Driving through Chechnya’s checkpoints

From Chechnya: To the heart of a conflict, by Andrew Meier (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), pp. 9-10.

There were four of us in the rattling Soviet Army jeep, known endearingly as a UAZik, pronounced wahzik, in the common parlance. Lord knows what image we projected to the well-muscled, sunburned, and deeply suspicious Russian soldiers at the checkpoints. Sometimes they were drunk. Nearly always they were scared. In Chechnya, I’d learned, checkpoints were the measure of one’s day. People did not ask, “How far it is?” [sic] but “How many checkpoints are there?” Each day we crossed at least a dozen.

On this sweltering morning in July, we had already passed seventeen. The posts were the center of activity amid the ruins of the city. Conscripts maintained the constant vigil, checking the cars and their passengers, while their officers, hands on radios, sat in shaded huts off the road. But this post was nearly empty, and the OMON officers who stopped us, a pit bull from Irkutsk, was not in a good mood. His arms and neck glowed with the burned pink skin of a new arrival. He wore wraparound sunglasses and a bandanna over his shaved head. Tattoos, the proud emblem of Russian soldiers and prisoners, covered his biceps. “Slava” (“glory”) adorned the right one. It could be a name or a desire. He wore no shirt, only a green vest fitted with grenades, a knife, and magazine clips to feed the Kalashnikov he held firmly in both hands. His fingers seemed soldered to it.

We may have looked legit, but we were a fraud. Issa ostensibly was a ranking member of the wartime administration in Chechnya, the Russians’ desperate attempt at governance in the restive republic of Muslims, however lapsed, Sovietized, and secularized. He had the documents to prove it, but the man who signed them had since been fired. Issa knew the life span of his documents was limited. At any checkpoint his “client,” as he had taken to calling me, could be pulled from the jeep, detained, interrogated, and packed off in the next flight to Moscow.

At fifty-one, Issa boasted a resume that revealed the successful climb of a Chechen apparatchik. Born in Central Asian exile, in Kyrgyzstan, five years after Stalin had deported the Chechens in 1944, he had graduated from the Grozny Oil Institute in 1971. For twenty-one years he worked at Grozneft, the Chechen arm of the Soviet Oil and Gas Ministry. He spent the last Soviet years, until Yeltsin clambered up onto the tank in 1991, in western Siberia, overseeing the drilling of oil wells in Tyumen. He spoke a smattering of French, a bit of Arabic, and a dozen words in English — all learned, he liked to tease, during stints in Iraq and Syria.


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