Chapter-13: Nineteen Hours through Hell

May 30, 1995

By Indradyumna Swami

Last night as I prepared to sleep, I felt apprehensive about this morning’s journey. Because of a shortage of funds we are unable to fly all the way to Baku, Azerbaijan. So we planned two short flights across southern Russia to Machatshkala, and from there a drive south along the coast. The devotees from Baku would cross the border into Russia to pick us up and drive us back into Azerbaijan. But the idea of crossing from Russia into a strict Muslim country at a remote border made me uneasy.

We rose at 4:00 a.m. and drove to the airport for the first leg of our journey. We stowed our luggage in the propeller plane and flew for one hour to Mineralnye Vody. From there we caught a flight to Machatshkala. It should have been a one-hour flight, but because of a diversion around the fighting in Grozny, the flight took three hours.

When we arrived, we again saw Russian military helicopters lining the airfield for use in Chechnya. We were happy to see several devotees from Azerbaijan still waiting with three cars to take us to Baku. While we were putting our bags in the cars, I took a moment to speak to a small crowd of Muslim men around me. They asked who we were, and I told them we are Hare Krsna devotees. I mentioned that some of our men have been distributing food in nearby Chechnya. They expressed their gratitude and said they would pray to Allah for our safe journey across the desert to Azerbaijan.

We needed their blessings.

The seven-hour drive to the border was without incident although we were stopped a number of times at police checkpoints. It’s a routine we have become used to. Govinda Maharaja usually gets out and jokes with the officers. He even embraces them, and then they start laughing and let us go. If that doesn’t work, we give them a little money. That always works.

We passed many small villages where the Muslim people maintain themselves on small farms. Every 500 meters or so, children sell petrol in all sorts of containers. There are no petrol stations here, so when you need petrol, you simply purchase it from these roadside stands.

The trouble began about ten kilometers from the border while we were driving on an old dirt road. At first I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I asked Vinode Bihari to ask the driver why we were on this dusty road. The driver explained that when they had come up from Baku this morning, the Russian border guards at the main crossing had refused to let them into Russia. They simply told them to go back home.

Expecting trouble, the devotees had brought along a top police officer from Baku, a good friend of our movement there. They were hoping he could persuade the border guards to let them pass, but the guards ignored him. When the devotees said they were driving into Russia to pick up their spiritual leaders, the Russians said if they brought their leaders to the border they would be arrested. The devotees asked why.

“We are the law here,” the guards said.

Having no other recourse, the devotees went to a nearby town and asked if there was another, perhaps smaller and more obscure, border crossing. They met a man who agreed to show them a crossing in a village 50 kilometers away. Using back-country roads, they eventually got to the border crossing and talked their way over. This was the border that we were going to. My apprehensions grew.

Two kilometers down the dirt road our car blew a tire. When our driver looked into the trunk he discovered there was no spare. So one of the other cars took the blown-out tire back to the previous village and had it repaired.

While we were waiting, I talked with our driver. He told me the  last sannyasi to visit Baku was Gopal Krsna Maharaja a year ago. He said devotees never came there because the political situation was so unstable. A year ago the democratically elected president was overthrown by the military, resulting in a dictatorship. The country aligned itself with Turkey, which constantly sends aid to prevent the famine that would otherwise overrun Azerbaijan.

When the tire was fixed we continued on our journey. The road got worse, and twice we had to cross small streams. After five hours of driving through the dust, we neared the border crossing. From a distance I could see a small hut with seven or eight men inside and a small rusty gate across the road.

I turned to the driver. “What kind of people use this border crossing?” I asked.

He smiled. “Drug traffickers,” he said, “other criminals, people trying to avoid the army, refugees … and now Hare Krsnas.”

I turned to Govinda Maharaja. “Next time,” I said, “let’s try to get the laksmi together to fly into Azerbaijan.”

At the Russian border we passed two or three drunken Russian soldiers no more than eighteen years old with AK-47 rifles around their shoulders. It was dusk and they probably couldn’t see us well so they simply waved us through. But when we arrived at the Azerbaijani border gate 50 meters down the road, seven men ran out with guns in their hands and surrounded our car.

They asked for our documents and Azerbaijani visas. It was the first time we had heard that we needed visas for Azerbaijan. Vinode Bihari pushed forward our Russian visas. “Here,” he said, “these are our visas.”

In the confusion and the darkness, the soldiers didn’t see that   our visas were actually Russian and not Azerbaijani visas. So they prepared to stamp them. But if the visas were stamped they would become invalid as Russian visas, so we begged them not to stamp them. They couldn’t understand why we were making such a request.

Speaking fast in order to distract them, Govinda Maharaja got out of the car and started joking with the soldiers. I got out and proudly announced that I was from America, a stupid move because the United States supports Armenia in the war against Azerbaijan.

Suddenly the soldier with our visas realized he didn’t have his stamp with him, so he decided to write something on our visas. When we again protested, he grabbed his pen and started to write, but the pen ran out of ink.

Then I had an idea. “Let’s all take a photo,” I said.

Somehow this idea became a hit with the soldiers, who stopped what they were doing as we posed together for a number of photos. Then we exchanged addresses, and delicately taking back our passports and visas, jumped into our cars and drove through the gate.

As we were driving away we couldn’t believe we’d made it through the border. But we also realized that, because we didn’t have the required visas for crossing the border, we were in the country illegally. The next question became, How will we get out of the country?

By this time it was 8:00 p.m. and dark. We had been traveling for fourteen hours. I asked our driver how much further it was to Baku.

“Another four hours,” he said.

As he drove faster I asked him to slow down.

“There is a strict curfew in Baku,” he said. “Everyone has to be off the streets from midnight to 5:00 a.m. Anyone breaking that curfew is immediately arrested by the military.”

“Step on it!” I said.

We arrived at the outskirts of Baku at ten minutes to midnight. The streets were becoming deserted, and I was getting nervous.

“Are they really strict with the curfew?” I asked our driver.

“Oh yes,” he said. “It’s the dictator’s order, and the army polices the streets carefully.”

“How much further to where we’re going to stay?” I said. “Ten minutes,” he said. “We’ve got just enough time.”

Just as he said that we heard something go “boom!” and our car swerved sharply to the left.

“Oh no!” the driver said. “We blew another tire.”

We all got out and looked at the flat tire. The streets around us were deserted, save for a car now and then rushing past in a mad dash  to get home before being caught by the army. But there we were, stranded with a flat tire, exhausted after eighteen hours of traveling, and in the country illegally with no visas. He didn’t have a spare tire, so our driver took the spare from one of the other vehicles. It was much too small, but served the purpose.

After twenty minutes we sped off, but the curfew was already ten minutes in effect. There was no one on the streets of Baku. Govinda Maharaja started chanting Nrsimha prayers, and we all followed.

Suddenly up ahead we saw an army checkpoint. There was nothing we could do but go forward. As we arrived at the checkpoint the soldiers came forward, guns raised. An Azerbaijani devotee in the car in front of us jumped out and gave the soldiers one of Srila Prabhupada’s books. He began preaching to them that we were missionaries. It worked, and they waved us on. But they arrested another man who had arrived at the checkpoint at the same time we had.

We drove fast through the dark streets while having a very intense kirtana in the back. Suddenly we came across another checkpoint where soldiers ordered us to stop. Again our Azerbaijani devotee jumped out, shook their hands, gave them prasadam, and preached to them not to arrest us. Again Lord Nrsimhadeva’s mercy was with us, and we were soon on our way.

It seemed like we were driving around the city forever looking for our apartment. And then suddenly, once again an army checkpoint loomed ahead of us.

“Oh no!” I thought. “We’ll never get out of this one. It’s 1:00 a.m.”

But just before we arrived at the checkpoint, our driver turned sharply left into an apartment complex, and within seconds we were at the entrance to the building. We all sighed with relief. It had taken us nineteen hours to reach our destination, through hell and high water.

But there was one last austerity. The apartment was on the eighth floor, and there was no elevator. And to add insult to injury, when we finally entered the apartment, we were met by thousands of hungry mosquitoes. But we were happy, and the devotees in Baku were happy too. We took a big feast and went to bed at 2:00 a.m.. Jaya Lord Nrsimhadeva!