It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in New York City, and people were outdoors walking their dogs, playing with their kids in Central Park, meeting friends for brunch. I was walking south, alone. I did not call anyone because I knew where most of my friends would be — protesting against Vladimir Putin‘s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Wandering the crowd in Times Square, I saw my friends Dasha and Sasha, whose families were still in Ukraine. We hugged. The crowd was chanting slogans while we silently cried. Then Dasha looked at me and said something that I was not expecting to hear: “Sorry you have to go through this again.”
Her words led me to a question that I still can not find the answer to: What terrifies me the most — the memories of growing up in the mid-1990s during Russia’s vicious, 10-year war against Chechnya, or watching civilians die in Russian attacks on Ukraine from the screen of my own “comfort” while doing my best to help them escape it?
Earlier that week, my friend was trying to make the hardest decision of her life and asked me for advice: Should she evacuate her mother from Kyiv to the border with Poland or leave her with relatives where her mother felt safe, hoping that the war would end quickly? I had to tell her that I spent most of my childhood in shelters hiding from bombs, in refugee camps and barracks, freezing while trying to find a safe place to stay. I watched innocent people die at the hands of their relatives, ruthless soldiers burning alive civilians trapped in shelters. I would do whatever it took for her mother not to see that. She ended up arranging for her mother to leave, to join the more than 3.5 million people who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24.
I was eight years old in 1994 when Boris Yeltsin, the former president of Russia, started the war against separatists in Chechnya — a vicious war that could have been avoided but lasted for 10 long years. I remember the winter day that my aunt came to our house screaming, “Children, you have 10 minutes to pack winter clothes. We have to leave now! ” I could not understand what she was talking about. I sat on the couch crying, watching the chaos of my sisters packing things and trying to find more bags. I started gathering up my coloring books, along with a box filled with treasures and dolls that I hid under my bed. My mom saw this, sat on the floor next to me, put away the box, and said, “You will not need this, pack only warm clothes. I promise we will be back for your toys once this ends. ” Little did we know that what the Russian authorities were calling a “campaign” or “conflict,” and never a war — sound familiar? —Was just getting started.
For a couple of years, Chechen rebels, numbering only a few thousand people (mostly men who had to become warriors overnight), brought the Russian army to its knees. As my grandmother used to say, “Russia can capture and destroy our cities and villages, but it will never be able to defeat us.” Putin witnessed that resistance. The first war ended in a sort of stalemate, with the signing of a peace treaty, and for a little while it seemed as though there was some sort of peace and sanity. But the deal only fed Putin’s desire to complete the job when he was appointed prime minister in 1999, before taking over as president. That year Putin and his security services sponsored a series of extraordinary attacks on apartment buildings in three cities that killed 307 people, claiming Chechen rebels were to blame, and using the false flag attack as a pretext for the second war. It was even more brutal than the first. As many as 200,000 civilians died. Even foreign press and humanitarian organizations found it difficult to access the war zone.
For years, Chechens were — and are still — demonized in Russian society. Hatred and racism against the darker-skinned people of the Caucasus were exploited and whipped up while our families had to become nomads and face it all. We moved during the second war to Taganrog, the birthplace of Anton Chekhov. No one would give my father a job because of his Chechen last name, so he took his Ukrainian Jewish mother’s maiden name instead. I had to catch up on everything I missed in school during wartime, and also had to learn how to defend myself because of the constant harassment and bullying. In the early 2000s, few people in Russia had racism in their lexicon.
It was hard to live outside Chechnya at that time, but it was even harder when we moved back to the republic. Everyone faced years of struggle and poverty without electricity, running water, or gas. We had to manage life under the ruins of our house, where the doll box was buried alongside my childhood. Every day I dream of two things: that it would not rain, because I have never been a big fan of sleeping in a wet bed, and access to a hot shower.
It is terrifying in the context of Ukraine to be back to these frightening memories of my childhood. Sometimes I wonder how different my life could have been if we had not been seen by the European countries as extremists and all these countries had opened their borders to Muslim families running from a violent war. Today, so many European countries are rightly opening their borders to help refugees fleeing war. If only they would do the same with those fleeing unrest in places like Syria and Afghanistan.