Without a doubt, there are worse places to be today. A late-summer sun burns into the thick mist shrouding the Lusatian range and aspiring thrill-seekers whizz round a corner of the lake spread out before us, towed along a circuit on water skis by a wheel and wire contraption reminiscent of a fallen ski lift. Suliman turns the rows of spitted meat over to brown the other side, the children splash around at the waters edge, trying to retrieve a lost ball without getting wet. The meat roasting over glowing charcoal should be mutton, but only beef was available in the sleepy local grocery store. The peppery meal is called sashlik--it's a typical Chechan dish, yet for nearly two years the smell of it has wafted over a panel apartment block in Stras pod ralskem in the northern Czech Republic.
Daniel-bek Dagaev is a building engineer. His skills are greatly in demand in Grozny, his home town, but he cannot return until the military has accomplished what Duma member Andrei Piontkowsky called "the final solution" in Chechnya. A five-week clandestine train journey brought him away from the horror of Grozny, along with his wife and five children. "We went over the river at night," he recalls, eyes firmly focused on the obscured television tower above Liberec. "Then through the forest and to the town where my sister-in-law lives. From there, we got on a train..." The journey was neither fast nor cheap. Every leg demanded cash bribes to bandits, soldiers and police and one single hitch could have sent the Dagaevs back into the hell they had escaped, penniless and scorned.
"I had to go," Daniel repeats. "Just a week after they came to my nephew's house. They beat him while his wife was forced to watch at gunpoint. Then they destroyed his house and left." His nephew's story is not unusual--he was, in fact, on the lucky side of the norm in Chechnya, where unidentifiable corpses are as common as sunsets. He fears for the lives of his sons, who would most certainly be murdered were they to return. "Yes, he's only twelve, but (the Russian soldiers) think it's better to kill him now than fight him later."
Mohammud, Daniel's oldest son at 17, plans to begin the study of medicine in Prague this autumn. A strict Muslim, he frowns on the glass of wine his elders allow themselves this afternoon. He's adapted to the itinerant life of a refugee, but obviously seeks a return to normal life. "I'm tired," Daniel says in his frank, year-old English (he's taught himself from a textbook and is happy to have someone to practice with). "Half of these people here stay for only a few weeks--they're economic refugees; most of them aren't trying to escape death. They drink, they're loud. This is no place to raise a family."
Daniel works as a laborer for about 4000 crowns a month even though he is a university-trained engineer. "I need to feed my family," he explains, and laughs, saying nothing when asked if mafia types ever visit the camps in search of cheap, illegal labor. To be fair, the Czech government is not rich and many Czechs live in conditions equal to that of the Dagaevs, but Daniel's family bears the stigma of being foreign on top of being reduced to poverty--they lack the money to "convince" Czech officials of their need for official asylum. As the afternoon wears on, the conversation--conducted, ironically, in Russian--continues to dwell on Chechnya. Their stigma has become their essence, the defining trait of the family; the man watching his son walk back up the trail home is no longer Daniel-bek Dagaev, civil engineer, he is a refugee from Chechnya.
Russian is, of course, the common language of the Czechs, Chechans and Russians gathered around the picnic blanket, and the politics of Russia have affected them all deeply. Petra Prohaskova, a Czech, was one of the few reporters who managed to follow the first Chechan war and most of the second without being killed or scared off. She still wants to go back, as a matter of fact, but she's not allowed. Declared persona non grata by the Russian government, she has been living in Prague and, with the support of friends, has been petitioning Russian and Western leaders alike to revoke the ban.
Her coverage of the first war in Chechnya, which culminated in a trip to present her information to the US congress, was far from low-profile and it isn't hard to imagine why the Russians don't want her back, but she's given up journalism for the moment. Fifty-two children are keeping her busy enough without writing stories.
She and her husband, an Ingush (and thus a citizen of Russia), have started a home for children orphaned by the war. Based in the family's house in Grozny, the home is currently being expanded to accomodate 200 children. Although supported by relief groups, the brunt of the effort is borne by the family. Prohaskova often drives through countless military checkpoints to Ingushetia, just over the border, where milk and yogurt are more readily available. The risks, for a young, non-Russian woman no less, don't bear repeating.
Despite a personal letter from Czech President Vaclav Havel and various petitions and letters to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prohaskova cannot return to her husband and what she considers to be her home. "The Russian's don't believe they married for love," explains Milada Sigmundova. Love is apparently a hot commodity in Russia.
Milada Sigmundova helps to organize aid for the refugees around the Czech Republic and in Chechnya through the Prague Women's Club, which she helped to found. Donations to their efforts, and to Prohaskova's orphanage in Grozny, can be made by contacting her at [email protected].
"I've been living with friends for all this time," says Prohaskova, "Now I just want to go home." Just like in the Dagaev's case, exactly when her wish will be granted is a matter risky to speculate upon. "(The FSB) locked up my apartment in Moscow and everything else is in Grozny," she says with a determined, steady anger which gives some clue to the temperament of this woman, who spent so much time exposing one of the cruelest and most indecipherable battle zones in recent memory.
Still the water skiers carve a circular path in their corner of the lake. One of them falls and is dragged along by the wire for a few meters before he gives up and lets go, leaving him stranded in the middle of the lake. A good friend's favorite platitude comes to mind: "Want in one hand and shit in the other. See which one fills first." For a woman who wants to see her family again, a young man torn between love of his home and a desire to study, and for a man too old and too educated to be sweating away with a shovel all day, it's hard to balance the modesty of their desires against the pile they've been handed.
Perhaps the saddest part of the story is the legacy of hatred and fear this war will bring down on the next generation of Russians and Chechans. There is no Chechan army per se. Perhaps there was once an agenda--a force unified in a focused struggle. Now, after two years of torture, rape, bombing and execution there remain what can only be called partisans. "We didn't have much," Dagaev says, "but half of the food was always given to those fighting the Russians. The idea that we gave them money and weapons is just stupid, they bought weapons from the Russians themselves." The behavior of the occupying force has garanteed that generations of Chechans will continue to fight them.
Young Mohammud's religious zeal is very much a symbol of his own, personal revolt, even though Islam is the traditional religion of Chechnya. More than anything, it confirms and supports his love for the nation he cannot return to and enforces his hatred of those who have exiled him.
Working with the children of this region has been "an amazing experience" for Steve, an undergraduate volunteer from the Chicago. "I've worked with kids from the southside (of Chicago) for years, but this is really unique, really tough. It's been a great experience."
Every week volunteers organized by Jana Dluhasova and Pecka, the NGO she helped start, visit children in the various camps scattered around the Czech Republic. Everyone at Stras speaks of this 25 year-old Czech and her team of volunteers with an impressive reverence. "They come and take the children camping, swimming, on trips to nearby cities," Daniel nods, "They're very good people."
The collective "kids" come from all over, not just Chechnya, which is part of the small miracle being performed by the Pecka group. "It's important for them to belong to a society, not to feel that they are isolated and alone," Steve explains. Because of the activities Pecka leads, the kids have a chance to escape the world of ethnic division they were born into.
Jana brought years of experience working with street kids in Central America to Kosovo, where she volunteered in the refugee camps. After seeing the waste in Kosovo she prefers to take a 100% hands on approach with Pecka volunteers, four of whom are "full-time". "It was crazy there," she recalls, "Three trucks would arrive--one for the refugees, two for us. Everyone needed a translator--people actually paid (NGOs) to go there and work. They had no idea what to expect or how to help (the refugees)."
"What we do is more than a full-time job. It's not like: work with the kids from 3 to 8, then hey, it's 8, time to go," Dluhasova explains. Volunteers are given a place to stay in Prague (usually at Jana's apartment) and a small daily allowance for food (50 kc, or about $1.50). Thanks to the shallow and shortsighted policies flowing from Stanislav Gross' Interior ministry, these volunteers are the only sign of graciousness and concern many of the refugee children will see during their stay in the Czech Republic.
Western criticism of Russia's misguided policies in Chechnya has been curiously muted, due, in no small part, to President Bush's tacit approval of President Putin. The interests of Western businesses like Williams petroleum (which recently thanked Russia's Yoneft for their timely delivery of an unusually large order of crude oil) are, without a doubt, a driving force behind this policy of appeasement. The fact that the majority of Russia's crude either originates in or passes through the North Caucuses should raise some eyebrows, especially since the Russian military is complicit in raiding the illegal taps, which dot the Baku pipeline. (For more on the politics involved, refer to A Dirty War by Anna Politkovskaya.)
For now, numbers are not enough. There are metric tons of material condemning this modern holocaust, but nothing is done to stop it. The genocide continues, despite Russia's assurances that the war there was over in January 2001. A few brave people continue to risk their lives to make sure these facts come to light and every human being with any moral sense has a clear mandate to help the victims of this disaster in any way they can. Failure to do so will surely result in a final, damning condemnation of the already suspect Western pretense to morality.