Novye Aldi, Grozny, Chechnya, February 2000
The rain is relentless. I hear it thrumming on the metal roof and running down the broken pipe into the mud, and I moisten my cracked lips with my tongue. I wonder if they will return. A part of me fervently wishes they don’t come because they only bring pain. I float in and out of consciousness. I am not sure how much time has passed. All I remember is the pain, the searing pain. There were three, to begin with. Later, there were more.
I open my eyes, slowly. I see my uncle sitting on a chair. I look around with mounting panic, taking in great gulps of air. A whimper escapes my lips and he looks up.
“Oh, thank God! You are awake,” he says looking relieved. He scoots closer to the bed. He puts his hand on my forehead and gently says, “Relax dear. You are safe now. You are in a hospital. Hush, it’s over.”
It takes a few seconds for me to understand what he is saying. My eyes dart around the room. Yes, a hospital. My breathing slows down. My muscles gradually relax. Just as I think I have relaxed, the memories come flooding. This time I cannot control my panic. A scream builds up in my throat and I let it out. That day I couldn’t scream, they had covered my mouth with their hands. I cry and howl. I lash out. At some point, Uncle gathers me in his arms. I hold on to him. I don’t know for how long I cry. I can’t open my eyes, for fear that this is not real and that when I do open them, I will be back in the shed. I feel a sharp poke and then nothing.
It’s been a week since I have been back from the hospital and three weeks since that day in hell. That day, the 5th of February, ended but my hell continues. Each night I fight sleep, for sleep brings nightmares. Me on the floor of the shed; thrashing, bucking, kicking. Mouth covered with a rough calloused hand; pinned down, straddled, violated.
I wake up screaming and gasping. I hate myself for what happened, I hate myself for sleeping. I hate…Involuntarily my gaze flies to the window that overlooks the shed. It is covered with a black tarp now. I made my father cover it up. I DO NOT want to see the shed.
“Anya?” I hear my father call out from the other side of the door. He opens it and peeks in.
“I am ok,” I lie.
He stands there, looking uncomfortable, unsure of himself. “I am here if you need me,” he says without meeting my gaze. Then he leaves, gently closing the door behind him.
I prop myself up. Breathing deeply, I gather my blanket around me. It is not easy for him. He was never a ‘hugger’ and now it is even more difficult for him. That day he was beaten mercilessly for trying to stop what was happening to me. That day he saw his wife and son being shot for trying to protect him. I cry again, for my mama and my brother. I lost so much that day. I couldn’t even attend their funeral. I was in no condition to leave the hospital.
It’s been four weeks at home. I have started to heal. The pain down there is lessening but the hatred and self-loathing in the heart is growing. I feel as black and blue as I look. A hysterical laugh escapes my lips, sixteen years of preening, and now I cannot even look in the mirror. I barely talk and eat. I feel angry most of the time, which is better than being depressed. A psychiatric consultation is suggested.
But I want to yell at them; I don’t want a consultation. What I want is to be free of these memories. Memories of me on the floor; numb, battered, broken while being slapped, punched, kicked.
Six months on, I am physically healed. But in my head, I am still stuck there. It’s like a broken record. The sessions, the support group, the journal nothing helps. The anger is like a bubbling volcano, always simmering and threatening to explode. That’s if I don’t drown in the sea of hopelessness first. I am done oscillating between silent screams, rolling tears, utter terror and avaricious hands, victorious laughter, mindless pounding.
If I can’t get the memories out, then I want out. No me! No nightmares!
Today she came again. She says she is a volunteer. She has been visiting me for the past four days since I woke up at the hospital, again. It had been nine months and I could not take it anymore.
So, I slit my wrists. Unfortunately, Father found me. Now they keep an eye on me at all times.
She, Medina, agitates me. She talks and doesn’t force me to respond. I resent her for trying to draw me out. Yet, I look forward to her visits. It’s very confusing and frustrating. She talks about mundane things, daily things. I don’t do daily anymore. My daily was beaten, bled, shattered out of me, not by one, not by two but by many.
“It snowed today,” Medina says as she takes off her red woollen cap and shakes out her blond curls.
She has taken to visiting me at home too. I still don’t talk…much, a few monosyllabic answers. But that’s progress. Father is relieved at the thought of someone else taking care of me. He stays out of our way.
“Let’s go out to the café and have some hot chocolate,” she suggests like she has been for the past fifteen days.
She is surprised. Then she smiles. It transforms her face, making it almost angelic. I too, almost smile in return. But mine is rusted.
At the café she orders. I sit and look around. I am not sure how I feel. It seems there is a dormant seed of happiness buried deep inside trying to break free. But the soil, full of loathing and despair, is smothering. The seed is feeble. The earth is unyielding.
“That’s Katrina,” she says, pointing at a young, delicate-looking girl behind the counter serving coffee to a customer. “She is not a victim. She is a survivor.”
My gaze jerks back to Medina. This is the first time she has talked of anything other than mundane. My heart thuds and picks up pace. My breath gets choppy. I glare at her.
As I put my hands on the table to push back the chair, she hisses, “SIT!” There is steel in her eyes. I sit. “You will finish your coffee first.”
On Christmas eve we visit my mama and brother’s grave. Amidst all the despondency there is no space for a tree in the house. Afterwards, Father and I sit, watch television, have dinner and go to bed. That night I weep, tears of loss, for my favourite festival. The festive red drowned by raging maroon and desolate crimson.
It’s January and there is no stopping Medina or February. They just keep inching forward. Since that day at the café, Medina has not talked about victims or survivors. But she keeps telling me about random girls and what they are doing. Some are working, others are studying and some are helping others. She says all of them have something in common. Yeah, I get it, they too were raped by animals masquerading as soldiers. And yeah, they are all survivors. So what? What I didn’t know at that time was that they had something else in common.
Tomorrow is 1st February. The first anniversary draws near. I have been having severe mood swings. Medina suggested a change of scenery. Father was only too happy to agree. So today, I am off to Medina’s place for a week. I am not sure what I will find once I reach her house. But it was certainly not this.
The house is a two-story structure in the country. The front of the house is like any other. It’s the backyard that is different. It is a training centre. And there are girls, lots of girls of various ages. Some look happy, some sad, and some look vacant. As I follow one of the chattier girls, up the stairs to my room on the first floor, I catch glimpses of the backyard through the windows.
A little later, the door opens and Medina comes in bearing a tray with a bowl of hot steaming borscht and a couple of piroshki.
“So, what do you think?” she asks as I stand near the window looking down at all the activity that is winding up for the day.
“What is this place?”
“It is whatever you want it to be,” she answers simply, putting down the tray on the desk. “Sit and eat while it’s still hot.”
I sit on the chair and stare at the ruby-red borscht. The colour of blood, the colour of rage…the colour of my mother’s love too. A tear slips down followed by one more and then another. I have not been able to eat borscht since mama made it sometime before that hateful night. With the back of my left hand, I wipe my nose and with the right I shakily pick up a spoonful of the soup. I blow on it and take a tentative sip. I close my eyes and groan. Oh! It tastes just like my mama’s soup.
“From tomorrow you will join them,” she says. I put the spoon down and look at her. The steel is back. “Enough of moping around. It’s been a year. You need to start living.”
Something inside me snaps at ‘moping’.
I scream and launch myself at her. She deftly sidesteps me and I land on my face. I get up and barrel straight towards her again, this time screaming, “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?”
At the last minute, she just shoves me to the side and I land on the bed. I turn around to retaliate when the door bangs open and a man walks in. He closes the door and leans against it, looking at me. I freeze.
No! Not again. This cannot be. I trust Medina, how can she do this to me?
He advances slowly. I wail in fear. With her arms folded, Medina stands, with a hard look on her face. I scurry off the bed and try to run past him. He catches hold of me and throws me on the floor. I land with a painful thud. My vision blurs. Tears stream down my face. I lie and whimper. But the moment his hands touch me, I explode. The old memories and pain rush in like a tidal wave. I kick, scratch, and scream. He hauls me and throws me on the bed. He is big and strong. I am no match for him. He pins me down. But except for exerting that force, he is still. As a matter of fact, he does nothing else. Then he simply gets up and stands to the side of the bed.
A sob escapes, the floodgates open. They let me be. I finally look up; accusation, confusion and anger swimming in my eyes. He is sitting on the floor with his back to the door. Medina is sitting on the chair I had recently vacated. It is dark outside. And the table lamp is the only source of illumination in the darkened room.
“This place is different things to different people. A sanctuary, a school, a training centre. I ask you again, do you want to be a victim or a survivor?”
That’s all she says and they walk out.
I lie there for a long time. Then I gingerly walk to the chair and sit.
Ruby-red borscht – love or hate?
Ruby-red borscht – hot or cold?
I slowly begin to eat.
Exactly two years to the date, I am neither a victim nor a survivor. I am a recruit and today I become a martyr, a shahidka. I stand in front of the army base.
I lift my thumb from the dead man’s switch.
The Shahidka, better known as the “Black Widows” are a group of Islamist Chechen separatist suicide bombers. They are a willing face of violent jihad. The story is inspired by the following article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Widow_(Chechnya)