“I don’t remember who I am”: diary of detained journalist facing deportation from Russia

For people held in immigration detention, life can quickly turn into despair.

Ali Feruz
10 January 2018


Ali Feruz shows bruises from being beaten in detention, at Moscow City Court, 7 August 2017. (c) Anton Karliner / MediaZona. All rights reserved.

Ali Feruz is a correspondent for the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta who is currently facing deportation to Uzbekistan, where he was born — and where, according to friends and colleagues, he faces torture at the hands of the security services and possibly death. In August, Moscow City Court stopped deportation proceedings until Feruz’s case is examined by the European Court of Human Rights, and Feruz has now spent six months in deportation prison outside Moscow waiting for the decision.

Ali has kept a diary during his time in immigration detention. MediaZona has published excerpts from this diary on prison life, including Ali’s despair that “grows not by the day, not by the hour, but by the minute.” Ali is being held at a detention centre in Sakharovo, in the Moscow region, on the site of a former military base. In winter 2015, eight people held here opened their veins in protest at the inhumane conditions. The prison’s administration was changed, and conditions improved somewhat. There have also been protests in deportation prisons in Ekaterinburg and Kazan.

Russia’s system of deportation prisons (referred to by their acronym, TsVSIG) emerged at the start of the decade. By 2015, these prisons could be found in most regions of the country. Foreign citizens and people without citizenship who are to be deported are held in these prisons (sometimes for years). In these centres, whose conditions are much like prison, migrants can face months of incarceration, a lack of access to healthcare and the removal of their children.

Ali Feruz (Khudoberdi Nurmatov) was born in Uzbekistan in 1987, but grew up in Russia’s Altai region, returning to Uzbekistan after finishing school. A few years later, he was detained by Uzbekistan’s security services. According to Feruz, he was tortured as security officers tried to make him inform on his friends. Feruz agreed to cooperate, but then fled to Russia at the first opportunity. Feruz, who is openly gay, has been published in Novaya Gazeta since 2014, and has tried, unsuccessfully, to receive asylum in Russia.   

“Help me survive, please”

Immigration detention is like prison. There’s a double green fence with barbed wire running along the top. There’s watchtowers on the perimeter fence. They release dogs to patrol it at night. They don’t keep criminals here, but foreigners who have been sentenced for administrative violations. For example, if they’ve outstayed their registration or work permit.

The cells are small. Our two-person cell has two windows (covered by bars), a bunk bed, a metal table with a bench, a metal wardrobe, broom, washbasin, bucket, toilet and two CCTV cameras in the corner of the ceiling, which watch over us 24 hours a day.

On arrival, you are issued: two plates, a spoon, a mug (all aluminium), a small piece of soap, some toilet paper, a single-use razor holder, a faded mattress, a hard pillow, a blanket, a single-use medical bed sheet (usually used in hospitals), a toothbrush and some toothpaste. You are instantly warned: if you harm detention centre property, you’ll be fined.


Illustration by Natalia Yamshchikova.

“Let’s make our beds! Get out from under those covers!” — shouts the guard as a wake-up call.

 We get up at six o’clock.

 The guards’ shifts vary. Some of them are good. The good ones joke around with you. The bad ones humiliate you.

The cells are small. In our two-person cell there’s a metal bunk-bed, a metal table and bench, a broom, basin, bucket, toilet and sink. High up in the corner are two video cameras which observe us around the clock.

They bring breakfast at seven o’clock. It’s porridge, bread, and black tea (the daily serving is one tablespoon for the entire cell). Nine o’clock is inspection time. They open the doors and lead us into the corridor, where we line up.

“Surname! Keep away from the wall! Let’s move!”

After inspection, they take us outside for a walk for one hour.

 , “And so, the day’s over,” sighs my cellmate Zamir after the hour is up. For Zamir, the day begins when we head out for our daily exercise, and ends when we return to our cell. And so, his day lasts precisely one hour.

Zamir, 35, is from Osh, Kyrgyzstan. He was detained in Moscow when he was on his way to the police station to file a report about losing his passport, which he’d forgotten on a bus. He’s been here for more than a month-and-a-half. On the way to the detention centre, the bailiffs beat Zamir up. “They hit you with a taser. You howl like a dog.” This a common occurence: I’ve only met a few lucky people here who haven’t been touched.

“When I get out of here, I’m going to take a deep breath of fresh air,” says Zamir. The detention centre is surrounded by forest, but there’s still no air.

Our walk is followed by lunchtime. Dinnertime is at six o’clock. It’s nearly always a “fish cutlet” with pearl barley. It’s unusually horrible. People who’ve just arrived eat it, but those who’ve been here for more than a week chuck it out. We threw it out today.


Illustration by Natalia Yamshchikova.

After lunch, I get a feeling of emptiness inside, loneliness — this is from the lack of movement. When this happens, I often have panic attacks. The walls press in on me from all sides. My heart starts beating quickly.

It’s hard to breathe.

There are two types of people in the special detention centre: those who have resigned themselves to their arrest and await their turn to be sent home, and those who feel their arrest was unjust and don’t want to come to terms with prison life. The latter keep themselves to themselves and prefer to sit to one side.

These two types only meet during exercise time, but pay no attention to one another. Some laugh and play football, and dance when they score a goal. Others sit on the benches and glance from side to side warily. 

Mikdad is one of those who never accepted his arrest, nor his detention. He’s from Iraq. He’s 45 years old and a computer programmer by profession. One day, his visa expired — while he already held his return tickets in his hands. He barely speaks Russian, and only knows his native Arabic and English. Over the course of our conversation he smiled just once — when a police dog stole the ball from the guys playing football.

We’re going for exercise with people from the new building. It’s a small square, closed off by iron bars, like an animal cage. A few people pace like lions from one end to the other.They look more like lost kittens on the outside.

When the Uzbeks find out about my problems with the Uzbekistan security services, they start avoiding me. The Tajiks laugh at them: “Why are you afraid? That Karimov of yours is now in a detention centre in hell! He’s not going to do anything to you.”

Here, I meet some migrants from India and Muhammed, a Syrian. The Indian prisoners check out my tattoos for a while, then tell me, in English, that they’re in awe of them. Muhammed used to live in Aleppo. In 2014, he managed to get out of the city, which was gripped by war, together with his 12-year-old brother. They settled in Egorevsk, near Moscow — Syrians have a sewing factory there. Then Muhammed applied for refugee status, but was denied. Now the authorities want to forcibly return him to Syria. Muhammed doesn’t want to return because of the war. His younger brother has remained free.

Zamir’s already home. I’ve been transferred to Cell 302 in the women’s block. Third floor. My new neighbour is Urmat, who’s from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. There’s two Roma among the women on the second floor. One of them is called Gita, the second - Masha. Masha starts singing early in the morning. The Roma girls love to sing.

I’ve developed a new reflex in immigration detention. When I get a call on the phone or at the door, my heart sinks to my stomach. It feels like they’ve come for me. And when I hear that they’re opening the door to another cell, I feel relieved. It feels as if a tragedy has passed me by. This morning, three women were sent back home. Then they brought two new women in.


Illustration by Natalia Yamshchikova.

Not everyone’s got friends and relatives in Moscow. For several people, no one comes to visit them after they wind up here. No parcels either. Most people smoke. And when there’s no parcels for them, they get cigarettes off other migrants. And if their neighbours don’t have any, then they start smoking tea. When you smoke tea, the cell fills up with blue-grey smoke and the fire alarm goes off.

Urmat is always joking that he’s taken a liking to Sasha, the Moldovan from another cell. When Urmat asked me to order a Darya Dontsova book from the outside, I laughed at him for a long time. And today, at dinner, when the feeding hatch was open, Sasha came up to me and asked for a book.

“Urmat’s got Dontsova,” I joke to him.

“No,” he laughs.

This is how Urmat’s secret love laughed at him.

I promised Sasha I’d bring one of my Sergei Dovlatov books out to the exercise yard.

Soon we got two new people in our cell — Takhir and Rasul. Life in the cell became more fun. Urmat is joking a lot. Takhir is a serious, closed person. Rasul can do bird whistles. In the evenings we like to sing Tatu, VIA Gra and other pop songs. Uncle Takhir likes listening to us. The guards watch through the peephole.

We spend the evenings playing dominos and battleships. I didn’t know how to play on the outside. My cellmate from Cell 102, ex-con Roma, taught me how to play dominos. And I learned battleships from Urmat, an ex-addict.

Once, after lights out, Urmat and I were arguing about where the phrase “Platonic love” comes from. Urmat claimed that it comes from the word “flesh” [plot’ in Russian] and it refers to sexual attraction. I think the opposite. We had a debate. I even got the guard involved — he announced that I was right. I really got Urmat there.

In three days, Rasul read two of Dovlatov’s books. It’s a big success for me. Just like me, everyone gets addicted to Dovlatov. Rasul’s on the third book. I’ll have to order more of his books from outside. I also gave Moldovan Sasha The Suitcase to read. I hope to get the whole floor hooked on Dovlatov. This is how we’ll live.

Everyone’s sitting sadly in the cell. Urmat can’t get in touch with his friends on the phone. And Takhrir’s youngest son has been arrested in Tajikistan. Rasul’s afraid that he won’t get a visa to America and he’ll have to stay in Uzbekistan.

And I’m afraid that I could be sent to Uzbekistan. I’m now being haggled over. When we were out in the exercise yard, migrants from Uzbekistan told me about torture there. When I think about it, I get covered in cold sweat and the world begins to fade before my eyes.

A month has passed since I entered immigration detention.

Despair doesn’t grow by the day, nor the hour, but by the minute. When I read books or play dominos, then I forget about it. When I stop, then I feel like I’m dreaming. As if this all isn’t happening to me, not here. I want it all to end as soon as possible. It feels as if time has stopped. Nothing is happening. Every time I see my lawyer, I want to ask him: “They won’t send me to Uzbekistan, right? When will I be released?”

I have the feeling that I’m not far from losing my mind.

Once, during exercise, I started chatting to Zhakhongir from Regar, in Tajikistan. Very good-looking lad. Big black eyes, long eye lashes and straight thick brows. Zhakhongir, it turns out, is a rapper. In Russia, he lived in Smolensk. He was going to travel home via Moscow. But when he arrived he was detained by the police. Zhakhongir performed a rap in Tajik about a young man who goes off to the army and dies there. Now he’s preparing to write a rap about immigration detention.


Illustration by Natalia Yamshchikova.

I ask a lot of people about their lives. Mustafa wrote down some of his story in Persian for me. He’s good at football, his team almost always wins. Mustafa is average height, with big green eyes. The hair from his chest sticks up from under his t-shirt. He smiles like a child, innocently. The guys respect him.

By the way, he’s in Cell 304, and there’s three Mustafas in there. Two Kurds from Turkey and then our Mustafa, who’s from Afghanistan. Twenty people from our floor go out to the exercise yard, and four of them are called Mustafa.

I’ve started getting very cold during the night. There’s thick fog outside the window. In the morning, the guard came in and asked that we don’t cover ourselves with the blanket. We cover ourselves with our clothes.

You can hear bones cracking in the next cell over. They’re probably playing backgammon. We play cards in the evening, Takhir made them out of empty cigarette packets.

Every day in the exercise yard I do laps like an animal. I try to get my blood moving round my body, otherwise we just spend the whole time sitting down. My fingernails have grown long. You could even call them claws.

Forty days have passed since they took my freedom away.

Ali Feruz stopped writing a diary on 14 September — since then, he’s written nothing and has stopped reading. He sits in his cell and doesn’t go out to exercise. Before his diaries were read at Teatr.doc in Moscow in late October, Ali wrote a new letter.

I spend the whole day sitting by the window. I look at the sky through the bars, smoking cigarettes one after the other. I want to walk around the streets of Moscow with a coffee in my hand, chatting with my friends.

Sometimes I wake up from a nightmare in the night. I don’t feel right for ages. I don’t remember who I am, where I am and what is happening to me. I go up to the mirror and start to touch myself, my face. Only then does my memory return, I remember who I am and what’s happened to me.

When I hear bad news, it becomes unbearably painful. I have the impression I’m in a hospice. That I will definitely die, and that death is merely a matter of time.

I’ve got very tired. I’m scared and sad. It feels like I’ll get peace when my heart stops beating. But I try, like other people in the hospice, to try and grab hold of something in this life. I try and grab hold of the love of my man and my friends.

When I imagine human suffering, then my body is instantly paralysed and I lie there, curled up into a ball. I can’t do anything but feel pain. I’ve become more sensitive to human suffering in here.

I’m now completely convinced that I’m not as strong as many people think. I feel that when someone needs help, they shouldn’t be ashamed of asking others in order to save themselves. Help me survive, please.  

Translated by Maxim Edwards and Thomas Rowley. 

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