Chechens remember brutality of forced deportations

 

CHECHNYA: Sixty years after Stalin exiled 500,000 people, Chechens still feel victimised, writes Daniel McLaughlin.

"Let the Russians celebrate, but today will always be a day of mourning for us," says Mr Kambulat Bekmurziyev, 60 years after Josef Stalin had his people loaded into cattle cars and deported to Siberia and the barren steppes of Central Asia.

He was a boy among about 500,000 people from southern Russia whom the Soviet dictator sent into exile for allegedly collaborating with the invading Nazis, condemning thousands to death from cold, hunger and disease.

As Russians enjoy their "Defenders of the Fatherland" holiday, several nations will today recall the moment Stalin branded them "enemies of the people"; many of the Chechens among them feel it is a mark they still carry in a deeply hostile country.

Mr Bekmurziyev remembers Soviet soldiers coming to his village in the early hours of February 23rd, 1944, taking the men away to prevent unrest and telling the women to gather their things - they would be going on a journey.

That night, as the Red Army herded thousands of people into the bare wooden carriages, Mr Bekmurziyev remembers being thankful for small mercies.

"It had been warm for February, but a blizzard came down that night. I looked out at all the miserable people waiting and praised Allah that I was already in a wagon."

They left the Caucasus unaware of their destination. The train would occasionally clank to a halt, a soldier would slide open the door and tell the young Mr Bekmurziyev's father to collect food for his carriage.

He would come back with a bucket of porridge or soup, then the door would slide shut and their slow crawl into exile would continue. There were no windows in the wagons, a hole in the corner served as a toilet, and a small stove offered a little warmth.

As the cold grew fiercer and food ran low, people began to die. The bodies of two of Mr Bekmurziyev's infant nephews were kept inside the wagon until they could be afforded a proper burial.

When the train stopped for the last time, 21 days after leaving the Chechen-Ingush republic, Mr Bekmurziyev looked out at the forbidding flatlands of Kazakhstan.

"It was minus 30 degrees, with a vicious wind, and the endless steppe all around. I thought we would all die." About a third of deportees did die, either on the journey or during their first year in exile, as bitter cold, lack of food and rampant disease overran them. Many ended up living in appalling conditions, and were regarded with deep suspicion by locals who had been warned to expect the arrival of thousands of renegades.

Mr Bekmurziyev remembers the train door sliding open and people, horses and cattle peering in. His family was lucky, he says, to be taken to a collective farm by its Russian manager, who gave them a warm room and had work for his father and brother.

His father, Beksultan, had been an officer in the army of the last Tsar and, unlike many Ingush, spoke fluent Russian. "My mother had expected the Red Army to arrest him for years, and that's why she thought they'd come for him on February 23rd," Mr Bekmurziyev remembers. "We had never even seen a fascist soldier, never mind collaborated with one."

Stalin blamed the people of the Caucasus for helping the Nazis in their push towards Chechnya's oilfields. There is scant evidence to support his suspicion and, after more than a century of sporadic Chechen resistance to Russian rule, he was keen to rid himself of a potentially rebellious, mostly Muslim population at this time of war.

Mr Bekmurziyev's father died after a year in Kazakhstan so, aged 12, he left school to work at the local mine, pushing carts loaded with fuel to a nearby power station. After the war ended, he remembers Japanese prisoners of war shovelling out the coal that he delivered.

"We had no quarrel with the Japanese or the German prisoners that arrived. They were exiles like us. But I always remember what it was like to be called an enemy of the people," the stocky 69-year old says, loosening his dark blue tie and running a thick hand over thinning white hair.

"'What are you?' an officer used to say to me. 'An enemy of the people,' I would reply, knowing he would beat me if I did otherwise. My older brother was sent to a prison camp for fighting men who called him the same thing."

Roza Magomedova's mother and father had returned from Central Asia to Chechnya by the time their daughter was born, after Stalin's successor Mr Nikita Khrushchev allowed most deportees to go home in 1957. By that time, about a quarter of all Chechens and Ingush had died in exile.

"The older generation still talk about that time, but we have our own worries to think of," she says. "We were called enemies of the people then and it is no different now. Chechens get blamed for everything that goes wrong." Ms Magomedova came to Moscow in 1999, shortly before Russia plunged its troops back into Chechnya and its second war since 1994 with the region's separatist rebels.

Her family escaped the war but soon fell into the hands of Moscow's notoriously corrupt police. Her sister's husband and his brother were arrested and accused of organising a deadly bombing in August 2000 in a metro station in the city centre.

Ms Magomedova says the police planted grenades on the brothers, and they only escaped prosecution when a rights group and a leading journalist came to their defence.

After Chechen guerrillas seized a theatre in the capital in October 2002, Ms Magomedova says her husband and many other Chechen men in Moscow did not leave their flats for months, in fear of arrest. He is currently in southern Russia renewing his passport, she says, and has delayed his return to Moscow after a bomb killed at least 40 people on one of the city's metro trains on a fortnight ago.

"Now, after that explosion, people again look at me on the metro like I have a bomb in my bag. We are seen as guilty of everything, and suffer more than anyone after something happens."

Amnesty International said last week that attacks blamed on Chechen rebels were regularly followed by a surge in illegal detentions of Chechens and attacks on people who look like they are from the Caucasus region.

Ms Magomedova worked for four years in Moscow "on the street, doing anything, selling newspapers, fruit and vegetables. They won't give us proper papers and are scared of us, so it's hard to find proper work. I was a head mistress at a Chechen school, and I came here and became a bum."

She says most of Moscow's Chechens - and the thousands of refugees in tent camps just outside the war-shattered republic - would love to go home, but are afraid to. "Even if there was peace there now, why build a house when it may be taken away or flattened by bombs in another few years? Our history repeats itself."