Natasha Estemirova: One Year On

Source:  Author: Tatiana Lokshina, 15/07/10
Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch
: In Moscow now it is just as unbearably hot as it was then in Groznyi. It seems that if it were just a little hotter our brains would melt. It is impossible to work, impossible to move, and the only thing to do is leave the city for someone or other’s dacha, or better still to give up everything and go to the sea, for whole days not getting out of the water, drinking chilled wine, not thinking about anything...Only it’s impossible to go anywhere. Because one year has passed since Natasha’s death. And it’s necessary to write something, to choose photographs and print them out, to call people together to talk about Natasha and commemorate her life...
I cannot believe that we have been without Natasha for a whole year. It still seems she has just gone away somewhere, and the next moment she’ll phone and we’ll hear her usual demanding patter: “You know what’s happened...It’s really urgent... It's just horrible...Something must be done...” Returning from a work trip, I sometimes find myself thinking that I’ll get home and Natasha will be at work in the kitchen. She often used to arrive while I was away and open the door with her key. The pelmeni she bought years ago, and some complicated mix of vegetables in a bright packet, lie to this day in the freezer. I can’t bring myself to throw them away, just as I can’t delete her number from my mobile phone. Although it’s high time to throw out the pelmeni. And high time to delete her number. And it’s time to learn to live without Natasha. But the problem is that it’s really hard to do this.
It seems Natasha Estemirova had always been with us. She began working for Memorial before Memorial’s Groznyi office was opened. She travelled to the most dangerous places, sent back reports, and would come back only to leave again. And we all stayed at her place. Sometimes we turned up unexpectedly, a group of three or four people at a time, and Natasha and her daughter would sleep, huddled on the tiny kitchen divan, to make room for the numerous visitors.
The guests at some point went back home, leaving the war behind, but she remained: for all of us, on behalf of the rest of us. And you couldn’t doubt that Natasha would find out about whatever happened, would pass on the news and would do all that was necessary - and would wait for you when you managed to get back there next time.
Probably some will say: she was a Chechen woman, of course, she stayed there, it was her home. And you were strangers in that place, of course, you had to go. But Natasha, whose mother was Russian, grew up in Sverdlovsk region and moved to Chechnya with her father only when she was already a young woman. She never learned to speak the Chechen language properly and absolutely did not think in categories of ethnicity, “blood and soil.” She could have lived perfectly well in Ekaterinburg, in Moscow, in St. Petersburg. But she just could not physically leave Chechnya, a place where people were suffering, and where she could help someone.
But nonetheless Natasha really wanted to lead a normal life. A historian by education, someone who grew up on the Russian classics, she loved books - except that there simply was not enough time for reading. She was also very fond of the theatre, and when she managed to get to Moscow she would feverishly go to as many plays as possible. And on each visit she literally could not get enough of the rich and varied cultural life of the big city - good music, cinema, exhibitions. All the things that Groznyi so painfully lacked. And other things that Groznyi lacked: sitting together with friends late at night in a noisy company, ingenious conversation, cosy cafes - in short, what for us is a constant background to life and something we hardly notice. In Natasha’s life there was so little of this ‘normality’ that each time she experienced it she was as happy as a child.
Tall, with an almost balletic bearing and amazingly graceful, Natasha loved to dress beautifully - only she never had any money for clothes, and the choice available in Grozny was far from great. She doted on her daughter who had been born, terrible to say, almost on the eve of the first Chechen war. But then she always stayed late at work and would often arrange for relatives to look after her daughter. Nor was she able to spend a summer vacation with her daughter at the sea, on the Caspian coast, which was no distance at all (“So much to do, so many people, how can I leave them?”) and in the last year she sent Lana away to stay in the Urals...
Natasha had known for a long time that it was dangerous for a child in Groznyi. There was no normal education in the city. There were no normal conditions for life... She often talked about this, but simply could not bring herself to part with her daughter. It was only after Ramzan Kadyrov, President of Chechnya, in the spring of 2008 had personally screamed at her for criticizing him in the press, and asked threatening questions about her daughter, that Natasha realized it was impossible to wait any longer and that at any moment they could use her daughter against her.
In the summer holidays Natasha gave in to our entreaties and went with Lana to England. They lived in a student hostel in Oxford for about two months. Somewhere in the middle of July I travelled to London on work and Natasha managed to come to the city for the evening to have supper and to chat. I sat in a restaurant at a table near the window and saw Natasha walking along the street. She literally glowed from within, sparkling some sort of magical joy. A beautiful woman in a big city: an attractive scarf, a narrow skirt, sandals with heels. For the first time in the many years we had known each other there was no word in our conversation of torture, abductions, executions, lawlessness, or war... Natasha talked for a long time about how wonderful Oxford was, what beautiful parks there were, how she and Lana travelled around everywhere, and sometimes made trips to the capital to wander round the galleries. How she went running in the mornings, attended yoga classes, and studied English ... I had probably never seen Natasha so happy.
But summer had not ended when she was getting ready to go home. She took her daughter to stay with her sister in Ekaterinburg, arranged for her to go to school there, and by the middle of August was already back in Groznyi. I called her before she left, barely restraining myself from shouting out at her: “You're crazy! Everything was so good in Oxford! You’d become ten years younger. Wait until September. Stay with your daughter until the end of the vacation. It will be winter before you see her again! It’s sad for the girl, and you'll wear yourself out. What the hell are you doing?” Natasha made excuses, justifying herself: “But you know, I’ve been away for so long, and there is so much work to do there... When I think about all those people who dial my number every day and cannot get through to me, about all the people who come to the office and ask for me, and I’m not there... It’s really time for me to go. I can’t do things any differently...”
Natasha really could not do things in any other way. She had very strict views about what had to be done, and about what she had to do herself. For our part, we of course tried to persuade her to stop, to leave Groznyi, to live for herself. But to be completely honest, we didn’t persuade her enough. Because we needed her very much to be there, in Groznyi. Because there was no one who could do this work better than her. Because to whom we would otherwise have come, with whom would we have consulted, whom would we have asked to finish whatever could not be fitted into a week-long trip to the region?
Early on the morning of 15 July last year in Groznyi Natasha Estemirova was abducted near her home, a place we all had been so often we had begun to think of it as our own home. They bundled her into a car, drove into Ingushetia and shot her dead. A few months earlier she had just turned 51. The investigation into Natasha's murder has not yet been completed. And we have not yet learned to live without her.



Rights in Russia,
20 Jul 2010, 14:04