June 27, 2017

The Gay Men Who Escaped Chechnya





 Gay men in Chechnya were rounded off like livestock at the farm




In late February or early March, Ali was in his apartment in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, when he got a phone call from a local police officer. “Get dressed, we have to take you in,” the man said. Ali took the sim card out of his cell phone, inserted it into a spare, blank phone, and hid his regular handset. By the time he was done, two police officers were knocking on the door. They put him in a car and drove to a nearby street, where two cars were waiting. The men put him in the back seat of one of the vehicles and got in with him.

“They pushed my head down so I wouldn’t see where we were going,” Ali, who is around thirty years old, told me. Soon, the car pulled up to an unmarked building. Ali saw two men he knew standing in front: “Their faces were all swollen from beatings. One of them said, ‘I told them everything.’ ” 

Ali was taken into a room. “Their boss is sitting there, sprawled out,” he continued. “He says, ‘You take it up the ass.’ I start denying everything.” The boss asked Ali about another man, whom Ali knew to be gay. That morning, the man had called Ali and suggested that they meet. “I knew that if they tortured him he’d break and give everyone up,” Ali told me. He said to the police that he knew the man only as a business client. “They started beating me. I kept saying that I don’t know anything, I’ve never even heard that there were gays here in Chechnya.”

The men took him down to a basement, where there was a large central room, with cells and small chambers around the perimeter. In one chamber, officers dunked prisoners’ heads in a vat of ice water; in another, they attached clothespin-like clips wired to a large battery to earlobes or extremities. The cells held men and women, who screamed as they were beaten with fists and batons.
The jailers tortured Ali and then brought him back upstairs to face the boss, then back to the basement for more torture, then back up. Each time Ali was interrogated, the boss demanded that he admit that he was homosexual and give him the names of other gay men. Each time, Ali denied everything. He knew that his phone would yield no information.
 
Ali lost track of time. Eventually, he was thrown into a cell and left there without food. Ali counted the days by the number of times he was allowed to perform his ablutions, then to drink the dirty water. He had seven drinks of water in all, which means that his captivity lasted more than a week.
Then Ali was released, and instructed not to turn off his phone; his jailers told him to expect a call.

It wasn’t the first time Ali had been attacked because of his sexuality. On three occasions, he had been entrapped, beaten, and robbed. Most of the gay Chechen men I have interviewed have stories of being entrapped—usually, by someone, they met online—and beaten, sometimes raped, and later often blackmailed.

What occurred in Chechnya in late winter went beyond beatings and blackmail. Ali appears to have been one of the first men to be swept up in the recent wave of detentions of gay men, carried out on orders from the top of the Chechen government. Those who were brought in and later released issued dire warnings on Russian social networks, in closed groups for Chechen gay men.

On April 1st, Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper with a long and distinguished track record of reporting from Chechnya, published an article claiming that it had been able to confirm more than a hundred arrests and three deaths resulting from this sweep. A report by Human Rights Watch, issued in late May, suggests that the raids began in the last week of February when a young man was arrested for using drugs. The police found photographs of men on his phone, along with social-media posts and messages that led them to identify him as gay.

Under torture, the man reportedly gave up the names of others, and the police began arresting them. Some media reports have claimed that Chechnya has confined gay men to “concentration camps,” but survivors’ testimony points to the existence of half a dozen detention facilities, where men are held for as long as a couple of weeks. In many cases, they are tortured. Some have been released, but others have been handed over to their relatives, who, according to survivors, are expected to kill gay family members. Following media reports of the purges, the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, declared that gay Chechens did not exist. Kremlin spokespeople have for the most part dismissed or laughed off questions about the violence. One spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested to a Finnish journalist that Kadyrov might organize a tour so that he could see for himself whether gays existed in Chechnya—an offer that sounded like a threat.

Chechnya is one of the eighty-five constituent regions of the Russian Federation and is ostensibly a secular state. In reality, it is a state within a state, run by Kadyrov, who is supported by Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov’s Chechnya is a more extreme version of Russia: a mafia state that uses religious rhetoric to enforce control over its citizens. Putin draws some of his authority from a close relationship to the Russian Orthodox Church; Kadyrov relies on a crude homespun version of Islam. Behavior including drinking (which is technically legal), drug use (which is not), women dressing immodestly, women smoking, contact of any sort between unmarried women and men, and open sexual expression is policed by law enforcement and by extended families.

Islam has served as Chechnya’s cultural glue for the past two decades. In the early nineteen-nineties, Chechens overwhelmingly supported a secular movement to secede from Russia. Moscow responded by waging war, which, between 1994 and 1996, decimated the region. The next wave of resistance coalesced around the mosques. When Russia launched its second offensive on Chechnya, in 1999, it faced men who identified as Islamic fighters. The pro-Moscow government that was finally installed in the aughts has harnessed much of the religious rhetoric to fortify its own power, while also persecuting anyone who identifies with strands of Islam that it deems radical. While many Chechens have only the most superficial familiarity with the Quran, their daily lives have been profoundly transformed: virtually all women now cover themselves, drinking has been severely restricted, and any hint of sexual expression has been banished.

L.G.B.T. people have been a prime target of Kremlin propaganda since 2012. That year, Putin returned to the Presidency for a third term, amid mass protests. In response, the Kremlin started queer-baiting the protesters. A succession of cities and, eventually, the federal parliament passed bills banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors.” Television presenters raged against imaginary homosexual recruiters of Russian children. (At the time, I was living in Russia and was active in protests against the regime and the anti-gay legislation.) Anti-gay violence became so pervasive that a café in central Moscow posted a notice saying that attacks would not be tolerated on the premises.

Two days before I interviewed Ali, a Russian businessman named German Sterligov opened his fifth gourmet food shop in Moscow; he also has four in St. Petersburg. All display a sign that says “No fags allowed.” Russian media have generally paid more attention to the stores’ high prices than to the signs at their entrances, but, on the occasion of the latest opening, a popular online magazine based in Moscow published a column calling the sign out as a poor attempt at a joke. The piece, signed by a well-known book critic, a straight married woman, closed with the words “Sorry to go all humorless on you, faggots.”

Vigilante groups that entrap gay men online and then humiliate and torture them on camera now operate with impunity in many cities. According to Immigration Equality, an American organization that helps L.G.B.T. asylum seekers, Russia has consistently been among the top five countries from which their clients flee; hundreds of people have sought asylum in the United States and in Western Europe.

After Ali was released, he went home to his wife, who was pregnant, and their two small children. On the way, he spent the money he had in his pocket—six hundred rubles, a little more than ten dollars—on a bag of candy. When he got home, his four-year-old daughter, whose usual greeting was “What have you brought me?,” didn’t even look at it. “We just spent two hours sitting there holding each other and crying,” Ali told me, and cried again. He told his wife that the police had detained him because they were looking for someone they thought he might know. The story was true, as far as it went.

Many of the men caught up in the sweep are married. There is no blueprint for being gay in Chechnya—most of the men I interviewed talked about times when they were convinced that there were no other gay men in their land—and the pressure to marry and have children is immense. Ali had always wanted children. After his first wife discovered that she was infertile, she left him. In his second marriage, he told me, “Allah gave me children.” Ali hoped that having a family “would make me a man.” He even thought that it had worked, because he had no trouble having sex with his wife. But when he tried to test his manliness by having affairs with other women he found himself unable to perform. “What do you think this means?” he asked me. “Why don’t I have a problem sleeping with my wife?”

Ali was careful to protect his family. “I only ever hooked up,” he told me. “I never had a relationship, even though I really wanted to. Because I knew that then there would be text messages and all that. There was this time when this man sat on a bench in front of my apartment building for days on end, waiting for me to come to him, and I so wanted to, but I knew I couldn’t.” Ali was protecting himself, too: “Many of my relatives are in law enforcement. My brother would have slaughtered me like a chicken.”

Ali didn’t consider leaving Chechnya. He and his family moved to a new apartment—the move was planned—and he returned to work. A few weeks later, a neighbor from their old apartment building called to say that law enforcement had come looking for Ali. Then he got a phone call from a gay friend, Nokhcho, who said that a mutual friend had been apprehended, and had given up Ali’s name and address. Nokhcho said, “You have to get out of here.”

Ali told his wife that he had to go to work. Then he drove two and a half hours to the neighboring region of Dagestan, where the chances of being detained by Chechen law enforcement are lower. “But I couldn’t pretend to be at work for days on end,” he said. He started coming home for quick meals before leaving again for Dagestan or North Ossetia, another nearby region. “Often, I didn’t spend the night at home,” he said. “And, when I was home, I was afraid to go out to the store, and afraid not to, because how was I going to explain it to my wife? It was clear that they’d get me.”

Nokhcho is twenty-eight, university-educated, and uncommonly well spoken. Like Ali, he has a dark trimmed beard and light eyes. Unlike Ali, who has a paunch and came to our meeting wearing track pants, Nokhcho has a gym body and wore a tight T-shirt and jeans that looked made for a dance floor in Chelsea.

Nokhcho has managed to maintain a relationship with a man. His partner of five years is a distant relative—though, in Chechnya, no relative is really distant. Families have vast networks across cities and countries; they take care of one another, fostering orphaned children, providing shelter to relations for virtually any reason, and forming businesses together. The system of mutual interdependence has insured the survival of the Chechen people in spite of the violence of the past. Family has always been central to Nokhcho’s life. “I love all those family dinners, all those weekends with the family,” he said. “Because my partner and I are related, we are treated like we are brothers, so during all the holidays and family occasions we get to be together.” They even shared the responsibility for an elderly grandmother—technically, she was the grandmother of only one of them, but in the family structure, she belonged to both.

But families also act as enforcers of ever more brutally interpreted traditional law. Family members carry out so-called honor killings of women who are perceived to have transgressed by having inappropriate contact with men, and they will murder men who have brought shame upon the clan. Nokhcho told me, “If my family found out . . . And I’m not just talking about men—I mean, there are women in my family who would kill me.”
Nokhcho was detained in late March. He managed to talk his way out of captivity, but he was sure that it was a temporary reprieve. As a precaution, he cut off contact with all his gay friends—his “girlfriends,” he calls them—except for Ali.

In early April, Nokhcho got a call from an old “girlfriend” who had moved to Western Europe. He told Nokhcho to call the Russian L.G.B.T. Network, a St. Petersburg-based organization whose small staff coördinates the work of several dozen even smaller groups around the country. The Network has set up a hotline and an evacuation plan for gay Chechens. Nokhcho said, “I’m, like, ‘Is this a setup?’ ”

Nokhcho called the number and was told that the group could help him leave Chechnya, shelter him in Moscow, and eventually get him out of Russia. Nokhcho called Ali. The two men had been close friends for years, long enough to continue confiding in each other even as their acquaintances disappeared, each presumably given up by someone he had once trusted. Nokhcho told Ali about the L.G.B.T. Network. Ali said, “This is a setup.” But they had no other options.

The two men sent the L.G.B.T. Network their personal information, and the group bought them airplane tickets to Moscow. Ali told his wife that he had a job in a large Russian city. Nokhcho’s partner stayed behind to continue caring for their grandmother.

In May, a group of Russian activists who work with the L.G.B.T. Network introduced me to a number of men who are in hiding in Moscow; eight of them sat down for interviews with me. As anti-gay violence has spread across the country, the Network has tried not only to document the situation but also to provide some limited services to victims. Staffers set up a hotline for reporting attacks and on two occasions organized what they call “evacuations,” in which they help people threatened by anti-gay violence to move to larger, and theoretically safer, cities in Russia. But they had little experience working with any of the predominantly Muslim republics of the North Caucasus, which the activists, like most Russians, perceive as a strange and separate world.

When activists heard about the purges in Chechnya, the Network set up an e-mail address and a phone number for Chechens to call. “These middle-of-the-night calls started pouring in,” the person who answers the calls told me. The staffer, who asked not to be identified, had never been to Chechnya and knew little about it before the nighttime calls began. The conversations went on for hours, “because people are trying to figure out if they can trust me.”

The Moscow operation is run by a small team, including two lesbians, Olga Baranova and Tatiana Vinnichenko. At the time I visited, they had helped thirty-five people leave Chechnya. Another ten had left independently and asked for help once they had done so. That number continued to grow after I left Moscow. There were also four people with whom the activists had lost contact after buying their tickets.

They didn’t have much of a plan for what they would do with the Chechens after they arrived because it was assumed that they would quickly leave Russia. They did not realize that, even under the best of circumstances, refugee visas to safe countries would take months to process. More than forty Chechens are now living in temporary housing arranged by Russian activists.

Baranova is a thirty-nine-year-old former advertising executive who went freelance six years ago when she had a baby. A year later, she decided that she wanted to spend time with other same-sex families with children. The Kremlin’s anti-gay campaign was getting under way, so Baranova started an L.G.B.T. community center in Moscow.

The center, which opened in late 2015, occupies three plain rooms along with a single hallway in a dilapidated office building in central Moscow. There are film screenings, support groups, and two choirs, one for transgender women learning to reach the higher registers and one for casual singers. Now the center also serves as the Moscow headquarters for the Chechen rescue-and-shelter operation. The team includes an administrative assistant, who dispenses aid money raised by people all over the world; a psychotherapist, who works with the escapees; a psychologist, who takes down detailed testimony that will, it is hoped, someday be used to prosecute those responsible for the violence; and a medical coördinator. The escapees’ medical needs are vast. Some require care for injuries sustained in captivity; one man arrived with a shattered jaw, which had to be wired shut. Others were unable to seek routine care in Chechnya, for fear of being outed. Baranova said that a number of the Chechens are infected with H.I.V. Most of them have learned their status only since arriving in Moscow.

Baranova has short brown hair and a round face. She uses a kick scooter and a motorized scooter to visit the Chechens, who live in rented apartments within roughly two miles of one another. She comes across as a no-nonsense lesbian den mother. She arrives, greets the men with hugs and kisses and a tender “Privet, moy khoroshiy”—roughly, “Hello, my darling”—and quickly proceeds to go through a long checklist. Are the men taking their meds? Are they following the safety and security protocols? The Chechen survivors fear that Kadyrov’s forces—Kadyrovtsy, as they call them—will track them down. Baranova strongly encourages the men to discard their old phones and use only sim cards and handsets issued to them in Moscow. She sets up V.P.N. Internet connections, to insure that their online communications are not traceable.

Once the team realized that they would be sheltering Chechen survivors indefinitely, they established a system that includes what they call “quarantine.” A new arrival from Chechnya has housed alone in an apartment. The staff assesses the man’s mental state, physical condition, and, especially, his trustworthiness, by checking his story against those of others. Sometimes they also try to determine whether the man has sexual connections to any others in their care—the most direct way of confirming that someone is gay. Still, no one uses his real name. The men are instructed to call one another and the activists by nicknames. (As an extra precaution, the names used to identify the men in this article are different from these nicknames.) Face-to-face contact is limited to no more than half a dozen people. When I talked to the men’s therapist, he complained that he has to work with the survivors individually, even though group therapy would be his preferred method for addressing their trauma.

Some of the safety measures are hard won. In May, Baranova was helping a lesbian who came to Moscow with her husband, a gay man. Marrying another gay person has long been a way for queers in Chechnya to create a life. But the relationship was strained, and once they left Chechnya they planned to separate. The woman was terrified that her family would pursue her, so Baranova arranged for her to leave Russia. A few hours before Baranova was scheduled to pick the woman up to go to the airport, she got a voice message from her. She still has it stored on her phone, and I got the impression that she had listened to it repeatedly. It began with ambient noise. “See, it sounds like she is on her way somewhere,” Baranova said.

“I’m going to try to get rid of this number,” the woman said. “But, if you get any calls from it, please don’t take them. Goodbye.”
Baranova went to the meeting place that she and the woman had arranged and waited for several hours. The woman never showed up. In mid-June, news came that the woman had died in Chechnya, apparently from kidney failure. Her friends assume that she was poisoned by her family.

Human-rights activists say that women have not been targeted in the purge. But, as one activist pointed out to me, this in itself is a measure of men’s freedom when compared with women’s. Women cannot simply decide to travel outside Chechnya, for work or for leisure. When women are targeted for their sexuality, usually they are unable to escape, even if help is available for them elsewhere.

Vinnichenko, the chair of the Russian L.G.B.T. Network, is forty-four. She has curly red hair and wears wire-rimmed glasses. Until a couple of years ago, she was an associate professor of Russian at the Northern (Arctic) Federal University, in the city of Arkhangelsk, where she also ran the local L.G.B.T. organization, Rakurs, or Viewpoint. In 2012, when the political crackdown began, Vinnichenko was dragged into court on charges of failing to register Rakurs as a “foreign agent.” She was also the subject of stories in the local media which alleged that the head of the university, a woman, was intimately involved with Vinnichenko and provided cover for “gay propaganda.” After a gay male colleague was fired, Vinnichenko quit and moved to Moscow to live with her longtime partner, a crane operator.

In an upbeat way, Vinnichenko told me about her heart breaking over and over again since she started working with the Chechen men, when she heard their stories, witnessed their tears, and cried her own—and also about experiencing intense shame. “The first guy I was supposed to help, we met in the street, and he comes wearing a hoodie, the hood pulled over his face so that all I can see is the beard,” she said. “It’s one of those beards—no mustache, but bushy around the chin.” Vinnichenko circled her own jaw with her hand. “And we get in the elevator, the doors close, I’m looking at his beard and thinking, It would only take a second for him to stab me to death, and no one would ever know. That’s how strong my own Islamophobia was. And, of course, he turned out to be the sweetest kid.”

“And every time Elmo laughs we drink.”

The embassies of Western countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, are among Russian L.G.B.T. organizations’ greatest sources of support, both rhetorical and financial. “We are always working with the embassies—they are constantly calling and inquiring about our work,” Vinnichenko told me. “So I was sure that when this happened, practically a genocide—well, it’s not a genocide precisely but a crime against humanity—we would get humanitarian visas right away.” The activists had only a vague awareness of the West’s crisis of empathy toward refugees, especially Muslim ones. Most embassy representatives said immediately that their countries would be unable to help.

 The New Yorker

The complete article appears in other versions of the July 3, 2017, issue, with the headline “Forbidden Lives” on the newyorker.com


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