Sunday, March 21, 2010

Natasha (Natalya) Estemirova

I had a rough week at work.  And by rough, I just mean someone was being slightly rude to me.  Don't worry,  I overly whined about this to just about anyone who would listen.  And made a lot of really mean remarks to make myself feel better.

What this has shown me is just how cushy and comfortable my life has become.  I rarely have negative interactions with anyone, at work or in my social life.  This is something that I normally don't take for granted because I usually have no cause to complain.  Then comes along this minor blip on my happiness radar and I lose all ability to see how good I have it.

How did I manage to end this week of self pity??  Oh, by remembering that there is a whole world of real problems.

A few months ago, my friend Jenny, sent me a link to a BBC story on the violent kidnapping and forced marriage of Chechen women and teen girls.  The first time I listened to it I really didn't pay a ton of attention because remaining ignorant would protect me from the brutal truth of the situation.  The audio of an armed kidnapping and the subsequent interview of a male perpetrator and his inability to see the harm in his actions is so chilling I blocked it out with thoughts of what to wear to the airport that would be cute yet simultaneously warm and comfortable.  You know, an issue requiring action in my life.  Luckily my "work week from hell" encouraged me to revisit the piece and I have now listened to it without distraction several times through.  

Outside of the information presented, it is important to pay attention to the end of the report that involved Natasha Estemirova.  This is one of the final interviews she recorded before her murder last summer.  She was one of the most active and outspoken human rights workers in Chechnya.  Her fearless work helped bring some hope to the civilians who know only violence as a constant dictator.  Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the republic, publicly threatened her life on numerous occasions.  Nevertheless, she saw a need for her voice to be heard and spent her life exposing the terror that rules over women and innocent civilians daily.

Born to a Russian mother and Chechen father, Estemirova moved to the republic when she was 19.  She experienced tensions from both ethnic sides due to the extreme hatred between the two groups.  She survived the first war with her young daughter, continuing to teach other children who were left behind throughout the violence.  Modest estimates put the number of dead at about 41,000.  Chechnya has just about 1.3 million people.  The loss of life was enormous. When she gives her own account of this time and the period following the first war, she writes about living in constant terror from violence and starvation.  Nothing was secure.

Influenced by the Russian federalists and promoted by complete lawlessness, kidnappings began to occur at an alarming rate.  People and dead bodies were returned for cash and food.  Estemirova began to work with individuals who had survived internment camps, reminding her of her childhood and the stories of the people who had survived the fascist camps during World War II.  She describes 1996-1999 as the period where Chechnya was not a part of Russia, nor a separate state, but rather a hole.

She was able to escape during the second war, but when she returned, the aftermath was just as terrible.  Contract killers had gone into the villages and murdered civilians one after the other.  Corpses were everywhere and the horrors that she saw left her determined to record everything from then on.  Nothing was to be forgotten.  Though she loved her job as a teacher, she saw it imperative to work for the lives of her neighbors.  There was no other option in her mind.  Truth was the only thing that could resolve the tensions and pain of the past 20 years.  She didn't disregard the danger her new calling attracted, she just refused to let that stop her.  Silence was not an option.

Over the past decade nothing has improved.  Kadyrov is a 32 yr old tyrannical maniac and while cleaning up the streets to make them suitable for shops and cafes, he has allowed violence to dominate.  Anyone who speaks ill of his leadership faces great devastation.  Home burnings occur regularly and dead bodies are found on a daily basis.  Women have been victimized on numerous levels.  They are routinely kidnapped for forced marriage and sexual slavery.  Brothels are filled with young women who are to service military members against their will. This is all done under the control of the "government" and forced marriage has been woven into Chechen culture as a romantic, fairytale-like experience.

Meeting at the Human Rights Centre
This is what we as Americans should note first and foremost.  Just because something is advertised as a positive part of a particular culture does not mean that it is in fact positive.  It is hard to resist a forced marriage not only because of the weapons involved but because it is said to be a flattering, desirable experience for a woman.  If you listen to Kadyrov speak of women, it all sounds great and that he is just trying to protect women from sexual deviation.  Chechen men are encouraged to be "gentle" on designated women's appreciation days.  Of course, to us this is all crazy sounding bullshit, but think about what we as Americans never question regarding the gender issues that exist in our own society.  Estemirova was able to stand up to immense terror in order to help her nation.  She lost her life for her beliefs.

I consider this whenever I'm worried about questioning something that I know I have been "told" to never question.  What is the greatest negative affect that I would face?  Ideological disagreement?  Loss of a relationship?  Someone not liking me?  I exist in a society that functions around laws and basic rights.  I am also a member of the controlling majority, have an education, and access to money.  This is why I can speak and think about "frivolous" cultural disparities caused by gender.  Throughout the world, gender based discrimination not only silences other women but also threatens their lives. Women, like Natasha, who speak out against their oppressors are often killed. If we are honest with ourselves, American women have no reason to not take every opportunity to push our communities forward. 

Natasha was a mother and wanted all of the goodness and pleasantries of life just like anyone else.  She wasn't working to become a martyr; she was working to reverse the wretched effects of terror that existed within her world.  A quote of hers that encourages me to not only appreciate the peace I experience daily, but also to remain steadfast in my beliefs is this:
"I have lived through this period, the past 17 to 20 years of my life, with great difficulty, but I think I have helped some people survive. And that's the most important thing to me."

Remembering Natalya

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