Out of Chechnya
A survivor of torture and trauma, Ali Tepsurkaev finds refuge in Vermont
Where to begin? With the fact that Chechen medical student Ali Tepsurkaev was held in a pit in the ground for six weeks -- beaten and burned by Russian soldiers, shocked with electricity until he passed out? Or with his brother, a crusading journalist, who was assassinated and bled to death in his arms? Or with Tepsurkaev's escape to America last year and the kindness of strangers?
To look at the strapping 22-year-old, dressed in an athletic shirt and parachute pants, you wouldn't peg him as the vessel of such violent upheaval. He has soft brown eyes and an easy smile, can crack jokes in English after just 18 months in this country, and insists on holding the door for his elders. He loves broccoli-pineapple pizza, has discovered Bob Marley and dreams of becoming a doctor. He talks excitedly about his classes at the Community College of Vermont in Burlington, the medical training program he hopes to attend, and the taekwondo school on Main Street -- he's a world-champion black belt.
"I never think my life be like this," Tepsurkaev says. "A fortune teller tell me when I am 12, 'You will go far away.' I thought to Grozny [capital of Chechnya], to study at medical school." The young refugee adds matter-of-factly, "All my friends are killed by Russians. Except one. He escape to Omsk."
Tepsurkaev's fateful story begins on Aug. 23, 2000, in the midst of the second Russian war in Chechnya, a separatist Muslim region in Russia's North Caucasus. That was the day a group of Russian soldiers burst into his house in Alkhan Kala, a town of 20,000 some six miles southwest of Grozny. Tepsurkaev and his father were thrown to the floor, their bodies held in place by Russian combat boots. His mother was shoved up against a wall. The family watched helplessly as soldiers tore up the house and passed many of their belongings out the front door.
"My mother, she try to find out what's happening, but all soldiers do slang and swears," Tepsurkaev recalls. "I really mad. If I had some gun in the house, I think I run and shoot those guys. Because, you know, I never hear anybody talk with my parents like that."
The Russian military regularly sweeps through Chechen towns and villages, checking homes and documents in an attempt to ferret out rebels and weapons. Looting is common. Known as a zachistka -- derived from the Russian word for "clean-up" -- these early-morning raids often result in the arbitrary detention of young Chechen males. For many, the next stop is a "filtration camp," the purpose of which is to separate fighters from the general population. Many innocents, though, get caught in the net -- sudden currency in the lucrative kidnapping business that flourishes in Chechnya. Ransoms are payable in U.S. dollars or guns.
That morning the Tepsurkaev surname appeared on the Russians' watchlist. "They say, 'are you the one who work in hospital? Or were you the one who takes the tape? Which one is you?' The soldiers not know who I am," he says. "They say they need to check me out, take my passport."
A second-year medical student, Tepsurkaev was the one who worked in the hospital. He had been assisting his uncle, Khassan Baiev, a well-known plastic surgeon turned war-time medic. Baiev had been persecuted by both sides in the conflict because he treated anyone who needed medical attention, Chechen or Russian. He was eventually forced to flee.
Baiev was also the surgeon who famously amputated the leg of Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, Russia's public enemy number one, after the rebel leader and his men stumbled into a mine field. Tepsurkaev held Basayev's mangled limb down during the procedure, one of 67 amputations Baiev would perform over a bloody 48-hour period.
Further complicating Tepsurkaev's situation was the fact that he was also the younger brother of Adam Tepsurkaev, a relentless videographer for Reuters news service. At that time, no Western journalists were reporting from Chechnya. Several had been kidnapped or killed during the conflict, and Russia had imposed a media blackout. The elusive Adam Tepsurkaev, though, kept the story alive for Western viewers, filming bombings, lootings, arsons and atrocities. Of his three brothers, Ali idolized Adam and helped smuggle his footage out of the region.
During their search of his house, soldiers came across Tepsurkaev's taekwondo medals, his certificates of victory in the Russian national championships, and treated him with particular harshness. He was hauled off and blindfolded with his own shirt, handcuffed and beaten repeatedly with rifle butts. He was accused of being a fighter, plotting to blow up tanks. His 6-foot-3 body was then loaded into an armored personnel carrier. The last village sound he heard was his mother screaming at the soldiers.
Tepsurkaev's next stop was a field outside of town, a makeshift military installation overlooking the village. Bound and bloodied, he was punched and kicked until he could no longer stand. He was relieved of his belt, sneakers and money. Then he and several other Chechen detainees were told to prepare to be crushed by tanks.
Moments after tanks began rumbling, Tepsurkaev was pulled from the line. Russian officers had been informed of his relations: They had a catch on their hands. For the next six weeks, Tepsurkaev was kept barefoot, handcuffed and shirtless in a pit in the ground, four meters deep, one meter wide, ankle-deep in water. Metal fencing covered the opening.
"That was all I have, hole and sky," he says. He never saw his fellow detainees again.
Tepsurkaev was hauled out of the pit only for interrogations, several times a day. He was questioned about village residents and whether they were fighters; about his doctor uncle, who had by this time escaped to America; about his journalist brother, who was working behind the scenes to free his younger brother. Tepsur-kaev's interrogators shoved surveillance photos in his face and ordered him to write a letter to Adam pleading that he take his place. Tepsurkaev refused. He was strung up by his handcuffs, beaten, burned with cigarettes. These daily sessions often ended with Tepsurkaev having electrodes attached to his face and body, then being shocked until he lost consciousness.
Meanwhile, his family was scrambling to raise money for his release. Military outfits often sold prisoners, even corpses, back to loved ones. The Tepsurkaevs had already paid hundreds of dollars just to confirm his location. With help from Baiev in America, they managed to raise several thousand dollars that would supposedly buy relief from the beatings.
"But they don't stop. It not five, six times anymore. Maybe two, three times [per day]," Tepsurkaev says.
During his month and a half of captivity, he was moved to several different holes, one of which was completely covered. Raised in strict Chechen tradition, where males are supposed to take pain and punishment without complaint and are often disciplined in the martial arts, Tepsurkaev concentrated his attention on home, friends and medical school. He prepared every day to die.
"I feel so tired. So, so tired. I can't see from my eyes all bleeding, my kidneys. I can't move anymore. Better for me if they just kill me. One shot and no more pain," he says. "But it's easy to die. It's harder to know how hard it will be for parents. I think, I hope they will not see my body, look like all black and blue. Always in that hole, I think about parents because I know they will always be thinking about me."
In addition to injuring his lungs and kidneys and damaging his vision, the Russians broke Tepsurkaev's jaw, cracked his teeth and left his belly pocked with cigarette burns. He also developed a severe skin rash on his legs, the result of standing so long in water. Though he was taunted by some soldiers, several of his captors took an interest in Tepsurkaev, admiring his composure under such severe strain. They informed him that ransom negotiations were taking place; that they'd seen someone who looked like a relative talking with commanding officers. One guard even slipped him gruel and sweet milk -- a welcome change from dried bread and rainwater -- and offered up a bit of normal conversation.
"It's so nice to feel that someone is kind, is really human, and not be treated like animal," he says. "He has friends, too, died in that war."
By the fifth week, the beatings had started to decrease and the questioning was tapering off. His face had even started to heal. Then, one cold and rainy evening, soldiers lifted Tepsurkaev from his muddy pit and put on a blindfold. "I just think now they really want to kill me. They don't ask me questions for a while."
Instead, they shoved a black plastic bag at him. Inside were clothes his mother had sent when she first learned of his whereabouts. He buried his face in the cloth. "I smell my jacket, make me feel so happy. I smell my house."
It was over. His brothers, with the help of friends, had come through with the ransom. The going rate for freedom: $10,000 and 10 guns.
In the waiting car, Tepsur-kaev's oldest brother gripped his battered younger sibling. "He ask how I feel. I say happy. I feel good. Just go. Just drive car," Tepsurkaev remembers.
It wouldn't be long, though, before he was targeted for a second kidnapping. The Russians would soon learn his uncle lived in America; they could ask for twice as much.
Tepsurkaev's mistreatment at the hands of Russian military authorities was so brutal, he was written up in a Human Rights Watch report. His name would join those of hundreds, possibly thousands, of other Chechen torture victims. HRW had also interviewed his brother Adam.
"When I reread those interviews with Adam and Ali, it still makes me cry," says Rachel Denber, HRW's deputy director of Europe and Central Asia Division. "And I'm pretty inured to this stuff. The kinds of abuses that Ali and Adam witnessed and suffered happen every day in Chechnya, and they happen to this day."
Atrocities in Chechnya are now overlooked, Denber says. "It's pretty much been pushed off the agenda by other crises. Chechnya is the only place in Europe where there is an active war going on. All the other wars connected to the break-up of the Soviet Union are over."
Unfortunately, Adam Tepsurkaev's name would appear in another HRW report.
It had in fact been Adam, not Ali, who was slated to join their uncle in America. But Adam, who was 24 at the time, couldn't stay one step ahead much longer. The Russians were desperate to stop his filming. He had applied for political asylum in the United States and had contacts waiting for him in Azerbaijan; passage had been arranged. In August 2000, Baiev had strenuously urged his nephew to leave Chechnya. Adam was gearing up to depart when Ali was arrested.
"Adam clearly knew the situation he found himself in," says Baiev, 39, who now lives in the Boston area. "He exposed the torture and humiliations and massacres, but obviously he's not going to just leave his brother... He wasn't able to leave until he retrieved Ali."
That loyalty ended up costing him.
After Ali's release at the end of September, the two brothers were inseparable, and cautious, never staying more than one night in the same place. By late fall, Adam was again preparing to make his way out of Chechnya and join his uncle, who was then moving in with friends in southern Vermont.
Ali, too, was figuring out his next move. There were rumors another military outfit was interested in him. He'd been thinking Siberia, maybe. By Nov. 20, Adam was ready. He would leave in three days.
At the time, the atmosphere in Alkhan Kala had relaxed and the streets were quiet, so the brothers decided to spend an extra night with a friend. They stayed up late watching TV. Suddenly there was a commotion in the next room; an unfamiliar and agitated Chechen voice spoke. Adam quickly shut off the TV, but it was too late. Three masked gunmen stood in the door and sprayed the darkened room with bullets. Ali felt his right leg go cold and scrambled behind a couch. After a minute or so, the men disappeared.
"Nobody say anything. I scared really to turn on the light," Ali recalls. "I don't want to see my brother. I like him so much. But if something is wrong, I need to see. I turn on light, see Adam on the floor. I turn him over. He open his eyes and ask, 'Where did they shot me?' I say, 'I don't know.' I look and look."
Adam had been hit in both his legs and in the stomach. Ali held him in his arms. Bleeding steadily, his brother began to lose consciousness. The nearest hospital was 30 kilometers away, past several military checkpoints. Anyone driving after curfew was likely to be shot at. They decided to put Adam in the car and hazard the trip. Twenty minutes later, the car returned. Adam had died before they reached the first checkpoint.
"I'm actually crying first time in my life when I get older. Nobody see me and this time I can't stop. I can't believe that they killed him. In my life, that is hardest. Harder than that hole, and what Russians did to me."
Ali had also been shot in the back of the thigh and the ankle. Tepsurkaev suspected the shooters were Chechen collaborators, and knew he would have to leave town quickly. He cleaned up his wounds and prepared to bury his brother. Adam was a popular figure in town, and turnout for his funeral was massive. The editor-in-chief of Reuters wrote the family a condolence letter.
Two days after the funeral, Tepsurkaev drove to the neighboring province of Ingushetiya, where many war refugees have fled despite the Russian military presence there. He met with representatives of Human Rights Watch, who interviewed him at length. A campaign was launched to help Tepsurkaev get to America and join his uncle, but he would need to go through Moscow. So Tepsurkaev's oldest brother went to a neighbor whose son had been killed in the first war, and asked for his passport. He bribed the local passport office to substitute Ali's picture and stamp it properly.
With the false passport, Tepsurkaev made it by train to Moscow and hid out for a month in several apartments. Finally, thanks to pressure from human rights advocates and friends, an American visa came through. His brother bought him a ticket to Poland. Despite a pounding heart and detailed questioning by border officials, he managed not to raise suspicion at the airport.
A ticket to New York was waiting in Warsaw. Tepsurkaev was on his way to America, a land that until then had only existed in the movies. He didn't speak a word of English and knew only to look for the word "Immigration" when he arrived. He had no idea if anyone would be there to meet him. "It like place where you switch, coming to be new," Tepsurkaev says. "New like baby."
When Springfield dentist John Sinclair first looked in Ali Tepsurkaev's mouth, he saw a fair amount of work was needed: cracked teeth; misshapen lower left mandible; he needed a new front tooth. Though Sinclair knew Tepsurkaev was a Chechen war refugee, he was unaware that his dental problems stemmed from repeated beatings in Russian captivity. His young patient's disposition suggested anything but.
"There was just a wonderful glow about him," says Sinclair, 62. "He was always smiling, always upbeat."
Sinclair's wife Nancy, 60, agrees. "Unless you know of Ali's background, you'd never know," she says.
Several months earlier, the couple had met Tepsurkaev's uncle, Khassan Baiev, and his family, who were living with friends in Andover. After hearing their story, John Sinclair offered to take care of their dental needs. Through those winter sessions, he had gleaned bits and pieces about Ali, and knew that he was supposed to be arriving in New York any day. That day turned out to be April 29, 2001. Late that night, an exhausted Tepsurkaev stood in the arrivals terminal at JFK International Airport, a sudden mute in this new world, wondering desperately about the next five minutes, about the rest of his life.
"When I walk, I look. I don't know where to go. Nobody come. What will I do now? Where will I go now? I'll just go out. Then I heard the voice of Zara [his aunt]: 'Ali.' Oh, my God, that was music. I couldn't believe somebody say, 'Ali.'" The next day they drove to Andover, where Tepsurkaev slept for two days straight.
John and Nancy Sinclair were a part of the quiet mobilization that took place in the Chester-Andover area of southern Vermont last year. While the Baievs moved on to Boston, Tepsurkaev adopted Ver-mont as his new home.
"I find so many friends here," he says. "Even though I not talking so well in English. I mean, they never tired from me. I feel not by myself. Right away, it was just great."
Some of those friends included Charlene and Peter Huyler, Andover residents who, among other things, helped Tepsurkaev get a carpentry job with an area builder; Pam and Ed Laffaye, Chester residents who took Tepsurkaev into their home for the school year and acted as surrogate parents; Richard Andrews, an Andover neighbor and Russian speaker who helped Tepsurkaev with academics; the staff and students at Green Mountain Union High School in Chester; and Don Rouleau, a taekwondo instructor across the river in New Hampshire.
Pam Laffaye, 44, an assistant librarian at GMUHS, met Tepsurkaev through her older sister, Charlene Huyler, who had been visiting regularly with the Baievs. Despite the somewhat tight quarters in their house in Chester, the Laffayes offered to take Ali in once the school year started. "I do that kind of stuff," Pam Laffaye says simply.
Since both she and Tepsurkaev were night owls, they spent a lot of time talking. Those were eye-opening hours. Laffaye's new knowledge continues to haunt her.
"Things are less comfortable because you have to think about them," she says. "And how are you going to deal with it? I don't want to be on Russia's side. But if I'm an American and my president [supports Russian policy in Chechnya], then I am."
What is striking about Tepsurkaev, though, is his absence of bitterness toward the Russians. While he hardly embraces Russia and still has plenty of dark, rain-filled nightmares and searing headaches, he refuses to speak ill of anyone, even his tormentors. Despite being reared in a clan culture that emphasizes personal and family honor -- and is known to issue blood vendettas -- he says, "I don't want to be same like them. If I do something to them, then I will be same. Not human. I want to be human."
Nor does he consider all Chechen action heroic. Tepsurkaev is deeply disturbed by the recent hostage seige at a Moscow theater. "I feel bad for all those people," he says. "It wasn't good step to show people to stop war. They took civilian people. Those people not have any connect with the war. They just people who come to theater to have some kind of fun."
Tepsurkaev is the only known Chechen refugee in Vermont. With its sparse population and challenging climate, the Green Mountain State may seem an odd choice for refugees. But the tradition of independence and respect for the individual makes for a comfortable fit, suggests Stacie Blake, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. "For those individuals who don't have a previous connection to Vermont, I think it's attractive... because it's known for having safe and welcoming communities."
For decades, in various incarnations, VRRP has been helping refugees and political asylum seekers find homes and jobs in Vermont. "In the beginning, [the number] was just maybe 20, or 70," Blake says. "I think one year, it approached 300. Last year, it was probably closer to 240 or 250."
The bulk of resettlement tends to be in Chittenden and Washington counties, where jobs, affordable rents and public transportation are more available. In recent years the primary groups have been Bosnians and Vietnamese, though a handful of Afghanis arrived last year. Vermont has also seen a steady stream of Sudanese. Since 9/11, however, the number of arrivals has dropped sharply. Increased security measures and elaborate screening keep refugees waiting in camps or on the run.
"It's very painful for people here who are waiting and hoping that other family members can come," Blake notes.
Tepsurkaev has left behind his parents and two older brothers. While his siblings no longer live in Chechnya, his mother and father do. Both have medical conditions.
"He misses his parents," Laffaye says. "He misses his mother so much that, if he wasn't Chechen, he would cry."
For a while, Laffaye assumed that maternal role, shepherding Tepsurkaev through the curriculum at Green Mountain and the social pitfalls that accompany high school culture in America. To bolster his English, Tepsurkaev audited classes for two semesters and always stopped by to see Laffaye in the library. "We are his Vermont parents," she says with a smile.
The staff and faculty at Green Mountain welcomed Tepsurkaev, too. Principal Carol Gilbert, a former history teacher, said having the young refugee on campus was a sobering experience for many staff and students.
"One thing Ali said that was really interesting to me is that our students didn't really understand or appreciate the freedom they had," Gilbert said. "And that they would never know until it had been threatened or challenged."
While Tepsurkaev still struggles with English and continues to adjust to American culture, there is one area where he remains master: taekwondo. He is a second-degree black belt and has held the Russian national title four times. Realizing the significance of that outlet, Ed Laffaye put Tepsurkaev in touch with Don Rouleau, a sixth-degree black belt who runs a taekwondo school in Keene, New Hampshire.
"I have been doing this for almost 30 years," says Rouleau, 50. "I have never seen anybody like that. This man has the capability to knock anybody out at will."
Rouleau also noted Tepsur-kaev's exemplary post-fight attitude, shaking hands, smiling, offering a kind word and making sure there are no hard feelings. "He fights with ease and he fights with grace, and he's an extremely powerful fighter. But he's very humble.
"In Ali's situation, he didn't have anything," adds Rouleau, who provided Tepsurkaev with the gear the Russians had taken from him. In exchange, Tepsur-kaev taught Rouleau and his students his style of fighting, instructing everyone from kids to the disabled to competitive black belts.
During his year in Keene, Tepsurkaev captured state titles in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont. As a result, he was invited to the U.S. National Taekwondo Championships held last year in Detroit, but because he is not a U.S. citizen he had to drop out shortly before the meet. His current political status is stateless.
In July, Tepsurkaev won his division in the Global Taekwon-do Federation world championships in Toronto. Even in sport, though, he could not escape politics. GTF officials told him he could not fight for Chechnya since it was technically not a country. Fight for the Russian team, they suggested. Tepsurkaev chose Germany instead. He won the gold medal and received permission from the German coach to hold the Chechen flag on the podium. When he did, he was disqualified from further participation for making a political statement.
Tepsurkaev believes the Russian contingent, which comprised several dozen fighters, coaches and judges, pressured organizers, who like many Westerners were unaware of the sensitive geopolitical situation in southern Russia.
Still, Tepsurkaev has set his sights on bigger things -- like the Olympics. Rouleau is one of many who believe he can make it. "He has the potential to be an Olympic competitor -- easily, easily. But he must become a citizen."
Now living in Winooski with fellow Muslim immigrants, Tepsurkaev has found a second home at the Blue Wave Taekwondo School in Burlington run by Gordon White, a fifth-degree black belt, World Cup bronze medalist and the only Vermonter to make the U.S. national team. White says Tepsurkaev possesses a fine balance of athletic prowess and sportsmanship.
"In Ali's short time at the gym, he has already made a big impression both on the dojang floor (practice ring) and socially with the students," he reports. "Ali has the potential to do great things with taekwondo competition."
At the recent U.S. Cup tournament in Hartford, Connecti-cut, however, Tepsurkaev put in a disappointing performance, winning only the bronze. But even so, he seemed to come away enriched. "It's good. Make me train harder now," he says. "I make some not so smart moves."
Tepsurkaev's other passion is medicine, but making meaningful strides in a foreign language is frustrating. Once his tongue catches up with his eyes and hands, there should be no stopping him. He may prefer the role of country doctor, however, to the relentless trauma of an emergency room.
"I hope I will have some little hospital I will work in. It's nice. The people. You know everyone who come to you. And everyone know you."
Someday, Tepsurkaev would like to attend the University of Vermont's medical school, but he knows it will be a long road. For now he's aiming at a licensed nurse's assistant program. Back home, his former classmates are just a year or two away from medical practice.
"I feel bad for him, knowing how bad he feels knowing his friends are going to be doctors and he isn't for a long time," Laffaye says. "He's had so many bad things happen to him. You want him to be successful. I want him to be a surgeon. He's been through too much not to be able to realize that dream."
Despite the support from his friends in southern Vermont and his new ones in the Burlington area, Tepsurkaev sometimes views his position in this country as precarious. "I still scared, actually. I am here, but as refugee," he says. "I not have green card. I not have citizenship. Even though they say you have all same rights as other people, I feeling some kind of like, anytime they might say: 'get out of here, you.'"