‘They Tell Me a Demon Lives Inside Me’
A young man targeted in Chechnya for being gay discovers Europe offers no safe haven from his tormentors
By Simon Shuster | Photograph by Billy & Hells for TIME
One night in late November, three men walked up to Room 503 at the refugee shelter in Eisenhüttenstadt, a town at the eastern edge of Germany, and started hammering on the door with their fists. They called out the name of the asylum seeker inside, Movsar Eskarkhanov, a 28-year-old from the Russian region of Chechnya, who had just finished his evening prayers.
Thin and frail from the stress of his travels, Eskarkhanov had come to Germany and applied for asylum, first in the summer of 2013 and again in the fall of last year, to escape the persecution he faced back home for being gay. When he opened the door, he saw that one of the three men was wearing a mask and carrying a knife. But the other two looked familiar; they also hailed from Chechnya, and as they barged into the room, a thought flashed through Eskarkhanov’s mind: They’ve come to kill me.
Since early April, a wave of attacks against homosexual men has been reported spreading across the region of Chechnya, a deeply conservative part of Russia that is predominantly Muslim. The details were gruesome; local police had allegedly rounded up dozens of men and tortured them in secret prisons until they divulged the names of other homosexuals, who were then subjected to the same cycle of violence, according to an April report in independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Several of the victims had been beaten or tortured to death, the paper claimed.
The reports, later confirmed by Human Rights Watch, drew condemnations from Western leaders and marked a dark turn in Russia’s official campaign of homophobia. That campaign started in the summer of 2013, when President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning “gay propaganda” among minors. The punishments were not severe, but the legislation effectively gives LGBT people in Russia the status of outcasts, barred from openly defending their rights to equality. “It officially declares that gays and lesbians are inferior beings,” says Elena Klimova, a gay rights activist in Russia who was convicted under the law in 2014. At the time, she and her colleagues in the human rights community warned that the law would open the door to a campaign of violence.
The experience of Eskarkhanov suggests that they were right. By the time he agreed to tell his story in July, the cycle of attacks had not only chased him out of Russia, it also followed him to Germany, suggesting that the violence has reached deep into the European countries now offering protection to the victims. As Western governments and human rights groups have tried to resettle these men, they have run into a problem few of them expected: Chechen immigrants inside Europe were often ready to continue the purge that authorities in Chechnya had started.
“It’s been a big concern of ours,” says Kimahli Powell, the executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian advocacy group that helps resettle gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who face persecution around the world. “There is a close knit Chechen diaspora in Europe, and so there are also places in Europe where individuals could be at risk.”
The reason comes down to the rules of tribal loyalty and pride that govern Chechnya, a mountainous republic whose landscape and people are still scarred by the two wars for independence they fought against Russia in the 1990s. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader Putin installed to rule Chechnya after the wars, has sought to impose elements of strict Sharia law even when it contradicts the Russian constitution. With the Kremlin’s blessing, he has cast himself as a kind of spiritual father for all Chechens, regardless of whether they reside in Russia or in exile.
His campaign against homosexual men has reflected his mission to turn Chechnya into an obedient and fiercely patriarchal society, one defined by a code of conduct that Kadyrov enforces according to his whim. In his televised remarks, Kadyrov has even referred to the expulsion of gays as a kind of national bloodletting. “We don’t have any gays,” he told HBO in an interview filmed in one of his palaces in Chechnya and aired in mid-July. “If there are any, take them away to Canada. Praise be to God! Take them far away from us. To purify our blood, if there are any of them here, let them be taken away.”
Eskarkhanov watched that interview over and over again from his refugee shelter on the outskirts of Berlin. Other Chechens, he says, kept sending him links to it, along with threats and insults. “They tell me that a demon lives inside me,” he told me a few days after Kadyrov’s interview aired. “It’s getting worse here,” he added. “Before somebody kills me, I want to tell my story to the world.”
A demonstrator holds a sign depicting Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov during a protest in Paris on April 20 to denounce the anti-gay campaign. Ian Langsdon—EPA
A few days later Eskharkhanov, who often goes by his nickname, Mansur, agreed to meet me in a safe house for Chechen exiles in Berlin. With a pair of headphones hanging from his ears, he looked pale and emaciated, but flashes of anger and pride cut through his recollections. “Everything I’m going to tell you, I would say it all to Putin’s face,” he began, without wasting a word on pleasantries. “I don’t care anymore.”
His first run-in with the police in his Chechen homeland took place in the summer of 2011. He was in bad financial straits at the time, living in Grozny with his elderly foster mother, and in order to get out of debt he posted a notice online offering to sell his kidney. Messages of sympathy then flooded his inbox, and he began corresponding with one of the well-wishers, who claimed to be a truck driver of Chechen descent then residing in Moscow.
With time their correspondence became more intimate. They exchanged photographs and, one day that August, agreed to meet in person in Chechnya. But the rendezvous was a set-up. Eskarkhanov says that when he arrived, a group of men bundled him into a car and drove him to a nearby forest, where they forced him to film a “confession” saying that he is gay. To keep the video a secret, the men demanded 200,000 rubles (about $7000 at the time), and they posted the video online when he failed to come up with the money two days later. His only choice after that, given the ostracism he faced in the region, was to go north and try to survive in Moscow and other Russian cities, he says. He took odd jobs, among them as a shepherd in the region of Stavropol, and only returned to Chechnya the following year to visit his ailing foster mother.
On his way to a prayer service one day after his return, Eskarkhanov says he was detained at a roadside by Chechen police on suspicion of being a terrorist sympathizer. Under questioning, he told them the story of his extortion the previous year. One of the officers responded by taking him to another room and, Eskarkhanov says, sexually assaulting him. Two of his male relatives were then summoned to pick him up and “deal with him.”
That alleged assault was impossible to confirm independently. The Chechen police did not reply to requests for comment on the incident, and Eskarkhanov’s relatives did not want to be interviewed. But his recollections seem to match those of other gay men detained by authorities in Chechnya and later interviewed by human rights workers.
In many cases, after torturing men for days in their makeshift prison in the town of Argun, Kadyrov’s troops would reportedly give the victims back to their families, expecting male relatives to finish them off in order to wash away the stain on their bloodlines. “It’s really this concept of honor killing that makes the situation so dangerous,” says Powell of Rainbow Railroad. “Not just in Chechnya, but also in the diaspora,” whether in Europe, North America or anywhere else Chechen communities take root.
For the year after his assault by the police, Eskarkhanov feared that the men in his foster family might kill him. His sexual orientation was by then an open secret in their community, and the family’s name had been tarnished, he says. He was even afraid that the food his family fed him would be poisoned. There was little choice in his mind but to emigrate, and in the summer of 2013, he traveled through Eastern Europe until he reached the German border.
Hundreds of Chechens were traveling this route at the time to escape Kadyrov’s regime. But their applications for asylum usually wound up near the bottom of the pile, according to German and Chechen experts on the asylum process. Especially since 2015, when Germany allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to enter the country, asylum cases from these warzones have taken precedence over those from more stable regions like Chechnya. As one legal adviser in Berlin put it, “The only way a Chechen can prove he needs protection is to arrive with his head cut off.”
Eskarkhanov’s application was duly rejected in 2016, and he wound up at the shelter in Eisenhüttenstadt to await deportation to Moscow. He was relieved at first to find that many of his neighbors in the facility were Chechens; at least he had someone to talk to in his native language. One of them, a 14-year-old boy, even turned out to be a distant cousin of Eskharkanov’s, related to him through his biological mother, who had abandoned him soon after birth. It was a strange reunion, and word spread quickly through the shelter that the boy had a homosexual in his family tree. “Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut about it,” says Eskarkhanov. But it was too late. The boy’s male relatives were furious.
A few nights later, the three men showed up at Eskarkhanov’s door just as he was preparing for bed. One grabbed him by the throat and demanded he follow them into the street. Instead Eskarkhanov began to scream, and the commotion brought another group of asylum seekers – mostly from Africa – running to his room to help. They managed to scare off the intruders and call the police, who took Eskarkhanov to their station for questioning.
Andreas Carl, a spokesman for the police in the region of Brandenberg, confirmed that the incident took place. “Three unknown and masked men threatened the refugee M.E. with a small knife and left his bedroom without harming him,” Carl wrote in an email, using Eskarkhanov’s initials in keeping with German privacy rules. (In the victim’s recollection, only one of the men wore a mask.) “The police took the asylum seeker to a police station and then for his own safety to [an] asylum center in Brandenburg with no Chechen people there,” Carl wrote.
An activist stands in a mock cage during a protest in Berlin on April 30 that called on Putin to end the persecution of gay men in Chechnya. John MacDougall—AFP/Getty Images
The German authorities have long been concerned about such conflicts within the Chechen diaspora, and recent media reports have painted a damning and perhaps misleading picture of the situation. A documentary aired in February on ZDF, one of Germany’s leading public broadcasters, claimed that the Kremlin had sent spies to Germany disguised as Chechen refugees. In late May, an article published by Meduza, a Russian-language news outlet based in Latvia, suggested that an organized group of around 80 Chechen immigrants has been seeking to impose elements of Sharia law in Germany, in some cases threatening violence against Chechen women and assaulting their male friends.
“This is nonsense,” says Ekkehard Maass, a German rights activist who devotes much of his time to helping Chechen refugees get asylum. “There’s no Chechen morality police going around Berlin.” But he concedes that Chechens do bring their moral codes with them to Europe, and Kadyrov’s security services have also managed to plant agents or win sympathizers within the Chechen diaspora. “So the fear that exists in Chechnya now exists here too,” he says.
At his new asylum shelter in a suburb of Berlin, Eskarkhanov now lives with that fear. He spends a lot of his time sitting in bed and scrolling through the threats and insults he receives online from other Chechens. He says he has considered suicide. But what frustrates him most is that many of the threats he receives online come from Chechen migrants who have been granted refugee status in Germany. “This is the mistake of Mrs. Merkel,” he says.
His final appeal for asylum was turned down in early September, and the German government has ordered him to leave the country or risk forcible deportation. His best hope for the future, he says, is to move to a country with a better-integrated community of Chechens, or none at all. “I never wanted to go against my own people,” he says, his tone of defiance shifting toward remorse. “But for gay Chechens it doesn’t matter where we go. We can go to Mars. If there are other Chechens there, they will never let us live in peace.”