“When you come back, we’ll kill you,” Ilya Azar on how hundreds of Chechens are trying to flee to Europe via Brest, Belarus
Photo: Maxim Sarychau for Meduza
Every day, hundreds of Chechens take a train from Brest, Belarus, and go across the border into Terespol, Poland. Polish authorities do not allow more than two families to pass through a day, but the Chechens try again and again. Many of them have to live at the station. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has said that the people in Brest are not refugees but “hostages of the secret services of European countries that seduce Chechens with tales of paradise.” Meduza's special correspondent Ilya Azar went to Brest, to see what is happening there and record the stories of several of these refugees trying escape oppression and torture in Chechnya by fleeing to Europe.
The railway station in Brest is monstrous Stalinist building. It is a bridge between Russia and Belarus and Europe. Twenty minutes by train and you are in the Polish Terespol. You do not need to have a Schengen visa to embark. The number of refugees trying to get to the West via this route increased sharply in the summer of 2015. Brest border guards reported that, back in January 2015, the first inhabitants of the Russian Caucasus and Central Asia to have attempted this journey numbered 700. In July 2015, there are about 2,000 and in August 2015 more 8,000.
"Everything was simple then. One hundred Chechens would come at once, 70 of them one day and the remaining 30 the next," said Vyacheslav Panasyuk, coordinator of a legal assistance program for refugees in Brest created by human rights organization Human Constanta. All that changed when the conservative Law and Justice Party came to power in Poland and an influx of Syrian refugees began in Europe. "Rallies swept across rallies under the slogan 'Poland is not a Muslim country'," said Panasyuk.
The Human Constanta mission launched in Brest in September 2016, when Chechen refugees drew attention of both Russian and international media. This occurred after a rally in which the Chechens demanded Polish border guards to, at the very least, accept their applications for refugee status (as required by the relevant Geneva Convention), as more often than not they were simply being sent back to Belarus.
According to Panasyuk, today, Brest has at least several thousands of Chechen refugees. "In September 2016, 400-600 people traveled by train daily, because winter was coming and [they] needed to pass [into Belarus] quickly. Now, families generally sit in apartments, money is scarce, and [the number] of people travelling by train at a time [has fallen to] 200. [Overall], their number is not decreasing, because we are constantly [welcoming] new refugees," said the human rights activist on November 13. The previous night, seven Chechen families came into the city, each consisting of an average of five people.
Panasiuk himself is based in Brest. His colleagues come to his aid from time to time. "The first time, I came for four days and surveyed people ... Kadyrov's people were sending [the refugees] descriptions of how they themselves had had them raped and threatening to publish them," said a mission coordinator. "My immune system suffered so much from this stress that I lay down for a week with a fever. When I left, I had an emotional block [of sorts], because it was impossible to endure all of this constantly. New people are simply stunned by what is going on here and why people flee." The human rights activist realized from conversations with the refugees that today it is not only Kadyrov's critics who are oppressed in Chechnya, but also men who fought on the side of the self-proclaimed [Chechen Republic of] Ichkeria in the first and second Chechen wars in the 1990s.
Most of the refugees live in rented apartments in Brest. Panasyuk says that locals are profiting from the situation financially. "A lot of [the inhabitants of Brest] had renovated their apartments and rent out studios for 300 euros a month, though for that money you can rent an [entire] renovated apartment in the center of Minsk. Many rent only by the day, charging 20 euros a day, says Panasyuk. Many locals have left their jobs, [choosing] to drive Chechens, meet them, and help them load things. In a nutshell, Brest [now has a great standard of living]." Belarussian Railways, too, earns no less than 80,000 euros a month thanks to people fleeing to the European Union.
Despite the pressure of human rights organizations, Poland is not compromising on its position on refugees. According to Human Constanta estimates, 20 people were entering the country a day through mid-October; by November that number feel to no more than ten people (i.e. one or two families). Polish criteria are unclear, so each the opportunity to cross into the country legally is essentially a lottery. A ticket to Terespol and back costs nine euros. After a few dozen attempts and two months of rented apartments many Chechens run out of money. They live and sleep in the waiting room at the station. Chechens living in the West, according to Panasyuk, regularly send money to those who are stuck in Brest.
There is a long viaduct along the paths lead from the station to the city center. Adjacent to it is an unassuming tavern called Status. The tavern has two halls: one offering cheap beer and standing room only and another offering a dance hall with paid entrance (costing three Belarussian rubles and about a hundred Russian rubles). Chechens come here in the evenings, many drink beer (Panasyuk, however, says that there are only ten such men out of hundreds of refugees) and some of them dance with girls. Sometimes, a drunken altercation arises with locals, who do not like that Chechens come to Brest in large numbers, just outside the tavern. Some refugees, according Panasyuk, find girlfriends here and spend their nights at their girlfriends' apartment until they couples quarrel.
Belarus is not the most liberal country in the world, but authorities do not touch the Chechens. "They do not cause any problems, just sit there and sleep," said the head of the police station. "They themselves decide their fate. There is neither war nor [massive] problems in Chechnya at the moment. [Chechen] men go to casinos and bars, so they money though they sit here [looking] so poor and miserable ... I, on the other hand, work for 12 hours a day and cannot afford to go to bars. I pity the children. The women and children are here, while their husbands are renting apartments [or] hotels and sleeping normally. If you take a closer look at then, you will learn what their culture is. I [having been working] here 20 years. And all who have arrived during this time period [show the same patterns of behavior]."
According Panasyuk, is would be disadvantageous for Belarus to oppress Chechens. "They are citizens of Russia. There will be a mess ... all human rights organizations will tune into this this and there will be a wild scandal ... Belarus does not want to raise this issue, because then it will be necessary to actually do something about it. Ukrainian refugees were quietly given work and homes in the villages. There were Chechens applying for asylum here with strong political histories. They were told to make a statement and promised residence permits and housing in return."
The refugees path into Europe lies through Poland, but few wish to remain in the country itself. However, they have nowhere else to: Chechens with residence permits cannot cross the border into Ukraine and Arab countries give the Chechens back to Russia often.
Both Panasyuk and the refugees are certain that there are Chechen authorities in Brest. "Once, I was speaking with a family and a man came up and showed them some slip of paper and said in broken Russian: 'You can stay here until October 9. If you do not pass [into Poland], when you get back, we will kill you' and left," said the human rights activist. Kadyrov's men are really here, they film us, provoke us, approach the families. If you identify a family, they can force their relatives in Chechnya to record videos denouncing them. There were such cases. After Kadyrov said that there were alcoholics and drug addicts here, several men came who got drunk here and wreaked havoc, but the police let them go, because they had slips of paper."
All names of the Chechens in this article have been changed. People are reluctant to even talk to reporters anonymously about why they left Chechnya. Panasyuk managed to persuade only a few. He took a long time to persuade each interlocutor and brings them to the station one by one and they start talking.
My husband's nephews, then aged 18-20, were Wahhabis. In 2005, someone tipped-off [Kadyriv's men] and they were all killed. After that, my husband was tortured for a long time by the FSB. There were constant threats; they would drop in at night and take him and demanded that he reveal which groups his nephews had been were in.
He used to hide [our nephew's weapons] in the basement, that is true. But they did not find them, and we had the chance to throw them out. He would go into [the forest] with them. I do not deny it. But I do not think he knew who was in charge.
After a year and a half after the young men were killed, my husband's younger brother and his wife were killed, as well. Kadyrov's men blew up their cars. He was an Islamist too. Their mother is disabled now. They threw a bomb and blew up the house, but she remained alive. She had an operation abroad and now lives in Germany.
Once my husband was taken away at four o'clock in the morning and we could not find him for three or four months. We informed the police, but were ignored. They said that he went into the forest and our application was not even accepted.
[Kadyrov] began to have constant torment. I also picked up, asking where he had been when he left. I was not tortured, but frightened. I'm more afraid for the children. At night, when it was not, they repeatedly dropped into masks. As they opened the door? I have no idea. One time, when I pulled the mask alone, he hit me with his elbow.
One night, her husband was thrown back into their backyard. His health had suffered. He had, after all, been tortured constantly. Needles had been stuck his fingernails. They believe that Wahhabis are not people.
Honestly, it was impossible to live there. It must be seen [to be believed]. I was present in a situation where a young man was tortured. They wanted him to reveal which group [his brothers] had been a part of. Honestly I swear, they were torturing him. I cannot even say [how] ... This is forbidden for Muslims, as it is humiliating for men [to be tortured] ... (Panasyuk elaborates: "You mean sexual violence?" Nasir nods.) This all occurred before my eyes ... Most importantly, they recorded everything [on their cellular telephone]. They mask their faces and film.
When he was released, this young man killed himself. He could not bear the shame. He was just nineteen years old.
Then the anonymous phone calls began saying that I and my husband would endure the same fate. This problems persisted for three or four years. Then my husband died of a heart attack, and [the threats] somewhat subsided. They did come to see us several time though. His elder brother has gone away, his sisters have been living in Belgium for several years now, because they were not left in peace.
I wore a hijab for nine years. The eldest of [my husband's] nephews went to study in Arab countries a long ago and returned a changed man. My husband, too, had changed. When you sit down and begin to communicate with them and listen to what they say, you somehow unconsciously already put on the hijab. But then I took it off.
I left [Chechnya], because I was afraid, to be honest, mainly for the children. My daughter is already big and we have the Muslim custom that girls marry at 12-13 years of age. She looks older, and by age 12, our relatives were already finding her a husband. Scandals erupted. I wish for her to study and do not want her to marry even at age 20.
Recently, I received a message from one of those who went [to Poland] two weeks ago. He started building a house on a property in Chechnya. They destroyed everything with a bulldozer upon learning that he had come here.
There was a video of a family that did not succeed in making its way here and had to return home. There is a eleven-year-old boy who was told that he was a rooster. Kadyrov's men were jeering at him. The relatives of those discovered here have had their gas and electricity shut off. Kadyrov said that would not leave any one who has been to Belarus in peace.
We pray five times a day, though there are those who pray three times a day. The [latter] are not considered humans, as the Wahhabis pray three times a day. If you work, you get half of the [promised] salary. [After the war], people were not compensated for destroyed houses. Two guards go with you to the bank, you take the money and then go to the local administration and give all the money away.
People are silent because they are afraid. There is a young man who cannot have children, because he was tortured. He was a beautiful guy, aged just 30 at the time. He has a baby and a daughter, but cannot have any more children.
I do not want to live [in Chechnya], though I am a Muslim. [My son] is ten years old. He will grow up in two years' time and not have a normal life there. Wherever you go, you carry your Islam in your heart. But I do not want to live in a way that puts my children in pain.
So we came here.
We arrived three months ago and are now stuck at the station with money problems. We tried to cross eight times; after the sixth attempt I had a minor stroke and all of our money went to the hospital. It is good that our brothers abroad help us. If they did not, I do not know how we would lived. And without [Panasyuk] we could do nothing.
Can I not tell you why I left? I was in danger ... I was summoned to serve in the army, but did not go to the police station. I was then taken in the night. They beat me, hit me with electricity, kept my head in a bag. I was kept for ten days. They told me to sign documents and work for them. They said that if I agreed to work for them and signed a contract, they would offer me a salary of 100,000 rubles a month, a house, a car, and a green light in everything.
But if I became one of Kadyrov's men, I would have to hurt people. They said that if you are told to kill a man, you have to kill him. But if I did do something bad, then my children will become [victims of] vengeance, even if I die. [There would be a] vendetta.
I know that some were sent to Ukraine and Syria as soon as they signed a contract. They were beaten and forced to sign contracts.
Some people disappear. You are told that they went to Syria or to the mountains, and in two or three months they are found murdered with long beards. Recently in Grozny someone did something and they came to the mosque at five in the morning to collect all of the youths for questioning.
The authorities need results and it makes more difference have they achieve said results. They could plant weapons or drugs.
In Chechnya, you live normally if you have a relative in the administration. Then they do not touch you. And if you have no one to turn to, you do not live well.
Once in Poland, no one wants to tell beautiful stories. One man abroad who spoke against Kadyrov has his family taken and beaten. After that, he apologized and said that Kadyrov was a good man. My family stayed at home, if I manage to move [to Europe], they will be tortured.
If I do not have freedom of speech, then why the heck do I need my country. Here in Belarus, there is freedom of expression. You can speak your mind and if you are right, you win. After all, this is communism.
Do not torment my family! If you cannot find me, they why torment my family? Because of one man, one thousand men are put on their foot. They are put into stadiums and forced to report on their [loved ones]. It is a shame that Chechnya does this to people. There is no law! Did he come up with this idea himself? Is he king of the earth?
We have no more strength to fight Kadyrov. In Chechnya, 70% of people are not Kadyrov's men. Everyone is afraid, and we are afraid, but not for ourselves, but for our families.
Those who were against Russia and Putin's war, have now surrendered and are now fighting for Kadyrov. There is no place to hide and no way out, you either die or spent your life living in the mountains and sitting. But you also need to eat!
Kadyrov said that he would introduce a Stalinist regime in Chechnya. And he has! This is worse than the Stalinist regime. I have never complained about my people [and] have always fought for them. But do not torture my mother and my relatives because of me.
I arrived two months ago with my family. To be honest, it was because of my father. He tortures us, the entire family, my mother, my sisters. He smokes marijuana every night comes and ... well, you understand.
He works for Kadyrov's men. He is now in Chechnya, but sent us [a message] on WhatsApp and he would get us anywhere and kill [us].
There is nothing that I can do. It is forbidden [for Chechens] to turn against their mothers and fathers. If it were possible, I would have killed him long ago. It is painful that we are not being allowed into Poland.
You can write that I am from Papua New Guinea, but anyone who reads this from my neighborhood will know that it is me. I would not even want my shadow to be photographed. I have not heard anyone here tell reporters why they left Chechnya. It is very risky. Our relatives [in Chechnya] can be beaten or raped. It would better if they were shot.
There was young man who was tied to a chair. His wife and his sister were brought before him and raped in front of him. He died of a heart attack right then and there. [Kadyrov's men] are Chechens too. They know how to break our souls and use these methods.
In Chechnya, bad things can happen as a result of a single word. I was lucky to be able to live there was so long. [Eventually], I spoke out against corruption.
My boss told us that a commission was coming and that he was going to start collecting money for it. That is, I would have to give money to bribe the commission. [I] refused to pay ... and the attitude toward me changed immediately.
They also collected money for football. I do not like football, but paid anyway. I did not go to matches ... no one even gave me a ticket ... the same [was done] for theater tickets. [They would] withhold [money] from your paycheck; [you] would not [get the] tickets.
Money is constantly being held. We do not even know what our salaries are. I work two shifts and earn 5,000 rubles. How is this possible? [Other] people in my position earn higher salaries for working one shift. It should be at least 20,000 rubles.
On television, our Kadyrov said that if someone withholds a single ruble from his salary, he would be imprisoned. I do not understand how he can lie so brazenly.
It is impossible to fight or oppose [authorities in Chechnya]. Making a video or writing [a] newspaper article is even worse. You are done.
If someone does not give way to Kadyrov's motorcade or bypasses someone from [Kadyrov's] entourage, he then disappears and is found dead. When beaten, people start to swearing and, as a result, are beaten to death. God forbid if you are suspected of Wahhabism.
It was not even this bad under Stalin. If a son was arrested for speaking out against communism, the father was not touched. Here, nobody can do anything to [resist].
I do not like Kadyrov's policy ... They have their own direction [in our religion] - Sufism - and I [am a] Sunni.
According to the Sunnah, girls wear headscarves and loose-fitting clothing. If girl walks down the street with a closed chin and loose-fitting clothing in the dark, they grab her and take her away to be beaten. I have heard so many such stories.
They dictate [our way of dress], tell us that we need to wear tight clothing; wearing dark is impossible.
The relatives of the young men who blew themselves up had their houses set fire to ... I understand that there are people who are hiding in the forest, but [Kadyrov's] confuses them with the people who just live by the Sunnah.
Personally, I had family problems. My husband worked for Kadyrov's men and was also against the garment. They tried to take my child from me and stalked me, but I do not want to talk about it in detail.
I am not a radical Muslim. I converted to Islam. As for the problems of women, I did not have them. It all depends on the kind of imam a woman's husband has. If a husband has an iman, then his wife is respected. My husband did not have an imam.
I have not tried so many times to drive into Poland, but there is no money. [Border guards] are not listening and are just bullying me. It seems that they do not care.