IN BETWEEN TORTURES
© Peter Pomerantsev
My Karimov Days ...
Early in the morning, I was awakened by a loud shriek from my mother. I ran out of the room and saw a man holding my mother’s arm behind her back, pressing her to the wall. He said he would let her go if I didn’t do anything stupid, or else everything would be much worse. >
He handcuffed me and led me to his car. He brought me to the building of the National Security Services. I could hear someone say: “They’ve brought another monkey!’ They led me into a small office. There was a table and an iron chair resembling a gynecologists’ chair.
They tied my hands and feet to the chair with a thread that cut my skin like a sharp blade. They turned on a lamp and directed the light at me. I could not see the man sitting at the table because of the smoke and the bright light.
They raped me in the mouth. Then they urinated over me.
They repeated this several times.
Then they made me run around the cell like an animal.
Anyone who has suffered such torture ceases to trust people or to consider themselves a human being. It changes you.’ (Doctor B-. Torture victim, Andijan, Uzbekistan)
For the past few months, I’ve been doing a bit of moonlighting: translation for an NGO that reports on torture in Central Asia. I can do with the extra cash: I’ve just moved my young family back to London after four years as a television producer abroad. There is much torture in Central Asia, and there’s plenty to translate. I’ve started to live a bit of a double life: part in the middle-class worries of a North London family, part in the torture chambers of Osh, Fergana and Andijan.
The move to London has been particularly tough on our four-year-old, Hannah. She grew up in Moscow, my wife’s home town. Russian is her first language: I was often away filming documentaries and failed to teach her good English. Now she is paying for my truancy. At the playground the other day she burst out crying: ‘I can’t understand what the other children are saying. I feel they’re saying horrible things about me.’
She played by herself in the sandpit: her pink dress and fairy wings grubby with sand and tears.
The testimonies I am sent by the NGO are full of twists and turns. Dr B was arrested after taking part in street protests against the rule of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The Uzbek authorities found a use for his professional background: he was forced to work in the morgue of the National Security Services.
‘I once had a case when they brought in the body of a tortured man, but when I and my assistant started performing the autopsy he began to breathe. His pulse started, and he opened his eyes.
We immediately ran to the head of the morgue. Having learned what had happened, he shut us in the office and left.
A few minutes later he returned and ordered us to keep working. When we came back to the operating room, there were fresh wounds on the man, he was now dead.’
Dr B has recently found political asylum in Western Europe.
‘I ask you to pass the information that I disclose to international organizations which can help to eradicate this violence.’
Most of our time has been spent looking for a school for Hannah. Schools are chronically oversubscribed. The nearest school to our home, and the one Hannah has the best chance to get into, has a population consisting largely of recent immigrants: the school has welcome messages on its web-site in Arabic, Albanian and Swahili for families fleeing Kosovo, Somalia, the Middle East. I feel sympathy with the refugees, many have escaped world’s similar to Dr B’s. My own parents came to London looking for political asylum. London has always been a place of refuge. But I don’t want Hannah to go to this school. The teachers spend all their efforts instructing the children in basic spoken English, not maths or writing. The marks are poor. It’s a situation repeated throughout the city. On a crammed tube I see commuters reading newspapers with headlines such as:
‘500 000 extra immigrant children apply for schools!’.
‘One in four London school children cannot read or write!’
I apply for a place at the decidedly English school in the leafy, wealthy suburb half a mile away, and keep my guilty, aspirational fingers crossed. The school is oversubscribed and our chances are slim.
The only place in London where Hannah is happy is at a cafe down the road run by Kosovar refugees. We call it ‘The Pristina’. The atmosphere in The Pristina is Balkan and warm. They love children: Hannah’s arrival is always greeted with cheers. She takes her bows. The waiter speaks a few words of Russian. She’s delighted.
We’re here after another bout of her immigrant tears. Hannah spoons vanilla ice cream, watching the street through the window: buses spray puddles onto passers-by on a wet, grey, warm North London afternoon. Hannah is happy with her ice cream. I get on with the torture translations.
The reports from Central Asia keep coming through. I have never met anyone from the NGO personally, I only get messages from a lady called Nadezhda (the name means ‘hope’ in Russian). Nadezhda’s messages are usually a little frantic: ‘Peter, I am meeting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees tomorrow morning. Can you translate this report tonight?’
I never refuse. It’s been hard to find regular television work since I returned to London. At least, I tell myself, I’m using my lack of employment to do something worthwhile.
She has received a letter passed secretly from a high-security Uzbek prison. It has taken six months to reach Nadejda: carried clandestinely, and with what I can only imagine was great danger. Passed from prisoner to relative to sympathizer to journalist until it crossed 3000 miles and reached Western Europe. The letter is signed by 121 prisoners. They include human rights activists, devout Muslims, journalists.
The letter passed secretly from high-security colony, Karshi city, Uzbekistan.
‘We write from colony # 64/33. We all came here in different years. Our characters are different. But our destiny is the same. We have seen things no man has ever imagined.
The prison guards rape us with a club, an enema syringe and red pepper. They beat our heels till they bleed. These are the methods they enjoy. But this is not enough for them, and they come up with new methods of torture.
They use sticks to rape AIDS sufferers, and then use these same sticks to rape other prisoners. They laugh and jeer: "Aren’t you ashamed to infect each other with AIDS?".
A prisoner called Holmirza expressed indignation at this: they forcibly poured AIDS-infected blood into him.’
This year 11 000 children could not find places in London’s schools: Hannah is one of them. There are simply too many children, too few schools.
We have been rejected from the nice school we applied to. The catchment area is a mere 200 meters. In an inner London scampering immigration middle-class parents spend their last pennies jut to live within touching distance of this sort of school, sacrifice everything for educational asylum.
The school with refugees was oversubscribed too.
My wife was upset. In Moscow, where she understands the rules, she would have always been able to find our daughter a school place. But in London she feels helpless. The move has been as hard on her as Hannah. She knows no one here. She never wanted to move: it was I who insisted, arguing that Hannah needed to attend school in England.
As we put Hannah to bed that evening I tried to comfort her by putting things in context. Whispering over our sleeping daughter I told her about Dr B and Andijan, the AIDs sticks in Karshi.
It wasn’t the first time I’d told her about my moonlight translations. Whenever I talk about them my voice rises. I flush and trip over my words.
My wife was angry: ‘Why do you have to bring this into our home? Anyone can do these translations. You’re getting off on the sickness. Stop it! Tell them you won’t do it any more.’
But I have an excuse to continue: we can do with the extra money, I have to look at private schools for Hannah. I tell Nadejda to send more translations. They have become a dark, but a strangely warm place to hide away from Hannah’s tears, my wife, the rejection letters from broadcasters.
In the evenings I sit in the Pristina and work on the translations. The place is usually nearly empty. The Kosovar refugees’ business is going poorly. But it’s the perfect place to write in.
Members of Nadejda’s NGO have recently visited Kyrgyzstan. They have been interviewing victims of an ethnic conflict between local Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks. It’s a largely unreported conflict: I have to get out a map to work out where it’s taking place.
Sexual Abuse during the ethnic conflict in Osh, Southern Kyrgyzstan.
‘The Kyrgyz dragged me by my hair to a basement. There were many young Uzbek men from my village there. They were all lying down.
They were raped one by one in front of me and then murdered with knives. I was raped next to their dead bodies.
12 people humiliated me. They inserted a champagne bottle into my sexual organ.
I have four children. They know that I have been raped. (interviewer cries)
I can no longer hug my children like I used to. I am dirty now: and they have become even dearer to me!
But they are ashamed of me now. Even when cooking, I now use gloves.’
We try a Montessori place called ‘Sunshine’ for Hannah.
‘Sunshine’ is in a large, dark Victorian church. There is a huge crucifix on the wall. It indulges in every detail of Christ’s agony: the mouth spewing blood, the fingers sticking out in extreme pain. The headmistress has a boil on her nose.
‘Here at Sunshine’, coos the headmistress, ‘we have children from all sorts of backgrounds. Chinese, Cuban, Zimbabwean.’
‘Any kids from Central Asia?’ I ask.
‘I don’t think so. No, not yet….Is that important?’.
Blackberry goes off. Nedejda again. It’s urgent. I leave Hannah at Sunshine to settle in.
‘Papa, are you leaving me?’
‘I’m just round the corner. You’ll be fine. I’ll see you in an hour.’
I go to the Kosovar cafe. It’s fuller at midday. Unemployed Kosovar refugees watch Albanian news on the TV in the corner. They debate loudly with the waiter: something about politics.
I flip out the laptop:
'Witness account of an attack on ethnic Uzbeks by government forces in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
Yusuf Alimjanova and his wife Nafisa were at their home, their 9-month-old daughter was in the cradle. 20 armed men dressed in uniform broke into their house. Their faces were covered.
They undressed Yusuf’s wife and raped her right in front of him.
After the men left the house with the unconscious Nafisa, they set the house on fire.
We found her blood-soaked pants and her shoes in the toilet.
Her remains were found several months later.
Yusuf’s mind is in a poor shape because he was hit badly on his head by twenty men. He speaks as if confused. He is psychologically unable to take care of his daughter.
When he drinks alcohol he pleads for his daughter to be brought back to him.
No wonder Yusuf is unable to recover completely. He had a peaceful life before the conflict: his own home, a beautiful wife, and a young daughter. He lost all of it within a couple of hours….’
I am late picking up Hannah. She has been waiting so long she has run out of tears, her face a red smear.
I run towards her and hug her tighter than I have for many months. I haul her up on my shoulders.
‘How was your first day at Sunshine?’
She answers with sobs.
‘I never, never, never want to go to that school again.’
I notice there’s a deep, red cut on her knee.
‘Never. I’ll never go back.’
We head for the Pristina. Today there will be all the ice cream she can eat. The unemployed asylum seekers will be happy to see her. Hannah will laugh with the waiter. I will work on the translations. The news will pour in Albanian.
Hannah’s heavy on my shoulders, but we run. Two refugees.
London, Central Asia, 2012
Peter Pomerantsev was exiled from the Soviet Union at the age of ten months (1978) together with his family Liana and Igor Pomerantsev. He settled in London, also lived in Munich, Edinburgh, Berlin, New York, Prague. When he finished university he went to Moscow and fell in love with the place. First, he was an ex-pat working in policy advice, then he became a television director and producer, making films about the city he had become obsessed with for both westerners and Russians. He stayed in Moscow for nine years. In November 2010 he returned to London and in November 2014 he published a book about 21st-century Russia: "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible". In July 2019 "This Is Not Propaganda" Adventures in the War Against Reality has been published by Faber.
Peter Pomerantsev is a British author and documentary producer. His writing is featured regularly in the London Review of Books, the Atlantic, Newsweek /Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Le Monde Diplomatique, Financial Times, the New Yorker, Granta.
Peter Pomerantsev looks at bots, troll farms and fake news in his book This Is Not Propaganda: World leaders enact 'censorship through the noise' in the digital era, says author, CBC Radio
Misinformation, disinformation, propaganda — the terms are thrown around a lot but often used to describe the same general trend toward conspiratorial thinking that spread from the post-Soviet world to the West over the past two decades. Peter Pomerantsev had a front seat to this shift and is one of the people trying to figure out how to make the Internet more democratic and combat disinformation from both the supply side and the demand side. Radio WPSU, 24.5.2021
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