Ayshat sits in the small basement office of a women’s NGO in Ingushetia. Pale, determined, articulate, she looks older than her 40 years. With no relatives to support her, she is raising her son alone, on her small income, which is extremely unusual in Ingushetia. Her thick hair is cut fashionably short – also a rarity in Ingushetia, where women pride themselves on their long locks. It had to be cut when she was first treated for a brain tumour. Now she has learned at the hospital that the cancer has returned, and she needs an operation in Moscow which she cannot afford. When she broke down, a kind nurse referred her to this NGO. Ayshat is clear that her tumour is the result of her ex-husband’s violence.
I’d better start with how I met my - now ex - husband. I was a nurse, working in the resuscitation department. One day a colleague said to me ‘this man’s just back from Barnaul. He’s a great guy, I’d like to introduce you’. I agreed. Next day he turned up, when I was on my shift. We talked. I didn’t like him at all, didn’t like the way he talked or behaved. I was quite clear – this was not my kind of man. I refused him, politely. I was about to take my entrance exam for medical school and I had a lot of revising to do. I wanted to study gynaecology. We only had that one conversation. He seemed to have got the point.
Next morning, I was on my way home after the night shift when he came up and asked if he could walk with me. I said I’d rather he didn’t, I thought I’d made my position clear - I wasn’t looking for a husband. Suddenly this car drives up, two men leap out, drag me in, drive me off to Nazran and lock me into this fifth floor flat!
I resisted, of course. Said I’d never agree to marry him. But he took no notice. I did try to escape. I found there was a balcony - the adjoining apartment had one too. I asked my kidnappers, who were keeping guard in the next room, if I could close the door for five minutes. Then I climbed onto the neighbour’s balcony. I thought ‘I’ve done it, got away!’ Imagine - you realise you’re going to have to live with a man you don’t even like! I was in such a state, shaking from head to foot. I banged on the neighbours’ window. But there was no one there.
That was when I understood - no one was going to rescue me. I was going to have to go back. For a moment, standing on that fifth floor balcony, I thought ‘why not just throw myself off?’ I was distraught. I lay down again quickly in case they came to check up on me. When they did, I pretended I was alright. I lay there thinking how to escape. I’d got to, somehow. But I never managed it.
Then the men took me off into the depths of Chechnya, as my relations were all saying ‘Give us back our girl’. They told the elders I was fine with it. The elders said ‘Bring her here, so we can ask her ourselves’. So they thought up this wheeze. They took some other girl – none of my close relations were there, and our clan elders are so distantly connected to me that they wouldn’t have known what I looked like. The elders asked the girl ‘Have you agreed to this?’ She said yes. And the elders gave their blessing. So they - well, they married me off in my absence.
But the old men suspected something wasn’t right. They demanded the men produce the real bride. My kidnappers were very cunning. They decided to keep me overnight, in the hope they’d be able to win me round. That night they piled on the pressure; stood over me, going on and on in this monotone: ‘Come on, come on. It’ll be fine. He’s a great fellow..’
In the end, next morning, I gave in. I guess I was just worn out. I felt I was offering myself as a sacrifice. I do that. I’ve been like that since I was child. It’s done me so much harm. This wanting to please everyone, whatever it costs me.
So that’s how it started, my married life, if that’s what you can call it.
Right away I knew he had problems. For a start, he drank a lot. After they stole me they sat in the next room and drank. The next day there they were again, getting drunk, and the day after. I hated it. But I thought maybe it would pass, that he was drinking because he was so happy.
We were married a week later. This woman from Barnaul came to the wedding. They said she and my husband were old friends. I never suspected a thing. I was very trusting. I believed, still believe, that men and women can be friends. So I welcomed her. I was so young, so inexperienced! But the way she talked, the things she said, breathed jealousy. She hated me. She’d say to my husband, sarcastically: ’Look what a beauty you’ve chosen!’ She even tried undressing me! ‘Let me see your breasts, your legs - my, what a girl!’ If I’d been more experienced I’d have realised she was his lover. I was surprised. But I didn’t suspect a thing. ...
A few days later we all went to Barnaul, this lover, my husband. Me. That’s where my married life began. Awful it was. His lover wouldn’t leave him alone. She was always picking fights – even when I was there. I was so naive - even then I didn’t realise they were lovers. And because she was always on at him, he’d lash out at me.
She’d be there every day, asking me these questions, about how things were in bed. I was so naive I’d tell her. She was forever bringing me presents, cakes. When I ate them I’d feel terrible. Yes, it sounds weird, but it’s true. After eating anything she brought me I’d feel bad. I couldn’t understand it. Nor could he - I was so healthy. Maybe it was something to do with her jealousy. I lost 10 kilos in three months. I got so weak, though usually I was full of energy, racing round the house, cooking, never sitting down, trying to please my husband. That’s how I was brought up. I wanted to be a perfect wife.
Today, I wonder how I could have behaved like that. It goes back to my childhood, I suppose. I grew up in a very conservative family. Our father was very strict. Maybe – even despotic. Sometimes he was nice, of course, but he was always criticising us. Never praised us, however much we tried to please him. So my sisters and I grew up believing we had to please everyone.
My husband soon clocked that, and made use of it. I was afraid of him right from the start. He’d get this terrible look in his eyes, start shouting, throwing things at me. For no reason! Saucepans, ashtrays, watches, anything that was around. Once he threw a pan of hot fat. He’d grab these big knives. I’d burst into tears, I could see he was sick. I was scared. When the rage had died down he’d be sorry: ‘I’m a fool, I don’t know why I do these things. I love you more than anything in the world.’ Then I’d forgive him. I pitied him - poor man, what must they have done to you to make you like this!
Pity. My capacity for pity – it’s a bad joke. It’s played a fatal role in my life. I should have looked after myself better.
I was a long way away from my parents. If they been there, maybe I’d just have run away when he started beating me up. But I didn’t know how to. For a start, he never gave me money. Maybe he was afraid I’d... It wasn’t that he was mean. But he never left money at home. And considering how he lived - the lovers, the restaurants - he must have felt he needed it, just in case. He’d never let slip an opportunity. After spending the whole evening with one woman, on the way home he’d manage one more bit of skirt. By the time he got home at two o’clock in the morning I’d be worn out. Then he’d start on me. That’s what he was like. Relentless. A compulsive womaniser.
When he beat me I wouldn’t say a word. Then he’d beat me because I didn’t say anything. He didn’t know why he was doing it. He just beat me. Then he’d be sorry. At other times he’d yell: ‘You’re a nobody!’ He didn’t mean it - he’d say anything to make sure I didn’t leave. He wanted me to feel dependent, vulnerable. As time when on, I got bolder - I’d yell at him, try and stand up for myself. We’d have huge rows. I had a temper too.
After five or six years I got pregnant. Then he left. Made some excuse about having to earn money. Was gone for months, with his lover. I didn’t hear a word from him. Then he turned up, when I was eight months gone. That same day he beat me up so badly I had to escape. I scrambled out of the window, barefoot. It was August. We were living in Alma-Ata [ed: now Almaty] then. It’s a very big city. I kept walking and walking. I had no idea where I was going. Then I reached this wood. I never wanted to see that man again. I wanted to die. I’d come to this wood to put an end to my life. I was furious. How could he beat me up, knowing that I was with child?
I didn’t do it, obviously. I sat there for twenty minutes or so, thinking it through. And realised I was wrong - I didn’t have the right to kill another life. I pulled myself together and set off in the direction of home. Barefoot. Finally a car stopped and gave me a lift. I had this neighbour, Aunt Katya. Russian. A very good woman. I went to her. She knew about my life. She was always telling me to leave. She put me to bed, prayed over me and went to bawl out my husband. He was all smiles, denied we’d had a row, though it was obvious he’d been really worried - I’d been gone all day, it was dark. I refused to talk to him. I was hurting all over.
A month later, when I was about to give birth, he left again. He had this very young lover in Barnaul. He went to her, left me without a ruble. Throughout my pregnancy I hadn’t had enough money to feed myself properly, to buy nappies, pay the doctor. I’d had to turn to his brothers for help.
After the birth I came home. I had no milk. I spent these sleepless nights alone with the crying baby, who was very weak. I cried too. I was afraid for the baby. He was having convulsions - we were always calling the ambulance. The brothers would bring food. But then they’d expect me to cook for them. They’d be there every day with their friends and I’d be cooking with one hand, holding the baby with the other. Round midnight Aunt Katya’d come and take the child. And I’d run out to the bathhouse and wash the nappies. The child was having diarrhoea. So I had to keep changing him. I was like a robot. I will forever be grateful to that woman.
My husband turned up again when the child was two months old. To be honest I was very happy to see him. I took him into the child’s room ‘Here he is - our son!’ He’d told me more than once that if I gave him a son he’d cover me in gold. But now he took one look and said: ‘He’s not very like me!’ I was hurt. That he could say that, after everything I’d been through during the pregnancy and after, when he was away! How ashamed I’d been to have to leave the maternity ward without paying the doctors. Of course, I couldn’t pay them back later, as I had no money for a long time.
Something broke in me at that moment - this man couldn’t even share our joy at having a child. It was as if he was saying the child wasn’t his. Had his lover put the idea into his head? I don’t know. Well, he spent two months at home and in all that time, though he could see how much the baby was suffering, from pain, from illness, how wretched I was, he never once came and helped.
In common with their Chechen neighbours, the Ingush population was accused by Stalin of colluding with the Nazi enemy during the Second World and deported to Kazazhstan. Although many returned under Khruschev, the links between Ingushetia and Kazakhstan remain strong to this day.
When the child was four months old he got convulsions so badly we went to the hospital. He was at death’s door. I rang my husband and asked him to talk to the doctor and pay him. I lost 7 kilos that night. The doctor managed to save him. But my husband went to his lover. Just ran away, leaving us to handle the crisis on our own. He didn’t even leave me any money. I didn’t see him again ‘til the child was 10 months old. We’d travelled home to Ingushetia for my husband’s brother’s wedding. The baby was more grown up - he stroked him, played with him. Then left again for Barnaul.
Did I already say that my husband was an addict, as well as alcoholic? At first he only smoked weed, then he got onto prescription drugs. One of his lovers was a nurse - she got them for him. Then they did this check at her hospital and found that a lot of medicines with these drugs were missing. They suspected her. It was going to court. Well - she hung herself. My husband showed no regret at all. He didn’t know what compassion was. It was the drugs, I suppose. I know addicts become cruel, and that that gets worse with time.
At one point he’d overdosed badly. A friend had brought heroin, they’d both shot up and gone out like lights. I was too embarrassed to call the neighbours - they respected us, I didn’t want them to know he was an addict. I was in such a panic I never thought of ringing his friends. At last his friend recovered and we dragged my husband onto the bed. He wouldn’t let me call an ambulance, it wasn’t the first time it had happened, he said. My husband lay there for days. I bought medicine - I’m a medic, I knew what to get. When he came round he couldn’t remember much. Forgot names. I nursed him through that.
After two years away, he came back to Ingushetia, where we were now living. For a couple of months he didn’t touch a drop – because of his parents. He’d become all quiet, quite unlike himself. I was worried about him – now he was ill I couldn’t just walk out him.
We went back to Barnaul and for a while we lived quietly, no quarrels, no fights. Then one day a friend came by with drink and that was it. Over night my quiet husband lost it, started having hallucinations, saying these unbelievable things. I went to the doctors. They said he was past helping, that after such a heavy overdose the damage was usually irreparable. I begged them, said that I couldn’t leave him in trouble, after 20 years together They looked at me as if I were mad. One of them took pity on me and prescribed some medicine. When I gave it to my husband he shouted at me, said it was me, not him, that was sick.
Still, he was getting worse all the time. He was having hallucinations. He’d tell his brothers -we were back in Ingushetia - that people had seen me sitting in a car late at night, that I was being unfaithful. His brothers laughed at him. But he was beating me up, tormenting me, mocking the child. It got so bad that his brothers had to take me to his parents. It got to the point where his brothers took my mobile, went to the police and went through all the calls and texts I’d made. I knew he was ill, that it was pointless arguing with him. If I hadn’t been a medic myself I’d have left, but I knew he needed help, so I tried to tell his relations. But no one would listen.
The last two months were a nightmare. I kept my phone in my pocket, my finger on the emergency button. His youngest brother and I agreed that I’d call if he attacked me. So when he started I’d press the button and in ten minutes the brother’d be there and take me to his parents’. After a few days, I’d go back. I don’t know why. I felt guilty, I couldn’t leave him in that state.
Once my husband outwitted me. I was asleep with the child late one night when he knocked at the door. He asked for my phone, said he had to make a call. Stupidly, I gave it to him. He looked at me with this mad smile and put the phone under the pillow. He took me out on the balcony and started hitting me, trying to make me confess - that I’d been with someone. I tried to reason with him, but he kept hitting me harder and harder. I became so afraid he was going to kill me that I admitted everything. I shouted for help, but he just hit me harder. At some point passers-by heard my shouts, saw me standing by the window in my nightdress, being hit. They started whistling, so he left off. When they’d gone he asked me where I’d hidden my wig. When I said I’d never had one, he punched me in the stomach. I doubled over from the pain and he started kicking my head. The first blow was so hard I thought he cracked my skull. I knew he’d done something serious. He kicked me like a ball, so I bounced against the balcony door. He must have realised he’d gone too far. He told me to go to sleep, that he’d kill me if I breathed a word.
Luckily, his brother rang in the morning. He took us to his relations. Then the elders decided we should get a divorce. They decided that I should stay in the flat with the child, and he would go to his parents. That’s how our marriage ended.
When I got back to the flat with the child, I found this huge kitchen knife wedged in the sofa when I was cleaning. My husband must have hidden it, in order to kill me. What if I’d gone back to him one more time!
After that, although the elders had agreed I should have the flat, his relations wouldn’t let me live there. I agreed to leave. I just wanted to forget it all. I’d been having these awful headaches. They found this tumour on my brain. Now I’m facing a very serious operation. That’s where the heedlessness of youth led me. Now I’m the invalid, the one who needs help.
I’d like to make this appeal to all women. My dears! Don’t put up with it. Run away from men like that! Least you end up like me.
A local women’s NGO is raising money for Ayshat’s operation. Contact the editor of openDemocracy Russia if you want to contribute.
Illustrations by Jess Wilson