On Kenny and Chechnya

'Kidnapped in Chechnya," the newspaper headlines scream. I want to scream, too. Kenny Gluck is not a news story to me, nor is his abduction on Jan. 9 some kind of obscene "lesson" in how humanitarian aid workers should not expose themselves to the extreme dangers of strife-torn regions.

Rather, my friend Kenny is a man who knew the horrible risks involved in bringing aid to the suffering, on all sides, in the Russian breakaway region of Chechnya, and accepted them in the service of speaking truth to power.

Kenny's affection for Russia runs deep. He first went to Russia in the summer of 1990 when my husband and I asked him to participate in a conference in Moscow. In preparation, he eagerly consumed grammar texts and Russian novels.

When he arrived, he took to the streets and never looked back. Kenny had come expecting to stay three weeks. He stayed, off and on, for 11 years.

Kenny and I worked as English-language editors for the Soviet Union's first independent news agency, Postfactum. We "went native," each living on a $20-a-month salary. We purposefully avoided the expatriate life, and instead toughed out the cold, rude winter of 1990.

Kenny and I worked long hours at Postfactum. Amid the stench of cheap cigarettes and body odor, we gladly joined in that heady experiment known as free thought in a still-closed society.

Our Russian colleagues were young and full of the incandescent energy that comes from knowing that what one does matters, very much. Kenny worked harder than anyone, and did it with a quiet selflessness that highlighted his mastery of irony and black humor, two staples of the Russian cultural diet.

Our boss was a Russian liberal intelligentsia writer named Gleb Pavlovsky. I was proud to work for him - then. Today, he is one of President Vladimir Putin's top public-relations advisers and one of the cynical powers behind the throne.

In an ironic twist, Mr. Pavlovsky, the author of those long articles on democracy and human rights that Kenny and I used to edit, now leads the Russian government's rhetorical charge against Chechnya.

The years passed. We moved back to the United States. Kenny stayed and quit journalism to become a humanitarian relief worker. Years later I asked him if he missed journalism. He became pensive for a moment and then shook his head: "No. I was tired of visiting war zones and other hellish places and not doing anything about it except watching people suffer. If I was going to continue going to these places, I wanted to do something to help." And help he did, in Tajikistan, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Liberia, Afghanistan, and Chechnya, both during the first war and now this one.

I last saw Kenny this summer in Moscow, where I was helping the aid organization I now work for set up its program in Ingushetia. I had not seen Kenny for some time and sought out his companionship and advice. The former was wonderful, as always; the latter, darkly disturbing.

Kenny warned me, as he warned all humanitarian aid staff coming to Russia, that working in Chechnya (and the neighboring republic of Ingushetia) was statistically more dangerous than any other humanitarian assignment in the world. He spoke from experience.

As the northern Caucasus director for Doctors Without Borders, Kenny knew the grim facts by heart: Between 1996 and 1998, there were never more than 40 expatriate aid workers in the Chechnya/Ingushetia region at any given time. Of this number, eight were assassinated.

More than 20 expats - half of all those in the area - were kidnapped for periods longer than a few days, some for several months. A dozen more were held at gunpoint for hours at a time. Hostages had been subjected to beatings, repeated rapes, and psychological torture, including mock executions.

Kenny and I spent many hours last summer talking about the hows and whys of the atrocities committed by both Chechens and Russians. Kenny's assessment of the future was sobering. It was only a matter of time, he thought, before there would be another violent incident involving aid workers.

Kenny knew all the risks, and he, more than anyone else, took all possible precautions. He also knew none was foolproof.

I received an e-mail from Kenny some 10 days before he was kidnapped. In his usual self-deprecating way, he wrote from Moscow that he yearned to go elsewhere. He was tired and sickened by what he had seen in Chechnya.

But in typical Kenny fashion, his goal was not to return to the safety and comfort of America, but to go to another troubled corner of the world: Iraq or Colombia.

As I reflect on his message, I can't help thinking Kenny knew deep in his gut that time might be running out on him in Chechnya. Still, underneath his worldly exterior, I saw a man who retained an innocence at his core, and who held on firmly to the belief that good exists in all of us.

Today I cry for Kenny. But I also cry for the thousands of faceless, nameless people he will no longer help inside Chechnya. In kidnapping Kenny, his captors have taken hostage the hopes of all of us.

Cynthia Scharf worked as a journalist in Moscow from 1990 to 1993. She currently works for the International Medical Corps.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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