Graffiti: “Poland for the Poles!”
Europe is not safe for everyone. Neo-Nazi attacks took away a Chechen asylum seeker family from Poland to Finland, but now the family has to leave from Finland. Oksana Chelysheva wrote about the rising xenophobia, escape and long journey of Ruslan and Petimat Suleymanova and their children.
Ruslan Suleymanov was born in the Chechen village of Duba-Yurt. He got married just a month before the first Russian-Chechen war was waged in November 1994. Ruslan was 22. His wife Petimat turned 18.
Ruslan shrugs his shoulders to the question, whether he had taken sides in the first war. He sadly says, “We were all unanimous at that time. Every man born in Chechnya was fighting back”.
The second war started in 1999. It caught the family in Grozny. Ruslan and Petimat had had three kids by that time: the sons, Alaudi and Abubakar were born in 1995 and 1997, and their daughter Baret saw the world in April 1999.
Grozny was air-raided. Russian planes were raising the city to the ground. They didn’t spare lives of peaceful residents of Grozny, no matter whether they were Chechens or Russians, elderly or children. It was a strategic decision by the Russian military command. They didn’t want to repeat the stupid mistake of General Grachov who sent tanks to be trapped in the streets of Grozny on New Year Eve of 1994. To spare soldiers’ lives, they decided to annihilate the population of Grozny en masse. Ruslan had managed to save his children before federal troops took Grozny under their control in January 2000. Their sons, Abubakar and Alaudi were taken to a village in the mountains by their grandmother. In December 1999, Petimat and Ruslan escaped Grozny with little Baret. It was dangerous because of the bombings. Ruslan was wounded in his shoulder while escape. Until 2002, the family had to wander from one village to another. Only them Petimat and her children managed to find refuge in safe zone of the war-stricken Chechnya. During the second campaign the flat area of Chechnya in the North had been spared by war. They settled down in the settlement of Chervlyonnaya. Petimat had already five children: Makka was born in 2000 and Avkhan in 2002.
Ruslan could not join the family although he was not involved into active fighting. But once in 2002, he saved a young wounded militant. He gave him shelter for just one night when the wounded man knocked at his door. There was a clash at the outskirts of Chiri-Yurt village.
He tells, “I could stay for more than three nights at the same place. Many times I was nearly caught. But I somehow sensed danger and sneaked away just a few hours before my temporary shelter was raided”. He led this underground existence until 2006.
A year before that Ruslan had decided to send his big family away from Chechnya and Russia. In 2004 Ruslan and Petimat got their sixth child, Saydash. Ruslan tells, “I was concerned about my children, especially about my sons. They were growing. I tried to save them from violence and taking sides. They were just two ways: either to join the militants or, even worse, Kadyrov’s forces”. In Ruslan’s mind the war had lost its noble sense of fighting for independence.
Petimat went to Poland with the children in 2005. Ruslan joined the family in 2006.
They lived in Bialystok, asylum-seekers’ station in the former Iga Hotel. They thought they were lucky as this station was regarded as “clean” one from among other 18 accommodation stations existing in Poland at that time. It was clean as people were accommodated there the building had been repaired. There were no bugs there. People were provided with kitchen utensils. The most important thing for Ruslan was that the staff of the Iga Hotel was polite with their dwellers. However, meals that asylum-seekers were provided with were poor. Each adult without children received 70 zlotys (18 Euro) a month. Family with children received 310 zlotys (80 Euro) per each of children. Ruslan tells that it still was not the major problem. At least, their lives were not endangered. He was ready to do whatever work available to provide the family with living.
However, Petimat started to develop symptoms of a mental disorder. Long years of suffering and survival cracked the fragile mind of the woman. Petimat started to plunge into herself. She kept staring fixedly at some point in the wall without reacting to anyone. Ruslan tried to obtain help by turning to doctors at the station. “Their office was shining with purity. There was a huge cupboard full of different jars and packs of pills. However, we were given the same kind of pills regardless of what a person was complaining about. They hardly ever opened that cupboard”.
The situation deteriorated when groups of youngsters started to assault the accommodation station. Ruslan remembers that the first windows smashed by stones appeared in 2006. When its residents called the police, they heard in response, “Go back home. We have got sick and tired of you. Or just go and settle the trouble by yourself”. Ruslan grins, “If we had dared to defend ourselves, we would have been immediately arrested by the policemen without any investigation. We were different from the Poles and the police treated us as creatures of lower rank”.
In March 2009 Ruslan’s family moved to a rented flat in Bialystok. It was some friendly Poles who helped to find it. They paid 1500 zlotys (380 Euro) a month. The children went to school. But buildings on the way to school were covered with “Death to Chechens” and “Poland for Poles” graffiti. They were tagged with swastikas and A-anarchic symbol. Ruslan could not figure out why hatred towards Chechens happened to become something in common between neo-nazis and anarchists.
On September 15, 2009, Ruslan’s old Reno car was destroyed by fire. Its windows were smashed and it was set on fire with a bottle of “Molotov cocktail”. The same night a flat rented by Ruslan’s friend Dzhabrail was assaulted. Ruslan tells that Dzhabrail escaped death by a lucky fluke when a huge stone hit the pillow just a second after he had raised his head. The next night one more car was destroyed by arsonists. It also belonged to one of Ruslan’s friends. They immediately called the police. Police arrived to inspect the crime scene only after a Polish journalist, Dzhabrail’s friend, insisted on that. The investigation was opened after long hesitation. No culprits were ever found. The damage to Ruslan’s car was assessed worth 3000 zlotys (760 Euro). But he never got the promised compensation. Criminal investigation was soon closed down.
Ruslan’s patience was over when his daughter Baret was attacked. It happened in the beginning of February 2010. Baret was at her friend’s that day. In late afternoon her two elder brothers went to pick the girl up. On the way back home they were attacked by three Polish lads. They were also in their teens, not older than 16.
Ruslan turned to the police hardly hoping that they would react adequately. His children were trying to attend school but everyday they were told by their classmates, “You are aliens. Go back home”.
Ruslan’s family left Poland on February 17, 2010. They have come to Finland to seek protection. Ruslan doesn’t have much hope that they would get asylum as they are under Dublin II Treaty. However, he hopes that their story would wake up those who decide people’s fates. “We won’t be able to return to Poland. It is easier to be sent back to Chechnya as we won’t endure long suffering in this case. We will just disappear there”.
It is not the first story of people trying to get a more welcoming treatment than what they experienced in Poland. Ruslan has his explanation to the tensions between the majority of the Polish society and such people like himself. “It is religion”, he states. Ruslan is sure that the feeling of animosity towards migrants didn’t appear by itself. “Before the first assaults started to happen, we had co-existed with ultra nationalists. They were looking at us without seeing us. We didn’t pay any attention to their scary outfits. It looks as if someone unleashed the deep-rooted mistrust towards everybody who is not alike into violent actions. I remember one Polish professor speaking on TV something like a year ago. He looked like a distinguished elderly gentleman. But his speech was full of hatred towards Muslims. It sounded more like a call to take to arms to protect Christendom against Islam… He even called it holy”.
There is just one small mosque in Bialystok. It was created by a descendant from Algiers, Abdul-Vakhal, by name. He turned his own house into a mosque. One night the mosque was vandalized. All the walls were covered with graffiti, “Poland to the Poles”.
Ruslan talks to me quietly without raising his voice. His eyes are desperate. And he looks really exhausted. “My sons are growing. I don’t want them to go into fighting. I don’t expect much here. We have been denied attention already. But I want to save my children”.