Getting into Chechnya

Journalist Thomas Goltz relates a heart-stopping adventure surreptitiously slipping by Russian border guards across a forbidden frontier on his way to Chechnya.

Topics: Soviet Union, Russia, Travel,

The border post emerged from the bank of night fog like a metal dinosaur straddling the road, bathed in cheesy incandescent light. Invisible dogs barked at night odors. A searchlight swung across an adjacent field, freezing momentarily on a small flock of sheep framed against coils of barbed wire. A knot of Russian soldiers stood near the metal barrier across the road, smoking cigarettes, killing time, while another small group clambered over a truck like ants, inspecting it for contraband. Ours would be the next vehicle searched.

“Dr. Teymur,” Isa asked in a loud voice as we got out of the car. “Do you have a smoke?”

“Da,” I replied, giving him one and yanking out another for myself.

“Remember what I told you,” hissed Isa, bending close as I ignited the lighter and touched the flame to his cigarette. “Just answer yes to everything that sounds like a question. Do you understand?”

“Da,” I said.

“Are you scared?” he asked.

“Da,” I replied.

“Do you have to say da all the time?”

“Da — but I am only following your instructions.”

My guide and companion for the last two hours looked at me and tried to suppress a laugh. His jowly cheeks jiggled and his large belly heaved, but he managed to keep the noise to a squeak. “Heeheehee!” he tittered, holding his breath. “You say da to everything, don’t you?”

“Da,” I replied. “You told me to.”

It was actually not such a good joke, and hardly the opportune moment to enjoy it. It was February 1995, and we were walking the last few feet toward the main Russian border post on the Dagestan-Azerbaijan frontier, which we were going to cross illegally on our way to war-torn Chechnya. The route was not only the main artery for illicit men and munitions being secretly imported into the North Caucasus killing fields, but also the most obvious place for the authorities to interdict the same.

I was traveling quasi-incognito, wearing shabby-yet-respectable clothes and a Chechen papakh, or lambskin hat, on my head. A long blue trench coat, missing a few buttons in front, concealed my 30-pound Kevlar body armor. Although I had trained to get used to the extra weight by working out on Stairmasters in Montana and then just walking around in the flak jacket in Istanbul, it was feeling very heavy right now. I was drenched in a cold sweat that was creeping inward from my skin to the marrow of my bones. Yes, I was scared and freezing cold. It was all I could do to stop shivering from the mixture of deep chill and adrenalin-stoked anxiety. I was sneaking into Russia at war …



. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .–>

“Don’t worry,” Isa had told me an hour before, as our communal taxi
from Baku stopped at the shrine to the Khidhir Eleys, the Islamic equivalent
of Elijah, patron saint of sailors, travelers and lost causes. “We have it
wired. Wired! We are only crossing a bridge — although a very special one.
The name says it all — Zalota Most, the ‘Golden Bridge.’”

“Why is that?”

“Because everyone who works there gets rich on bribes.”

“Great.”

“Now give me some cash so that I can buy us through.”

I did not know Isa well, but the circumstances dictated that I had to
trust him completely. We
had met in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, the day before, introduced to
each other as two men joined together by mutual need. I was a journalist
who had run out of other options of getting into Chechnya, and I was desperate
to find a guide. He was a quasi-refugee, desperate for some dough, although
he framed his interest in my mission in more altruistic terms: He was doing
something for his country.

I wanted to believe that — because I had entrusted him with
not only my money but my life. Just in case he had a mind to threaten me
with the loss of the latter in order to acquire the former, however, I was
carrying a dummy wallet to give him (or anyone else who might put a gun in
my gut) on demand. It contained an old passport, several out-of-date credit
cards and enough dollars, pounds, marks, rubles, liras and even Azerbaijani
manats to temporarily satisfy a thief. At least I hoped so. My real
documents and cash stash were hidden elsewhere on my person.

It was into the dummy that I now reached to pluck out a couple
hundred dollars in $20 bills, slipping the roll to Isa. He
took the wad of bills and stuffed it in his coat pocket, thought better,
plucked one note from the roll and slipped it into the donation box for the
upkeep of St. Khidhir’s shrine.

“Now we have Khidhir on our side,” he said and lifted his hands to
recite the Muslim Fatiha, or creed of faith. I did the same in case any of
our companions were watching.

“By the way, I think the driver wonders who you are,” said Isa as we
walked back to our communal taxi. “Be careful not to say a word.”

For security reasons, we had maintained radio silence in the car all
the way from Baku. Isa had muttered something to the other passengers about
my being one “Dr. Teymur,” one of his distant relatives from the Chechen
diaspora in Jordan. The problem with this cover was that while I
looked like a Chechen, or at least might pass for one, I spoke
virtually no Chechen at all. Happily, with the exception of Isa, no one else
in the communal taxi did, either.

To reduce potentially embarrassing contact,
I sat in the front passenger seat and feigned sleep, eavesdropping
on Isa’s conversations in Russian with the two strangers who shared our
taxi. One was a Lezgin merchant, returning from Istanbul, and the other an
Avar or a local Russian; it was not clear. Either might have been an agent
or informer for three or four different governments that would be interested
in my identity and the purpose of my trip. The driver, I gathered, was an
Azeri from Dagestan. I had a host of questions I could have asked about the
security situation, the morale of the Chechen fighters and other things,
too, but I thought it best to keep my lips locked and just suffer through the
trip in silence.

We passed the Azerbaijani frontier post around 11 o’clock; a guard
stepped out of the fog and hailed us to stop. I was about to get out and
somehow deal with the demand to see my passport when Isa wedged his way
between the soldier and the car door and created enough confusion that
the guard checked Isa’s travel documents twice — once for him and once for
me. Perhaps some money was exchanged; I do not know.

Then, as we entered the no man’s land between Azerbaijan and Russian
Dagestan, Isa began speaking to me in Russian from the back seat.

“Dr. Teymur,” said Isa, “we have just crossed the Samur River! Is
it good to be home?”

“Da,” I said, according to our code, wondering why he was talking
to me at all.

Suddenly, a white Djiguli sedan darted out of the foggy darkness and
blocked our path — and things moved very quickly.

“Wha–?” cried our driver, and hit the brakes. Mutterings of
concern from the two other passengers ricocheted around the car.

“Don’t worry, friends, it’s for us,” hissed Isa, trying to reassure the
others. Then he turned to me. “Get out, now!”

“But my bags …”

“Get out!” hissed Isa. “Your stuff will rejoin us on the other side!
Go!”

Things were going too fast — and I didn’t like this new twist at all.
Isa had not bothered to mention the fact that we were to change cars inside
the frontier area. More to the point, I had several thousand dollars in
lightweight camera gear tucked in the trunk of the first car and did not
feel like kissing it goodbye before my mission had properly begun. But once
again, I was in Isa’s hands and there seemed only one thing to do — go with
the flow. I got out of the front seat of one car and into the back seat of
the other, praying that I was not part of some wicked kidnapping or killing
set-up, such as my own.

Dobri vecher, gentlemen!” said the driver of the new car, leaning
back to wish us a good evening with a smile — and revealing twin rows of
gold-capped teeth. It rapidly became clear how he paid his
dentist.

“Here,” said Isa, forking over a small wad of my $20 bills.

“It is not enough!” said the man after making a quick count.

“What do you mean?” said Isa. “It’s 100 bucks each.”

“The price of transportation has risen,” said the man in the passenger
seat. “It is now 150 bucks.”

“Look, guys,” Isa implored the pair. “We are really low on
dough — let’s say an extra 50 for both and call it even.”

The driver and man in the passenger seat exchanged glances.

“For the Muslim cause,” entreated Isa, handing over some more money.

The driver growled, took the cash and then hit the accelerator,
roaring down the fog-shrouded road for less than a kilometer before
screeching to a halt once the security gate came in view.

“See you on the far side,” said the driver — and then the sedan was gone
and Isa and I were standing alone in the middle of the road, facing the
barrier and the Russian guards. It was all too confusing, and there was no
time to ask any questions.

“Really, my dear!” chortled Isa as we walked up to the zero-point
barricade, manned by two young Russian soldiers and a very large German
shepherd dog. “The very idea of Dima and Igor … No — can it be true?”

“Da,” I said.

“It can’t be so!” chortled Isa, clapping me on the shoulder.
“Atlichna!” bellowed Isa. “Splendid! Hahaha!”

“Hahaha,” I joined him.

“… and do you remember Igor and that other broad, Larisa?”

“Da,” I said.

The pair of guards were now less than three feet away, and Isa tossed
them a casual hello.

“Rabonik, kak dyela?” he said, while flashing his passport.

“Khorosho,” said one of the pair.

“Grrrr,” growled the German shepherd the other was holding by a
leash.

“Papers,” said one, sticking out his hand to demand our documents.

“God, I never thought he would do a thing like that — his wife,
family, his kids …” cackled Isa, nonchalantly passing his
passport to the youth with a flick of the wrist. “Can you imagine? Hahaha!”

“Da,” I said and laughed a little.

The border guards stared at us, feeling sorry for having missed a very
good and no doubt very sordid joke. Then, while the guard turned Isa’s
passport over in his hands, a $50 bill fell out and slowly
fluttered to the ground. One of the guards leaned forward, squatted as if to
tie his boot laces and than quickly palmed the money on the ground.

“Payyekheli,” he muttered, avoiding my eyes that were also avoiding
his. “Move it.”

“Paka,” said Isa to the other guard. “See you.” Then he put a hand on
my shoulder and squeezed hard to let me know that it was time to move, now.

We were through, and my heartbeat was starting to become somewhat
more regular with each step beyond the barrier.

“Russians!” hissed Isa as we strolled away. “They sell their sisters,
their mothers, as well as their country to the highest bidder. You
understand me?”

“Da.”

This time Isa could not hold back a laugh. He positively cackled.

“Da,” chortled Isa. “Da, da, da …”

Myself, I was obsessed with two thoughts: The first was that I, an
illegal alien, traveling incognito, had just walked through what should have
been the most tightly controlled road in Russia, and maybe the world. I was
in, which was good. I flattered myself by thinking that I had
accomplished a trick that was regarded by most others as virtually
impossible, or at least sufficiently insane a venture to rank with, say,
bungee jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Sneaking into Russia! What a
prank!

The second thought mitigated the first one to some degree: My success
was predicated on a level of corruption in Russia that was so far beyond
anything I might have imagined it to be that logically I could not trust
anyone, ever, anywhere, to do right out of general principle or even a vague
sense of what “the law” required. Not the border guards, not the taxi
drivers, not even Isa. In a word, I was in way over my head and, no matter
which way you pitched the equation, utterly dependent on rank strangers,
most of whom seemed to be smugglers and thieves. And someday, I would have
to rely on them to get back out the way I had come.

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