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A Ukrainian American Woman Thinks of Me as Her Enemy

A Ukrainian American Woman Thinks of Me as Her Enemy

Wednesday, 23 March, 2022 - 04:00
Milana Mazaeva
Ms. Mazaeva is a Chechen journalist attending Arizona State University on a Hubert Humphrey fellowship.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine started, a friend asked me if I was planning to take my mother out of Chechnya, given the economic instability and food scarcity in the war-battered republic in southwestern Russia. I told him that she wouldn’t go without her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren and I couldn’t take everyone out.

We know about living through a war. The prime years of my youth were spent under the thunder of heavy guns during the Russian wars against separatists in Chechnya. The capital, Grozny, was invaded twice, in relentless Russian bombing campaigns that killed many thousands of civilians. I know what it is to be constantly afraid, to have no home. My other brother is in a shared grave in Chechnya, killed by Russian bombs.

I told my mother to buy food that will last. “Remember how we dried bread during the war and put bread crumbs in the basement?” I asked my mother. “Do the same.” Oven-dried bread doesn’t spoil so quickly, you see.

I watch Russia’s war against Ukraine from Phoenix, where I arrived last year for a journalism fellowship. I was supposed to return to Moscow in June, but I’m not going back. I was supposed to continue building my journalism career in Russia, but I won’t. I was supposed to see my mother in July, but I can’t.

Flashbacks to the Chechen wars have plagued me ever since Russia’s war against Ukraine began. What Ukrainians are enduring is horrific — hospitals and shelters bombed, families killed in the street. And even though my family and I experienced something similar, a feeling that’s close to guilt won’t leave me.

The Ukrainian community in Arizona organized a protest in Phoenix shortly after the first Russian soldiers rolled into Ukraine. Fellow Eastern European immigrants from Latvia and Hungary joined in. There were also Americans and me, a Chechen journalist from Russia.

I got on my bicycle and raced to the site to interview people. A middle-aged couple from Phoenix told me that Vladimir Putin is a crazy old man and that he should go away. The woman said that she was sorry if she offended me, but that she was telling her truth.

At the nearby Ukrainian American Cultural Center, I met a Ukrainian American woman, Svitlana Jelden. She would not speak to me in the language we both know, Russian. And she told me that she would no longer speak to her Russian friends in the United States who support Mr. Putin.

She looked directly into my eyes and told me that because I’m a Russian citizen, she thinks of me as her enemy and there is nothing she can do about it.

I never had a problem with having more than one identity. I’m an ethnic Chechen and a Russian citizen. As a Chechen, when I watch videos of the Ukrainian makeshift bomb shelters, I remember going to bed in my clothes in Grozny, in a house that had no windows, praying that the bombing wouldn’t start at night. I remember running to the basement through the open countryside. My greatest fear was that I would die on the way.

As a Russian citizen, when I see Russian troops shelling cities, I feel shame because, by my silence and fear, I have allowed the authorities to think that I will accept whatever they decide.

And when I hear of Chechens going to Ukraine to wage war under the flag of the Russian Federation, I experience a powerful cognitive dissonance. They, too, once hid in basements from Russian bombs and lost relatives in the wars.

When Ms. Jelden said she thinks of me as her enemy, I wanted to share with her my own trauma and my family’s and to absolve myself of responsibility for the actions of the Russian Army and Mr. Putin. But I didn’t.

I watched a video of Chechens standing up to defend Ukraine with guns in their hands. A Chechen friend in Russia told me that if the Russian government declared martial law and forced him to go and fight, he would go over to the side of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Kremlin-supported Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been accused of brutal human rights abuses, is posting videos on his Telegram channel claiming he is in Ukraine, leading his troops to fight Ukrainians.

Among the soldiers who went to Ukraine as a part of the Russian Army is a Chechen relative of mine. His uncle, his father’s brother, was one of many Chechens kidnapped during the wars with Russia and never returned. When he was a boy, his house was bombed by the Russian Army. His family lived for several years as refugees in a mosque.

I don’t know what his explanation is for going to Ukraine. If he returns from there alive, I will ask him.

I am afraid that my family members in Chechnya will soon have nothing to eat, and I haven’t been able to wire them money because remittance companies have halted or limited transfers in and out of Russia. My mother is preparing a small plot in her backyard to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, parsley and dill.

My colleagues and friends in Moscow go out to protest, and many of them are detained. Some have gone to Ukraine to cover the war. I cannot compare their sacrifice to what Ukrainians, whose lives will never be the same again, are enduring. Still, I feel a growing obligation to them.

Here in the United States, I listened to a podcast in which a journalist explained that the sanctions are working — because Russians have come out to protest against their leaders. That was painful to hear. People in Russian cities are protesting, yes, but from what I've seen and heard, it’s not because of sanctions. It’s because they’re against war, against killing innocent people. They have always been against it.

Yes, the sanctions are causing economic havoc, affecting the government and regular people. But the protesters are driven by their consciences. These are the eight people who came out on Red Square in Moscow in 1968, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. These are the thousands of people who came out against the war in my Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s. Thousands came out in the 2010s against Mr. Putin, too.

Of course, some Russians support their country’s aggression against Ukraine, are indifferent to it or are too scared to voice their opposition. Those who do speak up sometimes find themselves estranged from their parents, brothers and sisters who believe the Kremlin’s propaganda. They lose their jobs; they flee the country. They don’t have Mr. Putin’s bombs dropping on them, but they know that if they oppose the war, they’ll likely be severely punished for their bravery.

A Chechen man I know, whose brother and another relative are among the soldiers who went to Ukraine, told me that during the day, he watches the news and supports Ukraine wholeheartedly. Then one evening he got a text saying that his brother might have been killed. (He wasn’t.) It’s a terrible feeling, he told me, to think of his family members at war. He prays that they’ll come back alive, without killing anybody.

In Phoenix, I am supported by my new friends and by the organization that invited me here. I get caring messages and letters every day.

But when I look out of the window of the 15th floor of the building where I live, it seems to me that from this high point, I can see my country sinking into darkness.

The New York Times

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