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‘We will set them straight’ In Berlin, an anonymous gang is terrorizing Chechen refugees for ‘choosing the wrong path’

Meduza
15:35, 25 may 2017

A refugee center in Berlin. The center accommodates up to 720 people, mostly Syrian, Afghan and Chechen refugees. An average refugee would spend a year here before finding accommodation of their own. Berlin, January 29, 2015

Photo: Christian Marquardt / Getty Images

Today, Germany hosts a population of several tens of thousands of Chechens. Most of them have arrived over the past few years in search of asylum. Meduza has published a report on how Chechens attempt getting to the European Union by crossing the border between Belarus and Poland. At Meduza's request, Dmitry Vachedin, a journalist now residing in Germany, has studied the life of Berlin's Chechen community and learned of an armed gang, the members of which threaten their compatriots with death for immoral conduct.

On a late September evening in 2016, nude photographs of twenty-year-old Madina* were e-mailed en masse from her stolen cellphone to every person on her contact list. An hour later, the phone rang in her apartment in a quiet residential part of Berlin.

Madina was the one to answer; she recognized her uncle’s voice. The enraged uncle declared that he would not speak with “the prostitute” and demanded that she call her mother and father to the phone. The girl woke her parents. In her presence, the family conducted a meeting on her fate. The uncle, who lived in another European country, suggested that the issue be solved “within the family” and that the girl be taken back to their motherland and executed there. The uncle personally volunteered to commit the murder and even offered to come to Chechnya, though the entire family had had to flee the republic back in 2010 due to a conflict with local authorities. So, it was settled that Madina and her mother would take a flight to Chechnya that very morning to meet her uncle, who would perform the execution.

While her uncle got down to booking tickets, her mother was to guard Madina so as to ensure that the child did not run away. Her mother collected and hid Madina’s papers and then went to bed in the child’s room; her uncle planned to call before the morning namaz, which was around six o’clock. The women spent the rest of the night in silence; Madina’s mother refused to talk to her. They both feigned sleep. At around six, her uncle called and informed them that he had bought morning tickets from Berlin to Grozny with a transfer in Moscow.

At 6:31 AM sharp, when her mother left the room to wake her father, Madina grabbed her mother’s cellphone and called the police. She explained to the operator that she was a Muslim whose parents had just found out that she had a boyfriend (technically, this was untrue, but she was short of time) and now wanted to kill her. She gave her address and hung up. police were at their doorstep with seven minutes. Madina recalls that, upon seeing the police, her mother started hugging her. In her pajamas, without her belongings or papers, Madina left for a women’s residence for victims of abuse.

She did not call her parents for a week. They spoke to her kindly, saying they were sorry to have frightened her. Two weeks later, she returned home. As soon as she entered her apartment, her mother beat her up, cut her hair, made her put on a burqa and took her to see a gynecologist. After the gynecologist stated that Madina was still a virgin, the family decided to lock her up until the elders made up their minds about her fate. A week later, the girl managed to escape – again with the help of police – who took her away on the pretext of investigating the theft of her cellphone.

This, however, was not the end of her ordeal. When Madina left home, her case stopped being a familial issue and became a communal one. According to Madina, it is now the duty of any Chechen man, regardless of his ties to her of her family or lack thereof, to find her and punish her. In Berlin, there is has a gang of Chechens claiming to be in charge of such matters. “There is no such law; it is none of their business,” says Madina. “But it’s an unwritten code of conduct.”

“Having sworn on the Quran, we go out onto the streets”

In early May, a video was disseminated across WhatsApp channels used by Germany’s Chechen community. The video consisted of a background photo of an armed, masked man with his gun pointing at the camera. A male voice delivered the following message in Chechen: “As-salamu alaykum, Muslim brothers and sisters. Here, in Europe, certain Chechen women and men who look like women do unspeakable things. You know it; I know it; everybody knows it. This is why we hereby declare: For now, there are about 80 of us. [More] people are willing to join. Those who have lost their nohchalla (Meduza’s note: national identity or mentality), who flirt with men of other ethnic groups and marry them, Chechen women who have chosen the wrong path and those [creatures] who call themselves Chechen men – given half a chance, we will set all of them straight. Having sworn on the Quran, we go out onto the streets. This is our declaration of intent; do not say that you were not warned; do not say that you did not know. May Allah grant us peace and set our feet on the path towards justice.”

According to Meduza’s sources, this declaration was read by a representative of a Berlin-based gang of about one hundred members, headed by former henchmen of Dzhokhar Dudayev – a Chechen separatist leader. The “activists” have beaten up at least two Chechen girls in the past two weeks alone. (One of them is a resident of the Berlin borough of Neukölln). All Berliners of Chechen origin interviewed by Meduza are aware of the gang’s existence.

Our interviewees have admitted that at least half of population of local single Chechen girls have enough information on their cellphones to be considered “guilty”. Associating with men of other nationalities, smoking, drinking alcohol, visiting hookah lounges, discotheques, or even public swimming pools can cause communal wrath. A single photograph in a public WhatsApp chat can outcast an entire family and the rest of the community would be obliged to cease all communication with them. With everyone under suspicion and everyone responsible for one another, Chechen girls say they are sometimes approached by strangers in the street who chastise them for their appearance, including for wearing bright lipstick. The theft of a cellphone and the subsequent posting of compromising material is a hard blow; the dishonored person has no one to turn to and the one who posted the victim’s photos does not risk anything.

Meduza’s interviewees have noted on many occasions that expectations for behavior are more rigid and strict in Chechen emigrant communities than in Chechnya itself, where girls are even allowed to wear short skirts. This phenomenon has been dubbed “a competition in righteousness” between the anti-Kadyrov European expatriate community and Kadyrov-ruled Chechnya: each party seeks prove that they represent “righteous” Chechens. But their codes of conduct have a lot in common. “If Kadyrov finds out, he will send his men to take me to Chechnya,” fears a Chechen girl who lives in Berlin and is dating a foreigner.

In the fall of 2016, a young Chechen woman who later shared her story with Meduza was recorded on video while walking down the street and conversing talking with a non-Chechen man. That very evening, a few dozen unknown Chechen men drove up to her house in northern Berlin. The man she had had the audacity to be seen with was brutally beaten; he had almost all of his teeth knocked out. The young woman managed to hide.

“So here I am thinking: why does my private life concern [them] at all? I don’t know them. I don’t want to. I’m not their sister or daughter. My private life is no one else’s business,” says the interviewee. According to her and other Chechens, in spite of these threats, there are more and more “transgressors” of the moral code: Chechen girls attend German schools, whose curricula include classes on sexual education, or German language courses, where they meet people of other cultures.

Two girls told Meduza that they tried wearing a hijab and adhering to Chechen traditions, but could not “stand the hypocrisy of leading a double life.” “Even in a hijab, I was called a prostitute, for instance, for wearing eye make-up. And I thought: ‘Who am I trying to please?’” said one of the girls. “To gain everyone’s respect, you need to put on a headscarf, lower your eyes, and never leave home. But who would want such a life?” wonders the other.

Following her second escape from her family, Madina is in hiding from the Chechen community. She has shaved her head and wears colored contact lenses; she intends to change her name and undergo plastic surgery. “If you don’t change your name and your face, they will hunt you down and kill you,” she says. There is almost no way out for her: to change her name, she needs to apply to a Russian registration office, which would be as good as turning herself in. Though she graduated from a German high school with flying colors, the girl hardly ever leaves her apartment. It is simply dangerous. “I don’t want to be Chechen anymore,” she says.

A nation of violence

It is hard to assess the actual number of Chechens living in Berlin. According to newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany has accepted 36,000 Chechens in the past five years alone. The majority of them have stayed in Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg, in spite of authorities’ efforts to encourage their resettlement to Bavaria. In 2013, the city administration even tried “barring”

Berlin for Chechen refugees to prevent the formation of an overly large ethnic community in the area. Judging by the present situation, this attempt was far from successful. Even though Chechen refugees have a fairly low chance of being granted asylum – in 2016, only 2.8 percent of asylum requests were granted – the community is not growing any smaller. According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, mass deportations to Poland (the main point of entry for Chechens to Germany) or Russia are not common: in 2016, only 110 Chechens were deported to Russia. Chechens living in Berlin have also told Meduza about illegal ways of getting to Germany through Poland.

In the feature “When you come back, we’ll kill you,” Chechen Ilya Azar told Meduza about how hundreds of Chechens are trying to flee to Europe via Brest, Belarus.

German researchers confirm that Chechens do not receive a warm welcome once in Germany. “[Representatives of German policy-makers] are under the impression that the influx is caused not so much by conflict, but by rumors and unfounded ideas about the benefits and opportunities [refugees] can get from the German state; furthermore, it is covertly supported by Russia,” says Raphael Bossong, an expert from Berlin-based Foundation for Political Science and Politics. According to Bossong, German authorities are well aware of the situation at the Belarus-Poland border, where Polish officials prevent Chechens from entering their country and applying for asylum in violation of European laws. “However, I haven’t heard a single German politician show his or her indignation at this matter. Frankly, they are not too upset with Poles ‘playing dirty,’” Bossong said.

In order to legal the situation at the Belarus-Poland border, the European Union intends to sponsor the opening reception centers for Chechen refugees in Belarus. Bossong explicitly states that the only purpose of such centers would be to give Polish authorities legal means for “turning [Chechens] away” at the border – the EU is not too preoccupied with their fate on the Belorussian territory.

Brest Railway Station – an entry point to Europe for Chechen refugees November 14, 2016
Photo: Maxim Sarychau for Meduza

By letting the Poles do the “dirty work,” Germany guards itself from an excessive influx of Chechen refugees, whom it has no intention of integrating, said Bossong. “The forecast on integration does not seem sparkling to German authorities. Chechen men have trouble with employment due to their low level of education. In addition, they are believed to be under the influence of radicalized Muslims,” he said.

Ekkehard Maass, chairman of the German-Caucasian Society, believes that Russia “has imposed a stereotyped perception of a Chechen as a man of violence and terrorism on Europeans,” stressing that, in reality, the vast majority of Chechens living in Germany integrate successfully in their new society, and that only a small, marginal part of the immigrant community causes any trouble.

“Chechnya abides by three laws. First, there is the Russian Constitution – and this is the least important of the three. Second, there is Shariah law, imposed by Kadyrov. And, third, is the law of adat – traditional norms of conduct ingrained in the Chechen mentality,” explained Maass. According to him, the adat sometimes collides with German laws and can lead to serious conflicts, but these occasions are rare. “Some men beat their wives, but Russians do it more often,” he said.

When asked about violence against Chechen gays, Maass switches to Russian. “As for the persecution of gays, this issue is taboo; it is not up for discussion, and no one would ever confirm it has taken place,” says Maass. “Although it has, of course. I am personally acquainted with some of the victims. It should not be discussed; it is a sore subject.” Chechen Berliners interviewed by Meduza have not heard of prisons for gays in Chechnya and doubt that such prisons have ever existed. They presume that gays would be “slaughtered on the spot” in the republic, so there would be no need for special prisons.

Maass believes that the main challenge for Chechens in Germany is not integration or interaction with other community members. Their primary fear being shipped back to Russia, where they can suffer violence at the hands of Ramzan Kadyrov’s men. Other Chechens interviewed by Meduza have said the same thing. Maass has not heard of an armed gang claiming to defend Chechen traditions in Berlin.

Arriving Chechen refugees are mostly supervised by Russian-speaking social workers. Olga, a native of Western Ukraine, does not try to conceal her exasperation with the state of affairs. “They were accepted and [abandoned],” says she. “The system does not work at all.” According to Olga, while Chechens could have counted on state support prior to 2015, it is getting increasingly more difficult for them to secure housing or proper healthcare since Germany opened its borders to Syrian refugees.

Furthermore, Chechens have been left to struggle with a complex and rather illogical welfare system which is not unlike a lottery: you can be paid a hefty sum of money out of the blue, but you can also be refused help when you need it most. According to Olga, the most unbelievable rumors are spread through the network of Chechen refugee facilities, amongst them the possibility of ordering goods online without having to pay for them. As a result, many Chechens end up with multi-thousand euro debts after just a few months in Germany. Some even manage to incur debts of a few hundred euros simply by accumulating traffic fines. The arrival of Syrians has made things even worse. According to Olga, Chechens are considered to be “second-rate refugees.” She recalls occasions when Chechens were evicted from regular housing facilities to shipping containers due to an influx of Syrians.

However, the social worker believes that the main obstacle to Chechen integration is the ultra-conservative moral code the refugees adhere to. “They have come to Germany because they wanted to live in Germany, but they keep trying to turn it into Chechnya with its medieval ways,” exclaims Olga. “This inability and reluctance to integrate is extremely frustrating and typical of all migrants, not just Chechens. The only difference is that most other migrants come from the 20th century, not the times of feudalism.”

A volunteer teaching German to female refugees from Syria (on the left) and Chechnya (on the right) in a refugee center. Berlin, November 10, 2015
Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

“Stoning to death is the best way”

Valeed is in his early forties; he wears a broad beard without a mustache and baggy clothes. He had to flee Chechnya in 2012 on suspicion of being connected to the underground separatist movement. He is the prototype of a benign Chechen refugee: he has no ties with the criminal world or altercations with social workers. Together with his wife, mother, and four kids, he has been living in a refugee housing facility in one of Berlin’s suburbs for five years. The family has squeezed into a tiny three-bedroom apartment, where most of the floor space is occupied by beds. On the wall in the living room hangs an illustration of the Russian alphabet for the kids; the guests are treated to Russian salad, Korean-style carrots, cheese, and cake.

Valeed does not have a job and does not even attend German language courses. Nevertheless, he is a big fan of Germany, though in a somewhat peculiar way. He finds joy in drawing parallels between strict Islamic laws and comparably strict German regulations. “The Germans have never suppressed my religion,” he says. He dislikes his neighbors – Syrian and Afghan refugees – and calls them “rogue”. According to him, they are a nuisance and do not respect authority. Normally, Valeed is very careful in his choice of words; the only time he resorts to harsh language is when he speaks about gays. “Islam tells us that such people must be killed,” he says in a very reserved tone. “Stoning to death is the best way.”

Valeed also presumes that Islam prohibits any songs or dancing. He fails to explain why so many Chechens frequent Berlin’s night clubs. But his mother, who enters the room at this point, has the answer. “You mean men? Men are allowed to. But not girls; girls must not,” she says before retreating back into the kitchen. Thick curtains are drawn in every room of the apartment, which makes it rather stuffy; the women are in the kitchen, while the kids hide in one of the rooms. In the yard, “rogue” kids are playing – the children of Syrian, Afghan, and Romanian refugees. In spite of the late hour, they immensely enjoying their ride on the merry-go-round.

* Name has been changed at her request.

Dmitry Vachedin, Berlin