December 18, 2003MOSCOW JOURNAL
African Students' Harsh Lesson: Racism Is Astir in RussiaBy SETH MYDANS
MOSCOW, Dec. 17 The morning starts with 100 push-ups for Constant Olivier Diboi Kath as he prepares for the most dangerous moment of his day his subway ride to chemistry class on the other side of town.
Mr. Diboi Kath, 23, is an exchange student from Cameroon, and like many other African college students in Russia he says he feels threatened by racist thugs every time he leaves his dormitory.
He has been abused, beaten and even shot during his five years at People's Friendship University, where about one-third of the students come from developing countries.
"At any hour you must be ready to fight," he said over loud rock music in a campus cafeteria. "On the Metro, on the road, on the street, everywhere. So every morning you have to do your 100 push-ups."
Racist attacks on foreigners here Asians, Arabs and especially blacks have been a continuing problem whose victims have included diplomats and American Embassy Marine guards as well as students.
Last year, ambassadors from 37 African nations appealed to the Foreign Ministry for protection for their citizens. Human rights groups have documented widespread harassment, often with the compliance or support of the police.
Racist attitudes lie deep within the Russian psyche and are growing even worse now, said Aleksandr Brod, director of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, a private group that monitors discrimination. The driving force, he said, is the proliferation of white-supremacist skinhead groups, which enjoy widespread support and are fueled by nationalist political groups and publications.
There are now some 200 nationalist publications around the country with racial overtones, he said. In parliamentary elections earlier this month, a dozen parties campaigned on extremist nationalist agendas, with considerable success.
"All this Nazi ideology gives rise to hatred of all non-Russians," Mr. Brod said. "And so, many people even think skinheads are not bandits and hooligans but Russian patriots who are fighting for the purity of Russian society."
As a result, he said, "literally every week in Moscow and in other regions of Russia there are attacks by skinheads on members of minorities," some of which, he said, are fatal.
A suspicious late-night fire that took at least 42 lives at Friendship University three weeks ago has intensified fears among minority students here. A number of them particularly Chinese students have cut short their studies and headed home, fellow students said.
"If there is another incident like this, we are all going to leave," said a 23-year-old student from Gabon who would give only his first name, Georges. "I just want to finish quickly and leave Russia forever, forever."
The university, which now has 12,000 students, opened as Patrice Lumumba University in 1960 to serve students from countries the Soviet Union supported in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Although the fire is officially described as an accident, most minority students are convinced that it was arson. They say that for weeks, both before and after the fire, bomb threats forced students into the cold streets during the class day or in the middle of the night.
The fire took place in a dormitory for newly arrived foreign students, including students from Angola, China, Vietnam, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and Tahiti.
Survivors said the reaction of the college administration only added to their feeling that they were outcasts.
"They did not even give us one day off," said Sydney Ocran, 23, a journalism student from Liberia who videotaped the fire.
"There were students inside banging on the glass, calling for help," he said. "I took a close shot of the hands banging on the glass, and then their hands just went down the glass, sliding like that, and they were gone."
And that was that.
"They put out the fire at 4 or 5 a.m. and students went to school at 9 a.m.," Mr. Ocran said. "That is amazing to me. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I feel that they do this because most of the victims are foreigners."
At the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, where many African students find spiritual refuge, talking about the attacks has become a part of the service.
"Nearly every week, or every other week, someone stands up and says, `Please pray for me, I had a run-in with skinheads,' or, `Pray for my friend who was beaten by the police,' " said the pastor, John Calhoun.
Muslims can be targets as well. Last summer, a 19-year-old medical student from Malaysia was beaten at a McDonald's restaurant apparently because she was wearing a head scarf. " `Russia is for Russians,' that's their motto," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "They were just laughing, laughing. It was because of my head scarf. They didn't like me wearing this."
An attack can happen anywhere, Mr. Diboi Kath said, but some times and places are worse than others. "Like the Metro Green Line," he said. "If you want to die, you go there at 6 o'clock."
National holidays and major sports events with their drunkenness and heightened passions are times to stay home, many students said. Mr. Diboi Kath said that although he loved sports, he had never been to a soccer stadium or a basketball game in Moscow. "It's like a dream for me," he said. "The cinema is like a dream. If you go to the cinema or to a stadium, it means you want to die."
Mr. Ocran is a refugee who fled fighting in Liberia 13 years ago and took refuge in Ghana. From there, he won a scholarship to study in Moscow, only to find new dangers.
"The only time I feel safe is when I am in my room at least, 60 percent safe," he said. Unlike some poorer students, though, he is able to take a break during the summers to visit his wife and sons in their refugee camp.
"When I return to Ghana, it's like I'm released from prison, like I'm a free bird," he said. "I get so happy. I am so happy when I sit on the airplane. I don't have to worry who is going to beat me."