“What’s happening?” Steve whispered to me.
“They’re deciding whether or not to let us go.”
“Do you think they will?”
“No,” I said, and when I saw Steve’s shoulders slump and his face darken, I wished I had lied.
Even if I had, it would not have mattered. One of the men had taken out his mobile phone and was speaking into it with urgent vehemence. When the call ended, he pointed at four of the men and issued them instructions. Two manhandled our bikes from us and the other two clapped their hands on our arms and shoulders and began to lead us away. Around the corner, a panel van sat beside the kerb, and Steve was roughly pushed into its open back door first. He complied meekly, head down, resigned to his fate, whatever that might be. I, on the other hand, felt so angry at what was happening to us that I considered kicking out, striking and punching at these men with their hands on me, screaming and flailing like a trapped cat, doing whatever I could, no matter how violent, to get us out of there. But when I looked around me, I could see that to struggle would be pointless, and so I followed his example and let them push me into the van, saying not a word in protest as they slammed the door shut and drove us away.
Discussions about Dagestan with new friends in Russia
“We must drink more. And… we must eat more watermelon!”
The semi-demolished fruit still sat as the centrepiece of our table, a symbolic reminder that it was this that had brought us all together. Ivan secured a knife and set about carving into it with lustre. Feeling light and merry and far beyond [drunk], I waved a hand at the watermelon and attempted a joke of my own.
“That’s what they’re going to do to us in Dagestan.”
The change in atmosphere was as tangible as it was sudden. Katya looked down at her glass of wine. Ivan back-stepped from the table and leaned against the cooker, tapping the knife nervously against his thigh.
“You are going to Dagestan?” he asked.
“Yes,” Steve said. “We need to pass through it to get to Azerbaijan.”
“You should not,” Ivan said. “You should not go to Dagestan.” Gone from his voice was the jokey warmth and ribald humour we had grown used to. Now, he spoke quietly and with certitude.
“We have to,” I said. “To go around it would take too long.”
“I would prefer to take too long rather than to go to Dagestan. Do you know what happens there? People die every day in Dagestan. All the time. Only last week, a Dagestani man here crippled a Russian police officer in the vegetable market. I strongly – strongly – advise that you do not go.”
Encountering trouble in Egypt
Steve saw the car first – it lay in the middle of the road, upturned and on its roof, a burnt-out shell. Metres beyond it, two long strips of tape had been stretched across the road, cordoning off the area. We stopped and looked through. Smoke filtered out from an alleyway between two buildings. As we looked closer, we realised it was not an alleyway at all, but the place where another building had once stood. It had been burnt to the ground.
“I don’t like this,” Steve said. “We should turn around and find another route.”
Passing the smoking remnants of the destroyed building, I looked at those on either side of it. Some were shops, others were homes, all were riddled with the tell-tale pockmarks of bullets. As we continued, I began to realise where the bullets had come from. Many of the men massed here on this street openly carried guns: pistols, shotguns, AK-47s.
Ahead, a tank idled on the side of the road while soldiers began to erect a roadblock from tuk-tuks and flimsy fencing. The atmosphere thickened and grew muggy, swelling with a glowering mood that was as discernible as a current through water. The air felt flammable and someone was about to strike a match.
“We should definitely turn around,” I heard Steve mutter.