There is something exceptionally terrifying about being woken up at 4.30 in the morning by two armed policemen shouting at you in German. Particularly if, contrary to their demands, you do not have the right papers…
I was sharing a sleeper carriage with Sultan from Chechnya. We only had about a dozen words in common but I had established that Sultan was travelling across Europe from France (where he’d visited one brother) to Poland (where he was due to visit another brother) to Russia (where his mother and father live). One of the words we had in common, and one which Sultan probably used more than any other, was ‘problem’. It seems that in many countries, particularly in Russia, just the fact of being from Chechnya is a grave problem. Sultan made me understand this by turning his hand into a pistol and firing. ‘Tak, tak,’ he said. ‘Big problem.’
Sultan was a really nice, sweet, kind-faced young man. He offered me some of his fruit juice and pastries and he asked me if I minded if he prayed. This he did by holding his hands together in prayer and saying, ‘Problem?’
He’d already talked about his religion by this stage. He’d told me he was Muslim and asked me what I was. At the time I’d forgotten I was a budding Buddhist, so I told him, ‘Nothing. No God.’ He was shocked by this but kindly smiled his acceptance. He then explained to me, mostly with mime and repetition of the word ‘bok’, which I figured was the Russian word for God, that everything he did in his life, he dedicated it to God. Then, as if to prove his point, he prayed for around 20 minutes, read his travel-Koran for another 15, then went to sleep. In the absence of a working electricity point which would have enabled me to write, I carried on reading till just after midnight, then I turned out the light.
When they came, they came loudly, aggressively, rapping sharply at the window of the carriage door with something hard and heavy – maybe a gun. At the very least a nightstick. They announced themselves as Austrian police and demanded to see our papers. I fished out my passport and handed it down from my top bunk. The one with the moustache took it from me and examined it. He didn’t look too happy. The one without the moustache took Sultan’s passport. Eventually mine was handed back to me without a word. Sultan wasn’t so lucky.
‘Where are you from?’
I presumed this information was recorded in Sultan’s passport but still they asked.
‘Where do you go?’
‘Where did you come from? Milano?’
I helped Sultan as best I could with these questions, but then came one I couldn’t help him with. It was a one-word question: ‘Visa?’
He was 28 years old and he had the warm open face of a little boy. He struggled to reply. I imagine he wanted to say, ‘I didn’t think I needed a visa.’ Instead he said, ‘Visa no. Problem?’
This time yes. There was a problem.
‘Come with us,’ said the one with the moustache.
Sultan resisted as best he could, attempting to imply with his tone that he really didn’t need a visa. The policemen, rather unkindly, laughed at this. Then the one with the moustache lost his patience a little and shouted, ‘Come, come, come!’ as the other one said, ‘Finito.’
I watched in dismay as Sultan pulled on his clothes and got his stuff together. It was utterly heartbreaking. I couldn’t help but think of Anne Frank, although obviously, the circumstances were very different.
As he left the carriage, Sultan looked up at me and waved goodbye. He managed a little smile.
One of the things he’d explained to me earlier – with the aid of my A4 pad and a pen – was that in Russia, Chechen women, children and old people were free from harm, but for young men, men like Sultan… he waved his finger pistol. ‘Tak, tak, tak,’ he said. ‘Big problem.’ Maybe then, under the circumstances, the Austrian border police were not something that particularly scared him. Or maybe he was just putting on a brave face. Or maybe his faith was enough to keep the smile on his face.
I said goodbye, locked the compartment door and turned off the light. Utterly godless, I sent an aimless prayer into the universe, hoping that somehow Sultan would be OK and delivered to his parents in Russia, where they could disguise him as an old man or else keep him in the cellar, safe from harm.
Then I lay awake for 15 minutes or so, thinking about what had happened, what might be happening now, trying to remember what happened in Stephen Poliakoff’s Caught On a Train and feeling really, really grateful that I happened to have been born in a country that – well, that once raped the world and is still reaping the rewards.
When I woke up, I was in Vienna.