Aminat Saijeva is Lithuania’s ambassador-in-exile to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
The day of our meeting her thick black hair is tied back in a low bun and she is dressed in a white linen suit jacket with an orange t-shirt, an olive and white flower-patterned skirt, and white pumps. We meet beside the bell tower because the ambassador is concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find the Chechen Embassy on my own. Ambassador Saijeva leads me across Gediminas Avenue and to the back of a building, which she tells me is used by the Liberal Democrats. We enter through the back courtyard into a dark, dank hallway. The floor in the hallway is covered in moldy rugs that give off a rancid stink. Saijeva opens the door to a tiny office, about four meters by four meters in size.
This rented room serves as the office of the Embassy of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in exile. The room is dominated by a simple wooden desk with a decades old computer monitor placed on it. The flag of independent Chechnya stands in the corner. The state symbol of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria written in Chechen hangs on the wall behind the Ambassador’s desk alongside a black and white photograph of the Chechen independence leader and President Dzhokhar Dudayev.
On the opposite wall hangs a framed map of Chechnya alongside a handmade hooked rug of Dzhokar Dudayev wearing his general’s uniform. A single bookshelf stands along the wall, containing a few books and notebooks and a metal collage of the Chechen parliament, long ago been bombed into oblivion by the Russians. On another shelf stands a model of the symbol of Vilnius, the iron wolf, and a model of the Gediminas castle.
Ambassador Saijeva reports to work here every Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. From this office she helps refugees, disseminates information about Chechnya, prepares for conferences.
She reminds me of my grandfather, Ambassador Anicetas Simutis, who for fifty years during the Soviet occupation represented independent Lithuania-in-exile. Like my grandfather, people think of Saijeva as the physical embodiment of Chechnya.
Saijeva has recently learned Lithuanian and is eager to demonstrate her knowledge by speaking with me in Lithuanian. When she is short of words or impassioned, she slips into Russian, the language widely used in Chechnya. She speaks her native Chechen only rarely and with Chechen refugees.
Saijeva indicated the flag standing in the corner. “Ichkeria is an independent republic, but the Chechen Republic is the Russian’s name. I really don’t like how the Russians say Chechnya. This is not a Chechen name. In our own language we call our nation Nochchicho. Nochi is what a Chechen calls himself, and means Noah’s people. The country is called the land of Noah’s people. No one knows why it is called this way. It’s a very old name.”
I asked about the symbolism of the colors of the Chechen flag: green, white, red. Saijeva explained that green represents the Muslim nation; white represents purity; and red represents blood.
“There is so much blood shed in Chechnya,” Saijeva said simply.
She reached into her drawer and handed me a card. “Here is our coat of arms. Our national anthem is on the back.”
I took the card and turned it over, looking at both sides.
Again, this gesture reminded me so much of what it was like for the Lithuanian emigres during the Cold War. We too would hand out cards with our coat of arms and national anthems as though to show the world that as long as we had a coat of arms and an anthem we had not ceased to exist.
“When did you come to Lithuania?” I asked.
“I came to Lithuania 15 years ago to open up the information center,” Saijeva said. “Lithuanian delegates from the parliament would go to Chechnya and they would talk about how they needed a information center in Lithuanian. I was the vice-minister at the time. Our government also felt we needed to be represented around the world.
“I came to Vilnius planning to stay a month; that month dragged on to three months; then the first Chechen war started on November 26, 1994. We were attacked by Russia. I wanted to go back to help my mother and sister and my relatives. But President Dudayev told me that it was important for me to stay in Vilnius and receive information about the war. For eight months I didn’t hear anything from my mother during the war. I had no idea where she was and what had happened to her. My sister was also missing. I kept imagining that she had been killed in the bombings. Every minute was stressful. My husband died of a heart attack during the bombings.
“It turned out that my mother had left Chechnya and was hiding in Ingushya. My mother was killed during the second war when a bomb fell on her. Now I can talk about it without crying, but for a long time I couldn’t even mention it. I never wanted to talk about it. I felt that I was guilty. I was here and if I’d been there I would have protected her and taken care of her. We loved our mother very much. My mother had thirteen children. I am the last girl. There are two boys after me. Not all of them are alive anymore.
“250,000 Chechens have been killed during the wars: 43,000 of those were children. They count in Chechnya. Human rights organizations do the counting. Chechnya is 17,000 square kilometers. It is small. It’s easy to control the numbers.”
“Did you receive news during the first war?” I asked.
“I received a document from President Dudayev that I am now the representative in Lithuania for the Chechen Republic of Icheria. The Chechen government would occasionally send me money with people who traveled from Chechnya. It was a very small amount of money and it was infrequent. I was helped by Chechens who live abroad in Austria, Lithuania, and Estonia. I live from a small donation provided from the Lithuanian government.
“At first I lived in a small cramped apartment in Antakalnis. The apartment was in poor repair. I kept telling myself, ‘This is only temporary.’ I could not accept that I would have to live in Lithuania. I always wanted to return home to my country. It is very hard for me here without my people. I am here all alone. I don’t have any of my relatives here. I have no one. I always thought, Lithuania is such a pretty country, but its so hard for me to be here without my family and my people. When the second war started, I understood that I would be here for a long time.”
Once more, I am reminded of my grandparents. My grandfather was sent by the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1936 to serve for three years under Consul General Jonas Budrys in the Consular Office in New York. For three years my grandmother cried into her pillow every night because she missed her parents and her sister. In 1939 they were supposed to return to Lithuania. Just before their departure, the war began.
“I had left home with a small suitcase planning for one month,” Saijeva continued. “All my things, all my books, were left behind. My minister said, ‘We’ll see how it works out. You will stay as long as it takes to organize the information center.’ That was my mission.
“Recently I bought an apartment, but I’m not interested in decorating it or buying nice things for it. I have one old used cabinet that I bought for 50 lits. I live with very little things because I’m always expecting to pack my bags quickly and take off for Chechnya. It’s hard, but I am an optimist.”
My grandfather was also an optimist. He also had an implacable sense of humor. He believed that eventually Lithuania would be independent. His theory was based on his knowledge of economics: Sooner of later the Soviet economy would implode.
“I am persona non grata in Chechnya. I haven’t been back since before the last war. I could not go back to bury my mother. My brother said to me, ‘Don’t make it difficult for us. Now my older sister alone is left from my family in Chechnya. Our surnames are different. When I talk to her, we both speak very carefully.”
“In February 2003 the Lithuanians granted me citizenship. They announced it over the radio. A journalist called me for a comment and I said, ‘I had no idea.’ I had written to President Adamkus and had asked for citizenship because it was a dangerous situation for me. Russia was harassing Chechens who were working for the country. Russia was demanding their return. My Lithuanian friends were afraid for me. A few days later I was walking down the street, leaving the internet café, when a man tripped me. I fell on the ground. Three more men came out of the shadows. They dragged me into a yard and they beat me. They broke several ribs. There was a car waiting close by. When they finished beating me, they jumped into the car and drove off. They didn’t say a word, but they spoke to each other in Russian. I believe it was the FSB.”
“Did you go to the police?” I asked.
“I did not because I did not want it to get into the news. I didn’t want other people working for Chechen rights would be frightened and I didn’t want to give my Russian attackers the satisfaction. Another time a nice tall blond young man, around 23, came to my apartment and said, ‘You are representing terrorists.’ He said it in a threatening tone.
“Could he have been referring to Beslan?” I asked.
“Only two Chechens were involved in the Beslan murders and both of them worked for the FSB. The men who were arrested were from a variety of nations: Russians, Ukranians, Ossytians and the two Chechens. This operation was an FSB operation to discredit Chechnya. Chechens are not stupid. They know that such an action would not help their cause. Moscow did this to discredit the independence movement. The Russian news agency reported on it every day, every moment. Chechens do not have that kind of access to the news. The Russians killed their own children to show the world that Chechens were terrorists. They don’t care about Russian children or Ossytian children. They are not people. Russia is a government that does not care about its own people.”
“Why were you the one selected to open the information center?” I asked.
“The Lithuanians wanted a woman representative. In the independent Chechen government the Minister of Education was a woman; the vice minister of culture was a woman. Other women worked in the government. Our women are very active. Our women organized the demonstrations for independence. We are Muslim, but we are not like the women in Saudi Arabia. We are not prone to stay home, we are active.”
“Do women have rights at home?” I asked.
“The woman is always first in the home,” Saijeva said. “Chechen society respects women. Very much. A mother is treated like a holy person. I don’t know how things are now because the war has changed Chechen society. But before, if a woman was walking across the street, men stepped aside and gave her the way. In the family children obeyed their mother. Divorce was uncommon before the war. It was a traditional culture in which women felt good. If a woman wasn’t working, she was never left alone and without money. Always, her father, brothers, uncles took care of her. Or others.”
“Where did you study?”
“I completed the Moscow Institute for Foreign Diplomacy. People from all over the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc studied there. I completed my degree in Economics. I was the only woman in the Institute from Chechnya. I was the first and last Chechen woman to study there until 1990. It was political and only for Russians, and difficult for non-Russians to enter, especially for people born in exile.”
“I was born in 1954 in exile in Kazakhstan,” Saijeva said. “All of Chechnya was in exile for 12 years. Our family was in exile for 15 years. We were deported by the Russians in 1944. My parents were very young. All of our relatives were separated. My parents worked in a plant with dangerous chemicals. Many of them died from diseases of the throat. Everyone who worked there got cancer. My father worked there three years and then left. People were dying all around him. The local Kazakhs were very bad to us. They were told we were bandits, anti-Soviet. They were told not to have anything to do with us. People exiled were there from many different nationalities: Greek, German, Tatars, and others. The Germans treated the Chechens well and were friends with them. They were Russian Germans who had been exiled there from all over the Soviet Union. After the first years, it got better. The Chechens worked a lot, but many of them died. They arrived in the winter. It was cold. They were transported in cattle wagons. People froze to death. People died of starvation. I read on the Internet that the KGB statistic was that 70% of the Chechen nation died in exile.
“Chechens always wanted to be free and independent. That is why they were exiled. They’ve fought for their statehood with Russia for a 100 years since the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century they had partisans in the mountains fighting for independence. They had bands of anti-Soviet partisan fighters who fought with arms against the Soviets from 1920 until 1944. There was always a resistance in Chechnya. A permanent resistance. They had their own government in the mountains. Writers and intellectuals were in that government in the mountains. Stalin didn’t like it and that is why he deported the entire nation. My father told me that there were people who said that when Germans entered World War II they would liberate Chechnya. Germany wanted the Caucasus nations to join together against the Soviet Union. We wanted our freedom. The Soviets perceived this action as Chechnya joining the Nazis. That was one of the reasons why the entire nation was exiled. In the press, in the books, no one wrote about the deportations. You couldn’t talk about it or say anything, but everyone knew. You had to pretend you’d always been in Chechnya. Parents told their children and that’s how we lived.
“I was three-years-old when my family was allowed to return to Chechnya. Chechens began returning home under Kruschev in 1957. He restored Chechnya as a Soviet Republic and allowed the people to go home. I don’t remember living in exile. I went back to Kazakhstan to see the place. It was a lonely, desolate small town 200 kilometers away from Almata.
“When my elder sister joined the Communist Party to advance her career, my father said, ‘You are not my daughter. You are a traitor.’ My sister smiled and said, ‘It’s not in my heart, but I have to do it for my career.’ When I completed the institute I was also told to join the party. I didn’t. That was a few years before perestroika. I was told I couldn’t have a career. Later, that was a good thing for me that I had never joined the party.
“Under Soviet occupation the Lithuanians remembered that 50 years ago they had their own state,” Saijeva said. “In Chechnya the memory of statehood was not there. Chechens remember exile and their hard life in Russia. In Lithuania the Communist Party Secretary was Algirdas Brazauskas. For us it was always a local Russian. Only at the very end of the Soviet Union did we get Zavgaev, who was a Chechen Communist Party member.
“Our independence movement was influenced by the Baltics. The movements started at the same time. The Chechens knew about what was going on in the Baltics from the news. On January 13, 1991 the Chechens in Grozny held demonstrations in support of the Lithuanians. On September 6, 1991 Chechens declared independence. Why that date? The presidential legal law for independence was dated November 1st. After elections the first law Dudayev wrote was the law for independence. But the people had been having demonstrations for the past few months. Sept. 6 was the last day on which a Russian parliamentarian gave up his ticket. That was the day on which the last Russian left. That is why the people celebrate September 6 as the actual start of independence. The independent government acted for only three years. It was very difficult. There were lots of Russian KGB agents following us. Russia initiated an economic blockade. There were constant provocations.
“President Dudayev was smart. He survived. The Russians didn’t want us to be free. Putin said during his presidential elections: ‘We don’t want to let Chechnya go from Russia.’ This was his main reason for fighting Chechnya. ‘If we let Chechnya go, then the other republics will go to,’ Putin said.
Dzhokhar Dudayev was born in February 1944, during the forced deportation of his family, to Kazakhstan. He spent the first 13 years of his life in exile. His experience was typical of Chechens of his generation. Following the repatriation of the Chechens and Ingush in 1957 Dudayev studied at an evening school in Checheno-Ingushetia and qualified as an electrician. In 1962 he entered the Tambov Higher Military Aviation School for pilots and graduated from there in 1966. Dudayev joined the Communist party in 1968 and in 1971-74 studied at the prestigious Gagarin Air Force Academy. He married a Russian woman and had three children with her.
Dudayev served in a heavy bomber unit of the Soviet Air Force in Siberia and the Ukraine and also took part in the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He rose steadily in the Air Force, assuming command of the air base of the Soviet Strategic Air Base at Tartu, Estonia in 1987 with the rank of Major General. He learned Estonian and showed great tolerance for Estonian independence when he ignored the orders to shut down the Estonian television and parliament during the Soviet attacks of 1991. Instead he sent a mobile military kitchen. His air division was withdrawn from Estonia and Dudayev resigned from the Soviet military.
As the Soviet Union was beginning to come apart Dudayev returned to Grozny and devoted himself to local politics. He was elected head of the Executive Committee of the All-National Congress of the Chechen People—a movement that advocated for independence from the Soviet Union.
In August 1991 Doku Zavgayev, the Communist leader of the Chechen-Ingush A.S.S.R., publicly expressed his support for the attempted coup of 1991 against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Dudayev and his supporters acted against the Zavgayev administration. On September 6, 1991 militants invaded a session of the Supreme Soviet and effectively dissolved the government of the Chechen-Ingush A.S.S.R. The television station and other key government buildings were taken over.”
“You knew Dudayev personally,” I said, “What was Dudayev like?”
“Dudayev was an idealist,” Saijeva said. “He was in the military, he was a general, but that was only one side of his personality. He was an idealist, a romantic, and a very good man. He truly loved people. He was very intuitive and really could feel other people. He was very polite. He was extremely polite to women. He feared women a little bit. He was modest and hesitant with women. With men he was like a general. He was extremely smart. He understood Russia very well. He knew Russia’s history and politics. He had a very poor opinion of Russia. He himself had been a Soviet officer and his wife was a Russian poet. He was a famous person during Soviet times. When in Chechnya people began to fight for independence he returned from Estonia to Chechnya. The people asked him to be their leader.
The mark of a great leader was that he listened to others. I would give him my advise. I’d confer with Lithuanian politicians. I’d pass on the Lithuanians advise.”
“What was it like when Dudayev died?” I asked.
“I was in Lithuania and I spoke with him often on the phone. From the summer of 1995 up until his death we spoke on the phone two to three times a week. He called nights. He would talk about the war, about how the Russian army was maneuvering. I’d release the information through the press and through conferences. Sometimes he’d ask me for advice. I would think, ‘I’m a little person, what can I say.’ He would ask me about politics, ‘What should I do?’ he’d ask. He respected me. President, general, a fighter, but he wanted to hear what I have to say? What I thought.
“Ten years after Dudayev’s death the Russians wrote a lot of articles about it. They wrote that the Americans gave Russia the coordinates of Dudayev’s satellite phone. I spoke with Dudayev two days before he was killed. We talked about how the Russians would like to enter into peace talks with Chechnya. He asked me to participate in the peace talks on the Chechen side. The Americans were supposed to enter into the peace talks. He wanted me to help organize these peace talks. We had been discussing organizing the peace talks for three months. At first I did not want to participate in the peace talks. I said, ‘Let the men talk.’ I didn’t have the experience I told him. He said, ‘No, I trust you and I believe in your abilities. You will be able to help.’ Dudayev wanted to end the war through peace talks and two days later the Russians killed him. The Russians were not interested in the peace talks. The Russians were looking for provocations.
“Before the first Chechen war our society was unified: we all wanted independence. Now these Sheryats have turned up who want a Muslim state. The society is divided. Russia is responsible for that. All the Islamic texts that are circulating in Chechnya are published in Russia. Most of the Arabs who came to Chechnya speak fluent Russian. Why? We are told they came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But they all speak Russian. Russia is creating this situation. This is not what regular people want. Today, there are new sports stadiums and massive buildings in Grozny. But 80 percent of Chechens are unemployed. Only state budget employees have money. Nobody else. The factories are closed and destroyed. People are very poor in Chechnya.
“There are not many Chechens left. President Kadirev says there are 1.88 million, but human rights organizations say there are really around 600,000 to 800,000. Before the war there were 1,5 million people in Chechnya and 17% of them were Russian speakers. Many of the Russians left during the war and many were killed in the war. There was a human rights organization from Denmark that said it is not true that there are 1.88 million Chechens. They counted 500,000 according to the aid they distributed. Many Chechens have fled to Europe. There are 30,000 in Austria, 10,000 in Belgium, and France and Scandinavia have less. We have our refugee organizations abroad. I work a lot with refugees. I am the director of the Baltic-Chechen Union. We don’t have many Chechen refugees in Lithuania, around 300.”
Before I leave Ambassador Saijeva gives me a valuable gift: postage stamps from a free and independent Chechnya, memories of a dream that lasted three years.
Ambassador Saijeva took a deep breath and said: “I believe that Chechnya will be free and independent. And I believe that it will happen soon.”
Laima Vincė, a New York native, is a Lithuanian-American non-fiction and children’s book author, Fulbright scholar in creative writing at Vilnius University, journalist, memoirist and translator. For more information about her work, visit her website at www.laimavince.com to order her acclaimed memoir “Lenin’s Head on a Platter.”
Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.