Chapter-16: We Couldn’t Believe that We Had Managed to Get out of Hell

August 15, 1996

By Indradyumna Swami

8 a.m. At midnight a Chechen fighter came and ordered us to go out. It was dark and cool outside. There was not a trace of any noise. It meant that Grozny was quite far from where we were. The soldiers put us in a small bus, and hitting us very hard on our necks, forced us to bend down and look at the floor. There were so many armed soldiers accompanying us that it seemed we were some dangerous group of criminals.

After about thirty minutes they brought us to a desolated enterprise. They led us inside and through a corridor, on both sides of which soldiers with machine guns were standing. From behind came the terse order, “If you look up, we’ll shoot you without any further warning.”

All ten of us, along with one old Chechen man, were pushed into a small dark room about two by two meters. By touching all the walls in the darkness, we understood that it was a large refrigerator. If they shut the door, we would suffocate. But they left the door a little open and put some wire on it as a symbolic lock.

After some time they took us out one by one to go to the toilet. When it was my turn, the soldier accompanying me put a machine gun at the back of my head. He kept it there until I returned to the refrigerator. After an hour they took us individually for interrogation. When Yadusrestha returned, he said that the Chechen rebels took us for Russian scouts under the camouflage of a humanitarian mission. They said that if we didn’t tell them the truth about ourselves they would simply shut the door of the refrigerator and finish us off. Another option they gave was that we would dig our own graves and they would cut off our heads.

I started thinking about our last days. Krsna was preparing us for the final exam. What could be done if this was His plan? rakhe Krsna mare ke mare Krsna rakhe ke. (‘If Lord Krsna protects a person, who can kill him? And if Krsna desires to kill someone, who can protect him?’)

I decided to take some rest and relieve my headache until they called me for interrogation. Bending on the floor of that tight box, I just switched myself off for some time. By 4:00 am they had interrogated only three of us. There in that foul-smelling dark box, I realized the necessity of always being fixed on the lotus feet of the Lord and constantly chant His holy names.

The soldiers who were guarding us would sometimes ask questions, and after a while they became favorable to us. One of them said that if he was ordered to shoot us, he wouldn’t do it. I thought, “If this is my last day, I have to complete my rounds as soon as possible,” and I started to chant. What bliss it was! How sincerely I was calling out for Krsna!

At dawn they took us out of the refrigerator and told us to wait in the corridor. Just then a group of rebels came back after fighting all night in Grozny. They were very agitated and were talking loudly in their native language. We found ourselves in the center of them chanting japa.

All of a sudden one of them came up to me, and pointing at my bead bag asked, “What is this?” I took the beads out and showed him.

“And what are you murmuring?” he demanded. Fingering the beads, I chanted the Hare Krsna mantra softly. “Louder!” he ordered. Loudly and clearly, I continued chanting the holy names. Everyone became absolutely silent. I chanted the whole mantra about ten times. The soldier and all his companions were stunned.

Then he sat on a bed in the corner of the room, and taking out his Muslim beads from his pocket, he began chanting a Muslim prayer. Then he kissed his beads, put them back in his pocket, and immediately fell asleep. Just then a large Chechen officer arrived. He was tall and strong, about 40 to 45 years old, with a black band around his forehead.

He started to ask us questions, and unlike his colleagues, he attentively listened to our answers. As we found out later, he was the one who ordered over the walkie-talkie to set us free when they wanted to shoot us in the front yard of the school.

After speaking to us for a few minutes, he ordered that we be released. “They fed my people, and now it is my turn to take care of them,” he said.

He later told us that the other officers considered us secret-service agents and were just about to execute us by firing squad. Krsna had sent him at the last moment. rakhe Krsna mare ke mare Krsna rakhe ke. (‘If Lord Krsna protects a person, who can kill him? And if Krsna desires to kill someone, who can protect him?’)

We were taken to meet the chairman of the Chechen Republic Security Department, as he introduced himself. He apologized for the way in which we had been treated and said, “War is war, you know.”

Then he told us that the commander who had set us free had invited us as guests to his house. Before we left his office, the chairman promised to get in touch with our Food for Life office in Moscow and tell them of our whereabouts. We asked if we could take the rest of our documents from the house on the hill. The documents were important for getting back into Russia. If we didn’t have them, we could be put into a so-called filter camp for people without any identification cards and might be stuck there for months.

2:00 p.m. Aslan, our well-wishing commander, received us warmly in his house. He gave us all possible facilities: water with which to bathe, bhoga to cook prasadam, and rooms to stay. We were walking around his big house chanting japa and couldn’t believe that we had managed to get out of hell.

5:10 p.m. Took prasadam and then fed our hosts. Afterwards we washed the dishes and took some good rest for the first time in many days.

7:30 p.m. Read from the Krsna book. Talked with Aslan. He turned out to be a simple man, just an auto mechanic. Two years ago when military activities in Chechnya started, the Russians bombed his village, and many of his relatives were killed. His little son became an invalid. After that, Aslan decided to take gazavat, a Muslim vow, and become a fighter. He explained that the Chechens didn’t want to fight, but they were obliged to according to the old laws of shari’ah.