Do you remember the War in Chechnya that left 50,000 – 100,000 people dead and 500,000 displaced in just two years?
This war was likely in your lifetime yet the atrocities imposed upon Chechen civilians in the First Chechen War are relatively unheard of. On the war’s 20th anniversary two years ago, it was given limited media coverage and is one of the forgotten wars of the Eastern Block.
“A sweep of airstrikes destroyed our apartment block… and I was informed my mother was one of the bodies found and that my sister was nowhere to be found.”
William, who requested his name be changed, describes a vivid memory where he lost his home, his family and his childhood to an unforgiving war. William’s experiences as an 11 year-old-child who lived alone in the war-torn city of Grozny before becoming a refugee, are uniquely traumatic but familiar to many.
William’s story as a war orphan is symbolic of the hardship and tragedy children caught in war zones face as well as the struggles of being a refugee child.
Children all over the world, and throughout history, have suffered like William in wars their nations have endured. Destructive conflicts are never forgotten for those who live through them. Millions of survivors experience mental health issues and displacement only to be faced with the next challenge of becoming a refugee in this hostile and unaccepting world.
However, William’s story should also be a symbol of hope to refugees and displaced people all over the world today, that there is a better life waiting for them.
The first War in Chechnya began in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of Chechnya as an independent, sovereign state. Russian government forces invaded Chechnya in an attempt to restore its territorial integrity – and the war began. Tens of thousands were killed and some estimates believe more than 100,000 people who were mostly civilians, lost their lives in the First Chechen War.
William’s father fled to Moscow just weeks before his mother and sister were killed in an airstrike that struck their home in the city of Grozny. William explained that he dodged bullets, rockets and artillery, and lost every person he knew to the war.
“I lived in Chechnya alone during the Russian siege for 2 years after my mother was killed. My father had fled a few weeks beforehand to Moscow, but he knew I was still there and made the conscious decision to leave me, at 11 years old, in a horrific war zone,” William said.
“I became a heroin addict almost right away, and my father’s people would make me sell heroin for them, for shelter and food.”
Drug misuse is not uncommon among street children and drug dealing can be a way to gain some form of security in a war zone. In William’s case, drug dealing saved him from starvation and put some form of a roof over his head. War Child, the NGO that supports young people affected by war also states that some street children use drugs to cope with the horrific lives they are living and the awful things they have witnessed because of war.
The heroin made William feel immune to the daily horrors of life in Grozny. His addiction made him fearless of death despite his young age.
“I never really understood that life was more than death, that it actually had a purpose,” William said.
Eventually, William’s father’s people were killed and William had no one left in Grozny. After a year of being homeless and scavenging for food in war-torn Grozny, a man found William and told him to go live with his father in Moscow.
William described himself as a feral child at that point in his life and explained that when he arrived in Moscow, his father barely recognised him. He was then sent to go live with his Aunt in Brooklyn, New York at the age of 13.
When William came to New York City, he began the long journey of adapting to a foreign environment as a newly arrived refugee. School was difficult for William as he didn’t speak English when he arrived in America and had to be taught at a slower pace than some of his peers. Also, William explained that New York was not a nice place in regards to the prevalence of crime and guns in the 90’s.
Due to this, William maintained the same ‘survival instincts’ he learned in war – ravaged Grozny. He got involved in what he described as ‘minor bad things’ when he started his life in New York however, he said that staying in a ‘fight for survival mode’ and remaining in an intense occupation helped with his Post – Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, the refugee population are at a high risk of developing mental health issues including anxiety disorders like PTSD.
Beyond Blue says that risk factors for developing PTSD include a history of trauma, mental health problems, stressful life events after trauma and an absence of social support. Additionally, the violent death of a parent, separation from family, bombardments, shelling and migration are all described as having a negative effect on children during war.
William survived through some of these experiences which were factors that led to him developing PTSD. His PTSD mostly came in the form of nightmares and tensing up after hearing loud noises. As William got into his early twenties and his life became more stable and calm, he said his PTSD got worse.
Apart from the PTSD and minor short term memory loss issues, William believes that the war’s biggest impact on him was that it stripped him of his morals.
“I think the biggest impact on me was that I lost any sense of right and wrong.”
He explained that when he came to Brooklyn, he thought it was okay to steal from stores because that was how he survived the war.
“It took me years to learn right and wrong and that it was not okay to do certain things,” William said.
War can significantly hamper the healthy development of children. In an analysis from the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment, war was concluded as having devastating impacts on children as the crucial systems that nurture and protect child development do not effectively operate in war zones.
However, children are highly resilient and can recover from war and trauma when they are removed from dangerous environments and their basic needs as children are met. These include safety, routine, quality parenting, access to school and play.
As a child who experienced the horrors of war, loss of family members, homelessness, drug addiction, the refugee experience, and many other personal challenges, William’s emotional resilience is undeniable.
Reflecting on the War in Chechnya as an adult, William explains that it upsets him how little the bombings in Grozny were known worldwide as war crimes as opposed to how American war crimes are publicised.
“When Russia kills 15,000 civilians in 8 days, the world doesn’t seem to care as if it is ‘expected’, but when America kills just 50 innocent people it makes worldwide news. When we don’t hold a country like Russia to the same standards, we allow them to continue war crimes without punishment, as they are doing right now in Syria and Ukraine,” William said.
Today, William now 31, has a close group of friends and lives in New York City. He earned a college degree a few years ago and now works in a job that he enjoys. Although William suffered profoundly because of the War in Chechnya, he has since overcome the many hardships he faced and is ready to share his remarkable story of strength with the world.
“I feel happy, I feel in control of my own life, I feel secure,” William said about where he is now.
If you want to hear more of William’s story, watch this reconstructed interview with actor Neal Butler, sharing William’s experiences as a child in the First Chechen War.