(Footsteps In The Dark series)
After the Boston Marathon bombing the United States was stunned to learn that the attackers were from some country that most Americans had never heard much about. The name Chechen comes up from time to time in TV shows and movies in American pop culture. And from time to time the media will drag out a story about Chechnya. But for many Americans who were around in the 90's it was simply one of those countries Russia was bombing into submission. Other than that, we couldn't have spotted the place on a map.
For some in America the question quickly became "why the hell are they even here". The immediate knee-jerk reactions included everything from fear to ethnic hatred and bigotry. Insults about the family were most common on social media outlets, yet hate filled tweets and status updates about Chechens all together were prolific. Two individuals had almost instantly painted an entire nationality an entire community as the "enemy".
So what do we know about Chechnya and it's people today?
There are currently less than 1,000 Chechens living in the entire United States. The vast majority of which are refugees seeking asylum from a devastating war perpetrated by old Soviet aggression. It is a war that Vladimir Putin himself helped carry out and a battle that continues under Putin's command. Thus why this diaspora of Chechen refugees is reluctant to go home today.
Their plight began when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It was that year that Chechnya declared itself independent of Russian rule. However in 1994 the Russians decided that they didn't care to let Chechnya out from under their boot. With a massive blitz style invasion the Russian bear rolled into Grozny. This battle would be the reason that many of Chechnya's civilians decided to take up the role of refugee rather than be subjected to Russian siege.
Accounts of extremely brutal guerrilla and urban warfare leaked out of Chechnya all throughout the 90's. Refugees told of civilians disappearing to never be heard from again when Russian troops occupied an area. Chechen men and boys were often the victims of Russian roundups that were meant to destroy morale amongst the Chechen community. The Chechen women and girls were kidnapped and subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Yet such war crimes committed by Russia's military were never prosecuted and the international community largely looked the other way.
Today the Chechen government still attempts to push the envelope when dealing with "mother Russia". This testing of it's limitations under Russian occupation keeps Chechnya at threat of further oppression by Putin's rule in Moscow. There is always the reality that war is never that far over the horizon as Putin waits for the slightest indiscretion to excuse another military showdown with "terrorists" in Chechnya.
For Chechen refugees around the world this persistent threat of a sudden outbreak of war in their homeland is reason enough to stay abroad. However for some the decision to remain a refugee may very well be out of their hands. Countries with an unstable relationship with Russia often play politics with these refugees. For these refugees the relationship their host countries have with Putin's regime determines whether or not they stay or go.
In Turkey the fear of forced repatriation is a reality that Chechens have to live with daily. Chechens in Turkey have never officially received refugee status. As "temporary guests" these Chechens are persistently faced with the threat of expulsion and extradition to Russia. Their fate currently relies upon the Erdogan regime and it's hospitality... something that the Occupy Gezi movement has placed at risk.
Across Eastern Europe the Chechen refugees face discrimination and isolation as their hosts governments play chess with Russia. In Georgia the Chechen community is almost constantly under threat of expulsion as the local government attempts to hold back another Russian offensive. The threat of politics leaves Chechens the only option of applying for asylum in Western European countries (a short term solution for many).
But the West isn't a safe bet for Chechen asylum seekers either.
Many Western European governments have also used Chechen refugees as chips in their games with Putin. The United States and Canada however have for the most part left the Chechen refugees off the table when attempting to maintain their stance with Moscow.
So why would all these Chechens want to stay away from Russian dominated Chechnya?
“If you go when they call you, you never come back."
~ Chechen female refugee talking about Russian soldiers.
Russia's war crimes in Chechnya has left a legacy of bitterness and terror in a community that wanted out from under Soviet boots. When the Russians used SCUD missiles, fighter jets, and artillery on Grozny in 1999 they sealed a level of hostility in Chechnya's soul that remains unparallelled. Acts of terrorism against Russia are the results of the seeds Russia sowed in the two Chechen Wars it carried out. Yet these acts of revenge are also the excuses Russia uses to continue pushing it's heel down upon Chechnya today.
An official stance of targeting Chechens by Russian police and military keeps Chechens in their homeland on edge. Disappearances of Chechens linked to resistance movements keeps Russia's dominance in the region. In this way Russia imposes as much terror upon Chechnya as it blames the Chechen community for. Through the constant application of steady pressure the Russian government encourages radicalism of both nationalist sentiment and religious ideology.
This reaction shown by Chechnya's fringe is however not a phenomena solely possessed by Chechens alone. It can be seen in every society that has ever had to live with the assiduous oppression of a tyrant. You can see the violent reaction of a community held under the boot of an oppressor in the history books of American society. When pushed to the limit of our own ability to tolerate exploitation by British dictators we rose up as guerrillas in a war that pitted violent militias against loyalists. Chechens have had to face the same in their history with Russia.
One can see the struggle of a people to obtain self-governance and the right to self determination in the history of Russia itself. Was it not the Soviets who rose up to overthrow the Tsars? Was it not Putin's role models that led violent and partisan wars against the ruling class? And is it not the Russian government today that acts as the Tsarists did when dealing with peoples' desire to determine how they would live and be governed?
Chechnya's issues with Russia may be far to complex to explain in a short blog post. But the direct correlation between the oppressive nature of their relationship to the annual growth of the Chechen diaspora cannot be ignored. As long as Russia insist upon dominating Chechnya the people of Chechnya will seek other ways to resist. Some will flee while others will fight. It pretty much boils down to that.
While I dare not speak for Chechens anywhere in the world. I can only imagine what it must be like to live so far from a place your family once called home. Let alone imagine what it must be like to be threatened with being forced to return to a place that is only a shadow of what it once was.
(note: not all sources listed)
International Business Times