“They are used to being last grade people. This thought has been inculcated in them.” About the evacuation of gay men from Chechnya

12:25, 17 april 2017

The Russian LGBT Network has opened a refuge center in Moscow for Chechen gays fleeing persecution in Chechnya. According to the organization, about 25 people have already left the republic and another 30, who are assisted by LGBT network staff, are planning to leave Chechnya in the near future. Four to five people apply to leave every day on a twenty-four-hour hotline. The organization has security protocols that help to conceal the refugees’ identities. The LGBT Network hopes to send refugees to other countries where they will be granted asylum; network employees are involved in negotiations with the embassies of Western countries. Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko learned the details of the evacuation from the organization’s employees. She also spoke with those who have already managed to leave.

Volunteer (on condition of anonymity)

Today there was a boy. We went to collect passports. He was standing in line and motioned at his arms that bore strange invasive injuries. The skin seemed to be peeling off. It was not a burn, not a cut. I had never seen anything like this. It turns out that these are electrocution injuries. They cling on some clothespins and shoot through 220 [volts], and the places where the [clothespins] are attached are most affected. Now it [looks] like [he has] a deep eczema that goes into the muscle. I do not even know how to explain it.

I say to him: “Do you need medical help?” He replies: “No, of course not, it is already healing.” And they talk about it joking to each other. What they say cannot even be processed in your head. All those who participate in the project, all our employees, all of our volunteers, will have to undergo psychological rehabilitation after all this.

Igor Kochetkov, Russian LGBT Network board member

Фото: Petr Kovalev / Interpress / TASS

I first received information about what was happening in Chechnya about three weeks ago. An “anonymous friend” wrote to me on [social network] VKontakte. He had a page, of course, but I understand that this, in all likelihood, was [a pseudonym]. [He said]: there are rumors that gays are being captured, tortured, and killed en mass in Chechnya. I asked him who was spreading these rumors, he said: friends at work. I asked him if he could [introduce me to] people who could tell me something. He wrote: brother, of course not. I wrote to my colleague who works on Chechnya. She said she would look into it … within a week we received confirmation. On [March] 29, we opened a hotline, put up information on online communities. But before the publication of the Novaya Gazeta article, this e-mail address did not receive a single appeal.

The main problem for us now is that people are very intimidated. We must understand that the LGBT community in Chechnya and in the North Caucasus is generally absolutely closed – they are basically intimidated [and] do not trust anyone. But now there is a common threat. The main question that they ask is: why should we believe you? It is necessary to convince them. I myself started to go onto these online communities, saying this is who I am, this is my name, you can find everything about me on the Internet, all [about] my life. And if you believe me, I am ready to help you. They are used to being last grade people. This thought has been inculcated in them [and] they believe it. And it is hard for them to imagine that someone cares about them [and] wants to save their lives.

Yesterday I talked with one of the runaways. And he said that the most dangerous people for them are their relatives. I was shocked: they love their relatives, worry about them, but at the same time clearly understand that [these relatives] are ready to kill them. And they do not condemn them! They argue: Well, that is the way it is, what can you do, there is nowhere to run. But they do have a place to run to.

What is happening in Chechnya falls under the “crime against humanity” article of Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Massiveness, different treatment, reprisals against a specific group … [in an] organized [manner by] official representatives. The federal authorities could intervene, but so far they have not. The Hague is investigating this as a crime against humanity. We are currently looking into the application process. Each of the applicants will also be able to apply to the European Court of Human Rights.

Tatiana Vinnichenko, Russian LGBT Network chairperson

We currently have two types of escaped persons. The first are those who were caught in a wave of detentions in February; they were imprisoned, tortured, [and] starved. Some were paid ransoms for. Some were given to relatives with the instruction: “you know what to do.” In February, those who survived the torture were given to their relatives. [Chairman of Chechnya’s parliament Magomed] Daudov came to the release, called them pederasts (men who engage in sexual activity with young boys), they were convicted, they confessed. And relatives, apparently, cannot kill their children immediately. This is my guess. These guys managed to escape. They somehow got out of the republic themselves, settled here with friends, and now, having realized that they cannot get a job, have responded to our appeal. They are afraid that as soon as they start to show their documents here, their relatives will be told where they are.

Currently, there is a second wave of [violence against gay men] in Chechnya. The second wave of refugees are those whom we are currently helping to escape. They have been hiding in holes and cracks, at their friends’ houses, in strange places, and are asking for help. We ask them to get to the nearest major city and then buy them tickets [to the cities of central Russia]. These are, of course, the heavy cases. [These] people have just overcome torture. A person is released, his family has not yet told him anything or made any decision, and he leaves the house with a bag at seven o’clock in the morning, saying that is going to work, and ends up with us.

Until yesterday, I was convinced that these people are simply being [exiled] out of the republic. But now I have received confirmation that groups of men from Chechnya are looking for relatives in Moscow whom they [suspect of being] gay. There are also cases of violence. What was the order that they received? To clean the Chechen nation of filth or something?

It is impossible to count [the number of detainees] … [there are approximately] 150-200 detainees. Each of them can say: I was in a cell with 25 people. But you cannot [make conclusions based on] these figures, because it could all have been the same cell. We do not [ask them] who sat with whom. They stayed [in the torture prisons for] seven to ten days. These are the ones who survived, were released, and managed to escape from the republic. The rest are still there. We do not know which of them is alive.

People are crippled. There is a boy sitting in an apartment for the third day straight. I said to him: “Look, we are already applying for a visa!” And he asks: “Can I just stay here?” I say: “Of course, live here for as long as you like, [you are welcome] to ensure that he does not go completely crazy after the “electric chair.” And suddenly he says: “I have never gone out with men, I just had these messages on my phone. I just love talking. I am a sociable person! And I generally like girls. Do you believe me?” I say: “Of course.” He convinces me that he is not gay and that he should be let go. It seems as if [he is] undergoing an interrogation and I am the policeman.

They are tortured there in Argun. They have a special chair with electrodes fixed to them. [The men are] tied up and the current is [turned on]. [They are forced to] confess, firstly, that they are gay, and secondly, to say denounce [those] who are gay in their phone[books]. It is clear that they will say anything there.

One got into the car and started yelling: “Am I to blame that I am like this? It is not my fault! I myself am not happy about this life! What can I do though?”

[Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry] Peskov says that this is all unverified information. This, of course, is true. You can also say that I am sitting here lying. But why should I? And why should they? To get themselves a visa? We do not issue visas here. And these burnt hands, broken jaws ... These people wouldn't just leave their native land, they are very attached to their land, to their relatives. Why should a Chechen simply declare himself to be gay? To just go off to Germany or something of the sort?

They all worry that their mothers remain there. Some have grandmothers, other have aunts instead of the mother. These are the elderly women who will remain without them, without means of subsistence. And I say: “Forget everything. Let us buy you phone and a SIM card. Do not call anyone in Chechnya and do not leave any [traces on] social networking sites. We will sit and wait for the departure. You can write from there if you really need to.”

We practically cannot provide them with psychological help. Only a few agree to it and even then, it is unclear [precisely] what the psychologist should do for a conversation to take place. They do not want to talk to women. But they do not talk to men either; they do not want to seem weak. They have no strength left.

They have such fear that they do not believe us! Everyone who sought help from us were afraid that this was all some type of trap specially designed to entice them. Every one of them has told me this. Everyone we brought in said: “Thank God that it is you! An ordinary Russian woman … we thought that everything was already over.” I say: “Why did [risk it] then? They say: “But would have been killed there anyway.”

There was [an appeal] from Dagestan last Saturday. We came to a man [and] demanded that he surrender all gays. If this starts in Dagestan, we will surely choke on [the workload]. I know that this week two [refuges] will fly in from Ingushetia.

Recorded by Elena Kostyuchenko