One Russian's tale of loss and vengeance
RUSSIA:Vitaly Kaloyev, who killed the air traffic controller on duty in Switzerland when his family died in a plane crash, is a hero in Russia, writes Megan K Stackin Vladikavkaz.
People in this town know the man with the stooped, halting walk and the burning eyes. They point out his house, and they talk about how they admire "what he did" and wonder if they too would have the strength to do "what he did".
This is what Vitaly Kaloyev did: After his wife and children were killed in a plane crash in 2002, he stalked the air traffic controller who was on duty all the way to Switzerland, knocked on the man's door and stabbed him to death with a pocket knife.
"I don't really take offence at people who call me a murderer. People who say that would betray their own children, their own motherland," Kaloyev said. "I protected the honour of my children and the memory of my children."
By the time Kaloyev walked out of a Swiss prison and made an emotional return to this city, spread in the icy shadows of the Caucasus mountains late last year, his crime was eclipsed by his fame and a social split over his significance. Some Russians hail Kaloyev as a national hero, a "real man". Others are appalled by his celebrity status, which they believe highlights the worst tendencies of Russian nationalism.
Kaloyev's story is a tale of loss and vengeance, but also of clashing cultures, of the man-to-man world of the Caucasus crashing confusedly into the sterilised, legalistic culture of western companies facing expensive lawsuits.
Although he says he blacked out and can't remember attacking 36-year-old Peter Nielsen, Kaloyev doesn't deny killing him, nor is he sorry for the man's death. Even in the earliest days of his grief, Kaloyev admits, he fixated on Nielsen, the only controller on duty when the plane carrying Kaloyev's family crashed midair into another plane. Within two days of the crash, he had found out the air traffic controller's name and whereabouts. He knew Nielsen had two children, and that his wife was pregnant with a third child.
In 2004, after a trial in Switzerland visited by luminaries from his home republic of North Ossetia, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. But after lobbying from the Russian government, he was set free three years later on the order of Switzerland's highest court.
When he arrived in Moscow, youths from Kremlin- orchestrated groups lined the roads for a hero's welcome. Back in Vladikavkaz, sympathetic shop clerks wouldn't take his money. He was named "man of 2007" by local journalists. And last month, the government of North Ossetia gave the former construction designer the title of deputy minister of construction.
"When you see him in public, you can see that a real man is walking," said Taimuraz Khutiyev, deputy head of the elders' association of North Ossetia. "What he did was very prestigious for the country . . . It was an act of heroism." Hundreds of handwritten letters have poured in from all corners of Russia and from the Russian diaspora as far away as Australia.
"You are an ideal for me," wrote Svetlana from Moscow. "If it were up to me, I'd put the entire world at your feet. If more people were like you, the world would be a better place." Other Russians are aghast. "Murderer named deputy construction minister," ran a headline last month on Yandex.ru, a popular Russian news website.
"We live in a very sick society," said Dmitry Oreshkin, lead researcher at Moscow's Institute of Geography.
"This is the clan mentality which Stalin successfully instilled in the minds of our ancestors and our people," he said. "And now the authorities are appealing deliberately again to this primitive and barbarian psychology."
Kaloyev reads every piece of fan mail, keeps the letters carefully bundled and gratefully receives many visitors. He still lives in the house he designed for his family, an elaborate brick three-story with pear, cherry and plum trees in the walled garden.
In summer 2002, Kaloyev was working in Spain, building a house for a wealthy Russian. His family set out to join him for a holiday: his wife, Svetlana (44); his son, Konstantin (10) and his daughter, Diana (4). The flight was almost entirely full of schoolchildren on an organised trip to Spain. In the skies over Germany, the passenger plane collided with a cargo plane. All 71 people aboard both aircraft were killed. Although it was German airspace, the traffic was being monitored from Switzerland, where Nielsen was manning two work stations at the same time. The aircraft were less than a minute away from crashing by the time he realised they were on a collision course.
For the next two years, Kaloyev hounded officials from Skyguide, a Swiss airspace control firm. He insists he was only after an apology. He wanted someone to take responsibility for the loss of his family. In his culture, this is the minimum courtesy a man would expect. But the apology did not come. Rage grew inside him, and he kept thinking about Nielsen.
He went to Nielsen's house and knocked on the door. He carried an envelope full of graphic pictures of his dead children - bruised, disfigured, sewn together and lain out in their coffins. When Nielsen opened the door, Kaloyev remembers saying in German: "I am from Russia." He made a hand gesture, he says, indicating that he wanted to be invited inside. But Nielsen stepped outside, slammed the front door shut behind him and motioned for Kaloyev to go away, he says.
Kaloyev tried to press the envelope on Nielsen, but he says the air traffic controller knocked them away. To Kaloyev, the sight of the pictures fluttering to the ground was unbearable.
"My last thought was that he threw my dead children out of their caskets," Kaloyev said.
After that, he said: "everything went black in my eyes". Kaloyev says he doesn't remember anything until he was back at the hotel. His first memory, he says, was of taking out the envelope of pictures and realising it was splattered with blood. He looked down and saw that he was also covered with blood. The next day, police arrived at his hotel.
Kaloyev went to a psychiatric institution and later to a Swiss prison. He compares it to a resort and dismisses other prisoners as drug dealers and murderers.
Kaloyev remains remorseless about the murder he committed. "He's nobody to me," he said in a voice hard as granite. "He was an idiot and that's why he paid for it with his life. If he'd been smarter, it wouldn't have been like this. If he'd invited me into the house . . . the tragedy might not have happened." "I think about his children," he said the following day, chain smoking as morning sunlight flooded his kitchen. "They're growing up healthy, full of life. His wife is happy with her children. The grandparents are happy with the grandchildren. Who am I happy with?"
Nielsen's family has moved back to their native Denmark and "started a new life", a Skyguide spokesman said. Asked about the enthusiastic welcome that greeted Kaloyev in Russia, the spokesman, Patrick Herr, said tersely, "We've watched that too. So many people were hurt in the aftermath of this accident and this killing. So many things were said," Herr said. "Now is the moment to bring calm."
In Vladikavkaz, Kaloyev celebrated his 52nd birthday last month. The phone jangled with one well-wisher after the next. His family toasted his homecoming, his individualism and the years ahead.
"To your health, Vitaly," the voices rang. "To your health."