2005-10-03

Intolerance: Kidnapped Russian Boy Free At Last

'The Sunday Times Magazine' -- article by Mark Franchetti in Moscow. When he was discovered in the boot of a battered Lada, Dzhamal Gamidov looked far too small to be an 11-year-old boy. He was filthy, half-naked and weighed 15_kg. He had been stripped of muscle by a starvation diet and robbed of the power of speech by 3½ years of beatings. But the horror in his bulging eyes bore eloquent testimony to his suffering... Twenty months later Dzhamal has recovered enough to describe what happened to him and last week he bravely recounted an ordeal in chains as the hostage of a kidnap gang whose cruelty knew no limits. His captors -- six men and a woman -- stuffed him in a dingy basement. They shackled him to the floor by his wrists and ankles. They flogged him. They threatened to cut off an ear and send it to his family. Marina Gamidov, his mother, endured another kind of torture. First she received photographs of Dzhamal wearing only a T-shirt and stretching out his hands towards the camera as if pleading for help. These were followed by a shocking video in which he howled for his mother as he was viciously whipped. She despaired of raising the 1_million_USD his tormentors demanded and he continued his wretched existence in darkness with little sense of the passing weeks, months and years. He was rescued by chance when the kidnappers were moving him from one house to another. They panicked at the sight of some soldiers at a petrol station and ran away, leaving a policeman to discover Dzhamal in their vehicle. The anguish did not end there. Dzhamal was too emaciated to walk. He was so disturbed that he attacked his family. He behaved like a wild animal, cowering in corners, crawling on all fours and picking up food with his teeth. He would have been incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital and sedated if his mother had listened to the physicians. Instead, she followed her instincts, took him home and restored him to health with the power of love. She spoke softly to him and patiently taught him to speak, read and write all over again. The deep weals left by the chains on his bony ankles and wrists have healed and the psychological scars are fading as Dzhamal, now 13, embraces teenage life with a healthy optimism for the future.
'Occasionally I still have nightmares and I don’t like sleeping in the dark so I usually leave the door to my room open but otherwise I'm fine now. 'I rarely think about those years. 'In captivity I lost track of time. 'I couldn't believe it when I was told I'd been held for 3½ years. 'The worst thing was not knowing where I was and what was happening to me. 'Mostly I spent those years huddled on the floor. 'I missed my mother.'
Dzhamal had a privileged start in life as the son of Gamid Gamidov, a finance minister in the poor southern Russian republic of Dagestan. The family lived in a large house in the capital, Makhachkala. Their luxurious cars were the envy of many in a place where average earnings are less than 50_GBP/month. But Dagestan's neighbours include the war-torn breakaway republic of Chechnya and violence is never far away. In 1996 Dzhamal's father was killed by a bomb. Although his mother moved the family out of harm's way to Moscow, Dzhamal returned in 2000 to spend the summer holiday with his grandparents and brother Said. He was playing football outside their apartment block when two youths joined in. They seemed friendly enough and they had a new ball, but their intentions were sinister.
'One of the older boys kicked the ball far away, beyond some small garages,' Dzhamal said. 'He told me to run after it and I sped off. A white car was parked on the other side and three men with thick beards picked me up. 'I screamed for help and tried to hang on to a wall but they were too strong. 'They bundled me into the car, pulled out a gun and a knife and told me to stay quiet or they'd cover my head with a sack.'
The kidnappers drove into the mountains where remote communities look after their own and blood feuds are commonplace. Nobody interfered with the three men and the eight-year-old boy who slept out in the open for three nights.
'They told me they were special forces agents and they’d taken me to protect me from a gang of kidnappers,' he said. 'I believed them and for a while I was less scared.'
That soon changed. A month later his grandmother received the kidnappers’ first video. It showed Dzhamal pleading to be rescued.
'It's dark here and I’m being held in a cellar,' he mumbled, already exhausted. 'Spiders are biting me. I’m scared. Please Mummy, bring me back.'
Later the family received the ransom demand. Dzhamal's mother, a former medical student who now scrapes a living by selling souvenirs, appealed to her late husband's brother, who had taken over as finance minister. But he said he could not afford to give her 1_million_USD. So it was that Dzhamal was condemned to 1_143 days in captivity. He was moved at least five times, his hands tied behind his back in the boot of a car. In every house he was chained by an ankle or wrist to the floor of a locked room. He slept on a thin mat with a bucket for a lavatory. He withstood stifling summer heat and freezing winter temperatures. He rarely spoke to his captors. At first there were daily meals of porridge, potatoes and the odd bit of meat. But the meals got smaller and less frequent and in the end he was fed a little pasta every other day. The kidnappers wore masks when they entered his cell.
'I recognised them by their voices,' he said.
The woman, Zoya, was the kindest; a burly man called Haji the meanest.
'He was often drunk and he always swore at me. He kept shouting that he'd kill me if I didn't behave, that he'd chop off my ear and one of my fingers and send it to Mummy. He beat me with his hands and a small stick.'
From time to time in the early days there would be something to read -- a magazine, a book of Russian children’s tales, poems by Alexander Pushkin. Twice he was allowed to watch a video. But mostly he was left in solitude and silence. He sat on the floor with his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. He played mind games to ward off fear, imagining that he could hear the ocean and that the kidnappers had funny ears like Martians. He prayed to go home. But the longer Dzhamal was held, the more impatient his captors grew. After two years they sent a typed letter, raising the ransom to 2_million_USD and threatening to mutilate him. Next came two photographs of him in a cellar; then, after three years, the video that portrayed the full impact of his ordeal. The grainy footage showed him crouching terrified by the light of a single bulb, screaming for his mother as a whip came down hard on his frail body.
'Don't beat me, don’t beat me,' he shrieked. 'Please Mummy, take me away. I can't bear it any more, I beg you.'
It was 2003-12 before help came. The kidnappers were changing hideouts when they came across a group of special forces looking for a different gang. They abandoned the car with Dzhamal in the boot and have never been caught. Physicians broke down in tears when they saw how pitifully thin Dzhamal had become. When they gave him a little porridge his stomach swelled like a balloon. His mother could hardly believe that they were being reunited.
'The joy was overwhelming but the shock when I saw what they'd done to him was horrific. 'He was so thin that I was scared to touch him. He crawled on all fours faster than he could walk. But he recognised me at once. He looked at me and whispered, "I want to go with Mummy".'
She compared him to Mowgli, the boy nurtured by wolves in Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Book'. He slept on the floor and squatted in dark recesses. He barely spoke and when he did he imitated his captors' voices, echoing their insults and threats. He bit his aunt and scratched his mother and younger sister Zhenia. His hair had to be shaved to stop him from tearing it out. He was locked in a psychiatric ward, but his mother had other ideas about how to help him recover.
'I knew deep in my heart that I could bring him back to normal,' she said. 'I knew all he needed was love and warmth so I took him away and started re-educating him, day by day.'
The effect has astonished experts. When Dzhamal was found, the clothes he had worn at eight still fitted him. He has since put on nearly 27_kg and is going back to school. He is passionate about computers, is learning to play chess and dreams of travelling to Britain one day with his family. However, his life will not return to normal until he is re-united with his brother Said, now 11. His paternal grandmother has kept the child in Dagestan for five years and refuses to return him. There is no money to take her to court. Dzhamal has pinned a handwritten note to his bedroom wall:
'Said, we love you and beckon you. Your place is here with your mother, brother and sister.'
'Rebirth of a kidnapped boy held in dark for three years', Mark Franchetti in Moscow for the Sunday Times Magazine, 2005-10-02

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful article. How wonderful is the human spirit to overcome such tribulation! In stark contrast to how quickly and easily Amercians and Brits seem to blame poor upbringings, hardship and parents for their adult shortfalls!

10/04/2005 12:49:00 am  
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