It was just after lunchtime on the day Amin Dzhabrailov was taken. A woman who was about to get married had come to the salon in the Chechen capital of Grozny where he worked, and the two were happily chatting as he colored her hair. Then, he recalls, three men in uniform barged in, asking for him by name. Soon, Dzhabrailov was being hauled outside, handcuffed and thrust into the back of a car. It was hot. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. As the car took off, “my heart stopped,” he says.
Though the three men didn’t explain why they had come, it soon became clear, as they took Dzhabrailov’s phone, demanded his password and started scouring the device for messages and photos that would prove he was guilty of something considered deeply shameful in the conservative, predominantly Muslim republic: being gay. Dzhabrailov doesn’t recall how long the car ride lasted, but he does recall his overriding fear. “The door is going to open,” the 27-year-old tells TIME, “and I’m going to die.”
Dzhabrailov is one of at least dozens of men who were detained and tortured in an anti-gay “purge” that took place in Chechnya in 2017, according to news reports, human rights organizations and European agencies. He is also one of the first to go on the record about his experience and reveal his identity in the media, though he fears retaliation against himself and his family.
Despite international attention and outcry that followed the 2017 purge — including calls for Russian officials to investigate reported lawlessness and misbehavior among Chechen law enforcement — human rights organizations say another anti-gay sweep took place in late 2018 and early 2019. Dzhabrailov, who fled to Canada from Russia after his detainment, is going public now because he wants to draw attention to the ongoing persecution of gay people in his homeland. “Each person matters. His rights matter,” Dzhabrailov says.
It’s dangerous to tell his story. But two years in North America, including participation in New York City’s annual pride march this year, have helped him summon the courage to speak out. “It’s also dangerous not telling,” he says, “because this is going to continue.”
Human rights groups and experts who have been keeping an eye on the Chechen situation express similar fears, and some say that what’s happening there is part of a broader trend. The rise of nationalism in many countries has dovetailed with the targeting of vulnerable minorities, even in countries like the United States that have seen civil rights for LGBTQ people shored up by lawmakers and courts: There has been an uptick in hate crimes against that demographic in the U.S. in recent years, with the majority targeting gay men.
“What’s been reported in Chechnya is a crime against humanity,” says Lisa Davis, co-director of the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic at the CUNY School of Law. “And we see this as a pattern of practice, a wave of violence that’s been happening across the globe.” When events like those in Chechnya fail to lead to consequences such as international condemnation, even amid widespread publicity, she says, “it sends the message that such persecution is tolerated.”
Chechen officials have denied such crackdowns occurred. One government spokesperson said it wasn’t possible because gay people “don’t exist” in that part of Russia and if they did, their own relatives would be so ashamed that they “would have sent them to where they could never return.” The first individual to publicly challenge that stance was forced to recant and apologize on state TV in late 2017, after he came out in TIME and the state went after him and his relatives.
“This is insane,” Dzhabrailov says. “Gay people are just everywhere.”
Dzhabrailov’s description of being detained, beaten, and forcibly outed to relatives who were encouraged to commit “honor killings” echoes testimony from other men who have fled Russia’s Northern Caucasus region in recent years.
The car carrying the slender, normally bubbly young man that day in March 2017 stopped somewhere outside Grozny at an unfamiliar building, and Dzhabrailov was led into one of many rooms lining a long hallway.
According to Human Rights Watch, the roundups in 2017 were carried out by law enforcement officials and sanctioned by top-level Chechen authorities. Dzhabrailov says he doesn’t know who the several men there to receive him in the room were. (They seemed to be police who were “doing dirty work,” he says.) But he clearly remembers their actions. They sat him on a chair, he says, and demanded that he admit to being gay and name other gay men. At the same time, he says they kicked him with heavy boots and hit him with long plastic pipes, not wanting to touch him directly because of his sexual orientation.
Though he admitted to being gay, Dzhabrailov says the violence escalated when he refused to name other gay men. The men took out a black box that Dzhabrailov presumed was a lie detector but that turned out to be a machine that delivered electric shocks. They attached wires to his fingers and put water on his body to help the current travel more effectively. “It was so painful, you’re just screaming, that’s all you could do,” he says.
Eventually one of the men pulled out a gun, put it into Dzhabrailov’s mouth and threatened to kill him if he didn’t give up names. “At this moment, I myself, died,” he says. As he describes this part of his ordeal, he struggles through tears and an inability to find all the words he wants in English. “I was so lost,” he repeats. “I was so lost.”
After vowing to “keep working” on him, the men put Dzhabrailov into another room in the same building with about 25 other people in it. Some were men who were there because they were presumed to be gay, but there were also men and women who were apparently being detained for other reasons, he says.
Agencies like the Council of Europe’s Committee For the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment have long accused officials in Chechnya of unlawfully detaining and mistreating individuals (and have criticized Russian authorities’ “persistent failure to improve the situation”). While LGBT people are one at-risk group, abuses have also been reported among alleged drug users, suspected terrorists and journalists.
Dzhabrailov says he was held for two weeks, cycling from the room where detainees were kept — and where he slept using a half-full plastic bottle as a pillow — to the room where he was beaten. There was torture “almost” every day. He and other gay men were also put to work washing cars and bathrooms and, one day, taken to clean garbage out of a lake. He describes it as being treated “like slaves.”
Each man dreaded hearing his name called by the people running the facility, because that meant it was his turn to be beaten and pressed for information about other gay men. But it was also hard to see anyone else get called. “You’re going to hear his screams from the other side of the wall,” Dzhabrailov explains, adding that the captives tried to encourage each other not to name names.
After he survived the first few days, Dzhabrailov began to hope that he would be released. That hope was realized in a bittersweet fashion when, after about two weeks, he and the other men were told to give up phone numbers of their family members. In typical fashion, Dzhabrailov had never come out to his family. Given the strength of the taboo in Chechnya, being openly gay “is simply not an option” and “coming out of the closet would be suicidal,” says Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch in Europe and Central Asia.
Family members of all the detainees were summoned and gathered in a room and were then told that their siblings and sons were gay, Dzhabrailov says. Three of his brothers came. The detainees were then brought in and officials gestured to them, saying “‘You should take away your shame,’” Dzhabrailov recalls. “It was directly meaning ‘You should kill your kids because they are gay and this is shame for Chechnya and for your family.’”
When Dzhabrailov left with his brothers, he wanted to celebrate. He was thrilled to be released and to see them again. But there was only silence as they walked away from the building. “Everything changed,” he says. “My body was blue, purple. My heart was broken. My life was broken. I lost family, friends, career. Everything.”
His family did not hurt him. But for several days after he was released, Dzhabrailov could only sleep during the daytime, for fear that officials would return under the cover of darkness and take him again. After five days, he decided he had to leave Chechnya. He couldn’t have a life there now that he had been exposed. A longtime friend who had moved to Moscow from Chechnya asked him to come stay, and so on his 25th birthday, Dzhabrailov left everything he knew behind.
The friend was Viskhan, a 28-year-old who prefers to only use his first name and tells TIME through a translator that he had left the republic years earlier because he was also persecuted for being gay. In his case, this happened in a more typical but still brutal fashion: men who appeared to be police officials posed as someone interested in a romantic encounter on a dating app, and when Viskhan agreed to meet in person, he was beaten and threatened with a gun.
Sometimes these assailants demand money from such victims. In Viskhan’s case, he says, they demanded that he message with another man through the dating site to gather information that could be used against that individual.
“You always feel guilty,” Viskhan says of being gay in Chechnya. And survivors like him continue to struggle with the trauma of having been targeted by powerful people. “When we sleep, we go to bed with fear and when we wake up, we wake up with fear,” he says.
Viskhan, who is also now living as a refugee in Canada, had learned through friends in Chechnya that Dzhabrailov had “disappeared” for two weeks. In an interview with TIME, he describes the physical appearance of his friend when he arrived in Moscow as “horror,” motioning to his side, arms, hips and back to point out where Dzhabrailov was injured. When they saw each other at the airport, both began to cry.
Dzhabrailov soon decided the Chechen diaspora in Moscow was too prevalent and close-knit for him to be safe. “There was this massive panic” at the time, Viskhan says, with gay Chechens fearful that officials would come after them and homophobic countrymen living in Moscow would be anxious to help.
And so Dzhabrailov moved on to St. Petersburg. For a month, he stayed with another friend and never left the building, living with paranoia that he would be tracked down and, perhaps, killed this time.
Eventually the friend convinced him to reach out to a group called the Russian LGBT Network, which was attempting to help victims of the Chechen purge. Many dreaded being hunted by their families as well, and the organization was looking for ways to get them out of Russia. After months of waiting and living in shelters provided by the group, Dzhabrailov finally found himself in a small room with someone who gave him hope that claiming asylum in another country might be possible.
The Russian LGBT Network had contacted Rainbow Railroad, a Canada-based international organization that specializes in helping LGBT people escape countries where they face imminent danger because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And the executive director, Kimahli Powell, had traveled to Russia to interview Chechen men who wanted to leave, a standard part of the organization’s vetting process.
It was nearing midnight when Powell prepared to sit down with Dzhabrailov, who was his last interview of a long day. He recalls the young hairstylist being forthright and — in what appeared to be a means of creating some order among chaos — especially well-coiffed. After hearing his story, along with dozens of others on the trip, “we knew we had to get them out of the country,” Powell says. “The question became where.”
Though Rainbow Railroad is guarded about how it facilitates travel, the organization will say that it eventually resettled roughly 70 Chechen men in other countries, some victims of the purge and some with credible fears that they would be targeted. Some went to Belgium, some to the Netherlands, and many went to Canada.
Dzhabrailov vividly remembers stepping off a plane in North America in July of 2017, four months after his abduction. “I felt like I came back home. I was feeling so calm,” he says, “like I left a dark room and opened up the door to the light.”
Some months later, after Viskhan’s life was threatened by a Chechen man living in Moscow, the same organizations helped him flee too.
When reports of the 2017 purge in Chechnya surfaced, it seemed like Russian officials would act. Investigations appeared to be getting underway but such efforts came to little, watchdogs say. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional security organization that counts 57 states among its members, did its own investigation and released its findings in late 2018, concluding that the allegations of unlawful detentions and torture in Chechnya were credible. “[T]here is a problem of total impunity of the security forces” amid a “grave situation with regard to human rights,” it said.
Viskhan sees the crackdowns as part of wider oppression that has taken root in recent years. Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has kept the once rebellious region firmly under Moscow’s control for well over a decade. In exchange, the Kremlin has allowed him to rule Chechnya as what some reports have described as a “personal fiefdom.” On his watch, women allegedly have been intimidated and shot with paintball guns for wearing clothes that Muslim men deemed immodest, for example.
“People gradually started having feelings of hate toward the modern way of life. The society saw that more and more people were free, freely expressing themselves,” Viskhan says of how the culture in Chechnya changed as he got older. “This manifested in hatred toward different ways of life.”
Experts on LGBT rights say that lawlessness — along with religion or conservative beliefs about gender norms — tends to be the common thread when it comes to identifying places where gay or transgender people are most at-risk. While the purges in Chechnya have been unusual in terms of their scale and severity, at least 68 countries have laws that criminalize same-sex relations, and persecution of LGBT individuals is not uncommon around the world. Countries such as Uganda, Egypt, Brunei and Iraq have all seen breakouts of anti-gay animus in recent years.
Rainbow Railroad has been seeing this wave in terms of the number of requests from people who want help leaving their home countries out of fear for their safety. In 2018, it received 1,300 such requests. This year, the organization had 1,500 requests by June. “It’s consistent story after story of just real horrific persecution,” Powell says.
Several factors limit how many people Rainbow Railroad can move each year. It is dependent on donations and the openness of host countries. There are some countries, like Syria, where the organization’s workers simply cannot develop safe routes of passage.
None of the roughly 70 Chechens that Rainbow Railroad relocated went to the United States. The situation required “a response that was more immediate and more robust than the United States was willing to do,” Powell says. In the hopes of furthering their work with the country — even under the Trump Administration, which pushed to limit the acceptance of refugees — both he and Dzhabrailov visited officials in Washington, D.C. last year. They met with staff from the State Department, the White House and Congress, and the Chechen refugee told his story while Powell tried to summon political will. “Did I leave with any promises? Absolutely not,” Powell says. But, he adds, “we’re playing a long game here.”
While Dzhabrailov is going public to help shine the international spotlight on what happened to men like him, he is also thinking about what life was like when he was a boy. He remembers how, as a young man, he heard about a Chechen man who was murdered because he was gay. Growing up, he lived in fear, adopting two personas — a straight one and a secret one, pursuing romance only in hidden locations and using fake names. His hope is that young gay men in Chechnya might come across his story today and see that there’s hope. “Even if you’re in trouble, you can get out,” he says, “and be free men, just free men.”
As for official denials that the purge took place, Dzhabrailov has few words to say. “The truth,” he says, “exists.”