On October 25, a report (part 1 and part 2)from the American television station ABC about gays in Chechnya was released. The film crew interviewed several homosexuals who had to flee abroad because of the persecution and torture they suffered in the republic (Novaya Gazeta was first told about this in April 2017). During an interview with Chechen police chief Apti Alaudinov in a Grozny prison, ABC correspondent James Longman suddenly asked what his interlocutor would have thought if Longman had told him that he was gay. Although Alaudinov did not do anything special in response – he just laughed out loud, the recording of this conversation was widely distributed in the Russian media. In general, Longman has long been openly declaring his homosexuality. Meduza spoke with a journalist about what tricks the ABC crew had to go to make such a report in Chechnya – and why this conversation with Alaudinov was needed.
- How long did it take to prepare a report from Chechnya?
- About a year. We started looking for victims living in different countries through representatives of the LGBT support network Rainbow Railroad in Moscow and activists; to persuade our heroes to give us an interview. It was necessary to make sure that we would not expose them to additional danger, and this is a rather lengthy process. It should be noted that many of these young people are still severely traumatized by their experience, and it was important for us to make sure that we would not do them too much harm. We talked to people in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and North America, so we had to do a lot of work in different parts of the world.
- How difficult was it to persuade the characters in an interview – and not just anonymously, but also, like Amin Dzhabrailov, openly, with a face in the frame and name?
- Amin decided to publicly announce his story independently of us, and we already saw an interview with him for the Canadian television company CBC a couple of weeks before our conversation with him. Prior to that, he had already given an interview to the media in 2017, but anonymously. And after the case of Maxim [Lapunov] was closed, Amin decided that the only way to pay attention to what was happening in Chechnya was to speak out publicly that anonymity no longer works.
- But Amin is the only one who agreed to talk to us under his name and not hiding his face. Absolutely everyone else was scared to death that they could be watched. The Guardian recently reported on Chechen death squads in Europe. I think that this is an exaggeration, but at least they are afraid that they will be recognized by their family members or distant acquaintances. The fact is that the Chechen diaspora abroad is quite extensive due to the recent history of this region. Therefore, it seems that they have long arms. And Amin, for example, receives threats every day both from Chechnya and from Chechens living abroad. So they are not that completely safe, even after leaving Chechnya.
- In total, we contacted nine or ten victims, of whom four agreed to an interview. We interviewed some, but after that they began to fear for their safety, so we did not start broadcasting them. For example, we met with a group of gays in Belgium who only recently managed to leave Chechnya, and they were still very afraid for their safety. But I spent the whole weekend with them, went with them to the Antwerp Pride, and it was a strong impression – how these young people, just from Chechnya, march along with everyone at the pride.
- What additional security measures did you have to take to preserve the anonymity of the heroes?
- In Chechnya, we had one shoot of an interview with a hero, and I did not participate in it. They explained to us that if we are going to interview authorities, we will have to talk to the victims of the persecution on another visit, because we will most likely be under surveillance. Of course, we have accepted these conditions. We did not speak with our heroes either by phone or by email – only in secure messengers. Well, and a lot of such nuances. And, of course, I had to not only hide the faces of the heroes, but also change their voice.
- But this episode, in which you tell [the first deputy minister of internal affairs of Chechnya] Apti Alaudinov about your own homosexuality, – how did this come about? And what kind of reaction did you expect?
- In general, this whole evening in Grozny is a complete surprise. Actually, we did not plan to meet with him. We had a very official visit to Chechnya: we warned the authorities in advance, did not enter the republic secretly, nothing of the kind. In our application, we wrote that we want to see how Grozny looks in 2019, 20 years after the start of the last war, all in that spirit. But we honestly mentioned that we were going to discuss issues of attacks on gays and other human rights violations in Chechnya.
- But the meeting with Alaudinov was completely unplanned. In general, we went to meet with Kheda Saratova, a member of the Human Rights Council under the head of Chechnya, she is working on the problems of radicalizing youth. And here we are sitting in her office, and I say: actually we wanted to meet with someone from the authorities or even go to jail (that in Grozny there is a secret prison in the basement of the threat room in which gays are tortured, Maxim Lapunov told – approx. “Jellyfish”). And she says: “What didn’t you say right away? Now I will arrange a meeting with Apti Alaudinov, he will be here in 20 minutes. “
- We think: well, of course, that’s what we believed. But she made a couple of calls, and exactly 20 minutes later, General Alaudinov arrives. We could not believe our eyes. And he drove us all night on Grozny. I think he just saw a great opportunity to PR. Surely he thought: oh, the American television channel in Chechnya, here is a chance to tell his story. In addition, he seemed to us narcissistic, he was clearly flattered that he was being interviewed.
- I had no desire to tell anyone in Chechnya or elsewhere that I was gay. I wanted to make a report on this subject, because it seems to me important, regardless of whether I am heterosexual or gay, blue or pink. Yes, I informed the heroes of our interviews about my own homosexuality in order to better get in touch with them. We discussed what it was like to grow up gay. But I did not intend to say anything like that to the Chechen authorities: firstly, it didn’t seem like a safe idea to me, and secondly, I just didn’t want it to turn into a story about myself.
- But Alaudinov was surprisingly talkative, including on such topics. And here we are standing in this cell – and I finally decided. I warned the crew in advance about my plans, especially Patrick [Rivell, producer of the ABC channel in Moscow], because he speaks Russian and is better oriented in the situation. In general, I raised this question because they have very specific concepts in Chechnya about who gays are: all these stereotypes that if you are homosexual, then you are not quite a man.
- By this moment, we had already been together for about three hours, and it began to seem to me that on a purely human level, I was quite nice to Alaudinov. We exchanged jokes, had fun as much as possible, spent time. And I thought: if I suddenly tell him that I’m gay, maybe this will change his attitude towards homosexuality? In response, he simply laughed out loud. Then I took his hand and laid it on my chest to show him how scared I was – my heart was pounding. But he only laughed even harder. Honestly, this laugh sounded somewhat menacing.
- “But he did not jump away from you in horror or disgust?”
- “No, he just blushed a lot.” But it seemed to me that he struggled to maintain the image: they say, we do not care whether you are gay or not. And, it seems, he carefully selected expressions, so as not to say anything to the camera that would sound unsightly.
- But when I asked him at the end of the evening whether he now thinks that I am less than a man than he, Alaudinov answered: “I’ll tell you honestly, you will never become my friend.” And at that moment, his mask moved for a moment, and I saw that no, he cares, he really hates gays. Of course, this is not proof that he was involved in the torture of gays, but this is a good indicator that he really thinks about them. So, it seems to me, it was a useful experience, although we did not plan anything similar in advance.
- “Does it not seem to you that he prepared for such a turn?” You did not indicate your name in the official application for accreditation for this trip? He could google you and decide: oh, this is the same gay journalist who travels everywhere and takes interviews, now we will arrange a Potemkin village for him.
- Probably not, because the interview with him was organized literally in 20 minutes, and when Kheda Saratova called him, she said that ABC wants to talk to him without mentioning my name. Perhaps he knew that it was me; in the end, to find out who I am, you don’t need to be a police state, just google my name, I’m openly gay. Maybe he did – but how do you find out?
- Of course, the Potemkin village was shown to us, otherwise it cannot be described. Everything was polished to a brilliance, and in the prison where we were brought there was not a single prisoner, and at some point he even said: they say, look how safe it is in Chechnya, there is no crime, nobody even sits in prison !
- “Have you done anything like this before?” After all, you traveled a lot around the world, made reports from the Middle East, already being an open gay.
- No, although I have been to many countries where it’s dangerous to be openly gay. A few years ago, I was reporting on LGBT refugees from Syria living in Lebanon. In March, I was in Syria, and this is not the place where people are ready to openly talk with you about how they feel about gays. But I didn’t concentrate specifically on the LGBT aspect in my reports, and usually I don’t talk about my personal life.
- “Of all the places you’ve been to, where is the most dangerous place to be gay?” Is Chechnya the most dangerous place in the world, or about the level of other countries with homophobic politics?
- In Chechnya, this is the worst of all. Yes, there are countries where if you are gay, your family may refuse you, they may even kill you. For example, when I was in Syria, I spoke with young people who were threatened to be killed by their own relatives when they learned about their homosexuality.
- But here is a different situation. If what the heroes of our report told us is true, then it turns out that in Chechnya it is the government that is systematically engaged in mass arrests and torture of gays. This is the difference, so I would say that in Chechnya the situation for gays is worse than anywhere else.
- Do you think that such reports and international attention will help your heroes and LGBT people in Chechnya in general?
- I think the situation is twofold. On the one hand, the Russian authorities are very concerned about how Russia is seen in the rest of the world. On the other hand, only this will not convince them. They have a rather schizophrenic attitude towards the attention of the world media: 50% of the time they say that they do not care what they write about them, and the other 50% they are very worried about what foreigners think.
Reporting alone, like mine, is not enough to change attitudes — more evidence of victims of torture and persecution is needed to make them feel safe enough to make this public. After the release of my report, I already received many messages from young Chechen gays living in Europe or America, they thank me for telling me about what they had to transfer.
When people see that their stories are taken seriously, this can give them confidence. And this is the only way to force a change in attitude in Moscow to the situation of gays in Chechnya. I don’t think it is true that Vladimir Putin is really worried that ABC is thinking about what is happening in Chechnya. My goal is to give confidence to the Chechens themselves. And if my report helps other victims of the persecution to take courage and tell about myself, I will consider my task completed.
We’re inviting you to make a difference today by donating to the Chechyna Appeal.
Every dollar, euro and pound you give will help evacuate LGBTI people in the most danger. And to pressure the Chechen authorities to stop this persecution.