While being beaten and tortured with electric shocks, Amin Dzhabrailov tried to think about how he would run away.
The 27-year-old is from Chechnya and survived an anti-gay purge that saw men detained and tortured in the Russian republic in 2017.
“They were using [their] feet, plastic pipes, long pipes,” to beat prisoners, Dzhabrailov said during an interview in Winnipeg.
“And after they started using electric shock,” he said.
“No one wanted to touch you with the hands just because you’re gay, and it’s disgusting.”
He was in Winnipeg last Thursday night to speak at a fundraiser that brought in $137,000 for Rainbow Railroad, a non-profit that helps LGBT people escape from countries where their lives are in danger because of who they are.
Rainbow Railroad executive director Kimahli Powell said Winnipeg has been a special part of the non-profit’s history. When the annual fundraising event was started in 2014 in the city, the organization had just made the transition from a small collective to a charity.
“This fundraiser was the big boost that really started the organization,” he said. “We would not be where we are today without the community in Winnipeg and their generosity.”
Dzhabrailov, who once only would speak to journalists if his face was concealed, is sharing his story to drum up support for Rainbow Railroad, as it continues its work to save LGBT people from persecution in countries around the world.
He also wants to inspire others from his community who are still in Chechnya, where human rights watchdogs say anti-gay purges have continued.
He says he was kidnapped by Russian soldiers from a hair salon where he was working in March 2017.
“It was awful,” he recalls. “I was colouring hair and it was my usual day. I had lunch and they just came — some guys with guns.”
The men handcuffed Dzhabrailov and drove him to a building that became a torture facility where he would spend the next two weeks.
‘The edge of dying’
“I was tortured almost each day and night,” he said.
There was mental abuse, in addition to the beatings and continued electrical shocks used on him and the roughly 17 other gay men there. Soldiers pressed the men for names of other gay people.
“It’s like [being] on the edge of dying, especially when they’re using that machine which is making electricity,” which would be fixed to his ears, fingers or toes, he said.
“I was screaming to stop this.”
Every day, as soldiers beat Dzhabrailov and made him work cleaning floors and washing their cars, he thought about suicide, but there was no chance to escape.
He remembers the taunts and laughs from soldiers, and one instance where a soldier shoved his gun into Dzhabrailov’s mouth.
The nightmare ended when his captors brought him and others to another location, where his family was waiting.
There, he says, soldiers shamed him for being gay and asked family members why they didn’t take care of their relatives. They talked about killing the men, while their parents kept their eyes down, afraid to speak.
Dzhabrailov’s brothers took him home but he knew he couldn’t stay in Chechnya for long. He asked Viskhan Arsanov, a long-time friend and now his partner, for help.
The 28-year-old was living in Moscow at the time. While he wasn’t tortured, he was threatened for being gay by a man he believes may have been a police officer or government solider.
Arsanov got Dzhabrailov, who had no money, to St. Petersburg.
Dzhabrailov then got in touch with an LGBT network that connected him with Rainbow Railroad, which got both men out of the country safely.
“I remember when he’s leaving [for] Canada and he has tickets, everything … I say, ‘Jesus, I can’t believe it. It’s real. Everything is real,'” Arsanov recalls.
The men, who now call Toronto home, are grateful for Rainbow Railroad and are enjoying every moment of freedom in Canada.
“We’re just two young men who are living our best lives,” Dzhabrailov said.
“I don’t get tired telling this, and I won’t, ’cause I’m really living this.”