In a quiet residential court yard in central Grozny, up one flight of stairs, there is a modest plaque by the front door. It is the only sign that this is not, like the other apartments, someone’s home. Step inside and you see a heap of tapochki by the door, so that visitors can take off their shoes and be comfortable. It’s an apartment typical of the Soviet period, a bit shabby and cramped, but warm and welcoming; its walls plastered with inspirational posters, scribbled flip-chart papers and group photographs of smiling women. In the kitchen, mismatched tea cups are stacked on open shelves and there are boxes of cakes and chocolate. Young volunteers dart along the narrow corridor with an air of working on something terribly important.
This is the office of one of Chechnya’s remarkable women’s organizations. In all of them you will see gaggles of women and teenage girls gathered around a trainer who is teaching them hairstyling or baby care. All of them are so short of space that psychological consultations sometimes have to take place in the bathroom.
This is a place where Chechen women can go when they need help with their tragic, complex problems, where someone will listen to them and tell them of options they never imagined before, where they can take some time out from their lives in a safe and friendly space. This is where the following story was recorded; the story of a woman, let’s call her Taisa, who, like many, walked in one day, needing to talk.
I was 16 when they forced me to get married. I really didn’t want this marriage. I wanted to study, to play with my friends. I had a good voice, and I had this secret dream of singing on stage, becoming a famous star, who’d wear gorgeous dresses and make people happy. But my stepmother didn’t want to be bothered with me, because she had her own children, my two little sisters and my little brother.
I keep remembering how I begged her not to give me away to this man. I said I’d do everything around the house – clean up, do the laundry, watch the younger children. I’d wash her feet and give her a massage - she loved massages. But her response was to keep promising me a ‘life in paradise’. ‘He’s from a good family’, she’d whisper to me. ‘Your future husband is still a young man, only 34 years old. He’s already got his own house – he’s the oldest son, so you’ll be the most honoured bride, the senior one.’ I didn’t understand what that meant, being the senior bride, didn’t understand what use that could be to me. But I remember having this gut feeling that it wouldn’t be good for me, that my life would be ending before it had really begun.
In my married life, they treated me like a work horse, though to outsiders they’d always pretend I was the darling of the family, that they’d move heaven and earth just to see me smile. At night, I’d cry. My hands were sore from doing the laundry all the time. My legs ached because I was never allowed to sit down and rest. All day long I had to keep busy, and if my mother-in-law ever saw me sitting down, she’d immediately say ‘I’d never have been allowed to sit down like that when I was a bride’. They were always ordering me around, all of them, even my husband’s nephew, a boy of twelve called Iriskhan.
I lost my first child in a miscarriage. I didn’t even know I was pregnant. But it turned out I was four months gone when, one day, I lifted a laundry tub full of linen onto the gas stove, to boil it. I started feeling sick and they took me to hospital. All the way there, my mother-in-law was bawling at me, complaining about having ended up with a sickly girl like me, who wasn’t going to be able to have children. When they told us at the hospital that I was having a miscarriage, she got embarrassed and started complaining that they’d got stuck with a fool. And I was a fool, a miserable, lonely little fool!
The doctor told me to stay in bed. As soon as we got home from the hospital, my mother-in-law told me to go to my room and lie down, because next day we’d be going to the village for harvesting. That night I lay awake for a long time, waiting for my husband. But he didn’t come to me. I heard him coming home, heard my mother-in-law talking and him leaving again. But he didn’t come to our bedroom and nothing more was said about what had happened to me.
Two years later I gave birth to a boy. He was a healthy child. I went on living there because I’d got nowhere else to go. I wasn’t so bothered any more by the way everyone in the family totally humiliated me. Or if my husband beat me now and then.Because I had my boy. I lived for him…..
When my son Isa was four, I got pregnant again. My mother-in-law made no secret of her disapproval when she saw my belly- I was five months pregnant: “We’ve just started building the house - what were you thinking of? Who’s going to mix the mortar, lay the bricks?” I went on doing all that ‘til the 9th month.
Then came the day - it was a warm autumn evening. I was standing at the stove, preparing our national dish – chepalgash. My husband came home, in a bad mood as always after work, closed the door behind him and told me he was going to bring home a second wife. He started going on about how much he loved her, how he couldn’t live a day without her. How she meant the world to him, and he wanted her to have his children. How he’d married me only to please his mother and had never loved me.
And you know, suddenly I felt so happy! I started eating chepalgash and I offered him some, too. He gave me this odd look. Said his mother had been right all along, I was a fool. And left the kitchen. But I didn’t get up from the table. I just kept eating my chepalgash. I felt like dancing, singing, screaming out loud, celebrating.
A week later, my husband brought the second wife home. And two weeks later I was in hospital - I’d gone into labour. I was in labour for 13 hours, I just couldn’t get it out. But my mother-in-law hadn’t given permission to do a Caesarean. She said it was too expensive, that we didn’t have that kind of money. And I kept silent, put up with it all. But I was screaming inside. What do you mean– we don’t have the money! We’ve got the money alright – you just don’t want to spend it on me! But all this pain I bore without a word.
My baby daughter died. She’d suffocated, but they’d operated on me anyway. I was lying in hospital, getting steadily worse and all I could think about was my son – my poor little one, who’d be left on his own, suffer the same fate as me, growing up with a cruel stepmother. It turned out that they’d left part of the placenta inside me. I was getting peritonitis, so they had to operate again and I was left barren – they’d taken out all my reproductive organs.
Of course, my mother-in-law was the first to learn this. And as she was coming into the ward she told me not to come back, but to go straight home, to my father’s house, from the hospital. ‘What about my boy?” I asked. “The boy isn’t yours – he’s ours” my stepmother answered.
I was one great gaping wound – I was in such pain emotionally that I didn’t feel the physical pain – what had they done to me? They’d killed me. Murdered me. I was surrounded by murderers! They all wanted me dead! Where am I? Mama, mamochka, can you hear me? Help! It’s me, your daughter, help! They’d tried to kill me, but I’d survived. Now they were killing me again!
If it hadn’t been for a nurse, an older woman called Tamara, I really would have gone mad, killed myself. She took me to my father’s house, helped me get the elders together, who then went to my husband’s house and demanded that they give my child back, as according to Islam I’ve got the right to bring him up until he’s seven. And they brought my Isa to me. I was so happy! Once again, I ran around doing the housework, trying to please my stepmother – I did the laundry, I cleaned, I cooked. I tried to do it all, to make sure they wouldn’t take it out on my son. But even that was not enough. My stepmother was implacable. And my father was so scared of losing his wife that he sided with her.
It turned out that my husband’s second wife couldn’t have children. So they decided they were going to take Isa back. They came over, talked it over with my father, who called my stepmother and told her to get the boy and hand him over to his father. So they took away my boy. I don’t want to remember how it all happened. Actually, I really don’t remember.
After a year I started working. I got a menial job, because after all, I’d never finished my education. The head of my department, a middle-aged man, began pressuring me to have sex with him. He said it didn’t matter anyway since I wasn’t a virgin. No one would know. He’d give me presents, find me another, better job, buy me pretty clothes. I didn’t know what to do. I needed the job, because my stepmother was nagging me for not working, for not paying my way in the family. But I really didn’t want a relationship with that man. I’d made up my mind to quit – and now you’ll laugh, because it was that very same day that he raped me. It all came back, the pain, the humiliation, the shame, the fury. I felt so guilty, so alone!
I left my job.
And now I’ve come here, to you. Tamara said you’d be able to help. And here I am, thinking ‘Why did I tell you all this?’
Illustrations by Jess Wilson