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Musa: Survivor of Chechen Meat Grinder


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The Finnish webzine, Fifi, ran an interview with Musa, a Chechen refugee living in Finland. Below, an abridged translation of Jussi Förbom’s original article:

Finnish director Mervi Junkkonen’s documentary film, After Life – Four Stories of Torture, is an excruciating, maddening, and beautiful plea in defence of torture victims. One of the film’s main characters is Musa, who escaped the Chechen meat grinder. He wishes that the viewers of the film appreciate the importance of freedom and understand that the conflict in Chechnya is not over. One day, he hopes to be able to tell his son about his experiences under torture.

“When they take you for interrogation at night, they put a plastic bag on your head, and three or four men just keep asking one and the same question over and over again. They beat you in the head, sometimes give you electric shocks, and then tighten the plastic bag around your head again. You have to think what you are going to say, because you have to say something. And then, when you are taken back to your cell, you think about what you said, what they made you say. Then you get the feeling that you are nowhere safe.”

The speaker is a Chechen called Musa, one of the main characters of the film, After Life. We are sitting in a café in Helsinki together with the film’s director, Mervi Junkkonen and interpreter Matti Mäki. Musa is speaking calmly, effortlessly, and analytically. Yet is is hard to be in the role of the listener.

“I am lucky to come out alive of that meat grinder. The people who tortured me, and who continue to torture others, were absolutely confident that no one will escape from their clutches alive and that they themselves will not face any punishment for their actions. I should not be here telling you what I have been through,” Musa says.

Musa received asylum in another European country, and has lived in Finland together with his family since 2007. His geographic location and bureaucratic status of asylum has not, however, ensured him a sense of total security. Musa describes his flight from Chechnya as a “race” with the local authorities on whether he would get into safety before they caught him again. Life outside of his homeland seemed distant and foreign. Yet he had to choose between torture and survival.

“Being safe” is, however, a very conflicting experience. “I thought that as soon as I told human rights organisations about what I had just witnessed with my own eyes, they would spring into action. However, the reaction seemed to be rather that I was just one of many, and that it was just fine that people were being tortured and killed, that this was just the way it was.”

In prison, people were removed completely from reality, and the prison walls were supposed to form the boundaries of their world for the next 10-20 years.

“I think that a person who is being taken to be shot will react in the same manner: This is how it goes, there is no option, just get on with it. In the same manner, when you are being beaten for days on end and thrown against a wall, you will be happy to tell everything, anything that you have heard, and confess to having done it all. That is why you have to adapt to the real world outside of prison, and it takes a long time. I think I would not have made it without my family.”

In Finland, Musa learned that torture victims can receive help from the Centre for Torture Survivors. “I had no idea of what this sort of treatment was all about, but I quickly learned to understand it. The professionals at the centre have helped me immensely. They did not carry out any operations or treat my ailing bodily organs, but they got inside my head. I still have to get rid of all the mishmash, but part of it is gone at any event,” Musa tells me laughing.

There were moments during the treatment that the doctor in charge could not take it anymore but burst into tears. Musa was not surprised, even though his experiences are part of his everyday life.

“When we were prisoners, we all had it very bad; we were like in a hennery, where chickens are picked to be killed. But we always smiled at the people who were holding us there. We did not let them know that we would break. When we were taken to the courtyard for a walk, we danced traditional Chechen dances. Every time when someone was taken, we bid him farewell as if he was going to die. When he came back, he was received like our own brother. That is the condition that we were in there,” Musa recounts.

Musa says he first thought that the people who imprisoned him were human, and that they would react when you showed them how much it hurt you when you were beaten. The opposite happened: The torturers beat you even harder. In treatment, Musa has come to understand that when a person ends up in such a situation, he will fight until the end, and when his strentgh fails him, he will just go with the flow.

The people at the rehabilitation centre are real professionals; they explained a lot about me that I did not understand at all in the beginning.”

The prison was located about 20 minutes away from Musa’s home. Those who detained, imprisoned, and tortured Musa were all Chechens. “No Russian ever laid a finger on me,” Musa said. He said he had had “very nice conversations” with his torturers. “Try to understand,” they said. “This is our job, and in reality, things are quite different. You just have to accept this, otherwise we will get nowhere.”

“Before my second last trial session, those who convoyed me from my cell to the court told me that they felt that I could get out of here and told me not to tell about what had happened. Yet at the same time they felt that Musa was not going to stay silent. Had I fled and then stayed silent would have been unfair. Think about it if all those who were in the Nazi concentration camps would have stayed silent. We would have no idea about what had taken place there,” Musa explained.

Musa stresses that, contrary to many media reports, the conflict in Chechnya is continuing. “If we had access to the places where [Chechen dictator Ramzan] Kadyrov’s people are holding prisoners, we would see a lot of tormented people. The torture continues; only the volume of torture has changed. In 2000-2006, very many people were killed, especially young people. Out of my friends, five people have disappeared without a trace, and their parents still have no idea what has happened to their boys. Finland should therefore not refuse asylum to Chechens, because no Chechen will leave his homeland just for his own pleasure, except those who serve Kadyrov. They can do anything to people like me in Chechnya: They can kill us, they can shame us, they can torture us.”

I have to tell Musa several times that I find it very hard to understand what he is talking about. “I can understand it very well,” he says. Yet I try one more time. I ask him what would like the viewers of Mervi Junkkonen’s documentary understood about the world and people in it.

“This is a difficult question. It is very hard to say simply that please think this way or that. I would like to say this, though: Do make sure that nothing like this ever happens in your country. Anyone can be accused, but it is very hard to prove that a person is guilty. Yet there is a place called Chechnya where no one has to prove anything. When a person is caught up in the machine, he is guilty and criminal. I would like for people to feel the value of life and freedom. That is the most important thing, everything else is just rubbish. We should not let despotism reign,” Musa concludes.

Translation: Kerkko Paananen

Jussi Förbom’s original article appeared in Fifi on 10 February 2012. Finland’s public broadcaster, YLE, ran Mervi Junkkonen’s documentary film on 13 February 2012.


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