Interview with Mainat Kurbanova: Chechnya: War, Evil, Memory
Mainat Kurbanova is an eyewitness to Russia’s brutal military occupation in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and a well-known Chechen journalist. Agnese Riva, has dedicated a passionate dissertation with the translation of her long interviews and articles. Here is an extract from one of their conversations.
Agnese Riva: Mainat, is there any concept of society? In a context of total inhumanity, does the war increase the sense of humanity among the victims?
Mainat Kurbanova: Yes, in the war, the society begins to fuction as a kind of institution, activates its hidden mechanism of cohesion and everyone feels responsible for others. In Chechnya, during the terrible war years, people began to act as one company. I could knock on anyone’s door, even during the curfews, and I knew that I would be housed because they knew that I was a journalist and nobody had revealed me. Sometimes, people joined spontaneously in the protests: once a girl was kidnapped by some Russian soldiers and when it became known that they were trying to accuse her of being a female suicide bomber, people spilled over into the streets and stayed there for a week. It was such a big scandal, thus they were ordered to release the girl. However, today, there is no real society in Chechnya. People just disconnect and they try to survive, because the war continue for a long time and after ten years of constant state terrorism, it is impossible to be cohesive as before. Today, there is no war, no peace, there is a situation absolutely incomprehensible, a conflict and a chaos.
Agnese Riva: The war destroys the ability to think in terms of and understand reality; or on the contrary, does it stimulate these processes?
Mainat Kurbanova: I think that it will encourage them, but the war acts differently on people. The war also helps to relate to life in a more philosophical way and consider the value of life time differently. What seems important once, during the war it loses all the meanings and vice versa: you know that the bread is more importatnt than all wealth, there is no better car than your shoes, a villa is useless if you don’t have a basement in it. First though often what to do and what will become, the war teaches you not to think about the future, but only what is in the moment and enjoy it.
Agnese Riva: Russian writer Arkadii Babchenko who fought in Chechnya during both wars, wrote: “The war doesn’t make a man better or worse. The war works like sandpaper: scraped away all the frills, all the superfluos, making bare the core, revealing the true essence.” Does the war make it all the same?
Mainat Kurbanova: No, the war functions as a mirror, reflects what a person really is. In the peace times, people who has no place or occasion to manifest itself, reveales during the war: people lose their masks. If you are in wet and dirty for a week, without food and with boms, only in a few days, you begin to understand who is who really are. In any extreme situation, people lose their masks. If they are inclined to the good, their best qualities are awaken; if they are inclined to evil, their worst faults prove it.
Agnese Riva: Can you get used to the pain?
Mainat Kurbanova: Surely, everything is dulled when it lasts for a long time, but it doesn’t stp hurting, and despite the pain from becoming a routine part of your day and your life, you can’t get used to it. Being in extreme situations for days, months, years, it becomes a matter of fact, you know that it is like this and it will be the same tomorrow and the day after again. Then when you aren’t there anymore, you start to work on it and see it differently.
Agnese Riva: You wrote that, “You could forget everything far from Chechnya, if you wanted to.” What did you mean exactly?
Mainat Kurbanova: I meant that I could try to build myself a completely different life, to think that the war was over and that doesn’t concern me anymore. Of course, it is impossible to forget what happened. Now, there is a slogan: “Chechnya without the traces of War”. They build new buildings and paint them pink as thinking that in this way people can forget. They want nothing in the city remind what there war, that thousands of people were killed; but it is impossible. For example, in Germany, there are stil buildings that testify to the war, but they didn’t paint them pink because these monuments remind people that you shouldn’t forget. What would happen if we forget? Everything would be repeated ever. Similarly, I could try to get me a different life and learn a new job, but I will not. I want to keep working on this, to write and talk about it. I don’t want my daughter to have to live another war, because of my generation wanted to forget it quickly.
Agnese Riva: Do you think that is it possible to prevent the evil from happening again?
Mainat Kurbanova: Absolutely not. Evil is repeated everyday, simply it changes the time and place, it moves to the different continents. So it was there and so it will be there, but everyone must fight against this and decide within themselve to do what they want and how they want to behave.
Agnese Riva: As for Chechnya in particular?
Mainat Kurbanova: These wars going on for four hundred years, sometimes calmed and sometimes started again, and it will continue as long as Chechnya and Russia don’t define their relationship. However, whatever they may be, until the Chechnya will not be independent or partially independent; as long as Russia doesn’t understant that his empire is time to get rid of this colony, because it is a colonial war. They call it as the war on terrorism or the war for the integrity of Russia, is now out of fashion as terrorism then we talk about war against terroritst; in Stalin’s time, we were called bandits, in Tsars’ era, we were savages. Until the situation isn’t resolved at the level of national policy, there wars, this evil, this cruelty will be repeated because of too much blood has been shed, the differences and hatred are too large and the right of freedom and the primordal right to their lands were given by God to the Chechen people and all colonized people must obtain. Chechnya is a colonized land and Russian is an empire which doesn’t want to lose a colony. It is the last empire in Europe, and Chechnya is the last colony in Europe. Sooner or later, Russia will have to leave it, if this is good or bad for Russia or Chechnya is another matter, but sooner or later it will happen.
Agnese Riva: Have you ever given an answer as to how so much evil was possible?
Mainat Kurbanova: I don’t think that they have understood it yet. For example, in 1995, the Russian military forces completely destroyed my hometown Samashki, bombing it for three days and their sweep operation to remove those who remained alive on the third day. They took also away my father who was 75 year old then. When we retuned to the village, there wasn’t a house that wasn’t compelety burned, everywhere there were blood and bodies of men and animals. I stil don’t understand why they did it: Samashki was just a town like any others where were guerillas or strategic objectives. There is only one explanation: they did it out of anger, to show that they could do it, so Chechens could be surrender and the war might be end. I can understand a soldier if he shoots at his enemy in war, but I don’t understand why they cut the victims with their knifes, kill the children and rape the women. And the most interesting is that those soldiers go back their homes, they affectionate to their children, their wives and their mothers; and they give the things that they have stolen in Chechnya as gifts.
Agnese Riva: In your texts, you write that despite everything, you’ve continued to hear your membership in the human race. What helped you more than anything in this?
Mainat Kurbanova: I saw different kinds of people. During my life, I didn’t see only the executioners, but I also saw simple people who didn’t lose their human qualities. I belive that even in the most terrible conditions, a person has ability to remain as a man and not to turn into a monster. There are things even the monsters don’t do, but people are capable to doing it. There are always both good and evil. Good people are the majority, only the bad people are agressive.
Agnese Riva: What do you think when the topic comes to genocide of the Chechen people?
Mainat Kurbanova: I haven’t any slight doubt that it was a process aimed to elimination not only the Chechen people, but also their culture. The first few days of the first war, museums, national archives, library, university and major cultural entities were Russian army’s first targets. They killed the writers, youngs, men those who were strong and who has potential among the people; and in this way they severed an entire generation. Kids, youngs and healty men disappeared delibaretely at the checkpoints. It is an intention which has always been there in the past and which is still alive.
Agnese Riva: Theoretically there is no war, how this process continued even now?
Mainat Kurbanova: Theoretically there is a war, the war isn’t going through an active phase, but what they have done in previous years is enough. The war has took more than 250 000 civilian’s life (out of a million people), and another 200 000 people becomes refugee around the world that haven’t yet been a real diaspora, their organize will take another one or two decades. Today there is no need to bomb, but in thirty years, a new generation will grow and Chechens will able to gather more forces. You have no idea how much time and how many forces served to a small nation like us to rebuild all that material and immaterial was destroyed.
*Mainat Kurbanova (Abdulaeva) worked as a correspondent for Novaya Gazeta from Grozny from the start of the second Russian-Chechen war until 2004. In her reports, published on European newspapers also, she has told the life, sorrow and the daily reality of those who have continued to live in the capital of Chechnya even under the bombings. Forced into exile, she has been living and working in Germany since 2004.
**The interview was published first by the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, translated by Waynakh Online and edited by Michael Capobianco