Saipudin had never liked Svetlana Viktorovna, the Russian schoolmistress.
“She doesn’t like us Chechens,” Saipudin said many times. “In 10 years she’s never once asked us for salt or matches or a hammer. Why ever not? She seems like a stranger.”
Even after hundreds of tanks appeared on the streets of Grozny, no one could have foreseen that this multinational city would be turned to dust. Saipudin did not want to take any risks. The five-story block where they lived was well away from the district where battle was raging; it had not suffered much. Saipudin took refuge in the cellar, with his wife Malika, his 16-year-old son Ali and his three-year-old daughter Prinesla, and other neighbors. Then one evening somebody reported that the Russian Special Forces were out hunting for Chechens and Ingush, people from the neighboring Republic of Ingushetia. “I don’t believe it,” Saipudin said, very worked up. But people insisted the ‘mopping-up’ had already begun on their street. Everyone must go upstairs to their apartments and meet the Special Forces with open doors; otherwise they would smash and burn everything.
Saipudin realized that he might never see his wife and children again. Then suddenly his neighbor Svetlana Viktorovna appeared. “Saipudin, I am afraid to be alone. Please come upstairs and stay with me, all of you. Malika! Ali! Let’s go. Bring your sister with you.”
The Special Forces broke into the stairwell at midnight, and tramped upstairs.
“Your papers! Any Chechens or Ingush?” shouted a red-haired commando.
Svetlana Viktorovna came forward, “All our papers are in order. This is my husband, Sasha. And these are his sister and her children.”
“Show me your papers!” The soldier shouted at Saipudin and his son.
“Here’s my passbook.” Saipudin handed over his passbook.
“A Chechen,” the soldier said. “You come with me. Is the boy a Chechen too?”
Svetlana erupted, “I’ll never let you take my husband away, or the boy either. These are my people. Sit down and have a rest. By the grace of God, I’ll make you as welcome as I can.”
She continued, “I’m ready to die with these people. If you want to shoot, shoot me first, a schoolteacher who’s spent 28 years teaching children to be good and behave sensibly.”
“All right. You can stay alive,” said the commando, lowering his gun. “Let’s go, guys.”
Two years went by, and Grozny was back in the hands of Chechens. One night, Saipudin woke his wife up. “Listen! There’s shouting in Svetlana’s flat. Let’s go see what’s happening.” The noise got louder, the cries more desperate. Saipudin rushed through his neighbor’s open door. Two masked men had thrown Svetlana Viktorovna down and were tying her up. A third one with a gun was standing at the door. Saipudin realized that these were typical young thugs.
“Let her go at once. Aren’t you ashamed? Don’t you fear God?” Saipudin yelled.
The man at the door took aim at Saudipin’s head. If Ali and Malika had not rushed into the room, he would have opened fire. The three of them dragged the attackers off Svetlana. Other neighbors appeared. The three masked men ran for the door, but as they made their escape one of them suddenly fired a single shot at Saipudin.
Within a month, Saipudin was home from the hospital. He, his family and Svetlana decided to spend their summer vacation together, in the mountains with his family, or by the Volga River with her aunt.
There’s lots of room everywhere, unless we close our hearts.