I survived war in Chechnya. Now I see the same trauma unfolding in Ukraine
Once again, war has upended my life – but my current hardships are nothing compared to what Ukrainians are going through
I watched a video on Instagram this week showing a man from Ukraine addressing his followers. Suddenly there was the sharp sound of a fighter jet flying past. I looked up at the sky but saw nothing. Then there was a powerful explosion of a bomb being dropped.
I ripped my headphones out of my ears, covered my head with my hands, and quickly hid under the table, as I had done so many times at home in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. A few seconds later I realised that the fighter jet and the explosion were on that Instagram video. It was the most powerful flashback to Russia’s bombardment of Chechnya I had experienced in the past ten days.
In September 1999, Russia launched the Second Chechen War against Chechnya, a republic in Russia’s North Caucasus, which had been seeking to become independent. Until 2001, Russian troops waged a brutal war in the republic, besieging Grozny. Civilians who couldn’t flee remained trapped in basements under heavy bombing, suffering from cold and hunger.
As I calmed down, I thought about how all my traumas and fears of war were still present 20 years after the invasion. They weren’t going anywhere. That is probably one of the few things in my life that has not changed since Russia’s war in Ukraine began.
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I don’t know where I'll be living next month, if I’ll be working, or when I’ll see my relatives again
I left Russia a year ago with a beautiful plan: to see how companies work in other countries, to learn another language and return to Russia to continue my career at a new level. As they say, tell God about your plans and he’ll laugh. The company I work for closed two days ago.
I was supposed to move back to Moscow in two months’ time. I planned to throw a party, invite all my friends, and tell them how I had learned to drive and made new friends from different countries. I wanted to brag and annoy everyone by replacing Russian words with English ones. But my friends have left for different countries, not knowing how they would make money, or where they would work. The only certainty they had was knowing they are no longer welcome in their homeland.
I was supposed to return home to Chechnya in three months. I would cuddle with my mother, who is attached to me but is incapable of showing emotion. We’d then lie down and watch videos of people making cheesecake recipes on her tablet. I was supposed to take my mother, a former chef, to different cafes in Grozny and enjoy watching her criticise the work of other chefs. She could ask them: “Well, what kind of borscht is that?”
Instead, I call my mother on WhatsApp and we discuss which products to buy in case she runs out of food. We discussed whether it’s better to buy dry meat or kurduk, the fat from a sheep’s tail. We remember how during the Second Chechen War we ran out of food and only dried kurduk remained. It saved us. You don’t need to eat much of it to feel full.
I should have been living between Moscow and Grozny, berating the local and federal authorities for corruption and human rights violations, going on vacation to Prague to see a friend, planning a business trip to Dagestan, and arrogantly correcting my colleagues about the traditions of the Caucasus. Instead, I don’t know where I'll be living next month, if I’ll be working, or when I’ll see my relatives again
When I think of these hardships, I compare each one to what people in Ukraine are going through. My brain is like a TV screen divided in two, and I can see two images: on one side is my lost job – on the other, Ukrainians sleeping in basements.
Here is my mother, drying kurduk in Grozny; there are the people in Kyiv who have just come out of the bomb shelters to find food before the bombing begins again. Here are my friends in Russia who lost their jobs and have left the country; there are Ukrainian men who cannot leave their country, not that many of them want to. Here are Muscovites at a rally against the war; there are unarmed Ukrainians trying to stop a Russian tank with their bodies.
All these comparisons make me feel the insignificance of my hardships. It evokes a spectrum of emotions: guilt, resentment, helplessness, insecurity.
Since the war began on 24 February, I’ve been tossed from one extreme to the other
I’m having a hard time reacting to the fact that for the past ten days, people in the US have been responding with a confused “Oh...” when I say “I’m from Russia”. My defensive reaction prompts me to add that I am Chechen. But while I used to say it without any remorse, it’s not so easy for me now. Instead, I say: “I am from Russia, and I do not support the war against Ukraine.”
After that, people start talking to me, asking me questions, and I answer them. At least then I feel that I’m doing something useful because the worst feeling I have here is one of uselessness.
Since the war began on 24 February, I’ve been tossed from one extreme to the other. At first, I wanted to pretend that there was no war and that I could go on living as before. Naturally, I cannot do that, and when I open my eyes in the morning, the first thing I do is turn on the news. Then I want to quit my profession, join some humanitarian mission and go help people in Ukraine.
But I know how it will end: when the first bombs hit, I will cover my head with my hands, crawl under the table and stay there. Because I’m still scared as hell of dying. Different people come out of war with different consequences. For me, it’s a heightened sense of self-preservation.
A friend recently asked me what advice I would give to people who are now in Ukraine and are being bombed. My advice is simple: wherever you are hiding, look for load-bearing walls. They are the most stable.
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