(Host) It is the Season of Peace, and commentator Caleb Daniloff has been thinking about how peace may be achieved through brotherhood – however unlikely the circumstances.
(Daniloff) I have a friend who was held captive for six weeks. He was kept barefoot and shirtless in a muddy hole twelve feet deep and five feet wide. The opening was covered with steel fencing, his only view a circle of sky with the occasional bird passing overhead. He was hauled out only to be beaten and tortured.
Ali is from Chechnya, a mostly Muslim region in southern Russia about the size of Connecticut. For the past 12 years, Chechnya has been locked in a devastating conflict with neighboring Russia, primarily over self-rule.
Ali was 20 years old when Russian soldiers dragged him off to a regional detention camp. His older brother was a crusading journalist and his uncle a war surgeon. Both were wanted by military authorities. Despite severe beatings, electric shocks and mock executions, Ali refused to talk – and prepared every day to die.
A strange thing happened though. Before being thrown in that pit, Ali despised Russia. By the time he was sold back to his family for several thousand dollars and ten guns, he no longer hated the Russians. And when he thinks now of his captivity, the face that appears clearest is not his sadistic interrogator, but the slender, blue-eyed Russian soldier who guarded his hole.
“That boy showed me what it s like to feel human, and not to be treated like an animal,” Ali said recently. “He changed my thinking about Russians. Something inside of me changed.”
The soldier’s name was Andrei, and he was the same age as Ali. Andrei was curious about his prisoner and struck up conversation. The two youths soon realized they’d been harboring false impressions of each other.
“Even though we were enemies on the outside, we realized we were the same, the way we think about the world. People don t pay attention to the good things. But they pay huge attention to the bad things.”
Andrei smuggled Ali food and drink, even a jacket. He sometimes brought Ali to the surface and took off his handcuffs so they could sit and talk together, feet dangling into the hole, stars overhead. The bond became so intense that Ali even passed up an opportunity to escape for fear that Andrei would be punished.
Several months after Ali’s release, his brother was gunned down before his eyes. Ali’s uncle had escaped to America, and Ali followed a year later, settling in Vermont. Despite such trauma, Ali harbors no obvious bitterness and is quick to smile and crack a joke. He’s possessed of a disarming warmth and charm, loathe to speak ill of anyone.
Did Andrei help make Ali who he is today? It s hard to say. But coming from an honor-bound culture known for blood vendettas, one cycle of violence was seemingly halted. Against the backdrop of chaos and hatred, two boys born on opposite sides of the fence succeeded where so many political leaders fail.
They came upon the spot where peace begins by doing no more than making each other feel human.
This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.
Caleb Daniloff is a writer and book reviewer.