by Dan Alexe
Romanian version here :
Dinți de aur și pantere parfumate: în spatele unui scoop…
The Caucasian winter of 1991-1992 was a strange one. Limp snow kept falling for months, and there was a shortage of alcohol, unfortunate circumstances that made the locals jittery and forcibly pious. Chechnya declared itself independent from Russia, taking literally Yeltsin‘s drunken injunction to the federate republics: ”Get as much sovereignty as you can“.
The first Westerner to land in Grozny, Chechnya‘s capital, driving in from Daghestan -as there were no flights from anywhere-, I discovered that the Chechens were amazingly open… They let me film everything I wanted, including things potentially embarrassing for them… I had my first overdose of Sufi collective trance ceremonies. I learned about hyperventilation, circular breath, and that Kunta Haji, the Chechen Sufi saint, will come at the end of the world, blowing off people‘s souls as so many candles.
All around Chechnya, there was even greater chaos. In neighbouring Georgia, the elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, had just been toppled by an -at first sight- unlikely coalition of warlords, mystical bandits (Mkhedrioni, the ”Knights“) and Moscow-controlled KGB local henchmen. Georgia was under Russian control again.
Gamsakhurdia had written books about the Holy Grail, about the old Georgian chivalry and its influence on the Western medieval legends of Arthur and the Round Table, about the Caucasus as the navel of the world, about perfumed panthers and the fish-eating (ichtyophagoi) wild sheep that had inhabited the mountains when Apollonius of Tyana crossed them on a white but very dumb camel to check whether the iron gates raised by Alexander the Great could still keep off the hordes of slit-eyed half-human warriors from the North, who were feasting on fermented horse milk and extracts of female menstrual blood.
Once chased from power, Gamsakhurdia, the mad Georgian writer-president, had totally vanished, but I was certain he was hiding somewhere in Grozny, Chechnya‘s capital, protected by general Dudayev‘s independentist government. I needed a journalistic scoop… I wanted an interview with one of the most hunted men on the planet… but the Chechens kept pretending that they did not know anything about Gamsakhurdia‘s whereabouts.
After I had spent a couple of weeks in Grozny, the Chechen officials apparently came to the conclusion that it would be useful, after all, for Gamsakhurdia to give an interview to the foreign press, in order for him not to be totally forgotten, so they told me: “Have your people ready“ (I was with a two-man Belgian TV crew, cameraman and sound engineer), ”and we‘ll help you cross the border into Georgia to meet Gamsakhurdia…”
The total scoop, a dream come true… A tough Chechen guide-cum-fighter was to drive us across the crest of the Caucasus from Chechnya into Georgia… We were in January, or February, 1992… The Caucasus is normally impossible to cross in that season (the Caucasus mountain chain is much higher and more abrupt than the Alps)… and the main road was held by the Russians…
When Ali appeared, he looked like the caricature of a hit-man from an exotic nightmare… only that he was real. Thin moustache and black fedora hat out of a cheap gangster movie, Ali displayed a cruel smile, made terrifying by the solid gold bar that replaced his front teeth. Kalashnikov on shoulder, hand grenades hanging from his belt like big balls of protracted fire, he was driving a run-down Lada Soviet car with capricious breaks. Smiling cruelly, he blindfolded us and whispered that, were we to look at the road, he would be delighted to shoot us in the head… and maybe even eat our menstrual blood.
Blindfolded, we laid upon each other on the floor of the car, and he drove us, through the winter night, for five hours, with only scant, random bits of macho conversation and delirious obsessions about Parisian women, his fixation being that they are an artificial creation of American scientists who made them as part of a failed plan for world domination. Eyes bound tightly, I couldn‘t agree more…
Very quickly, I realised that we were not crossing the mountains. I could not feel the car driving up slopes, as would be normal in the mountains… We were driving on the plain, in circles…
Little did I suspect, however, the whole grotesque truth. By midnight, we were taken out of the car, in the courtyard of a fortified house. And there, in a small room with plastic curtains and cheap wallpaper, sat… Gamsakhurdia !…
We filmed him, sympathised with him, he gave me his book about the perfumed panthers of the Caucasus and the trembling towers of blood that had been their dwelling in the past, and I was to insert in the documentary that I made afterwards the whole sequence with that pathetic alchemist and theologian reading a long, rambling communiqué against Yeltsin and Russia… but then, while we were filming, heavy machine-gun fire started suddenly outside. Golden Teeth and the other guards ran out of the room shouting in Chechen… The Belgian cameraman made quick preparations for fainting… Certainly, Russian commandos had discovered Gamsakhurdia‘s lair…
Nothing of that… Gamsakhurdia‘s hideout was simply very close to the headquarters of the last Russian garrison in Chechnya, right then attacked by Chechens fighters, and we were in fact out of danger. Nevertheless, everybody was suddenly busy with shooting into the night, so Golden Teeth barked some orders to a fat man in a ”tracksuit“ telling him to take us to our hotel.
Cigarette dangling from his lower lip, Fatso, our new driver, who had no personal views on the nature of Parisian women, took us in five minutes to our hotel, where we even discovered that we still had a bottle of wine in the fridge… and that Golden Teeth had driven us earlier, blindfolded, for five ours, making circles around the city.
The next day, like unfaithful lovers who feign to ignore everything of each other‘s lies, we and Golden Teeth, and the other Chechen officials, pretended that the trip to Georgia went fine, and I thanked them and assured them that we had had a great interview with Gamsakhurdia, there, over the mountains. A couple of days later, walking through the muddy suburb of Grozny where the fighting had taken place that night, I even recognised the house from afar. He was certainly still inside, an ageing and severely depressed Christian knight, rescued, but then kept hostage, by his wicked Muslim neighbours?
Gamsakhurdia died soon afterwards, officially while crossing into Georgia with a small contingent in an attempt to retake power. It was even suggested that he killed himself. Suicide is virtually unheard of in the Caucasus. I always thought that he was put off by the Chechens, maybe even by our beaming Golden Teeth, because, a definitive loser, he was becoming politically embarrassing, perfumed panthers and all. They blew him off like a candle.
More links (including videos) in the Romanian version :