Amin Dzhabrailov shivered as the cold air hit his sweat-drenched body. It had been two weeks since he began sleeping on the floor of the tiny, windowless room, but he still wasn’t used to the rush of breeze whenever the door opened at four or five in the morning each day. It was the only chance to freshen the room that reeked of sweat, body odour and tears. He shared the cramped space with 16 — maybe 20 — other men. Their legs were bound together, but they kept their eyes averted; there seemed to be a shared understanding not to look at each other or utter a single word.
On his first day, he was beaten by his captor. Dzhabrailov begged him to stop, even calling to God for help, but the man told him not to use the Lord’s name: he wouldn’t help him anyway, because he wasn’t worthy of mercy. The other men in the room had the same bruises as Dzhabrailov. He knew they all expected to die in this place because he thought he would die, too.
But he didn’t. Two years and more than 8,000 kilometres away from Chechnya, in his new home in Toronto, Dzhabrailov recalls those two weeks in captivity. He is one of the few who have come forward to tell their story of being detained by authorities in the Russian republic — in his case, in an isolated building just outside of Grozny, the capital city. His arrest was part of an ongoing campaign by Chechen authorities in which people who are known or suspected to be members of the LGBTQ community are taken captive and beaten.
“They make sure we’re hurt,” Dzhabrailov says. “They try to kill everything about us, even our soul.”
Dzhabrailov is one of hundreds of gay and bisexual men who were taken during Chechnya’s crackdown on LGBTQ people in 2017. These people were plucked from their workplaces and homes. They were brought to isolated areas where they were interrogated, tortured and, in some cases, killed. They were forced to disclose the names and information of other gay men they knew.
Chechnya is a conservative society in which homophobia is rampant. According to a Human Rights Watch report from May 2019, “People still carry out, or threaten to carry out, ‘honour killings’ to ‘cleanse’ perceived stains to their family’s honour, including against young women suspected of promiscuity and family members who [identify as part of the LGBTQ community].”
The news of the 2017 gay purge garnered international condemnation. That year, when asked about it in an interview with Real Sports, Chechen’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov said, “This is nonsense. We don’t have any gays. If there are any […] take them far from us so we don’t have to have them at home. They are devils. They are not people.”
Dzhabrailov remembers every detail of his own arrest and torture in 2017 as if it happened yesterday. In a quiet voice, the 27-year-old revisits memories of guns being pointed at him, of the suffocatingly small room in which he was held and of the abuse he endured. He pauses at some parts of his story. He tears up at others.
“I didn’t know [homophobia in Chechnya] was that bad until it happened to me,” he says, recalling his life as a gay man prior to his arrest. “I have heard stories of men being blackmailed [and threatened to be outed as gay to their families]. I also heard of stories of men committing suicide out of fear.”
But these stories were told in whispers; Dzhabrailov carried on with his life until the whispers became a loud reality.
March 3, 2017, was a sunny day. Dzhabrailov was at a salon in downtown Grozny where he worked as a hairdresser. He was chatting with a client when three men with guns barged in and took him.
The men handcuffed Dzhabrailov’s hands behind his back. They took his phone, wallet and passport. Then, they dragged him out of the salon to a parked car where another man, the driver, waited.
The short minutes between being taken from the salon and being shoved into the car were a blur. As the men dragged him toward the car, Dzhabrailov found himself on display on the busy downtown street. He saw stunned bystanders, curious strangers and the faces of people who knew him. He looked at the men who had taken him and tried his best to recall if he knew them. Dzhabrailov didn’t know how the men had found him. He had heard stories of gay men being taken but he thought it wouldn’t happen to him. He wasn’t out, he kept to himself. All his life he tried to live a normal life, get an education and start a career.
“I don’t know [who they were],” he says. “They’re people who seem to have some right to come and take your life away.”
In the car, the men taunted Dzhabrailov. He remained quiet. He didn’t know where they were going. One asked him for his phone’s password. Dzhabrailov refused.
“When I didn’t say it, he just took the phone, pointed his gun at me, and said, ‘I’m gonna open this door and I’m gonna shoot you right now if you’re not gonna give me the password.’” Dzhabrailov gave the man his password. The man looked for signs in the phone that Dzhabrailov was gay — contacts, photos, videos. He didn’t find anything.
Dzhabrailov sat quietly for the rest of the trip, fidgeting with his handcuffs. The drive felt long, maybe 45 minutes. He was convinced that he was going to die. He thought if he was killed, his death wouldn’t matter. It was something he believed from a young age; when he was seven, a neighbour, a gay man, was murdered by two people.
“It was the first time I heard [the word gay] and it was that time when I realized that I am gay, that we’re similar,” he says. “As a kid that [shaped what] I knew about a gay man, that he was killed and nobody was even talking about his death. It was not even respected in a way that [you would any other human].”
It was dusk when the car stopped in front of a one-storey building in a secluded area outside Grozny. The men opened a door that led to a long hallway where Dzhabrailov was greeted with a beating.
The men laughed at him. They called him names. “It’s your last day,” one of them shouted. Dzhabrailov took all the hits, he swallowed all the hurtful words. He noticed other people were there, too. They witnessed as his pale skin turn to purple, they listened as each demeaning question was yelled at him, as the sound of a long plastic whip hit his skin. Dzhabrailov understood the bystanders’ horror — after him, they’d be next.
“[The captors] acted like some wild animals,” Dzhabrailov recalls. “And we were the meat.”
After this torture, Dzhabrailov was taken to the windowless room, a tiny space he shared with other men. He didn’t eat for days. He thought about the Chechnya of his childhood, the country where he learned how to dance and dream, a beautiful country filled with nice people. But then he remembered the lesson he had learned at a young age: gay men should remain in the closet because even the “nice” people have a hard time understanding them.
After the Russian-language newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reported that gay men were tortured and murdered in a series of extrajudicial killings in April 2017, the international outcry was swift. Countries around the world condemned Chechnya’s targeting of its LGBTQ community. In December 2018, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights released a separate report which confirmed the torture and abuse of LGBTQ people in Chechnya.
But the violence against LGBTQ Chechens didn’t stop. There was news of another LGBTQ purge in the republic late last year. Violence and discriminatory policies continue to permeate throughout the region and other parts of Russia.
In June, kids were separated from their gay parents in Moscow. In July 2019, LGBTQ-rights activist Yelena Grigoryeva was killed in St Petersburg after receiving death threats and being named on a website urging vigilante violence. Some trans men and queer women have also shared their experiences of persecution during Chechnya’s anti-LGBTQ crackdown.
Rainbow Railroad, a group that helps LGBTQ2 individuals to seek asylum, is no stranger to these stories. When the news of atrocities in Chechnya first broke in 2017, the Canadian organization worked closely with the Russian LGBT Network, an organization that aims to promote LGBTQ rights and human rights in Russia, to relocate people who had escaped the region.
Two years later, more than 70 people have found refuge in Canada and Western Europe — Dzhabrailov is one of them.
One day, the door of the small room opened and Dzhabrailov’s captors said he and the other men would be released in exchange for their family members’ phone numbers. The men then summoned the families to pick up their sons, husbands and brothers.
When the families arrived to claim their loved ones, they were brought to a hall where the captors told them they should kill these men because they’re gay: they’re a disgrace to Chechnya, to God, to society. For some of the captured men, this was how they came out to their families. It was the case for Dzhabrailov, whose three brothers had come to collect him.
“[I thought] this is my coming out, and now I’m about to die,” he says.
Dzhabrailov’s brothers drove him home. When they arrived, he told his family he wanted to leave the country. They tried to convince him everything would be better.
“They say the words that people usually say [to someone in distress], they say they knew that I was gay, and that I’m gonna be safe, and that everything is going to be okay,” he says.
But the words were not enough. Dzhabrailov couldn’t sleep. He was on edge. He felt like people were watching him. “[I knew my family tried their best] but I decided to leave.”
A Chechen friend who moved to Moscow heard of Dzhabrailov’s situation and told him to come to Russia’s capital for asylum. When Dzhabrailov told his family he was going to Moscow, they tried to stop him. But he was convinced that leaving was the only way to survive.
Five days after his release — on his 25th birthday — Dzhabrailov said goodbye to Chechnya, to the country where he learned to dream. Armed with a ticket paid for by his coworkers and friends, he boarded a plane to Moscow.
Dzhabrailov stayed with his friend in the Russian capital for a week, but there were a lot of Chechen people in the city which made him worry that his location would be exposed and he’d be thrown back into detention. He moved to St Petersburg and lived with another friend. Dzhabrailov became paranoid; he was terrified that men would barge in again and take him. He didn’t leave his friend’s apartment for a month.
His friend, worried, encouraged Dzhabrailov to contact the Russian LGBT Network. When he first reached out he used a fake name, just in case.
It was through the network that Dzhabrailov met Kimahli Powell, the executive director of Rainbow Railroad. Powell was in Russia to interview people seeking asylum to countries in Europe and North America. Dzhabrailov was selected for the organization’s sponsorship program and they helped him process his documents to seek refuge in Canada.
Four months after his capture, Dzhabrailov was on a plane to Canada. It was his first time leaving Russia. He was scared, but hopeful.
“I was finally leaving that danger,” he says. “I’m gonna be free of the fear that someone is following me.”
Dzhabrailov first stepped onto Canadian soil on July 4, 2017, a sunny day in Toronto.
“When I got out of the plane, I had a good feeling that everything is going to be okay in this place,” he says.
Now, it’s been two years since Dzhabrailov left everything he knew behind. He wears a white long-sleeve shirt and shorts, and his hair is longer than he ever dared to wear it in Chechnya. If they were to see him now, his family probably wouldn’t recognize him.
Dzhabrailov wants more people to hear his story. What he endured is still happening in Russia, and LGBTQ people remain in danger. He wants people to know about how he survived. He now has a community of people in Toronto who make him feel comfortable — people who make him feel at home.
“[When I landed in Canada], I started to see the light after going through a tunnel,” he says. “And I feel that to this day.”
After telling me his story, he goes for a walk to decompress. He’s no longer afraid of what might happen to him out in the world. Amin Dzhabrailov is free.