We met in a book and coffee bar in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. Harlem asks me not to use his last name in the article. Because although he has been living in the Netherlands since 2016, he still fears retaliation. Opposite himself or his family in Chechnya.
The young man must be one of the first Chechen LGBT + refugees in the European Union. He fled the autonomous Russian republic before there was much international attention for the sad situation of LGBT + people in the region.
In early 2017, the Russian LGBT Network interest group and local opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta issued dozens of harrowing testimonies of torture and murder of mainly gay men by the Chechen authorities. The situation seemed to have improved somewhat under great international pressure. Until that appearance early this year disappeared when reports of extreme violence surfaced again.
In December 2018 alone, forty LGBT + people would have been arrested – at least two of them would not have survived. In the meantime, the great international pressure that came out in 2017 remains. It seems that Europe wants to normalize its relations with Russia, at the expense of the LGBT + community in the country. At the end of last year I contributed to the announcement of the news of the new wave of prosecutions by publishing a number of testimonies I received.
The witch hunt against gay men has been going on for much longer, according to Harlem’s story.
One evening in 2012 Harlem was taken away from his work by a number of soldiers and taken to a detention center. It was soon made clear to him that he was there because he was gay. The proof of his arrest: a video on which he kissed with another boy.
He was detained there for three long months and interrogated and tortured for hours. His interrogators pressured him to redeem names of other gay men. The hotel in the city regularly receives businessmen. The hotel bar is a meeting place for visitors and gays from the city. The authorities saw him as a good basis for preparing their “gay cleansing.”
After his release, he was extorted for years. In exchange for his life, he had to hand over large parts of his income. If he couldn’t afford to pay, he had to tell other homosexuals.
He was one of the sources that led the government to the rector of the University of Grozny. The government had long suspected that the man was gay and was looking for evidence. When they finally got that (hard-handed), they also started to extort the rector. When he could no longer pay, he disappeared. Since then there is no trace of the man. Perhaps he was killed.
It is difficult to estimate how many LGBT people have been arrested, tortured and / or killed in recent years. But the Russian LGBT Network already assumes that there are more than a hundred. Harlem himself knows about thirty acquaintances who were locked up in the same center for a while. One of his best friends was arrested last year and only released after he coughed up a large sum of money. At the moment the young man is still in hiding.
Fleeing from Chechnya to Europe is anything but obvious. It is expensive, the refugees often speak only Russian and have no guarantee of asylum. In addition, they often have to run headlong – and therefore without any preparation – because they are told that there is an investigation going on.
To further expose the situation of LGBT + people in his home country and to help refugees, Harlem founded the LGBT World Beside association. He recently started with a first collection campaign. The aim is to raise as much money as possible to better accommodate new refugees who arrive in Europe. This way Harlem wants to be able to buy clothes and offer a home outside the general asylum centers. These centers are often very dangerous for Chechen LGBT + people. There too they must keep their sexual identity secret, for fear that other (Chechen) asylum seekers will use violence against them. Or even worse: kill them.
In addition to shelter and clothing, Harlem wants to provide psychological help. Most refugees are often hit hard, both physically and mentally. Finally, he also wants to support the refugees with legal assistance.
Harlem’s campaign can already count on a lot of support. Piet De Bruyn, a Flemish parliamentarian, supported his initiative and the American LGBT + organization Voices4 of Wyatt Harms and Adam Eli also supported his work.