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Russian Rebels In Transniestria Arrested Me For Murder

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Yesterday VICE published a version of this story. This gives a slightly deeper socio-political context.

The rebels in eastern Ukraine are not trailblazers. In 1992 pro-Russian rebels carved out a de-facto state on a narrow strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine. Transniestria, the fledgling state of half a million people has since created its own currency, passports, and a notoriously strong police force. In July, while fighting raged in Ukraine, I visited Transniestria. The territory is officially recognized as a rebelling region within Moldova’s international borders. The 1992 War of Transnietria is a frozen conflict, meaning there was never a peace treaty and this is a very long cease-fire.

It’s not an easy place to get to. There are no commercial flights and its neighbors are fairly hostile. I entered from the west, via Romania and Moldova. Whenever I mentioned that I was on my way to Tiraspol, the rebel capital, people told me I was crazy. “It’s the Gaza Strip of Eastern Europe,” one man said. Another told me I would get my throat slit the first night if I mentioned I came from Europe—and the police would arrest me for no reason. No one I met had actually been there.

I knew that it was mostly people parroting propaganda they had heard from their own government—the war, technically still on, was fought between Transniestria and Russia on one side and Moldova and Romania on the other. Still, I wondered if there was some truth wrapped in there.

Twenty-four hours after I arrived in Transniestria, I was arrested by police in full tactical gear and stuffed in a car that had been hastily parked on the sidewalk.

*

I arrived by train on a Monday morning and filled out an immigration form. Outside the station a wide boulevard led downtown. The street was lined with identical housing block, each with a small lawn of grass; all of it yellow and uncut. More yellowed grass and weeds grew out of the wide cracks scattered in the sidewalk. Many side streets had been wholly or partially torn up though it didn’t look like there was a plan to repave

After a few minutes of walking the road became busier and the sidewalk better maintained. Shops began to appear on the roadside. Some of them had small black and white Cyrillic script above their doors, but I had no idea what anything said.

The local currency, the Transniestrian Rubble, is not recognized as legal tender anywhere else in the world so if you want to change your money you have to do it at an exchange. Each one advertises their rate for the Moldovan Lei, Russian Rubble, Ukrainian Hryvnia, Euro and U.S. Dollar. There are ATM’s scattered around the city but they will only dispense U.S. dollars or Russian Rubbles, and then you have to convert the cash.

I changed some Moldovan Lei and asked where I could find a hotel. Another customer overheard and pointed me toward a massive apartment block in the distance.

*

Soviet nostalgia is strong throughout Transniestria. Statues of Lenin and other Soviet heroes decorate main boulevards and leafy parks. But it’s not just nostalgia; the de-facto state has maintained the same security infrastructure from Soviet times. The security intelligence unit in Transniestria is still called the KGB and the state uses the same Soviet system of citizen informants to control the population.

The Soviet military unit known as the 14th Army Guards played an important role in the 1992 war. Initially military personal defected to join the fight alongside newly formed Transniestrian militias, and eventually the entire regiment directly joined the fight. The 14th Army Guards have evolved over the years and are now part of what Russia calls peacekeeping forces. Moldova calls them occupying troops.

Russia officially has 1,200 soldiers stationed in Transniestria, but more importantly they maintain a vast stockpile of heavy weapons—the largest in Europe by many estimates.

*

I spent my first day exploring Tiraspol. When I had trouble finding the address to Migration Services to register—required within twenty-four hours of entering the country—I asked people on the street. Some ignored me and walked faster as soon as they heard me speaking, but others tried to help. I pointed at the address written on a card I was given when I entered the nation and people would scratch their head and point in different directions. A few even walked with me to the next corner. None spoke English.

After I registered I discovered that Transniestria has a few well maintained parks. One even had a bowling alley at its edge. Along the riverside there was a promenade and across the water a sandy beach. At dusk, as the days heat began to dissipate the parks and promenade filled with families and young couples. There were women who rented small cars that children could peddle around the pavement and everywhere there were laughing children pretending they were drivers. A couple of people even sat down next to me, smiled and tried to start a conversation—though since it was in Russian these interactions were always short.  The place seemed happier than I would have thought. It seemed . . . normal.

*

After Crimea was annexed by Russia in March the parliament in Transniestria formally requested Russia also annex them. This put the tiny republic in the news cycle with journalists claiming that Russia may open up a new front. The New York Times ran the headline, “Moldova is the Next Ukraine.”

The less spectacular reality is that Transniestria has been asking Russia to absorb it, well, since before Russia was even a country. They asked Moscow to declare it a republic within the Soviet Union. Since the Union dissolved they have asked Russia to annex them multiple times.

It is possible that eastern Ukraine will follow the template of Transniestria and become a pro-Russian de-facto state.

 *

The following morning I set out to change some more currency. The exchanges look like small banks. The one I walk into has a security guard at the entrance and money changers sitting behind a wall of thick glass. When I hand over a twenty pound note the men behind the desk all begin to talk quickly to each other. One of them picks up the phone while another, who speaks limited English, tells me, “One moment.”

The first employee continues to make phone quick phone calls, staring at me as he spoke.

The second tells me again, “One moment. Please wait.”

The two of them seem nervous for some reason, but I don’t think much of it.

At this point a man wearing black boots and sunglasses walks in and starts talking with the security guard. Soon after, less than two minutes after the man behind the window began making phone calls, two police officers rush in wearing bullet proof vests and holding their batons out. The plain clothed officer talking with the security guard comes from behind me and grabs my arms; the two uniformed officers close in and stand at my side.

The man behind the counter yells after me, as I’m being pushed out the door—“No worry. They think you bank robber.”

The three police stuff me into a car hastily parked on the sidewalk.

“What’s happening? I didn’t do anything.”

They respond in Russian.

After a short drive we park, again on the sidewalk, this time in front of a police station. The three officers walk me inside and stand with me inside a large holding cell. Other police walk by and stare.

Shit, this could be very bad. No nation recognizes Transniestria. There are no embassies or consulates. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to visit here while the situation in Ukraine is so hot. Shit, I’m going to end up imprisoned in a rogue nation. Fuck.

A new pair of police officers lead me out of the room and up the stairs into an office. There is another pair already sitting in the room, one of them, the one in plain clothes, is sitting behind a bulky desktop computer that looks like it’s twenty years old.

The first thing he asks is where I am staying. After I give him the name and room number he says something to the two officers who escorted me upstairs and they walk out.

The plain clothed officer starts asking basic questions: name; birthdate; nationality. He speaks English, but not very well. Everything has a thick Russian accent.

“Is this about a bank robbery?” I ask. I’m nervous, almost shaking.

The man behind the desk stares at me. Then he laughs.

I laugh too.

He types into his computer. I can see that he has Google Translate open.

“No bank robbery. You are suspect murder.”

I stop laughing.

“A murder?! Someone was shot?”

The officer shakes his head and runs his finger along his neck. “Knife.”

“Where were you six July?”

“England. I only arrived to Tiraposl yesterday. Check my passport; it’s in my hotel room.”

The office phone rings and the uniformed officer picks it up, talks for a minute then hangs up. He relays some information to my interrogator, whose face immediately softens.

“You talk truth. You were in England.” The atmosphere instantly lightens and I relax a little.

The interrogation drags on another three hours but it is mostly because of the language barrier. Once the phone rang everything became easier. The interrogator lets me come around to his side of the desk and type into Google Translate to help him understand me better.

“Man killed in robbery. Man have a lot of pounds that were stolen,” he tells me over the shared computer screen. “Exchanges must notify police when pounds transferred.”

The police ask me to write down everything I did on July 6th. They also ask me to detail where I came into possession of the pounds I tried to exchange. Google Translate copies my statement into Russian and I sign both papers.

When we finish, an officer walks me downstairs and out the door toward the street. He shakes my hand and says “Freedom.”

 

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