Chechnya. Twilight. An icy road. Amy could no longer see the snow through the windows of their 4WD jeep. Yet even during the day the landscape here wasn’t totally white. Much of the snow was hidden by tons of inky, greasy mazut generously spilled around: black smelly ponds scattered all over the used-to-be-white valley. A black and white world film noire. As depressing as these small-time oil refineries or whatever they were. Amy turned to Nikolay and asked:
“I am forgotfulled. What you call these refineries here? Some of var?”
“Samovars. Samovar means a ‘self-cooker.’ In Russia it’s like a big kettle. In the old days Russian people used them to make tea. Did you ever have samovar-boiled tea? No? I promise you will, quite soon. Anyway the Chechens use their ‘samovars’ for a different purpose, to cook petroleum and money, so to speak. And if there’s any unused oil, they just burn it. Can you believe it? They complain of starvation and put the blame on us, of course. But this oil is real money, and they just dump it. Go figure … Do you mind if I smoke?”
First she was afraid that the officer assigned to accompany her around Chechnya would be a jerk and try to make passes at her or at least show what a macho man he was. But Starshina Nikolay Ryabov turned out to be a real gentleman, gallant, humorous and straightforward. Having been in the service since high school, he never went to college, but was quite sharp and capable of holding a meaningful conversation. This wasn’t the main reason why she liked him though. The truth was, he – his footballer’s image, athletic posture, blonde buzz cut, blue eyes and even his voice – all of that reminded her so much of Kevin, her older brother. A rescue helicopter pilot, a dead one.
“Аnd how old are you?” she asked.
“36. Too old?”
“No, perfectly. You hurt the jackpot.” They both laughed.
A giant torch, its fire reaching all the way to the sky, was getting closer and closer. It must have been the main oil well in the area. “Oil Gone with the Wind – this could make a good article title”, she thought. “Wait, how about Petroleum Ashes of Chechnya?” The greens were quite popular in Vancouver, after all.
They passed through the town of Tsotsi-Yurt, drove onto the main highway and then turned south. Right at the exit, a military patrol stopped them. For a while, a guy wearing a camouflage uniform was scrutinizing a bunch of papers she handed to him. For some reason he got nervous with what he saw there. Awkwardly tossing the papers back and forth, he stuck the barrel of his AK dangling on his shoulder into her hip a couple of times. That flashlight was blinding. Then the usual trivia game started.
“Why a Canadian passport?”
“Because I am from Canada.”
“Then why Chechen clothes?”
“I do not want invite attention.”
“And how come you speak Russian?”
“My grandma is from Russia.” (This of course was a lie: Her grandmother, responsible for Amy’s Mediterranean look and Orthodox Christian denomination, quite symbolic indeed, was born in Greece and didn’t know a word in Russian. Amy learned the language at university).
“The Rain City Her … Ald ? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s leftist newspaper. We support politicized reform of Russian government.”
“Isn’t it weird?” Amy thought. “All of these patrol people, however different they may look, ask you exactly the same questions. Collective thinking or strictly enforced check lists? Either way, they’re entitled – as long as they don’t stick me with these stupid barrels.”
Apparently Amy’s answers didn’t satisfy the patrol officer, and Nikolai jumped into the process. He took the guy aside from the jeep, beaming with a smile and patting him on his back as if he was the guy’s best, long unseen friend. Then they were both on the cell phone with someone. Finally Nikolay gave him five and shouted to Amy, “We’re good to go!”
Turning the ignition on, he said, “What an airhead! Still a rookie but thinks he knows everything. A big boss. I have an eye for his kind. I know how to straighten out these people. Anyway soon we’ll reach the destination. Boys I used to serve with are stationed there, so things will go more smoothly – not to worry … By the way I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Hope you wouldn’t mind … I don’t suppose you’re married or something.”
“Why thinking so?”
“Well, to be honest, if I had a wife or even a girlfriend, especially one such as yourself, I’d never let her go to a place like this.”
Amy smiled – this pick up line was hardly creative, and ordinarily she’d make sure she won’t hear it again. But this time, for some reason, she didn’t mind it at all and even felt pleased.
The refugee camp was an old dormitory building. Before the Russian army invaded Chechnya, the building had been occupied by workers from the local cement factory. Today, those whose homes had been destroyed in bombings were stationed here.
Muddy dirt on the floor, missing pieces of plaster on the cracked ceiling, and a stinky smell all over. She was lucky to get a separate room, though. Furniture was represented by two rusty bunk beds while interior design was provided by a magazine page featuring some Russian soccer team (Spartak, is it?) and a postcard image of Alla Pugacheva, a Russian pop diva, albeit rather boring by Western standards. Funny, sports and music transcend wars, after all.
“The bathroom is at the end of the hallway,” explained the dorm manager, a not so young, yet not so old man with a look of exhaustion on his face. “But it’s not working anyway. You’ll have to go one story up or down. My son will show the way. He’s name is Vakha. If you need anything else, just call him or Oumar. That’s me.”
After Nikolay had her settled, he went to the military quarters where his friends were living. Once again Amy appreciated his tactfulness. Unlike her guide in Moscow, he didn’t fish for an invitation to have a cup of tea, and unlike those army slobs in the neighboring Ingushetia, didn’t push for a drink toasting to the victory or friendship between Russia and the United States (the fact that she was Canadian had little impact on their persistence).
“He seems to be a nice man and certainly has integrity. And he looks so much like my Kevin. Mom would like him.”
She curbed her enthusiasm immediately. “Not so fast, girlfriend. Your job here is to put reports together, not to put romance back into your life.”
She turned on her voice recorder and started a detailed narration of what had happened in the evening.
It snowed the whole night. The snow in the backyard was so virgin white and untrodden that Amy didn’t want to step on it and went out to the street through the main door. In front of the building there was a crowd of people, excitedly discussing something in the local language. Carried away with their conversation, no one paid any attention to her. She walked down the street, then turned into some alley and soon reached a river. There were no dwellings here – just piles of garbage and construction waste. The rather dull landscape was enlivened by a huge spreading tree towering over the river bank. A piece of plywood suspended to one of the branches made a perfect rope swing where a little girl was half-sitting still. Holding the ropes, the girl threw back her head so far that her black hair was touching the snow. A pink knitted pom pom hat was lying nearby.
“What are you doing?” asked Amy.
The girl was gazing up at her from below for a while.
“D’you ever try this?”
“To look at the world from upside down. When you do that, everything is different – the sky, the tree, and the people. You’re different too: Your mouth is where your forehead should be. Eyebrows are under the mouth, and instead of the mouth you have the forehead. Funny, huh? So d’you ever try it?”
“Hmm. I cannot memory. I guess not.”
“Too bad. If you look long enough, you can even see the animals.”
The girl finally sat up and got off the swing.
”I know who you are,” she said. “They’ve kicked out the Abukhanovs because of you.”
“What are you telling about?”
“They said to the Abukhanovs, ‘A foreigner’s coming. Clear the room.’ Just like that. Now you got a separate room. But we got six people in our room: me, my mom, my dad, grandpa Oumar, grandma Aina, and brother Vakha. We all live together, yes. And today they’re bringing us hewman … hewmoney … hew-money-terry-ann, whatever, aid.
She put her bobble hat on and flinging up the snow ran towards the dormitory.
“Wait, kicked them out to where?”
But no answer followed.
To be continued... tomorrow!
Leonid Storch immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1990 and presently lives in Thailand. A former resident of Florida, he has a Juris Doctors Degree. His publication list includes 3 books and numerous essays, poems and fiction stories that appeared in Russian-American and European magazines. He writes both in Russian and English.