Isa - My Chechen Friend

In my childhood, Chechnya was the first real war I had heard of. It was happening as I went to school. Mutilated soldiers were coming home, and we had all sorts of myths about the dangerous Chechen separatists floating around. In 1999, four apartment block bombings across Russia led the ex-FSB director and then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to blame the Chechen separatists and start the second Chechen War. A move that eventually earned him his presidency. There is substantial evidence that the bombings were organised by FSB precisely for that purpose.

In the following years, Chechen terrorist attacks became common in Moscow and in my teen years, it was a massive source of anxiety. I had tickets to the musical theatre performance, which I never went to because a week before my date, there was a hostage situation in that theatre with hundreds of people killed. There were subway attacks which made me avoid the subway for years. Yet by that point, I had never met a Chechen, and my only exposure was through media and social commentary on this omnipresent threat.

That's when I met Isa – a new guy who came into my class, Chechen. I was taken aback by how different he was from my expectations. Isa was not the brightest pea in the pod, and his Russian was not brilliant, as they just moved from Grozny, yet he had incredible politeness about him and a sense of proud humility. We became friends quickly, and I started hanging out at his house occasionally. He had three younger siblings and charmingly intellectual parents.

One day, we walked with a couple of kids from school. It had just finished raining, the spring sun was in full swing, and as we walked through the forest, our path was littered with lots of snails chilling on the warm asphalt. One of the kids said, "Watch me," and started jumping from one snail to the other, crushing them with his feet and laughing diabolically at their crunchy sound. Isa got furious, caught up to the guy and threw him on the ground. He then ran ahead, picking up snails and throwing them into the forest while shouting all the swear words he knew in Russian at the violent kid behind. He kept saving those snails from death for the rest of that walk.

In my teens, I was already smoking openly, while Isa had to use a contraption similar to chopsticks made from a small tree branch to hold his cigarettes so his hands wouldn't smell afterwards - his parents were very strict. At the same time, they were kind and loving. His mother was a lawyer who used to work in Chechnya's legislature, and his father was a close ally of Akhmat Kadyrov - the president of Chechnya at the time. His father always wore a suit and was soft-spoken and cheerful in his subtle way. He struck me as one of the most intelligent people I've met.

In our graduation year, as we were preparing for finals and university entry exams, Isa's father got blown up in a terrorist attack in Grozny. He was one of 10 people who died alongside Akhmat Kadyrov, who was the target of the attack. I was shell-shocked. I went to their house after the attack to offer support, but it's hard to find words for condolences when the act of violence is so obscene.

I remember vividly how Ramzan Kadyrov went for the first meeting with Putin on the evening of that day. The event was televised, and Ramzan struck me. He was wearing an Adidas tracksuit, had a huge beard and could barely speak Russian. He was the complete opposite of the Chechens I got to know, and he was being led to the throne by Putin. The attack by Islamic separatists was a smear on Putin's progress in pacifying Chechnya, and he had to deal with it resolutely and quickly. It seemed much easier to control Ramzan than a much more complex Akhmat, who had been a separatist and a Chief Mufti of Ichkeria (the self-proclaimed independent Chechnya) in his early career and switched sides only at the outbreak of Putin's Second Chechen War.

I have lost touch with Isa as we went to our separate universities. He went to the most prestigious diplomatic school (MGIMO), and I went to study economics in an external program at LSE. I also worked in night clubs and partied like an animal, while his circle consisted mainly of Chechen guys from his university. We crossed paths a few years later. We met up in an internet cafe near his university. He was rocking his tracksuit and was stoned, which was how he rolled those days. We sat down to play a game of counter-strike, and some kid in the cafe was kicking our ass and mocking Isa's noob moves. When it happened three rounds in a row, Isa got up, went to the kid and smashed his head into the keyboard until the keycaps popped. His friends laughed and hooted for Isa as he destroyed that kid's face.

The new Isa was very different from the one I've recalled. There was no humility or humanity left. His pride was of a different, much more violent sort. His language became worse than when he arrived, and his demeanour lost all signs of a good upbringing. In a nutshell, he was a lot closer to the image of Ramzan than he was to his late father's. I was heartbroken with his transformation, I couldn’t bear his choice of role model. I never saw Isa again.

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