The Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine
is incomprehensible and makes my mind reel with the thought that this war could develop into a threat to all humanity; probably the most significant political event in our lifetime. My knowledge of Russia and Ukraine is limited to people I met while working with the UN and during my short time in southern Russia and the Caucasus region.
In 1996. I was assigned to Sarajevo but I put my name on a list to help fill a gap where UNHCR was short of staff. Everyone wanted to be in Sarajevo after the cease-fire so it was no problem to find someone to temporarily replace me. While the UN was identifying a permanent person, I was asked to help manage the office in Vladykafkaz, a large town in southern Russia where we were assisting displaced persons from Chechnya and Ingushetia. During the mission, I traveled in the region reporting on the conditions of displaced persons from Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and in Makhachkala, Dagestan where a large number of Chechens and Ingush had fled. It was an interesting assignment that opened my eyes to that part of the world. From the start of the assignment, I was baffled by the people and events each day.
I still can’t understand why so many Georgians insisted that I travel to Gori, Stalin’s hometown in Southeast Georgia. It was a beautiful ride from Tbilisi through the mountains but why go all that way to see the reconstructed home and a statute of a mass murderer? More than a few of the same people retold memories about relatives killed by him.
Back to my mission – I arrived at the Moscow domestic airport anxious I would be late for my flight to Vladikavkaz. The driver assured me that no flight ever departs as scheduled so I should not worry that we were arriving close to departure time. Sure enough, my flight was delayed until midday. After a long wait, I checked in and made my way out on the tarmac to a long line of people, many more than would fit in the plane. Apparently, some people were there without tickets but they had bribed their way to the airplane and would then make another attempt to get on the plane if they could be squeezed in. Just in front of me in the line was an old man with a huge shaggy-haired dog as large as a pony. Once at the front of the line at the bottom of the ramp to the plane, after a short discussion with the security guard, the man and dog proceeded up the stairs but the dog stopped midway and it took a small group to push and pull the dog up into the plane. The dog took a seat next to the old man. There was no assigned seating but once they were all filled, more people got on the plane and stood in the aisle. The doors closed, and an attractive flight attendant yelled something like, “Hold On!” The plane took off and everyone lit up a cigarette. A man near me offered me a cigarette and from what I could understand, he said, the only time he smokes is when he flies.
The two and a half hour smoke-filled flight otherwise went without incident except for the dog having one but the old man did not seem to mind. We landed in the pouring rain and the plane came to a stop far from the terminal building. We were told to exit the plane and wait for the bus to pick us up. It continued raining hard and passengers were confused if we should exit the plane before the bus arrived. Then the flight attendant and the pilots motioned us off the plane into the rain. With the jet engines loudly idling above, everyone including the dog stood shoulder to shoulder under the wings to avoid getting wet. I was standing next to the landing gear. The tires were so bald that I could see the steel cords poking through the rubber that remained on the tire. We were lucky to land without a blowout. After a long wait, we were informed the bus broke down so it would take some time for it to arrive. People began to walk toward the terminal in the rain and I followed. A police car met us as we walked and directed us to the far side of the terminal for a security check. Once that was completed we were directed to the baggage claim area a good ten-minute walk to the other side of the building and instructed to wait for our luggage in front of a circular conveyer belt about six feet below a hole in a wall.
After the half, an hour luggage wrapped in brown paper began to fall out of the hole in the wall and bounce on the conveyer belt. Different sizes and shapes of luggage could be identified but everyone just stared at them as the brown paper-wrapped luggage circled around the conveyer belt. Then one man started to rip away some of the wrappings to identify if a piece was his. Soon everyone converged on the wrapped bags and started ripping away at the brown wrapping paper and eventually people were able to identify their luggage. Most people were confused by the wrapped luggage but happy they found theirs once unwrapped. I headed for the exit also happy I found my two bags unwrapped by the many circling passengers. Once outside the terminal, then everyone was directed to walk back to the security check area on the other side of the building with their luggage where the pickup area was located!
It was a short ride into the center of Vladykafkaz where the driver brought me to “the best hotel in town frequented by foreigners”. When checking in the clerk informed me that the room rates have increased due to the many repairs being made. I wasn’t so concerned because the UN would pick up the tab. The next morning when I turned on the tap there was only a cold dribble. There was no phone in the room and when I went to the front desk to inquire, I was immediately provided a large jug of water and with a smile, the clerk said they were doing repairs so the water would be off for a few days. I asked why I was not told that when I checked in? He said I didn’t ask about hot water. When I said I was leaving he told me that many guests stay and heat water in their room with a hot plate. He added that If all guests leave, how could the hotel afford to make repairs?!
Luckily, Frauke, the one other international staff who was working in the office lived in a rather new apartment block across from the hotel. She had an extra room that I could stay in when not traveling. I never felt comfortable in town as security was a strong concern in the region. With different ethnic groups, the UN hired to provide translation and support to the different displaced groups and then required them to work together, it did not create a trusting environment in the office. The Ingush, the most discriminated group in the region were easy to work with and my visits to Ingushetia and our small office located there was the best part of the mission. I had a feeling like I was in a scene from the Wizard of OZ when there that I can’t explain. Much more can be said about the Ingush and Chechens but for now, l hope that Ukraine does not experience the destruction from the Russian army that Chechneya did.
Three months later a new head of the office was identified and Sarajevo was calling me back. A Frenchman, Vincent Cochetel arrived soon after I left Vladykafkaz. About a year after he arrived he was kidnapped and held for about a year in an undisclosed location by a “Chechen criminal gang”. For a Chechen gang to operate in Vladykafkaz it meant the Russian police let them. Vincent said he was treated well during his abduction but his family wife must have suffered. The French government negotiated a ransom for his release.
More recently, in South Sudan, I shared a container with Serge, a Russian guy who installed and fixed our computers and communication equipment. For a year we ate breakfast and dinner together. I appreciated that Serge never talked about politics or work in the war-torn country as it provided some escape from the poverty, death, and despair witnessed each day. But I was surprised and weary of his admiration for Putin and more so of his congratulations after the election of Trump. Soon after the invasion of Ukraine, I contacted Serge to ask, do people still trust what Putin is telling them? He said most people do, and asked me, “Why am I surprised? Half of your country believes that Biden rigged the election.”
The horrible attack on Ukrainians and the destruction taking place also brings back vivid memories of Bosnia but as a former colleague reminded me, this is the Bosnia war on steroids. The Serbs and Croats didn’t have the same large firepower as Russia and if it wasn’t for the backing by Russia then, that war would have been over quickly and thousands of more lives would not have been lost. The same can be said about Syria today.
I should not forget I started working with the UN in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza where apart from the right-wing Israelis, I would blame the US for prolonging the conflict with the Palestinians. The hypocrisy is clear if we acknowledge the history of the US in Iran, Central and South America, Vietnam, and more recently in Iraq and the support of the Saudi war in Yemen. But today is 2022. A crazy egotistical man with nuclear weapons is threatening to destroy a neighboring independent democracy (yes, still with corruption) but a democratic country, arguably at this time, is more of an example of a functioning democracy than the USA.
Putin wants Ukraine to be part of his Russian empire. To blame NATO as a cause of this war is an insult to the independence and freedom of the Ukrainian nation. It’s as absurd as the guy at the reception desk suggesting I stay in the hotel without running water so the hotel can get the money to repair the old pipes!
P.S. Just before I left Vladikafkaz I stayed another night at the hotel. The water pipes are still not repaired.