This is a very heartbreaking story about helpless, hopeless people, not literate enough or free enough to change their circumstances. They pay for foolish decisions with their lives, often when they are innocent. Decades of war have marked Russian/Chechen history. Ethnic Chechen s and Russians indiscriminately murder each other. Islamists force their will upon non-believers and enforce it among those who do believe. The situation is so dire that betrayal is commonplace. People are tortured, disappear and are never seen again. The cities are destroyed, rubble is everywhere, poverty reigns, disease spreads, the injured amass, medical facilities are nil, law enforcement is non-existent, and in general, chaos reigns.
When a neighbor, Akhmed, witnesses the kidnapping of a friend, Dokka, who has been betrayed by their mutual friend Ramzan, he knows his friend is about to disappear and never return. Taken to the landfill, he will be tortured and murdered for a real or imaginary crime. There is very little difference in the cause and effect. The result is the same, brutality and corruption even with circumstantial or false evidence. Dokka has a child, Havaa, and Akhmed rescues her and brings her to a doctor in the only, still operating, hospital, hoping she will take her in and help her. The doctor, Sonja, begrudgingly accepts Havaa into her care in exchange for Akhmed’s promise to work at the hospital. He too is a doctor, albeit one that graduated at the bottom of the class while she is exceptionally gifted. Sonja is an ethnic Russian and Akhmed is an ethnic Chechen. The one bright light in the book is that the two, from different warring worlds, are able to work together and establish a relationship.
The connections that knit all of the characters together will become clear as the book draws to a conclusion. Although the link is not known to the characters themselves, they are all united with a common thread through their memories and thoughts, their past and their present. In the end, the disparate parts will become part of a complete whole and even their futures will be intimated.
Sometimes the plot meanders and the timeline wanders back and forth in a confusing manner, but the history and the details about Chechnya are so thorough and so descriptive, that they make up for any shortcomings or confusion that the story might possess. This book is a revelation about intolerance, deprivation, jihad, dictators, foolish dreams, and unrealistic goals in a land without very much free choice, let alone freedom, a land with little respect for human life or its value.
In many cases, the uneducated are in charge, and the illiterate are making the rules. Their one skill appears to be cruelty and disloyalty. The barbarism on all sides in this fighting, this attempt even at ethnic cleansing, is horrific, as torture is the main event and those administering it are gleeful, almost joyful, at the prospect of hurting someone. Treachery is the standard of behavior. The series of coincidences throughout the novel, though perhaps not always plausible, serve to bind all of the characters stories together and illustrate the conditions that exist in that war torn part of the world. They point clearly to the lack of trust, morality and faith. They point clearly to a path of destruction. The only hope is escape. Who among them will be lucky enough to find their own freedom?