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Chechnya: just a photo after six years in custody

04-04-2008 Feature

In the Russian Federation, the ICRC continues to work on restoring family links between prisoners and their relatives. The ICRC team in Grozny, Chechnya, went to take Sharipat news of her son Ahmed, who has been in prison for six years.

  ©ICRC/M.S. Desjonquères / ru-e-00548    
Sharipat is moved to tears by the reading of a message from her son. 

  ©ICRC/M.S. Desjonquères /ru-e-00547    
Aïna describes the photograph of her son to Sharipat, who doesn't see very well. 

Sharipat doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She gazes fixedly at the photo and letter received from her son, currently imprisoned somewhere in the Russian Federation. She is happy to have concrete evidence her child is alive, but cannot conceal her sadness at being unable to admire his face.

For Sharipat is now almost blind. She presses her face to the photo in the hope of finding a familiar feature. She smiles, sighs and softly starts to cry again. Aïna et Malika, who work for the ICRC in Grozny, try to comfort her by describing the uncommunicative face of this man who has already been gone six years.

Sharipat lives alone in a small village north of Grozny. She says she was born in 1913, she comes from a large family and all her relatives are dead. Her elder son died two years ago. Her second son Ahmed, who is adopted, is in custody: “He was so kind and attentive,” she says, smiling. Years of suffering and hard work have made her stooped. She is so short she has to use her hands to climb onto her bed. Although a neighbour looks after her, Sharipat is often frightened when alone at night.

She picks the photo up again and turns to Aïna and Malika: “I can’t see him!” Her neighbour, who has rushed over to rejoice in the good news, reassures her: “Don’t worry, Sharipat, I’ll find you some glasses so you can see your son.”

Ahmed had previously been registered during an ICRC visit to a place of detention. When the authorities notified the ICRC in January 2007 that he was being transferred to another pri son, the Grozny team went to tell Sharipat. She had not had any news of her son for years. She did not know where he was serving his sentence, or even whether he was still alive.

Sharipat then wrote a Red Cross message to Ahmed, and received a reply a few months later in which he asked for a photo of his mother. He was sent one, along with a request from his mother that she too receive a photo. When her son’s photo arrived in the post, Malika and Aïna hastened to bring Sharipat the good news.

Sharipat clutches Virginie’s hand and smiles at the ICRC psycho-social delegate. “She’s so kind,” she repeats endlessly. When Malika starts reading the message from her son, Sharipat bursts into tears. “Why don’t they release my son? I’m so old – will I see him cross my threshold before I die?”

It is time to go, and Sharipat sees the ICRC workers out. It is snowing heavily outside. On the doorstep, a very moved Sharipat thanks Malika and Aïna using the only English word she knows: “Very, very, very, very…”