Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
When she was 24, Asne Seierstad entered war torn Chechnya in a military plane. A stringer in Moscow, she felt compelled to see the reality behind the headlines.
Mixing with the families and the soldiers, she saw death and deprivation. And she, too was threatened. Escaping bullets, she was threatened with rape- or worse, by a drunk soldier brandishing a Kalashnikov.
Asne has since covered wars in Afghanistan; in Iraq and Kosovo but that first experience was the most dangerous and foolhardy.
“It was probably the most scary thing I’ve ever done, but also the most interesting,” she tells me, on a trip to Dublin to publicise her book about Chechnya.
“We were travelling across front lines, because they were everywhere. And we weren’t restricted to talking to one side or the other. We were around both sides. When that gun was pointing at my stomach I was thinking, ‘I want to get out of here. I want to get home. This is not my war;’ but afterwards, when the situation is not so bad you forget about it.”
Horrified, and a touch traumatised, Asne felt involved with the Chechnyan cause.
“I became almost anti-Russian,” she says. “Back in Moscow, I became depressed. Real life was in the mountains, where people were waging a life and death struggle.”
I first met Seierstad five years ago, just after her landmark book; The Bookseller of Kabul had been published. She hadn’t, yet, been threatened with a law case by the bookseller. Beautiful, and focused, she came across as a little naïve; though thoroughly idealistic and passionate about her cause.
Although she expressed a wish for a family, somewhere in the future, she hadn’t, back then, time for relationships – so set was she on seeing all the worlds’ trouble spots.
Today, beautiful in a black and white dress with high boots, she is softer; more reflective and poised. Happiness radiates from her. She’s expecting a baby with her boyfriend of a year; Norwegian Composer Trygue Seim.
The Angel of Grozny tells Asne’s story from 1996; but concentrates more on her return to Chechnya a decade later. Travelling illegally, Asne found destruction, continuing violence and heartbreaking despair.
“I was running around listening to the stories of human rights abuses. I was meeting the mothers who had lost all their sons; a man who had killed his sister for ‘honour.’ I was hearing the whole truth; the stories of killing and torture; and the disappeared.
“But all the tragic stories were the same. All the terror read like an amnesty report. I felt ‘there is no book.’ I didn’t know what to do.
“I’d decided to write the book in 2005,” she says. “I saw this movie about an orphanage in Chechnya. I was working on a book on America at the time, but that movie changed everything. I had to go and find out what had happened in Chechnya; I had to find out the effect of the war on the people.
“I felt a sense of duty. ‘The Bookseller of Kabul sold 3 million copies in 38 languages. It had given me a voice. I had to use that.”
Asne decided to go to an orphanage in the hope that children’s stories will meld the book. She meets, and lives for a time with Hadijat- the Angel of the title. She and her husband Malik had rescued some homeless children during the post war chaos. When Asne met the couple, they were running a liberal, humane orphanage for many children who’d been brutalised by the war.
In the book, Asne concentrates on Timor and Liana, half siblings who’d been abused by an uncle when their parents and grandparents had been killed. The book opens with Timur, living wild; killing dogs cats and pigeons, because it gives him some kind of comfort.
“Timur’s heart is so full with revenge,” says Asne. “He wanted to avenge everybody who had been bad to him. He says, ‘I am full of evil. I have the fire of evil inside me. He has been so messed by brutality; he has never been treated well, so that is how he responds to the world.
“What will that lead to in later life? What will happen if he gets hold of a gun? It’s that whole thing of destroying a childhood. You can never mend that; never get it back. Unless he gets treatment, which, it seems, he won’t.”
Liana feels compelled to steal. She takes the bread money, then spends it on ice creams for all the children. Asne tries to teach Liana, but she seems unable to learn.
“I have read about children who have been abused or in war having a lack of concentration; a lack of learning abilities, and Liana made me understand why.
“I thought, ‘of course she can’t learn; she has spent so much time trying not to remember the abuse that she has lost the ability to remember.”
It was hard, Asne says, getting the children to talk.
“I needed patience.” That wasn’t the case when, on an official visit, she was granted an interview with the President Ramzan Kadyrov; he was happy to talk, but brilliant at evading Asne’s more searching questions.
“It was like meeting a child,” says Asne. “He moves when he talks. He is restless, and he keeps referencing beauty contests. He is probably shrewd,” she adds. “He must be clever to keep everyone down; to be so brutal.”
Asne paints a bleak picture.
“I feel so sad,” she says. “It is much harder to mend the result of war than to prevent a war. In the mid nineties Chechnya was not, yet destroyed. The people were united against the enemy. Now society is morally and socially destructive. Former neighbours are standing against each other. Chechnynans take their own people to torture chambers. They took a grandmother. Why would they?”
The whole process of writing the book has been exhaustive.
“I struggled with it,” says Asne. “First with the logistics of how to get there; and then people were so afraid; they were afraid to talk and tell their stories. It was hard too, to put the book together.
“I spent two years writing it. There were times I thought of giving up; at one time I did give up. IT was hard to explain everything without overdoing it. Now I am proud of it. I think it is my best book.”
Hoping to spread awareness, Asne doesn’t imagine her book will change things in Russia.
“I don’t think they will take it seriously. They will say it is just Western propaganda” she predicts.
But in one way, at least she will change some lives.
“I have bought some land for the orphanage so that they can build a bakery,” she says. “That way Liana can learn a skill. She’s clever, but she will never get to college. Perhaps she can become the best baker in Chechnya.”
Asne says that her travels are not, altogether, over. One day, she and Trygue Seim hope to take their family to live in Egypt. For now, though, Asne intends to settle home in Norway.
“I need a long rest,” she says. “To write Angel of Grozny I had to forget about myself and go into those other people’s lives. Afterwards you have to regain a sense of yourself. And that,” she says, “takes time.”
The Angel of Grozny by Asne Seierstad is published by Virago at 22.80 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2008. ends.