Loss of an ID Brings Out Chechen Best
GROZNY, RUSSIA — Losing your ID is always a drag. Losing your ID abroad generally leads to major hassles.
Lose your passport, driver's license, journalist's accreditation, and plane ticket in a land where the rule of law barely exists, three hours before your flight home is due to take off, and the situation is dire indeed.
I had just secured a ticket back to Moscow, after waiting 90 minutes at the airport in Grozny, the war-ravaged capital of Chechnya. As I boasted of this to a fellow journalist, I pointed to my shirt pocket, where I had put all my vital papers, and patted it confidently.
The pocket was flat. Empty.
My guts tightened and I felt lightheaded.
In Russia, you may not board a plane, even for a domestic flight, without your passport. I might be able to persuade the airport cashier to sell me another ticket, but I could never get through security.
I was, it appeared, trapped in Chechnya.
Unless, of course, I could procure some sort of document in the next hour and a half that would serve as a passport.
And in these sorts of circumstances, the anarchy that rules in Grozny is infinitely preferable to the bureaucratic predictability of your average police force.
Jemaal, who had been driving me around for the past week, took me first to his local police station, where he had friends and relatives who would help, he said.
But the police station was empty - everybody had done overtime at the elections the day before and had been given the day off, a guard explained.
So we went straight to the top - to the Interior Ministry headquarters. As we careened around icy corners, hurtling past block after block of bombed out wreckage and dodging shell craters, questions of legality and ID seemed somewhat flimsy in the face of such destruction.
But Chechens are former Soviet citizens too, and they know the value of a piece of paper.
An Interior Ministry official was hastily summoned to the concrete block post that guards the ministry entrance, but he didn't have the right forms: I had to go to the Department of Passport and Visa Questions. This turned out to be rather a grand name for the least-damaged floor in a burned-out building on Grozny's main street.
At the end of a corridor sat a man in a leather jacket with a pistol in his belt who not only knew which form I needed (No. 9), but thought he knew where to find such a form, and had the authority to fill it out. All he required of me was an ID photo (I always carry several in my money belt on trips like these, just in case).
Fifteen minutes later, I had an official "statement" in my pocket, that said I had declared the loss of my passport.
The statement was duly stamped and sealed, albeit with a seal belonging to "The Interior Ministry of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" - somewhat outdated in a republic that calls itself the sovereign and independent state of Ichkeria, not even part of Russia.
No matter, it should be enough to get me onto the airplane, I thought.
Once in Moscow, I would face an endless process of replacing all my papers, but at least I would be in Moscow, at home, not in Grozny, alone.
Back at the airport I bought another ticket (convincing the cashier that I had genuinely lost my first one, and not just passed it on to a friend), and was milling around with other waiting passengers when a French journalist, whom I had never met, came up to me and asked whether I had found all my documents.
No, I answered, but I had a new ticket and a police statement.
Then it occurred to me to wonder how she knew I had lost my passport in the first place.
She informed me that a Chechen woman called Khava had appeared that morning with my papers at a house where several French reporters were staying. Nobody there had known where I was, so she had gone away.
Who was Khava? Where did she live?
The reporter did not know. But she said she had a friend who had a driver who knew where Khava lived, and he explained Khava's whereabouts to my driver.
Back we drove into the center of Grozny, picking our way through slushy and ice-filled shell holes in one of the worst-hit neighborhoods in the city, until we came to the house address we had been given.
It was a typical Chechen house, a square one-story building behind high walls and a high gate that opened onto a courtyard.
As soon as Khava opened the gate a crack and peered into the street, she knew who I was.
A former neighbor of hers, she explained, Rashid, had come to her that morning with all my documents, which he had found on the street outside a telephone office.
He had come to Khava because he had remembered that when the war began two years ago, she had sheltered two Polish journalists: Perhaps she would know me, he thought.
She didn't, but she did know that a group of French journalists was staying with someone she knew on the other side of town (all the hotels that existed in Grozny were long ago destroyed in the war and reporters stay with local families). So she took my papers there, which is where the French reporter whom I met at the airport had seen them.
Since I was not to be found, Rashid had then driven out to the airport (he had seen from the ticket in my passport that I was due to leave on the afternoon flight), but we had missed each other. Then, it seemed, he had gone home.
Khava did not know exactly where Rashid had moved to after his home was destroyed by Russian bombardment, but she knew the name of his new neighborhood.
She also knew that he lived nearby the route of the No. 11 bus. She thought his address was 68 Shestova Street.
Anyway, she came with me to help look for him. So we all piled back into the car and drove out to the suburb of Katayama, a district of modest homes, each behind its wall, lining deeply rutted, ice-bound tracks.
Up and down these tracks we bounced, but nowhere on Shestova Street could we find No. 68.
After an hour or so of fruitless search, we had to stop and take Khava home and drive a fellow journalist to the airport: I had promised to take a colleague to catch the plane I had hoped to fly on. As soon as he had left, Jemaal and I took up the search for Rashid again.
UP and down Shestova Street we went. No. 68 clearly did not exist. Had Khava mistaken it for No. 168? No - a Russian rocket had reduced that house to rubble. 268? Not there, either. Try another tack: No. 69.
As dusk fell, we knocked on the green steel gate and walked into the courtyard. At the far end, an old man stood boiling a pan of water.
Did Rashid live here? we asked.
Because we'd heard he had found some documents.
At this point, I must admit, the unworthy thought entered my mind that I would have to bargain for my papers - that they were being ransomed as so many living hostages have been ransomed in lawless Chechnya in recent years.
I explained what papers I was talking about, and the old man grunted. Yes, his son Rashid had found some documents, but he was not here. I would have to wait for him.
I would be delighted to wait, I said. Jemaal and I went back outside to sit in the car.
Only a few minutes later, a car drew up to the gate.
As I ran up to it, the driver got out. It was Rashid. His smile of recognition was a genuinely friendly and relieved smile, not the smile of a twister who had found his victim.
Rashid had indeed found my passport that morning on the street outside the telephone bureau (where I had dropped it, thinking I was slipping it into my shirt pocket).
Yes, he had spent the rest of the day trying to find me. And no, he did not want to accept a token of my gratitude in return.
In six hectic hours, I had met with nothing but helpfulness: Rashid had devoted his day to tracking me down; Khava had done the same; the Interior Ministry official did not stand on procedure when I needed a document urgently; the airport cashier was willing to sell or swap as many tickets as I needed.
All out of a sense of hospitality to a stranger. Who says that Chechens are bandits?