An Accidental Career Helping in Chechnya
Gistam Sakaeva’s career in humanitarian work began, in 1995, “by accident” in the refugee camps of Dagestan during the First Russian-Chechen War.
Sakaeva, an unassuming single mother of two young children, is a Chechen humanitarian aid worker in the final weeks of a Public Administration graduate program at The New School in New York City. After graduation, Sakaeva will return to Chechnya to resume her position at Reliance, a local non-governmental organization, which works with women and the disabled.
An English teacher before the wars, her age and experiences are concealed behind a youthful energy and a quick laugh. A natural storyteller, she weaves the narrative of her life with anecdotes of the wars and her work, but above all, her family.
Sakaeva was born in 1970 in Grozny, the Chechen capital, to a struggling family. Her father, a coal miner, died when she was very young, leaving her mother to raise her and her eight siblings. Given the freedom by her mother, she studied English at the Chechen State University, graduating a year before the first Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1994 forced her to flee the republic.
In 1995, she arrived at the refugee camps in Dagestan, across the border from Chechnya. Doctors Without Borders, which was distributing food and other supplies to the camps, sought Sakaeva’s help. With her fluency in Russian, Chechen and English, she could be an important link between the NGO and the people in the camps.
Sakaeva refused. She was going back to Chechnya.
They insisted that she join them, at least for a month until they found someone else.
“Ok,” she told them, “just only one month.”
“Then I saw people in need, then I heard a thousand stories, then I saw a thousand victims,” Sakaeva said.
One month became three years.
Sakaeva returned to Chechnya in 1997 after the end of the First Chechen War. Her husband’s search for employment took them to Kazakhstan, but they returned in 2001 during the Second Russian-Chechen War, which had begun two years earlier.
In 2002, Sakaeva moved to neighboring Ingushetia to accept a project manager position with Handicap International, an NGO just beginning operations in the region. Catherine Naughton of Handicap International, in an article in Disability World, an online magazine, estimated that by 2003 there were 25,000 disabled people in Chechnya.
“I didn’t realize that people might be so vulnerable, people might be so unprotected,” Sakaeva said. “This job really, completely changed my life.”
Without government support, Sakaeva said, the disabled depend entirely on their families. Yet, in doing so, the families lose the opportunity to work and earn an income.
“It was very hard for them to survive,” she said. The families of the disabled are caught “between two fires.”
“Everyday I was speaking with different people and then carrying their stories with me,” she said.
Sakaeva became depressed, but with time, overcame it and learned to give thanks that she and her family were healthy and had been spared by the wars.
In December 2004 that would all change when Russian federal soldiers killed her brother Isa. Government media outlets began linking him to terrorist groups operating in Chechnya, a charge which Sakaeva denies. Within weeks, Sakaeva was forced from her job at Handicap International. The organization was unwilling to provoke Russia, which questioned the suitability of having the sister of a “terrorist” on staff. Meanwhile, two of her sisters sat in prison, awaiting charges of terrorism after being picked up by the same soldiers who killed their brother.
Raisa Borshchigova, a Grozny-based journalist, said that the case of Sakaeva’s family was known throughout Chechnya because her brother was killed in the office of an international aid organization.
The Russians suspected aid organizations of supporting the rebels and Sakaeva’s case only served to confirm their belief.
Sakaeva began calling in favors and became very involved in trying to free her sisters. She found hundreds of other women struggling, working to free their husbands or sons.
It was apparent to Sakaeva that these women, frequently less educated and less connected than her, were extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“It was very hard for them to fight for their relatives,” she said.
Sensing an unmet need, Sakaeva took a part-time position with CARE Canada, helping design their women’s programs in Chechnya. This gave her both the opportunity to work with the women and the time to continue seeking the release of her sisters.
Borshchigova had heard a lot about Sakaeva’s work in Chechnya, especially on women’s issues.
She has done a lot of work with women whose husbands are in jail, Borshchigova said. “She taught them how to write letters to the local and federal governments, to different human rights institutions.”
On a winter day in late 2005, months after beginning work with the women, Sakaeva was walking home after visiting her sisters in prison. Her eyes were drawn to a pair of men, both heavily wounded, slowly weaving their way through the ruined streets of Grozny. One, aided by two prosthetic legs and grasping a set of crutches, walked unsteadily. The other, having fared just as poorly, was partially blinded and as equally burdened by lost limbs.
Sakaeva followed them for some time before approaching. She asked them where they were headed.
“We are going to the rehabilitation center, Reliance,” they told her.
“Can I join you?” she asked.
“Sure,” they said, “it’s open for everybody.”
Following them to Reliance, Sakaeva found an organization working to improve the livelihoods of disabled people by providing them the means to regain their independence through support, education and income generation strategies.
She was captivated by the organization and its programs.
It was the first day since they killed her brother, she said, that she forgot about all of her problems.
Under her guidance, Reliance became a partner of CARE Canada, with Sakaeva acting as the liaison between the organizations.
Reliance’s scope quickly expanded to include women’s education, such as courses in reading and writing, supplemented by legal advice and psychological counseling.
Yet, despite the successes of organizations such as Reliance, Sakaeva is the first to admit that there is much more work to do in Chechnya. The number of disabled people increases almost daily. Landmines, used extensively during the wars, remain hidden. Unexploded bombs litter the republic. Violence against women is rampant.
“It remains an absolute necessity for us to continue,” she said.
“Writing About War” Columbia SPI Student Journalism