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“Either you kill him or we will. You choose.” A gay Chechen man speaks

Meduza
20:49, 18 april 2017

Грозный

Фото: Валерий Шарифулин / ТАСС / Scanpix / LETA

The movement “Russian LGBT Network” works to help gay men persecuted in Chechnya. The organization’s staff operate a hotline for those seeking to get out, and tries to place these men abroad, or at least somewhere outside Chechnya. Earlier this month, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Chechen security forces have been cracking down on gays since the beginning of the year, rounding up more than 100 men, and killing at least three. The men are held in secret prisons and tortured into giving up the names and contact information of other gays living in the area. On April 13, Novaya Gazeta revealed that it has serious concerns about the safety of the locals who contributed to its bombshell report, as well as the safety of its entire newspaper staff. Below, Meduza shares a statement recorded by journalist Elena Kostyuchenko from one of the Chechen men who reached out for help.

“I'm gay, but I’m not the type to shout about it on street corners. Even my wife doesn't know, and we're expecting our fourth child. I've got a big family, but nobody knows that I’m gay. I live an ordinary life, but don’t doubt that I’d ever pass up the chance the meet up with someone, if the opportunity arises. I need it, and I don’t think it’s my fault. Maybe it’s nature, or maybe it’s an illness.

Here, in Chechnya, none of the gay men walk around with piercings, long hair, or anything like that. Nobody shows their orientation in any way. Looking at me, could you tell that I’m gay? It’s the same with everyone else. Many of us have families — in fact, nearly everyone has a family. We don’t tell people about these things. Posting your photo on some dating site? We don’t do that. Nobody [in the local gay community] knows your name, where you work, or where you live. We all go by nicknames. Of course, this can create some problems. Somebody is looking for Musa, but actually you said your name was Said.

I used to have a job, and I did pretty well for myself. I made a good living, and I felt pretty comfortable. I had a friend who was also gay. We didn’t meet up that often — really it was very rarely. And we had a mutual friend. I don’t know what relationship they had. I knew them both. People saw that they’d come visit me, and that we’d all talk. Then this mutual friend of ours introduced me to one of his relatives, and somehow he got caught. Apparently, they got into his phone, and they understood from his contacts that he wasn’t straight. And eventually the thread led back to me.

A police officer called me: “Where are you? Get dressed. I'll be there soon.” Right away, I hid my phone on a shelf, and grabbed my spare, which had no pre-programmed contacts. The police were already at the door by the time I could step outside. They put me in a car, and bent me down below the seat, so I couldn't tell where we were going, but I knew right away that I was being taken in for being gay. They searched through my phone, but found nothing.

They took me down into a cellar. The doors down there were this thick [gestures], it was damp, and the whole place was pretty terrifying. This boy, that person’s relative, was already down there. But that person, that mutual friend, had already been released — for giving us up.

They beat us for the first few hours. I got some serious bruises, and they broke a few of my ribs. Then came the electrocution. There was a special coil with metal clamps that went on your ears or your hands, and then they got to work. Physically, I could take it, but psychologically the pain was far worse. They say that knife wounds heal, but you never rebound from certain words.

They broke me mentally. They were after my friend, but couldn’t find his phone number. I told them that I know people as friends, as neighbors, that I have a family of my own. I told them, if I’m gay, to show me the man who says he’s been with me, and I’d swear it was a lie. And that’s exactly what I would have done.

The guy who was down there with me was an athlete — a really handsome guy. He was a good guy, and he didn’t give in, either. But he screamed and screamed. By the end, I was yelling back at him: “Just make up something, and tell them that!”

The cellar had lots of rooms. You could hear everything, but you couldn’t see much. We were down there for a week. Nobody fed us a thing. They were starving us out — no food, no water. But they did let us pray. When you went to wash up before praying, you got in a quick drink of water.

There’s one guy in Grozny who’s really well known. Among the local gays, he’s a kind of style icon. He’s always dressed well, and naturally the straight guys who see him can guess [that he’s gay], but they can’t be sure. And this military guy who was interrogating me apparently had it out for this guy, but he couldn’t prove it. So they found him and brought him down into the cellar. They were questioning me, and suddenly they brought him in.

“Do you know him?” they asked. It was lucky that we saw each other at all. I told them, “I don’t know him.” And this guy heard me, and realized that I hadn’t said anything about him, and so he also said they he didn’t know me. Then they started lying to him, saying that I’d told them he is gay. And he just answered, “What does he know? I’ve never met him. Who is he to me?”

So they had nothing more against him, and they let him go. He’s abroad now. It was lucky for everyone that he got out. He had no kids, and lived on his own. He wouldn’t have held out under such torture [and could have given up other gay men].

While they had us detained, they finally managed to find my friend’s address. They came to his home, but his parents said he’d moved to Rostov. Then they called him on the phone, and he immediately sold off his apartment at half-price and got out of the country. This saved us, and soon they let us go.

I was told never to leave. They said I should always be available to them. “Don’t say a word about this,” they told me. “We need to be able to reach you at any time.” But my family and I were already planning a move [within Chechnya], and of course that’s exactly what we did, when I got out.

I found a job, got back to living a normal life, and slowly everything calmed down again. Except I went all gray. People who saw me in the street didn’t even recognize me.

My relatives are the kind of people who, if they ever did [find out], wouldn’t even hand me over to be killed — they’d kill me themselves. They simply wouldn’t tolerate the shame it would bring on them. They knew I’d been arrested, but they didn’t know why. They asked the police officer [who arrested me], but he just said, “All they told me was to bring him in. I don’t know anything.”

My relatives fired back, “But he doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t get into fights. He doesn’t do anything!” The officer told them that they’d heard a rumor that I’m gay. “How could he be gay! He’s got a family! He can’t be!” they said.

But they didn’t exactly put out a search party for me. They figured, “Well, let’s wait and see.”

When I came home, I told them, “They were looking for this one guy, my friend, and they wanted to find him through me.” Later, one of my relatives took me aside and said, “There was such a terrible rumor about you that I almost died of shame when I heard it.” “It’s not true,” I told him. “How am I gay? You know me well. It’s all lies.”

Right after this, there was a wave of arrests. How did it happen? A certain hysteria overtook Chechnya — they banned the sale of vodka. Now it’s basically impossible to buy alcohol anywhere except at a couple of places during specific hours. Everyone switched to pills: “Lyrica” [an antiepileptic drug], “Tropica” [medication used to dilate the pupils], and psychedelic drugs.

A lot of us got hooked, and one guy got brought in because of the pills. Naturally, they took his phone and went digging. And what do you know? They find the Hornet app [a gay dating network] and photos. And then they started bringing in everyone. All this grief because of one random arrest.

In Tzotzin-Yurt, they held people in the old barracks, near the bridge. I know this for a fact. I've got a relative who works there and doesn't know that I’m in on this. He calls me up and says, “Hey, did you hear the news? There are so many gays in Chechnya!" I tell him, “Please, what gays are there in Chechnya?” He says, “It turns out there are at least 200. That’s how many have been brought in. They even caught that one guy,” he added, referring to a local celebrity. I tell him, “No way!” and he answers, “He’s definitely here. They’ve given us the power to draw them all out.”

I ask him why, and he says, “To humiliate them. They’re calling in their relatives, putting the camera on them, and telling them, ‘Well, this is your guy. Do something about him. We’ll do it, or you will. Either you kill him or we will. You choose which is better.’” And they film it, probably so they’ll have evidence for later.

Then they grabbed one guy who I knew. Later, they let him go home, where he died two days later. I know the names of the men killed by their own relatives.

There was also this one guy from either Poland or Germany. He used to come and go whenever. He was an upbeat guy. The last time he came to Chechnya, they caught him, too. They held him for 40 days. By the time he got out, his legs had turned black.

Why did I make a run for it? One day, my old neighbor called to say some soldiers had come by, knocking on my door and asking for me. She lied to them, saying she didn’t know where we’d moved. That same day, they arrested one of my friends. They let him go almost right away. He wasn’t the one they were looking for. But he overheard them mention my name, saying they were after me. He called and told me, “Hide! Disappear! They’re coming for you.”

I got scared, and started running from one friend to another. I didn't trust anybody. Then a friend convinced me to call for help. Other friends had told me about this [the Russian LGBT Network’s hotline], but I didn’t believe them. All things [including secrets] are for sale, and I’ve got a family. Not for myself, but for my family, I’ve got to stay alive. I have kids, and I can’t take risks.

But I listened to my friend, and I trusted him, and now I am where I am today. My parents don’t know where I am. I didn’t even tell my own wife. I lied to her, saying that someone I know had offered me a job in another town. She told me, “If it’s a good job, then go.”

I’m only just now coming round. I’m drinking glycine and taking different medications. To hell with it. I didn’t say anything when they beat me. But mentally… Mentally, they killed me back there. If it weren’t a sin, I would have hanged myself already. I jump out of bed in terror at night. I step outside and I’m constantly worried that somebody is watching me. I’m afraid of the telephone. A car stops, and I start walking the other way. I don’t even want to live in Moscow. These people are everywhere.

There’s no turning back for me now. I don’t know where I’m headed, and I don’t know what will happen to me. There’s just one thing I know: If I can settle down somewhere, I’ll bring my family over. And not just my children. Even my grandkids will never set foot in Chechnya. As long as I live, I won’t let them go back. I fear for them. I know how attached my children are [to me]. My daughter won’t even go to bed, when I’m not nearby. She cries, you know? And I can’t go home to her.

Why is this happening to me? I want to live a peaceful life, like all people do. I just want to work, eat, drink, and pay my taxes. I didn't mess with anybody, and I didn’t ask anything from anyone. I’ve worked my whole life, and I’ve been nothing but useful.

I can’t help that I’m gay. I never marched in any gay pride parades. There’s no need to kill someone in my situation. And I don’t think there’s any need to expose people, either. You should try to help somehow. Maybe you hospitalize them. Maybe there’s a cure. Or maybe you just have to live with it.