The Chechnyan Connection
Dina Aleksandra Sokolovic was chosen because she knew Russian, Serbian, Bosnian, Croat, and several other languages and dialects from the old Soviet Republics. Her cover surname, changed from Milos, was the same as an Islamic hero of the Bosnian war. She was very tough and smart. Raised in a family of acrobats that traveled Eastern Europe and the United States and performed in circuses and carnivals, she was used to an ever-changing, rough-and-tumble life on the road. Despite her small demeanor, her smile and outgoing nature quickly won new friends wherever she went.
Life on the road taught her well. When she was tested for her college aptitude, she scored among the highest ever recorded. She proved that at the Academy. Her resourcefulness in problem-solving was unparalleled.
From the Academy Dina went directly to the new HS headquarters at Destination 31. The remaining members of the old CIA and HS staffers from Quantico were housed there, frantically trying to come up with intelligence to stop the growing number of terrorist and anarchistic acts being perpetrated on the American people. It was a madhouse with people arguing and screaming; not at all the quiet, data gathering place she expected. It was obvious that they needed help. Being young and open to opportunities, she was ready. Except for her badge, security was rather lax inside. She found her room, settled in, and then roamed the complex taking in the excitement.
Her section chief called her to a small meeting room the next day. There were three other, much older, men in the room. When she entered, they rose and snapped to attention. George Thomas, her section chief, spoke first. "Dina Aleksandra, I would like you to meet Alexander Rubakov, Boris Sarnoff, and Anatoly Chomsky. They are our friends from the former Soviet Republic and members of the KGB. In the next few weeks, they will work with you to teach you everything they know about the former republics of Georgia, Chechnya, and the Oblasts. They will also teach you how to behave so that you can easily assimilate into society there.” The three men leaned forward and shook her hand, warmly embracing her as they did. Dina could see the lines of combat etched in their faces, softened by age. There was also a sparkle there, too. They were looking forward to working with this young girl.
"How will you protect yourself, my little dumpling?" Boris was dead serious. "Russian men like to have their way with women, especially when they're drinking vodka. What will you do?"
"I have been trained for combat. I will hit them in the Adam's apple. Kick them in the shins. Knee them in the groin. Bite an ear off. Whatever it takes. Carnies drink whiskey. It's all the same. I've been fighting them off since I was ten.” There was a fire in her eyes that told her mentors that she was dead serious. "I plan to use a 5-inch stickpin to hold my hair up when I travel. I know how to use it. In the neck, heart, or groin.” Her eyes narrowed. The three old warriors squirmed in their seats.
"Of course I can also use a knife or gun. In our act, we juggled knives--sharp knives. One slip and you could lose a finger. I've played all the knife games with the boys. Everyone carried a switchblade and used it. I am trained in several types of military firepower and received an award for pistol marksmanship during my basic training--but then you know that.”
The three cold warriors chuckled in unison. They were very pleased with her answers to their concern if she could take care of herself. Deep inside they also knew that something slipped in her drink, a sneak attack while she slept or was caught off guard, or being captured meant that she was in for rape and torture. They hoped she was prepared for that, too.
Dina had long decided that her mission was to infiltrate the Chechen rebels. To do this she had to immerse herself in the Islamic religion. Growing up where she did had given her a basic foundation. Her earliest childhood friends were Moslem. Now she studied the Koran every night and worked with Islamic scholars every day between sessions with her three "Grampas.” She took part in daily prayers and learned how to submit to the rule of men without letting them control her. *
Six months at Destination 31 was all she needed. Her cover was that she was a disaffected American who longed to go back to the country of her birth. After her father died in the Bosnian War, her mother took Dina and her brother on a boat tour to Greece and escaped through Italy to the United States. Her mother had joined an acrobat troupe soon after they arrived in the States, and she became a member of the troupe as soon as she was old enough to balance on the heads of the young men. When she was ten, her mother caught pneumonia and died. She took care of her younger brother and fought off the male members of the troupe until she was eighteen and he was sixteen. Longing to go home, Dina quit the carnival and entered college, studying Russian and the languages of the Caucasians. With odd jobs and scholarships she made it through. Her younger brother studied physical education and became a gymnastics coach. Secure in the thought that he would be okay, she headed east to find her destiny.
Dina arrived in Moscow on a warm September day. After finding a dingy flat, she looked for work. All she could find was a vegetable vending job in the farmers market. Every morning at 5:00 a.m. she would go to the market and fill a handcart with turnips, onions, potatoes, or whenever was available at a reasonable price. She then pushed the handcart two miles to a wealthy part of town and resold the vegetables in the street. On a good day she made three hundred rubles, only enough to get a little food and pay her rent. She didn’t touch the $10,000 deposited in a numbered account at a Swiss bank branch. She wanted to look poor and it worked.
She did, however, make contact with the wealthy and quickly improved her spoken Russian by chatting with women who frequented her cart. "What's a pretty young thing like you doing selling vegetables in the street?" Often fell from the lips of matrons and mistresses in lavish fur coats who pulled up in Mercedes and would rather shop from a handcart then go the supermarket. Dina's answer was always the same. "I'm saving money to travel back to the Balkans to find my family.” The woman would invariably ask more and Dina would tell her her sad story. Some would weep when they heard it and gave her more money. One beautiful young patron had a better offer.
Simone Burlakov began to stop by every day about eight with a cup of coffee from McDonald's. Dina appreciated that. Simone bought a few vegetables and liked to chat. Sometimes they chatted for an hour before Simone left. Dina surmised that Simone was married to a member of the Russian Mafia by the way she talked and flashed money. One cold rainy November day, out of the blue, Simone said, "I'm sending Natalia to visit her parents in Siberia over the holidays. Would you care to step in and help me take care of the kids?"
It couldn't have come at a better time. The selection of vegetables in the market had dwindled and those that were there were very bad quality. It was getting bitterly cold and some days, after standing on the cold all day, she had to return the cart half sold. She could no longer pay her rent. She was contemplating raiding the money she brought with her from the States.
The Burlakov home, consisting of the entire Penthouse floor of a new apartment building, was sumptuous beyond Dina's dreams. She was given a room in the corner of the massive apartment overlooking the Kremlin. She wept when she heard carolers singing Christmas carols far below as she stood on the snow covered balcony watching the lights play on the Kremlin buildings that first night.
The two Burlakov children, Anatoly and Natasha, six and four, were well-behaved and not too much trouble to look after. Dina read every book and magazine in the place and, in her off time, continued her language studies.
When Natalia came back in January, Simone kept Dina on staff to help her with shopping and cleaning. Dina was saving money and becoming part of the family. It was not easy being part of the Burlakov family. There were calls in the night and Sergio Burlakov would leave in one of his several limousines. Thugs would come to the door and confer with him. At night she would hear Simone and Sergio fighting. She overheard things. There were secrets. Sometimes, when the children and Natalia were gone, Simone would confide with Dina over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine her problems. Though she wanted, she could never divorce. Sergio was brutal to her sometimes. "Wait-and-see," she would say, "When we go to the Villa on the Black Sea soon, things will be much better.” And then she would cry, holding Dina's hand and making her promise never to say anything about it to anyone.
Under this new arrangement Dina was able to save almost all the money she made. She spread it around in several banks; unsure that any of them would be solvent when she came to collect. Buying things of value would have been an option. There were many antiques and other treasures for sale. But she had no place to keep them and it would be dangerous for her to hide jewelry or gold or carry it with her. Such was her dilemma. Still, it was better than most who were eking out a living and barely making ends meet. At least she had a few roubles here and there even if she could not entirely dependent on them being there when she needed them.
The time passed quickly and soon it was March, time for the family's annual migration to the Black Sea. It took a week of packing to put all the things Simone wanted to take along in a large van. Dina wasn't allowed to ride in the van because it was too dangerous. Besides the driver, Sergio had one thug riding shotgun and another inside the van to protect their valuables on the way down. Instead, Dina got to ride with Natalia, Simone and the kids in the Mercedes limousine. It was a smooth and beautiful ride, punctuated by frequent stops at checkpoints were Simone gladly bribed the guards so they could get to the villa quickly and safely. It took them two days.
Once they were at the villa, things slowed down. Everyone lay round on the decking and got beautiful tans between dips in the heated pool. Every night was a party, and often they partied at other villas owned by gangsters and former government officials. Dina would cater to these parties and the men would grab her and try to pull her into closets or bedrooms for a quickie. With her strength and acrobatic skill, they rarely succeeded. Those few that did were young, handsome men. She knew it made them feel good, boosted their morale, and gave her a little protection in a world that was easy to come apart. She never let it happen with the same man twice, and she made sure that she made an impression on the ones she did let sample her. She always took one of Simone's morning after pills. AIDs was rampant among the nouveau riche, so she took her chances with that. Russian men disdained condoms at their own peril.
Easter Sunday was special. The whole family dressed up to go to church. Dina, with the rest of the house staff, stood on the veranda in their uniforms and waved at the family as they entered the limousine. Suddenly, the Mercedes blew up in their faces. Dina ducked and ran with the others back into the house as pieces of glass and the car hit them and all the house windows blew out. Everyone was stunned. Dina's ears were ringing but she wasn't hurt. Other staff members were bleeding and crying out. She didn't help them. Instead, she ran upstairs to Simone's room and gathered as much as she could into two bags. In her shoes and her waistband, she stuffed dollars and euros. She found Simone's pistol and placed it strategically in a purse inside one of the bags.
Everything was too new and upscale for a street person. She decided that she would tell anyone that questioned her that she had stolen them. The house was still filled with shrieking and wailing as she slipped into the kitchen and grabbed some food. And then she slipped out the back door and down the hillside toward the lake. Tears streaked her cheeks for Simone and the children. She didn't look back, but kept going until dark when she stopped to eat some of the food she'd stashed in the bag and curled up under a tree between the two bags to sleep for the night.
It was either Chechnyans or mobsters that did it. Sergio Burlakov had many who hated him or wanted him out of the way. Either way, it was all part of the new Russia. The police would probably never solve the crime. So many like this went unsolved. She looked back at the house as she reached the rocky shoreline and began to follow it. It seemed peaceful. She turned and never looked back again. She walked for two days, avoiding people wherever she could. About 60 km from the villa was a tourist town called Poti. She found an ancient livestock shed bordered by a stone wall high on a hill overlooking the town. Carefully removing some stones from wall, she buried one of the bags with most of the money and the gun. By now the other bag was dirty and her hair and clothes had taken on the look of a wandering street person. At nightfall, she entered the town and looked for a room to rent. She found one, on a back street near the waterfront that looked appropriate.
The old man with glasses was reading when she approached his desk. "Do you have room for the night?" She asked.
The old man looked over his glasses at her skeptically, and said, "That depends, do you have any money? I am not a charity.”
"Will euros do? I have euros.” Dina knew that roubles were nearly worthless and that euros or dollars were highly prized.
"Euros will do. Three euros. Three euros for the night, okay?" Dina reached in her pocket and produced a wad of about ten euros. She pulled three from the wad, straightened them out, and handed them to the old man. It was all carefully orchestrated to show she was a street person and that she had enough money to stay more than one night. The old man reached for a key on the board behind him and handed it to her. "Room sixteen, down that hall to the left, last room. The bathroom is in the hall. By the way, where did you get those the euros, steal them?"
"Yes, I did. From some stupid old drunk German tourist.” That seemed to satisfy the desk clerk and he nodded toward the hall. Dina picked up her bag and headed that way. Her cover was working.
The room was as old as the building--dingy and Spartan. There was no place to hang her clothes. She locked the door with the rusty old bolt, threw her bag in the corner, and lay down on the hard old wooden bed. In a moment she was asleep.
Dina woke to the sound of people in the street. From her window, she could only see the sky, but she could tell that it was late. She ate some cheese and bread to fill her stomach, and then found the bathroom empty. The tub was grungy and looked like it had been left over from the era of the czars. After scrubbing it out, she took a leisurely bath and wasn't bothered. Dressing in tights, she hid what valuables she could and went out into the streets. Before long she found a square near the waterfront and began to perform. A crowd of tourists gathered and soon she was getting tips in the bag she had opened in front of her. In the evening, she took a break and had fresh fish in a little sidewalk cafe overlooking the waterfront. Later, she looked for and found some nightspots to hang out in. Several men approached her, but she took nothing but a free drink. She returned to her room satisfied that she could make it here. She slept soundly knowing that she didn't have to get up before noon. Most of the occupants of the hotel left before sun up to their work.
As April became May, Dina had settled into a pattern of performing in the afternoon for the tourists. Eating in the sidewalk cafes where she could observe and meet people. And hanging out in the local bars for the same reason. She befriended the waiters and asked if they knew any Muslims because she was lonely and needed encouragement from people of her own faith. She found a mosque and began going there for prayer. Gradually, as she met people and told them her story of being, "out of place,” as a circus performer in America, she began to sort out who was who in Poti.
There was one place, Batlivala, an out of way little bar frequented mostly by locals and unknown by the tourists, that she found the most promising. A group of young people would gather in one corner and talk adamantly almost every night. When she asked the bartender, he cupped his hand to her ear and whispered, "They are Chechen. The owner here is Moslem, he looks the other way. Would you like to meet them?” Dina nodded yes.
The bartender came out from behind the bar and escorted Dina over to a table of four, signaling the man in back to come forward. He rose, all six foot four of him and stepped around the woman to his right to greet Dina. "Mohammad, this is Dina Aleksandra. She is Moslem and from America.”
"So pleased to meet you, Dina Aleksandra. Would you care to join us? I am Mohammad Moselle Khond. My friends call me, Khondi.” He took her hand and reached for a chair to place her at his table. His English was impeccable, with a slight British accent.
The bartender brought drinks at Khondi's request. As he pushed the chair in for her, he introduced the others. "This is Mustafa, my right hand man. And these two are sisters, Mashid, 'Shi Shi', and Shara. They are most helpful to me.” He smiled broadly, his face just over her right shoulder. She reached out and shook hands with each of them. She noted that the two strikingly beautiful young women were eyeing her with great suspicion. She knew she had to be more on guard of them than the men at the table.
Khondi waited until after the bartender distributed the drinks before he spoke. "So, you are an American here in Poti looking for Chechens? We know you are a circus acrobat and that you are Serbian, and that you have been nosing around for Muslims. What else can you tell us?" He asked matter-of-factly.
Dina was surprised at his direct, but calm, manner. She was taken off guard. She had to think before she answered. "Yes, I have come here in search of my people. When I was a child, the circus protected me from the cruelty that Americans bear against those they don't understand. Since 9/11 my family and I came under suspicion for our religious beliefs. You might say I’m here searching for my roots.”
"That's interesting. I would say that you are a spy. But then, since the Cold War’s been over there are no spies, just private contractors. Am I right? Do you have any dealings with the administration in Moscow?”
Dina could feel the eyes of the two women boring right through her. It was very uncomfortable, but she had to get past this. "I was in Moscow when I first came here. I know no one in the government. I worked for Simone Burlakov for while, but then, you know what happened.”
“Yes, Sergio Burlakov was killed by his rival, Vladimer Kreisky. He was greedy. Tried to take too much for himself. In what capacity did you work for Burlakov?”
Dina couldn’t believe Kondi’s intelligence and his skill at informal interrogation. "I was a housekeeper and cared for his children. I was shocked and am still grieving because Simone and little ones are dead.” Her voice cracked and she started to cry.
"I believe you. He was a criminal and deserved what he got. I know nothing of his wife and children, but that's the way it is these days. No one is safe. There are just varying degrees of death. I choose an honorable one. What about you?”
Dina forced a smile through her tears and raised her glass. "I choose life.” The others raised their glasses, smiled, and joined her, smiling. Soon everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves. Khondi introduced her to several others in the group. When she woke to the light coming through her small window the next morning, he was warm by her side.
Khondi stirred, jumped up to a sitting position, scratched his head and shoulders, and felt that he had to explain himself. He began slowly. "When I was young boy, I did very well in school. Just before the Berlin Wall came down, I was sent to Oxford by Gorbachev to study military science. The KGB would have made me a spy. Instead, I have become an insurgent. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we wanted to make Chechnya a sovereign state like some of the other Muslim republics. The Russians, fearful of losing our oil, wouldn’t let us. They began oppressing us because of our religion and our oil wealth. We formed the separatist movement and became wahhabites. They nearly destroyed us. Now we're scattered all over. I maintain this small cell of resistance. Your hotel has a policy prohibiting visitors to its rooms. I'll sneak out the back. When you’re ready, you can come live with us. For now, it is good that you are here. Let's see what useful information you can provide from here and from those tourists you meet daily.”
The sound of him drifted off. Dina opened her sleepy eyes and looked up. He was gone. She smelled the warm sheet where he’d been.