Why does the world not care about Chechens?
Before sunrise on December 4, 2014, eight men went to the mountain village of Shalazhi and called three taxies. When the taxies arrived the men tied up the drivers at gunpoint, got in the cars, and sped off towards Grozny. When a police car stopped them in the center of the city, the men opened fire killing the officers, and a running gun-battle ensued until one group holed themselves up in a publishing house and the other in a school.
What followed was a two-hour firefight and a storm of activity in Chechen social media. People were sharing smartphone-video of the fighting to friends as far away as Vienna, Paris, and New Jersey. Chechens in Europe and North America faced a sleepless night as they desperately tried to make sure their friends and relatives in Grozny were safe, and prayed to God that things wouldn’t escalate, with the memory of the old wars haunting the back of their minds.
Thankfully it didn’t escalate. All told, it was a one-off suicide mission. Eight fighters and ten security personnel, as well as one Russian civilian, died in the fighting. An empty school was wrecked and the publishing house was gutted by fire. Both are already being repaired. But what is more worrying than what happened is what didn’t happen afterwards. A friend of mine in Austria remarked that she couldn’t find one mention of that night’s events in any Austrian paper. I checked the American and British media: there were reports, but they were hard to find. For me and three million Chechens around the world, that morning in Grozny and the fear that it could all happen again to the people we love was the number-one headline. No one talked about anything else. But the world didn’t even notice. Why is it that the world only seems to notice Chechens in the context of war? The day after the attack my twitter stream exploded with journalists trying to find a link between it and falling oil prices.Once it became clear there wasn’t going to be a 3rd Chechen War, they all turned their gaze elsewhere. I guess human rights and a whole nation of young people trying to start new lives in a new reality just isn’t interesting a story enough.
The world should care about Chechens. Firstly because we’re human, not some literary device to make a war story with. The Chechen story is the greatest against-all-odds survival story in human history. And it’s still being told. Chechens represent something special in the human spirit, something even Russian officers in the 19th century such as Tolstoy and Lermontov would admire from afar. Looking at our history or looking at one of us in our eyes, the world sees something of itself when it looks at Chechens. Maybe an uncomfortable truth, or something tragic and beautiful. I’m not one for gushing sentimentality. We’re as human as anyone else, if not more, and there are three vitally important issues the world needs to pay attention to.
The first and most pressing is racism in immigration. The United States and Canada haven’t handled enough Chechens for this to become an issue, but it’s becoming a problem in Europe. Recently the mayor of the Danish city of Haderslev, H.P. Geil came out saying publically that he did not want any more Chechens in his city, calling us a “hassle to integrate” He isn’t the only one with that opinion. Views like this aren’t just racist and a blatant disregard for Western values, but they’re frightening in their lack of empathy. The previous system that Chechens in Europe came from was trying to kill them, simply put. I’d expect it’d take some time and help for anyone to trust a new system after that. Suicides among US veterans suffering from PTSD are now greater than combat deaths. Those are trained soldiers and marines. Imagine the effect of PTSD on civilians and children? That’s what European Chechens are going through, and on top of it they face cold and uncaring attitudes. This has to stop. There are misunderstandings on both sides, and building trust is the only way forward.
Chechens today are a young nation. The average age is 21. Where the European fertility rate is barely at replacement in places, the average Chechen family has four or five children. This is an entire generation of young adults 17 – 27 who grew up in wars and know what it’s like to be a child hiding in a bomb-shelter waiting for the bombs to stop. This is a whole generation that is experiencing a complete shift in realities within their youth. There are thousands enrolled in universities studying economics and computer science – this is an entire generation of brave innovators with the potential to be the greatest Chechen generation. It’s the West’s duty to nurture that; especially when it’s facing stagnation and economic uncertainty, today’s Chechen youth are a solid investment in the future. There’s a lot Europeans can learn from their new Chechen neighbors, and Chechens have the chance to find what works and what doesn’t for them in a peaceful and stable environment.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said in the Washington Post in 1995 that “Chechnya has become the cemetery of America’s moral reputation.” and later, professor emeritus at NYU and Princeton University, Stephen F. Cohen remarked on the Charlie Rose Show that the US was an accomplice to a criminal war in Chechnya. Many Chechen youth today rightfully feel that the West has turned its back on them and take everything they hear with a large dose of skepticism. Turning a cold shoulder to citizenship and asylum cases only hurts people, and makes them feel alone and rejected. It causes greater problems in the future. If Western governments want to reclaim their image as beacons of freedom and enlightenment, they have to start by making amends for their sins of omission. All that’s needed is an honest helping hand, and the willingness to build bridges and trust.
The world has to care about Chechens. In us it can understand more about itself and put itself on the path towards a better peace. We Chechens are a young people. A lot of us are in universities, a lot more are on the way. We’re the brave new face of a nation, and a generation with everything to live for. Chechens are a chance for a global human success story when it’s needed the most. The world needs Chechens.
Wayne H. Noxchi