Chapter-7: We Got an Order to Shoot All Russians

August 6, 1996

Grozny, Chechnya 

By Indradyumna Swami

4:30 a.m. Today I got up late again. Last night I couldn’t fall asleep for a long time, thinking about the future possibilities of our mission in Chechnya. After making calculations yesterday, we came to the conclusion that to distribute one million plates of food here, we have to prepare fifty-four more tons of prasadam. Every day we distribute about one ton of food from the abandoned school we live in here in Grozny. If we double it, quite soon we’ll make it. We’ll have a unique chance to glorify Srila Prabhupada on his centennial year by presenting him with this achievement.

It seems that today I’ll be quite busy because I have to call Novosibirsk and wish my mother a happy birthday. Normally every year I send her a cable on her birthday, but this time if she gets a telegram from Grozny, it won’t be a nice gift for her. So I asked a reporter to help me call by satellite phone later today to make it look as if I have called from Moscow.

5:30 a.m. I took a bath, washed my clothes, and applied tilaka.

5:50 a.m. The sun has just risen, and the strict city curfew is  over.

I’m going to bring the van from a farm outside the city where we park it every night for safety. I’ll probably take Bhakta Andrei with me. He arrived from Moscow just two days ago to help us with our Food for Life activities.

After coming back from the farm, Andrei and I were approaching the school. Through the window of the house next door, I noticed a man who was wearing a white Muslim hat on his head and prayer beads around his neck. He had a grenade launcher and machine gun over both of his shoulders and was dressed in a flax jacket full of grenades and clips of bullets. Upon seeing us he shouted, “Hey, come here!”

I started to approach him slowly. I thought, “He looks like a Chechen rebel. Perhaps he is not alone.”

“Come here!” the man shouted again.

I called out, “We are from the Hare Krsna Movement. We are feeding people here in the city. We are doing humanitarian work.” “I said come here!” he shouted in a more demanding voice.

I was stunned and couldn’t take a single step. At that moment two more devotees, Yadusrestha and Bhakta Sergey, came from around the corner chanting japa. I felt a little relieved. At least we weren’t alone. I thought perhaps Sergey would be able to convince the rebel to leave us alone. Then the man became nervous and called for  his friend who was nearby. Sergey and Yadusrestha started talking together and suddenly ran in different directions. I thought to myself, “What is going on?” The rebel suddenly took out a grenade and pulled out the pin.

My mind was reeling with the thought that when a grenade explodes, the fragments spread over a hundred meters. I had to let the other devotees know what was happening, because they may also come by chanting japa. I said to Andrei, “Let’s go!” and began running towards the school. Stopping at the entrance for a moment, I screamed to the devotees, “A Chechen rebel is going to throw a grenade!”

Then I ran into the school and threw myself on the floor. But I noticed that Andrei wasn’t with me. He must have run in another direction.

I waited for the explosion from the grenade, but nothing happened. Within moments a group of twenty or thirty Chechen soldiers appeared in the yard of the school. Pointing their machine guns at the windows, they ordered us to come out. At first I couldn’t understand if the order was addressed to one or two of us or all of the devotees. I crawled to the door of the altar room and saw Kalikrit, who had just finished dressing the Deities. I said to him, “It seems that we have some guests here, Prabhu.”

“Oh really?” he replied. “Who are they?”

“Chechen rebels, and they’re all armed,” I said in a trembling voice. Kalikrit didn’t seem affected. He was very calm. I took out my bead bag and with a shaking hand tried to chant japa. Gradually it became obvious that the order to go out was meant for all of us. One by one we started to go into the yard. I saw that the whole school was surrounded by the rebels. Some of them seemed to be only children, but they all held machine guns firmly in their hands. They ordered us to line up against the wall on one side of the yard. One big red- haired rebel in dirty jeans came up to Yadusrestha and took off his wrist watch. “It’s your gift for me,” he said, “You won’t need it any more.”

Another bearded rebel stepped out from the group of soldiers, and smiling he prepared his AK-47 for action. “It seems that he is going to do the job himself,” I thought. Kalikrit was the only one dressed in a dhoti. Stepping forward he started to preach, but no one was listening to him.

It was a calm, bright summer morning. The sun was rising slowly, illuminating the ruins of the school with its warm rays. I fingered my beads mechanically. Remembering a picture of Srila Gurudeva and a Deity of Lord Nrsimhadeva that I kept on my shelf, I started to chant prayers to Him. My voice was weak but sincere. Suddenly all my fear was gone. My hand held the beads firmly. “It’s a test,” I thought. “It’s the last one I have to go through.’’

Time seemed to stand still. The man with the AK-47 raised the rifle and prepared to shoot us. Suddenly another rebel began talking to someone on his walkie-talkie. They spoke in their native language, and I couldn’t understand anything but the word “shoot,” which is similar in the Russian language.

But one moment later he said to us, “You are free. We got an order to shoot all Russians, but you guys are lucky. Our commander is  a religious man. He respects humanitarians. He knows that you’ve been distributing food to our people.” The bearded rebel who was ready to shoot us spat in frustration as he locked the trigger on his machine gun and turned away.

Together with the Chechen soldiers we entered the school. One rebel said to me, “What do you have to eat?” Because it was so early and our cooks hadn’t prepared anything, the only eatables we had were a plate of mangala sweets, which we gave to the rebels. They finished the plate in a few moments.

“They got mercy,” I thought. As they left they ordered us to prepare lunch for one hundred of them.

9:15 a.m. We are all confused and disoriented by what has happened this morning. We started our morning program, but could hardly hear Kalikrit leading the kirtan because of the constant shooting and explosions outside. When it became more quiet, we had Srimad- Bhagavatam class.

9:30 a.m. Morning prasadam. Chanted japa.

12:20p.m. I just completed sixteen rounds. With all the events of the morning it was difficult to concentrate. The shooting outside started again, but this time it was more intense, being mostly artillery fire.

Alas, today I won’t manage to call my mother on her birthday. She will probably be upset with me, but at least I’m alive.

1:40 p.m. I helped to put prasadam in metal cans for distribution. Different groups of old ladies regularly come to our kitchen for prasadam. They walk here through the streets where there is danger at every step.

Very bad news came to us. Andrei was wounded in the thigh. The rebels shot him as he was climbing a wall to escape. The news is that a bullet went through his thigh. Because it was a special bullet with a shifted gravity center, he lost a lot of blood. Sergey, who was with him, dragged him to the hospital.

2:20 p.m. Lunch prasadam.

3:10 p.m. Two Chechen fighters had us carry cans of porridge and bread to the next block of flats where some other Chechen soldiers and local citizens were hiding in the basement. Then the rebels demanded that I drive them in the van to deliver ammunition to other rebels in another part of the city. What could I do? I had to comply.

7:00 p.m. Feeling uneasy due to the whole situation that we are in, I took the Deity of Lord Nrsimhadeva from the shelf and put Him on the altar. I prayed very intensely: “My dear Lord in the form of half-man and half-lion, please protect us.”

Taking harmonium and karatalas, we all started to chant bhajans with Kalikrit. The chanting chased away all the fear from within our hearts. A prayer of Maharaja Pariksit came to my mind: “Oh brähmanas, just accept me as a completely surrendered soul, and let Mother Ganges, the representative of the Lord, also accept me in that way, for I have already taken the lotus feet of the Lord into my heart. Let the snakebird—or whatever magical thing the brähmana created—bite me at once. I only desire that you all continue singing the deeds of Lord Viñëu.” [Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.19.15]

As I was praying, a large missile from a passing helicopter exploded in the yard of the house next door, throwing debris in all directions. But the explosion couldn’t cover the sound of kirtan that flowed from the hearts of surrendered souls who helplessly prayed to Krsna. When we finished the kirtan, we went out of the temple room into the courtyard and saw that all the windows in the school were broken due to the explosion.

8:00 p.m. We had a meeting and discussed what we would do if the bombing by Russian federal troops increased. But actually we have no choice but to remain in the school. The city is surrounded by Chechen fighters. We have to stay and depend on Krsna. But we decided to sleep with all our clothes on from now on in case we have to run in an emergency.

8:45 p.m. Took a bath in the darkness with only a small amount of water.

9:40 p.m. Read Srimad-Bhagavatam in the dim light of an oil lamp.

10:50 p.m. I tried to fall asleep but found it difficult while recalling all that has happened today. I reflected how as devotees our faith is tested in such extreme situations. And this is only the beginning. Who knows what’s going to happen tonight? I remembered a Bengali proverb that is often quoted by my spiritual master, Srila Indradyumna Maharaja: 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 feel that this will be the motto for me until I get out of this situation.