“Berlin is my home,” says Rubati Mitsaeva. “Whenever I cross the city border, I’m overwhelmed with happiness.
It has been a long, hard journey for Mitsaeva – who survived years of conflict and tragedy in the Chechen Wars – to reach a place of such relative security and peace. Yet, instead of relaxing into German life, the 54-year-old has dedicated herself to the Chechen cause by helping other refugees in Berlin, raising awareness of the situation in the North Caucasus and working against radicalisation within the diaspora. “Whenever I’ve been given a platform,” she says, “I’ve spoken out.
Mitsaeva was born in Kazakhstan, where her fish-farming parents narrowly survived Stalin’s forced resettlement of Chechens to Central Asia in 1944. In the early 1990s she got married and started studying law. Yet everything changed in 1994, when a Russian backlash against Chechnya’s claims to sovereignty escalated into an all-out war of shocking bru- tality. For Mitsaeva – who had grown up with her family’s stories about the horrors of the 1944 mass deportations – her duty was clear. “I made up my mind straight away to defend my father’s homeland,” she recounts. “The Chechen people could not withstand a second deportation. My husband and his brothers packed up immediately, and I went with the men to help out.”
While her husband joined the separatist battlefront, Mitsaeva spent the war with the White Headscarves, a women’s humanitarian organisation, helping to evacuate the dead and wounded – both Chechen and Russian – from the front lines.
When the Second Chechen War began in 1999, Mitsaeva – by then a mother of four and pregnant with her fifth – worked as a paramedic in a Grozny hospital. Look- ing to flee the warzone to give birth, she was caught at the border into Ingushetia, detained for 19 months and tortured. “At one point they threw us naked into a freezing pit for 10 days. We hugged each other to keep warm.”
Released in a 2001 prisoner exchange, she finally escaped with her children to Turkey, via Azerbaijan, before applying for political asylum in Germany upon arriving at Frankfurt Airport in 2003. “I actually had no idea about what to say. I even lied to the German official who interrogated me because I’d been told not to mention my involvement in the war.”
“At one point they threw us naked into a freezing pit for 10 days. We hugged each other to keep warm.”
In 2004 Mitsaeva moved to Berlin, a city that was and still is home to a significant Chechen community. Since the mid-1990s, a steady flow of Chechens have fled to Germany amid the ongoing violence and repression in their homeland, which continued through the Chechen Wars into the current regime of Putin-backed hardliner (and former independence fighter) Ramzan Kadyrov.
In Berlin, Mitsaeva, by now a widow (her husband was killed on the front), immediately set to work, helping with the settlement of fellow refugees (she’s an active member of the German-Caucasian Society, a Berlin organisation founded by German activist and author Ekkehard Maaß in 1996). Meanwhile, she’s a representative of the government-in-exile of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, led by London-based Akhmed Zakayev. “I’ll never stop fighting for the independence of my people,” she says. “I want to live in Chechnya as a free, secular society.”
Today, she splits her time between raising awareness about the plight of her people inside the small Russian republic and, more recently, fighting against Islamic radicalisation and violence among Germany’s Chechen youths, a trend she laments is too often misportrayed by the media, and has “split the diaspora”. While a Muslim herself, Mitsaeva’s engagement has made her the target of harassment and threats. Yet she persists. “My faith does not allow me to be silent,” she explains. “There is nothing scarier than radicalism.”
One great source of comfort has been the activist community she has discovered in her new home. “I have fallen in love with Berlin,” she says. “I have so many friends here. They are generous and always ready to help.” Last year Mitsaeva joined like-minded Belarusians, Ukrainians and Kazakhs on a nine-day picket of the Russian embassy in Berlin, and it’s this collaborative spirit that keeps her going: “People sometimes ask me why I keep helping others. But I was helped, and now it’s my turn to help.”