison with what they would do next to me.
I was pressurized during all 15 days. I was told that it was me who had robbed the store, that I was recognized by by voice. They kept torturing and beating me, and I kept silent.
I couldn’t convince the police officers, since they were only beating me. I told them to kill me rather then continue the torments. I was released from custody in two weeks.
Then some people, representing the store owner came to interrogate me at home. They told me that they weren’t cops and that they were the owner’s ‘roof’.
They took me to a wood. And everyting started from the very beginning. They asked me to tell who had robbed the store and who had been there with me. I told them that I hadn’t robbed their store and that I hadn’t had any interest in committing the crime. I told them I had a wife with disabilities and two children. They tried to persuade me to admit guilt and told me that I would be sentenced to the minimum term for robbery then’.
They beat me and asked me either to admit my guilt ot to tell them who the robber was in three days.
I spent ten days in hospital after the beatings. I wanted to submit a claim against them to the Public Prosecutor’s office. However, they warned me that they would kill me, if I dared go to the law.
My wife is a disabled person. She suffers from a psychoneurologic desease. We used to go to Poland for treatment. The doctors in the camp for refugees told us that they wouldn’t be able to help us there. They advised us to go either to France of Germany. We went to France, but they told us there that there wouldn’t be any improvement, only deterioration of her state. She suffers from the desease from time to time. I came back and went to my brother in Voronezh. I was looking for some job there.
Then I started hiding. I was hiding for a year. I did not call home. I passed messages through my friends only.
The police visited my relatives at home. They were interested in my location. My son told them that they didn’t know anything about my location. Then they started threatening him, telling him that they would toss up pop to him as soon as he is a bit older. And that it will be the end for him. Therefore, I decided to flee the country with all my children.
My only salvation is to cross the border. I lived in Europe and worked there. I know where and what to look for. I wanted to go to my brother first, but they told me that they would find me, if I stayed in Russia. Nobody cares about me in Belarus though. They checked my papers only once since my arrival on December 4th.
I have made the 5th attempt today, all in vain. They ask me at the border why I came back after being abroad before. I show my medical papers to them. I tell them that your doctors at the camp advised me to go to France or Germany, since they couldn’t help to treat my wife.
The Poles go to the West for treatment. They have very good medicine over there. When we were in Poland we had to take a bus to go to the polyclinic. And it runs several times a day only. If you are delayed in the polyclinic and miss the bus, you will have to go on foot for almost 25 km. And my daughter was 7 and my son was only 5 then. I was catching the passing cars. Nobody would stop. One old man stopped and told me: ‘Listen, I’ve stopped only for the sake of your children.’ I asked him: ‘Why your people don’t stop? I would pay them.’ And he responded: ‘Hey, son! When we opened the road to you, your people began to rob and steal.
It is because of this that our people are angry with you. I’m an old man, what would you do to me? I’m not afraid of death. I gave him money, but he told me he didn’t need it. He treated the children with apples, a kind-hearted man’.
It is a bit easier here in Belarus. The people are kinder. When in Moscow, I asked a buddy the road to the Belarusian railway station. He looked at me and passed by in silence. I thought to myself if something was wrong with me? Wasn’t I dressed like him? So what about that?
It is my only chance to cross the border now. I’ve come with my son and daughter. I would like to stay in Poland. My children know Polish. They can read and write in this language. I don’t have anyone there, but I know how to get settled. I would like to apply for the refugee status. I would stay in Poland if they gave me such an opportunity. I would like to see my children alive.
We have already made 12 attempts. My children and I. We are here without my husband. I even don’t know where he is. He hasn’t got in touch with me for a long time. I haven’t heard form him for nearly a year already.
I’ve escaped with my small children.
My mother has phoned me and told me that my husband’s relatives learned where we are and wanted to come and take the children. They ask me at the border: ‘Why don’t you live in Moscow? If you don’t want to live in Moscow, live in Brest’.
There’s no real border between Belarus and Russia. Everyone can come freely. You are even afraid of telling something to someone, since this information can be passed home.
We haven’t made an attempt today. My children have a fever. I have had high temperature, too. I lay 4 days in bed. I’ve decided to go out for a walk today, to take out the microbes. I haven’t gone to the polyclinic, since they send to hospital all at once. And you have to pay for their services there. And we have little money left.
My children and I have already spent two weeks in Brest. We’ve made 6 attempts to cross the border, all in vain. It was cold at the beginning, since we spent nearly all the time in the street, searching for accommodation. It is better now. We are renting an apartment for 30 Belarusian rubles a day. It is one-bedroom apartment. We pay 15 Belarusian rubles per family.
I’ve escaped from my husband. He drinks a lot and then he bullies and beats me. I suffered for eight years, and then the children grew up. He doesn’t drink at daytime. However, he comes home drunk at 2-3 a.m. and starts shouting and beating me. The children were so much afraid of him. They were weeping, and I decided to leave him. W haven’t divorced officially, but we live separately from one another.
Everything was fine at the beginning. However, he was taken by some people once at night. They beat him black and blue. I don’t know who the attackers were. He became another person on coming back. He started drinking and beating me. Something broke in his psyche I suggest. Then he was taken and beaten again very hard. The attackers broke his ribs. The children’s psyche is weak enough to see all that.
My husband told me that he had been taken by mistake. We were searching for him for three days, all in vain. He was left out of town after the physical attack. Some young men recognized him and phoned us. My husband started drinking and beating me since then. I told him: ‘if you would like to drink, just drink; if you don’t want to work and help me, don’t help me, since I work; however, don’t beat me, since I’m not an iron woman.’ I could sleep calm two-three nights a week, and he was beating me all the other days. It is unbearable, when he comes drunk every night.
When I learnt that it was possible to escape through Brest, I didn’t have enough money. My husband told me that he wanted to take our children. I told my mother that cannot give our children to him. But if he has decided something, I know him well, he will take them. We’ve come here in secrecy. He didn’t know about our departure.
He wrote me a message, when he learnt about that: ‘I will tell the mullah that you’ve stolen my children, and you will be sorry for that if I get to you. How could you do it like this?’ I became scared, since it is easy to catch me over here. Therefore, I got in touch with his stepmother on purpose and told him that we had passed the border so that he wouldn’t look for us over here.
He threatened me, writing messages: ‘I will kill you, if you don’t return the children to me. And I will create problems to your relatives.’ It is in our tradition that children live with their father. There took place reunifications of families last year. Quite a few divorced pairs got reunited. The wife’s relatives and the husband’s relatives come, trying to reach agreements and make peace. I would gladly get back to my husband, if he was a good father, I would give him the children in this case… I would have done it for the children’s sake, even if I died afterwards. I wish them well. I didn’t want to come here. However, knowing him as a person I cannot give the children to him. He will send one child to his first aunt and the other child to his second aunt. He is the only child in his family. And he has another wife already, who has given birth to his son.
It is a shame not to look after children in our community. My mother-in-law tells me that she will take them, but she won’t look after them in reality.
He is a worthless father, and the children don’t want to get back to him. As soon as we started the talk, I started to panic. I phoned my brother and uncle. But they told me that if father would like to take children, they should be obviously together with him.
They don’t understand me, and if I send a report to the police, they will also tell me that it is my own problem.
I have come with my younger son from Grozny to Brest nearly a month ago. My elder son is hiding in Mozdok. He didn’t have enough money to get to Belarus. Our family ancestors were Terek Cossacks, who were converted to Islam several centuries ago.
We had to flee our homeland, since my sons suffered from bullying. They were beaten in the street, since they don’t look like Muslims. Their beards do not grow well enough. Moreover, the local authorities tried to sue me for the allegedly illegal receipt of pension. I’m afraid of deportation back to Chechnya because of this.
We have already made seven attempts to cross the border, all in vain. We are running out of money. And I need insulin, since I’m diabetic. The supply I’ve brought with me from home is nearly over. And I don’t know, what to do.
We have spent nearly a month in Brest with my husband and three children. We fled Ingushetia, since there’s no work there. Also, more and more Ingush people become religious muslims, and it evokes dissatisfaction on the part of Russian Orthodox believers. We were oppressed because of our religious beliefs. We have documents left at home that prove the oppression. But we haven’t taken them with us.
We have made 6 attempts to cross the border with my family. We live in a rented apartment here and pay 35 Belarusian rubles a day for our accommodation. We fled the country in a rush. We are short of money, and we may run out of means for living soon. Our relatives from Ingushetia help us. They pass money with the people, who bring asylum-seekers from the Caucases to Belarus. It is a real business. The Chechen people bring the asylum-seekers for money by microbuses to Belarus. And they do it on the constant basis.
Shamil and his family
Muslim: Everybody knows each other in Chechnya, since it is small. If somebody has some problems appearing, it is impossible to hide it. It is generally hard to hide anything in our community. I have a list of people, who have disappeared. I know quite a few of them in person.
– Is this the list of missing people?
Shamil: The people, who were captured, hadn’t been brought any charges. It will be one year tomorrow, January 9th, since the date when my brother disappered. All dissent is very quickly suppressed over there.
– Do you mean political or religious dissent?
Muslim: You even don’t know why they take you. They don’t tell you. They’ve kidnapped my son. And we can’t find him anywhere. They don’t tell me where he is. One should be brought charges, but it doesn’t happen. They even don’t allow hiring an attorney. We submitted a complaint to the Legal Investigation Committee in Yessentuki, and then we sent a claim to the Public Prosecutors’ office. They forwarded our complaint from the Legal Investiation Committee back to Shali. ‘He was capturered in Shali, so you should figure it out on the spot’, they said.
Shamil: The lawyer cannot help in this situation. He is in a conspiracy with them. Otherwise, he can dissapear himself. And they show on TV that everything is fine in the country.
– Do you mean that everyone in Chechnya is totally intimidated and if you are not politically loyal, you will be missing sooner or later?
Muslim: Our story was published in Novaya Gazeta. And its author Elena Milashina had problems because of that. Subject to Kadyrov’s pressure, he had to flee the country. What can be said about us?
– How long time ago did it all start in Chechnya? Was it the moment in past, when Kadyrov, Jr came to power?
The Chechens, shouting and interrupting each other: Yes it was. It started exactly with the junior Kadyrov’s coming.
– Hadn’t been there any persecution of dissidents before him?
Chechen man: Everything used to be different. The people wanted an independent state. And now Putin has come to power, and he established Kadyrov’s authority. All that started at that moment of time. Even during his father’s rule everything used to be fine.
Old Chechen man: How can I think differently, if I dislike everything he is doing? They don’t allow you to work normally. If you start your own business, they put pressure on you. They won’t leave you in peace, if you are outside of their close circle and if you are not from Kadyrov’s teip. He spends money on luxury buildings, and if someone is unhappy with this and starts to resist, then he or she disappears. All personal belongings are confiscated, and the family is evicted from the house.
– What is the ground for the confiscation?
Chechen man: What grounds?! The people are simply kidnapped.
Old Chechen man: New and new people come to Brest every day. They wouldn’t flee the country, if they feel fine there, right? The attempts to cross the border with Poland are made every day. These are mainly the Chechen people, who try to cross the border. Also, you can rarely see people from Dagestan and Ingushetia.
Chechen man: If a Chechen person hasn’t tried to make another attempt to cross the border today, it means that he has run out of money. And he has to take it from somewhere, to phone someone, to ask somebody to send at least a penny.
Muslim: They don’t permit us to cross the border. And the ticket is expensive. Everyone already knows about this problem. Memorial and Novaya Gazeta write about it, but nobody can help.
– Is it because of the fact that we have the union with Russia?
Old Chechen man: Belarus and Russia are the only CIS members, who have remained in the union.
– Do you know anything about the people, who have run out of money? Have they come back to Chechnya? What happens to them over there?
Shamil: One of such people has called me up today. He was detained and interrogated about the reasons of fleeing the country. They asked him why he wanted to escape to Poland and Europe and why he disliked it there in his home country. And you cannot oppose to them, if you aren’t their relative. They pose such questions and torture you with the current and beat you with a plastic hose. They keep doing it for a week or two. And then they release you. However, they continue following you. (Shamil points at a Chechen man with a red beard.) And this man was beaten with a baton and sprayed with gas by the Poles at the border crossing.
Chechen man with a red beard: They did so, since I had asked for asylum. I told them that I don’t have money to return. And that I have five children and a wife. And that I don’t have money to rent an apartment in Brest. I asked them for asylum, saying that I have all evidence for that. But they just cut me off.
– How long time have you spent over here?
Chechen man: A month and 15 days. I have had enough money to have twelve attempts to cross the border. Then I started borrowing the money. I want to make another try tomorrow.
Old Chechen man: Some people advise us to make attempts to cross the border every day. Others say that the more attempts we make the less chances we have. I don’t know where to find the truth. I’ve tried 32 times to cross the border since three months.
Chechen man: And it is really expensive to make attempts to cross the border every day, to rent an apartment, and to have meals.
– What was the last drop? When did you get it that you had to flee Chechnya?
Chechen man: Well, it was them over there who told us to leave.
Old Chechen man: I have a small business.We opened a store, when we could and opened more stores. We didn’t ask for anything from the authorities. And they told me that they would close all my stores. They told me to take my belongings. I asked them what for should I have taken my belongings. And they responded that they would remind me of 1944 and that we wouldn’t reside in Chechnya any longer. When I came home from the police department, I found all my stored sealed. The armed people in masks jumped in, kicked my wife out, and closed the store. We had to take our things and leave.
– The legal term of stay in Belarus lasts for 90 days. And you are reaching the time limit soon. How do you solve the problem?
Old Chechen man: It is already over the time limit, to be honest. They keep asking us at the custom’s house why we wouldn’t like to settle in Belarus.
– And why won’t you get settled in Belarus?
Chechen man: Since Belarus can extradite us. There exists a common database, and such cases happened in thev past. And everything will be just the same in Chechnya, while Putin is in power. Kadyrov is his protégé.
You know that we used to reside in Europe, and it isn’t good life that has brought us here. My father could live for the rest of his life there. He had a visa. However, we returned to our home country. We hoped it would be possible to live there. We wouldn’t have come back, if we wanted to earn easy money. We came back, since it is our motherland. Our home land, all our relatives, our business. To construct houses, to work.
Old Chechen man:: I’m a disabled person in group 1. I don’t have a part of stomach.
– For how long did you reside in Europe? And where exactly did you live?
Chechen man: I resided for 7 years and my father lived for 10 years there. I came back to Chechnya in 2007 and my father returned home in 2010. All our children were born in Germany.
– Have you received any assistance from the Chechen diaspora in Europe?
Chechen man: Not yet. To tell the truth, we haven’t ask them for anything. We have already turned into homeless people here. And you feel ill at ease to tell anybody that you don’t have something, if you have never asked anyone for anything. And you cannot get back at the same time. Our friends sent around 100 Euro each several times to us.
Muslim: We haven’t had any problems here yet. The only troubles are connected with the lack of means for living. They don’t object to our attempts to cross the border. But Poland won’t let us in.
Chechen man: There’s another problem with the legal term of stay. His term of temporary stay will expire in 1.5 months. And he cannot go to Russia. Also, neither my father, nor I can get back there. And the legal term of our temporary stay has already gone.
Old Chechen man: I’m even scared to go shopping now. They say that a new 90-day term of stay starts in the new year. And also the people in Human Constanta have told me that the new 90-day term begins since the year start.
– Are you provided with medical services over here?
Chechen man: No. My father weighs 46-47 kg. When he was leaving Germany they told him that if his weight would be less than 50 kg, he might die.
– Do you ask for help? Do you go to hospital?
Old Chechen man: Whom can I address there? I would like to bring my children to a safe place. And then I won’t be scared to die. This is my only aim. I know everything about Poland. You show them the documents, which prove our stories and even newspaper articles. They even don’t look at them. They don’t take them and don’t read them.
– And whom do they let enter the country? They say, that one-two families pass…
Old Chechen man: It is like in a lottery. Even the people without problems, who live in Chechnya, may pass. We know each other hear and we are aware of each others’ stories. In my opinion, a person doesn’t have problems, if he or she runs out of money and goes back home to take a new sum here. And such people pass. I asked the border guards about the selection criteria, but they responded that they ‘couldn’t tell me’.
– People say that there are charlatans at the railway station, who promise to help with crossing the border, but lure their money, in fact.
Chechen man: We haven’t addressed to them. I don’t know if it’s true. Some people say that bribe-givers pass the border. However, one should know how much money to give and to whom. And we cannot propose anything to them at the moment, since we lack money.
– What are the grounds for prosecution of people in Chechnya?
Old Chechen man: They impose a lot of things on you over there. Even such things as clothes. Or they tell you whether you can cut your beard or not.
– In other words, do you mean that the state has full control over you?
Old Chechen man: Even if it’s wrong. If you are a Chechen and e.g. you wouldn’t like to pray. You cannot say about that loud. Otherwise they come to you at 3 a.m. and capture you. They instruct you even how to pray now, how to put your foot and your hand. It is not the fact that it is correct, but they’ve decided about that this way. It’s dictate. Quite a few Chechen people died during the deportation under Stalin’s rule in 1944. However, it wasn’t the case even during Stalin’s times that they imprison a person for the unknown reason.
– It is strange for sure that Chechen people intimidate other Chechen people with deportation from Chechnya..
Chechen man: It is not intimidation. It is our reality.
Old Chechen man: Here’s a document. (He hands me the paper.) Our neighbour served as a contractor in a military detachment. We have a military regiment in Shali. He was captured on the 12th. And my brother had been detained on the 9th. Neither of them was presented any charges at that.
– How much do they pay to the contracted law-enforcement officers?
Old Chechen man: The law-enforcement officers? They are paid very well! They have very high salary.
– So it looks like the person wasn’t saved by the fact that he was serving there.
Chechen man: There’s the Ministry of Interior and the federal military troops. My neighbour was sitting in a car with my brother at the moment of detention. We told the law-enforcement officer later: ‘We have a witness that you’ve kidnapped my brother’. And he wrote back to us that the witness might disappear. The neighbour was detained by them afterwards and they forced him tto sign a protocol that he hadn’t seen anything. As if he was in Saratov, when they were detaining my brother.
The ‘Brest transit’ cycle of publications has been prepared by Ivan Azhgirei, Elizaveta Zhurauliova, Nadziezhda Krapivina, Aramais Mirakian, Dzmitry Mitskievich, and Volha Ramashka.