‘You must fight for ISIS’

The young Syrian Odey al Shufi and his 19 year-old wife, Russian citizen Nadezhda Yepifanova, live in Saint Petersburg – she is studying on the second course at LSU and he is a trainee with friends at a cafe. Or rather, he was a trainee: On the holiday evening of the 7 March 2016 a stranger came to the cafe and stabbed Odey more than ten times with a knife.

‘You must fight for ISIS’

The most horrific strike was to his throat, with the knife reaching his jugular. ‘The ambulance took an hour, and to the intensive care another 30 minuets’ tells Nadezhda ‘blood was gushing, immediately leading to second degree shock. They took me out of the cafe because I was screaming so much. Imagine – we only got married in September and on the 8 March – what a gift.’

Although many Syrians in Europe are suspected to have links with ISIS, in Russia it is possible to be knifed without such links. This happened to Odey – Several days before the attack, at the small cafe on Ladozhskaya where he worked a man, seemingly Chechen called in. ‘He asked what I was doing there and said: you must fight for ISIS in Syria to protect Islam and you are here hiding. I kept telling him: no way, they are terrorists, they kill children, women, everyone. He was angry, replying – don’t say that, I have lots of friends fighting there. And he left.’

Meditation instead of prayer

Odey is 22 years old. He came to Russia in 2012 from the city of As-Suwayda – the capital of the Druze, a religious minority in Syria. Officially the Druze are Shiites, but in fact they are far removed from any kind of traditional Islam. Separating from Ismaili Islam at the start of the 11th Century, Druze became one of the most exotic forms of Islam. They believe in the transmigration of the soul, prayers are sometimes substituted for meditation and, until the war they were considered to be the best winemakers in Syria. In As-Suwayda there are many excellent colleges including the one where Odey received a diploma in programming in 2012.

The situation in the city was already difficult – when the civil war started the Druze supported the regime of Bashir Assad. Therefore the Islamists represent a danger for them. The Druze are scared that the regime will not give its reciprocal support in the event of a clash – not with ISIS, which are located some distance away, but the group Al-Nusra aka Al-Qaida in Syria.
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Odey, in saving his own life, was forced to leave Syria. He decided to carry on his studies in Russia away from the ever-growing war. He enrolled at Tver State University and spent a year in the preparatory faculty. After this year he went back home to organise a new visa. The situation in As-Suwayda had become far more difficult. ‘I have two brothers – both serve in the police. One had already been to Aleppo – luckily he is still alive. I hadn’t previously served in the police or army for health reasons as I had cancer around the knee. When I was 14 they did an operation and now it’s in remission – I started to be afraid that they would now take me.

Without waiting for the call, Odey returned to Russia – as he says ‘I wanted to study in a nice big city.’ But it didn’t work out like that: With the documents that he had received, Odey couldn’t study at university and it turned out he could only enroll in a Russian language course. There he met a young Turkish woman who introduced Odey to Nadezhda.

Nadezhda Epifanova, now already the wife of Odey is a perky young girl, she is only 19. She studies translation at LSU in the second course.
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The young couple married not long ago on 1 September 2015. Now they live in a small apartment they rent in the area of Moskovskaya metro station. It’s expensive, but before their parents would help them out. In recent times the financial help has become squeezed: In Syria the situation became disastrous, therefore Odey started as a trainee in that infamous cafe on Ladozhskaya.

Ten knife wounds

On the night of the 8 March the man who has friends that ‘fight for ISIS’ came in again. There were lots of people, the Caucasian harassed all of them but didn’t start an open conflict. After this he went out onto the street with some of the customers, but unfortunately he came back and this time rushed straight towards Odey shouting ‘I will kill you!’

‘He had absolutely crazy eyes’ remembers Nadia, ‘afterwards we were told that many people know him – the local Chechen addicted to pharmaceuticals. He pulled out a knife and started to attack. And Odey pushes him to the exit. The knife was pretty big. The blade itself was around ten centimeters. The attacker’s first strike cut Odey’s lip. The second blow was to the neck. The rest landed on his sides and hands. Odey tried to push the attacker away whilst hiding from the knife.
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Nadia was at that moment in the cafe with her husband, but they immediately took her out of the cafe. ‘Even though the ambulance didn’t take me with him, people helped me and we quickly followed him to the Marinsky hospital. This hospital is considered to be the worst. It is here where all the homeless and poor are brought, and the quality of care leaves much to be desired.’

I heard how he screamed – during the operation the anesthetic ran out. And this was general anesthetic. They didn’t even give him another injection, just threw him a blanket and took him to the intensive care unit. And then a doctor comes out and starts to look around saying: ‘We could put him between meningitis and tuberculosis cases but he wont survive – and there are no other places’ remembers Nadezhda. They sent her out of the hospital and said she couldn’t come back until the next day. Nadia returned home, collected some things, slept for several hours and returned. ‘I arrive with all the things, they meet me and say he is not breathing. Odey is on a ventilator and I wasn’t allowed to see him. I’m terrified – all I got from the doctor was ‘we don’t give forecasts.’

Odey only started to breath on his own close to eight in the evening. ‘When I started to do it myself I asked the doctor – will I live? The doctor said, well if you don’t die’ remembers the Syrian. By the 10 March he was already moved to the general ward.

For both the stay and operation the Marinsky hospital presented Odey and Nadia with a bill for about 50 thousand rubles. Of this 10 thousand was listed for the anesthetic that didn’t even work. But the young couple couldn’t pay: the medical help provided to Odey falls under the emergency criteria and therefore should be free. ‘For the stay we paid, but for the rest we shouldn’t’ believes Nadia.

Choose from what is available

The investigator was involved with the case already by the 8 March. Despite the fact it was a holiday they went to the hospital. But they didn’t speak with Odey. From all the witnesses they called on only Nadia. ‘They asked me strange questions. He worked with you in the cafe, what did he do there – did he chop cucumbers or potatoes? I tell him about the attacker, how he came in, how horrible it was and how he immediately greeted Odey with a ‘salaam alekum.’ the inquirer writes down ‘greeted in a foreign language.’

‘There was a cashier – Natalia, she saw the attacker several times, she even found a bit of the knife. But the knife was discarded and Natalia was not interviewed. Although she was ready to be interviewed – she saw everything; she had to clean the blood caked on her hands. I remember how they were asking for a long time: What is her proper name Natalya or Natalia’ recounts Nadia, ‘women which were sitting in the cafe later came back and told how they had seen the attacker at the metro. Where the police interested in this? No.’
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The criminal investigation was filed as a crime under Point B article 2 paragraph 115 of the criminal code: Intentional infliction of harm to health, causing short-term damage to health or lasting loss of work capacity committed with weapons or objects used as weapons. It was hinted to the victim that reclassifying the case was not desirable. Shockingly Odey was only called for an interview two months later – on the 12 May, after coming to the attention of a lawyer at the group ‘Migration and Law Human Rights Centre Memorial’ and repeated attempts to ask about the progress of Odey’s case.

‘They came to put together a sketch of the attacker, but only in May’ tells Nadia. ‘We told them – the attacker had big red eyes. And the policemen said we don’t have these. After we said he had a beard, they replied we don’t have that. Then we say: there was a beard, and they reply – choose from one of the ones we have. Look – that is what resulted – the only thing similar is the hat. Understand, it’s not that we don’t remember him – they were blind, it doesn’t resemble him at all.  And the information from the camera, they say, is lost. Although this person didn’t visit the cafe just once.’

Moreover, an expert on the determination of the degree of severity of injuries was appointed only in June 2016, after the lawyer submitted different complaints and grievances. Therefore the results of the experts were missing.
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Olga Tseytlina believes such behaviour from the police was an obstruction to the investigation of the crime:

‘The case was filed late and Odey wasn’t interviewed until some months after, only after I had started the case. There wasn’t an interview of the witnesses to the crime and those who witnessed the attacker didn’t fill out surveys or make statements. Moreover, the whereabouts of the records of the surveillance cameras, the analysis of which was necessary, is unknown. But in the words of the investigator there is no video from the camera. In a motion for the admission of records we received a reply on 24 June 2016, although these investigations are urgent and must be held at the initiative of the investigation.

We believe that the case was given a wrong qualification. What took place was an attempt at murder (Article 105 of the Criminal Code), as the strikes hit vital organs, (the neck) and the assailant shouted that he would kill Odey. There is also evidence of a motive of hatred because the attack was preceded by a conflict due to the attacker objecting to Odey being in Russia. But this charge was not retained and in June 2016 was rejected.

There is information that the assailant was already arrested for another incident (a shooting in a nightclub in May 2016) and is now in Kresty prison No. 1, – we reported this to the investigation. Our request to check this was accepted, but the results are unknown to us.’ 

Life after

Odey still has no proper documents: in August 2015, he appealed to the migration service with a request for temporary asylum in Russia, but the first interview was conducted only at the end of May after the intervention of lawyer Olga Tseytlina, and written complaints and appeals to the bodies of the local migration service and the FMS of Russia. He even managed to get a certificate of consideration of the appeal after a long time. Before they had heard the same thing: ‘No certificates to give.’ The lawyer said this was a refusal of inclusion in the procedure of obtaining asylum. Odey hopes that his asylum claim will be considered positively, since he can’t go back to Syria where there is war, needs treatment, and his wife is a Russian citizen.

‘Before that we lived quietly, we were buying things, slowly settling down, ’ says Nadia. – We now have no money – our parents have asked everyone we know to borrow some money. But we spend a lot on medicines, Odey can’t work, besides, he is in a bad state  – his head is constantly spinning and he lives on painkillers. Now Analgin, two or three pills a day before drinking Nise, but it very expensive. He’s not sleeping, aches, and the stitches don’t stay in place. It’s scary: after all, we can’t call an ambulance, doctor and no refugee status means no insurance policy. Last week his temperature was 38.7, we were terribly frightened, but had to wait it out at home.

It is the public human rights organizations are actively supporting the family in this difficult, unfair, and crisis situation. Civic Assistance Committee covers some medical and daily expenses of the family, the lawyer Olga Tseytlina supports the St. Petersburg organization ‘Civil Control’, a lawyer seeking to conduct an effective investigation, and also engaged in legal support related to asylum.

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We continue to gather information about such crimes on the map of attacks. This is what we can do for victims such as Odey. And we are asking all witnesses or victims to write to us or fill out the application form on the website of the card.

‘Everything changed, ’ says Nadia. – I am now afraid when he goes out. We now think – suddenly the perpetrator will be let go and he will come. Or someone else. But for Odey Russia is a country of refuge and we hope to be able to continue our family life in peace and security. Odey fled from the war, from bombs, from chaos, is against the Islamists, against war, blood and violence. We just want to live in peace and love.’

By Elena Srapyan, Civic Assistance Committee

Photo by Anastasia Petrovich

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