Hundreds of foreign students from developing countries gathered in front of the main administration building in St. Petersburg, the second largest city and the hometown of President Vladimir Putin, on Christmas Day [unfortunately not to celebrate western Christmas but] to protest yet another gruesome stabbing to death of an African student, Kanthem Leon, accusing a group of radical skinheads of promoting Nazi ideologies and indiscriminately using fascist symbols against students. They also attributed the frequent racially motivated murders to complete lack of effective action by local authorities in the country.
That same night, what appeared to be the same group, in sporting dark clothing and dark hats, rampaged through the city apparently attacking just foreign students found in the street. One more victim, Mwangi Eddy Maina, a twenty-two year student of St. Petersburg Water Engineering University, was fatally stabbed but survived while five others were hospitalized of wounds and bruises on their bodies.
Joined by organizations as varied as Memorial and pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi, the demonstrators handed a strongly worded letter to authorities asking to put an end to the increasingly wave of deadly attacks on foreign students in affluent cities that St. Petersburg, Voronezh and Moscow have witnessed in the recent year. Students in small cities are also not free from such racial attacks.
The demonstrators, which surprisingly included activists of the Nashi movement, rallied with banners reading “Shame to the City which Kills Guests!”, “Criminals Must be Brought to Account!”, How Many More Will be Killed?”, and “Stop Racism!” as some covered themselves with white sheets.
“The geography of losses of the past two years is vast: Cameroon, Tunisia, Morocco, Congo, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, China, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Peru and India. When will this countdown end? We called on law enforcement agencies to rid the streets of this evil,” the letter said.
Racism has become a major growing social problem throughout Russia following the collapse of communist rule, and unprovoked people attack black [even light-skin] students from developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. There are staggering statistics on the incidence of racially-rated crimes in Russia. Russian prosecutors, however, often dismiss violence against dark-skinned students as “hooliganism”, rather than as a hate crime. Such crimes as “inciting racial hatred”, which is punishable under article 282 of the criminal code. Under the Russian law, it is illegal to incite ethnic or religious hatred, but fascist and other radical extremist-nationalist groups indiscriminately distributes their literature in the country.
Terry Davis, Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, the continents leading human rights body, expressed great concern about the recent attacks and frequent murders of dark-skinned foreign students in several Russian cities, calling the incidents a worrisome trend in post-communist Russia which now chairs the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialised countries.
Many students in the country say young nationalists have hatred for them. They are under constant attacks and complaints lodged with education or municipal authorities were never investigated. They also said! they usually feel social tension while living in the country and simply find it absolutely difficult to understand the real forces behind the frequent attacks and what gains the radicals make out of it. Some admittedly say the youth are attracted to a nationalist movement by the Nazi insignia, a sense of impunity and the willingness to resort to violence of any kind.
“This is not the first time an attack of this nature has happened. The attacks on us occur very frequently and authorities would not even promise any protection. They are just quiet, they would not react by making official warnings public! ly,” a Postgraduate Student in Management Floray Kabemba said.
Kabemba, who had arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] nearly eight years ago, said he has witnessed a lot more of such attacks, some resulting in death of students. He cited the stabbing to death of Amaro Limo, a 24 year-old medical student from Guinea-Bissau in Feb. last year. He said the local university never assisted in sending the corpse home for burial.
Police detained three suspects the next month, convicted and sentenced them prison terms after human rights groups and student activists criticized and mounted pressure on the authorities, he narrated. “But that did not even scare the group member. The environment is still not safe for anybody, - not for studies, not for business. You pay your hard earn money, they'll still kill you. It's not known who will be the next victim,” Kabemba said.
Like most foreign students from developing countries, Mohamed Karim of St. Petersburg State University is gripped by constant fear. Not only that! He is consistently harassed by the police even though he no problems with documents and three times has ended up in hospital after beatings by skinheads. After seven years of living and studying in perpetual fear, Karim, the Sri Lankan Graduate Student in Civil Engineering, is leaving Russia for good.
“We are nothing here. It seems as if we're in prison, there absolutely no social life in this country, no future for us,” Karim said. “There are public abuses all over the place, on public transport and in the shops or bazaars. I am fed up of hearing demeaning phrases, even from educated adults.”
He said it's about time to tell the bitter truth about Russia.
Karim bitterly complained about the labour law which either excludes or makes it difficult for foreign students from obtaining work permits. “What's worse is they don't allow us to work to sup! plement our meager financial remittances we receive from our relatives and to improve our living conditions. Because of this, we don't have assess to basic right to employment and lack work experience upon completion of our academic studies, even though those rights are granted under the labour law,” he said.
Liu Xhong, in her early thirties and at the other end of the professional scale, says she feels a similar, if more subtle, dehumanization and physical harassment or violence. She moved to Moscow four and half years ago, sent by the Chinese government to study Russian language and linguistics at the Russian People's Friendship University which admits about two-third foreigners from developing countries.
Now, Xhong doubts whether she will ever continue her training. Her problem is she was beaten several times. “I am a Chinese lady, yet I was beaten. They are just beating everybody. The university directors only asked me if I have reported the case to the police,” she said. “I'm afraid of the police as I have reported once before, but never get a fruitful reaction. They are very sluggish in attitudes toward these cases and it's of no use at all to go them.”
For students from African countries, who continue to come to Russia due to cheap education, the threat to their safety is unfortunately real. Peter Luakurwa, who is a second year postgraduate student from the Republic of Tanzania, said he personally feels bad about the unending tales of attacks on his fellow foreigners.
“We risk our previous lives to come because education here is very affordable and cheaper than it is in the western countries. And I don't have any plans of staying behind due to difficulties of securing job, - just the overall risk of living here,” Luakurwa said.
“Hardly do we understand the motives of these attacks. These days, they indiscriminately attack without identifying whether you're from an Asian country or Africa. It's not understandable why all students have become their target,” he said.
But, Luakurwa thinks those who really want to see Russia develop into a civilized and respectably great power, a country to be respected for fundamental human rights and a place for worthy life, the Russia should begin to pursue an opposite inflammatory slogans to such ones as “Russia for Russians” which is propagated by some nationalist politicians. “Anti-foreigner sentiments are widespread here, so look carefully before you leap,” he added with a warning finger. The country's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, called on the government to establish a nation-wide programme to teach social tolerance, according to a statement on his website. He called on the country's educationists ! to help inculcate acceptance standard courtesy among the youth.
St. Petersburg Governor and Mayor Valentina Matviyenko told reporters recently that she had taken the case of Kanthem Leon “under [her] personal control” and went so far to compare racial attacks to terrorism. She also called efforts or work of Russian police to rein in the attacks against foreigners throughout the country “unsatisfactory” and strongly urged educators to get more involved in protecting foreign students. Matviyenko thinks it is hard time to admit frankly the mistakes in the upbringing of the youth and the young generation.
“Xenophobia and racism are no lesser threats to society than terrorism. They have their roots in illiteracy, in spite of the absence of life targets and values. Our society should admit the serious mistakes made in upbringing of the youth, lack of proper attention to problematic groups and to the spread of extremist moods among young people,” Matviyenko said in a statement. !
This was the most outspoken yet from a government official on the problem of xenophobia. Police are prone to officially labeling attacks against foreigners as “hooliganism” – something that Matviyenko says sends out a message to the skinheads that they will be undeterred.
But Dr. Gabriel Kotchofa, who heads and directs All! Foreign Students Association headquartered in Moscow and a long time Geology Lecturer at the Moscow State University of Oil and Gas, warns that history and slack jurisprudence are to blame for the exponential growth in racial attitudes in Russia. He said law enforcement agencies are part of the problem as they turn away people who attempted to report such crimes to them and governm! ent authorities are also not stamping their feet with serious measures.
“In the Soviet era, the causes of the country's problems were always said to derive from an external enemy, such as imperialism or Zionism. But now they're looking at a different kind of - 'ism', and it's the enemy within, the immigrants and poor foreign students living Russia, who are getting the blame,” Professor Kotchofa said.
“We have to make more relentless efforts in reaching out to a greater number of foreign students and a cross section of the foreign community that is prey to this public abuse and physical violence,” he said.
He said his association has began to disseminate information and collecting statistics, as means to provide advocacy support for victims and to raise awareness to the growing problem. Professor Kotchofa said he has great hopes to assist the Ru! ssian government, related ministries and appropriate organisations [both local and international] in working out an effective system to address these human violations.
***Editor's Note: Prospective foreigners intending to study in Russian educational institutions are strongly advised to reconsider seriously their decision. It's absolutely not safe up there yet