First Bitter, Then Sweet

By Asya Vasaeva — Set in Chechnya

Malika Saiyeva, ink and tempura

Alhazur Karimov, color pencil and pastel

Sultan Kuramov, watercolor

Rita Friashnova, tempura

Kira Lalina, tempura

Asya Umarova, ink

The Chechen children were cold mostly, and hungry always. Many homes were damaged. Families used to four rooms were crowded into one. Then a miracle: Seda, Luisa, and a dozen other girls were chosen to attend a holiday camp called Blue Wave.

It was beautiful and safe. There was plenty of food. Although their dormitory was scruffy, damp, and chilly, but it was big. Each girl had a bed, and room for her things. A big hole in the wall needed a pillow in it to keep out the draft and the noise from the next room, but it was almost heaven compared with home.

Then it changed. Luisa and Seda were in the dormitory when several Russian girls burst in. “Which of you came sneaking into our room?” one screamed. They claimed that their dormitory had been turned upside down and that things were missing, and would not listen to Seda and Luisa’s denials.

“That’s a lie,” they said. “One of us spotted one of you coming out of our room. We know you have been stealing!”

House Five was divided between Chechens and Russians. Neither side missed a chance to “get at” the other, everywhere – bathroom, dining hall, game room. It spilled into the dormitory. All night the pillow was flung from one side to the other, so cold drafts and colder feelings came through.

The Chechens complained to the teachers, who made a search. Only the Chechens’ things were found in their quarters. The teachers spoke to the Russians, “How could you think of making others in the same house look bad? They are innocent, and have already suffered much. War destroyed their houses. They could not go to school. Some of their parents have been killed; some have lost both. Yet you insulted them cruelly. You must have hearts of stone to do this.”

Insults and name-calling stopped. The girls started talking to each other, then playing games and walking together. One day Seda said to Vika, one of the accusers, “Why did you start all that?”

Vika explained, “An older boy told us all Chechens are beggars who take anything they can and make trouble if they get a chance. We had to get you out. Now we know that was wrong. We want to make up for what we did.”

They invited Seda, Luisa, and the others to move into their dormitory, which was warmer and more comfortable, and did their best to help the Chechens feel at home. Soon they were fascinated by stories about the war and life in that ravaged land.

Then Vika had to leave, with no time to say goodbye. The girls missed her. No one could be bored when she was around. Seda found a farewell note under her pillow, “Seda, I love you very, very, very much. Don’t forget your friends. Write.”

The rest of the time passed quickly. Even the house parents cried when it was time to leave. No one would forget their experiences or new friends.