the lost american Interview with Svetlana Yashina  - Excerpt

She is the sister of Galina Oleinik, the young Russian translator who
vanished with Fred Cuny and two Russian doctors. Svetlana, in this interview,
explains how Fred Cuny  came to hire her for the fateful trip to Chechnya and
reconstructs what she can surmise from two notes that her sister Galina wrote
while in captivity.

FRONTLINE Producer Sherry Jones: How did Galina meet Fred Cuny?

S: She was introduced to him indirectly by Pat Reed, with whom she had worked as an interpreter when Pat was in Moscow. Pat recommended Galina to Fred as an interpreter. When she was working with Patricia, she went to two sites of ethnic conflict: southern Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh. Galina by that time was Svetlana Yashina experienced, not so much at interpreting as in solving organizational problems - where to stay, whom to approach with a request or for visitors' permits, that kind of thing. She was good at that. Interpreters can always be found, but a person who has the hands-on experience and knows what needs to be done and how to do it, that's what attracted Fred's attention. That's why he insisted on her. He phoned me when he got here because my phone was the link between them. And I gave her his message, that he wanted her to come and do some work for him. But they actually met only on the day his plane took off for Nazran.

FRONTLINE: What did she tell you about Fred Cuny when you talked to her by telephone

S: When they were in Nazran, the first time, I think it was, Fred Cuny stumbled and fell, fracturing a toe. Everyone was upset for him because he had already gone through so much by that time his life had been in danger so many times, and here a little thing like that could put him out of the picture. Anyhow, he left for America to get treatment for his toe. And the group was left without a leader. When they came back to Moscow, they brought lots of photographs, some of them showing Fred Cuny's meetings with local residents, people who lived in the villages that were getting help. The photos showed him standing and talking with them. The talk was basically about how they supported the idea of getting assistance to them. They were constantly updating plans about what had to be brought in, who should be included, doctors and all. Plans were being made for a joint trip with a group of doctors from the Trauma Institute to help whoever had been injured and needed their help.

FRONTLINE: Was she excited about this work?

S: She was excited. She had just been in another situation when there was nobody to turn to for help, and the one thing she wanted was to be able to help people caught in the same type of trouble she had faced with her family. So this work was of great interest to her and she was very happy and full of energy to be starting this new job. It was a small group, just three of them at the beginning, plus Fred Cuny--he was the fourth. They assumed a huge workload for themselves so they could get as much done as possible.

FRONTLINE: Was there any talk that Fred Cuny was trying to meet Dudaev?

S: There was some talk, but I don't know how concrete it was. What she said was that they were going to try to meet Dudaev and ask him some questions. They had many meetings and quite a few with political leaders, because without them it would have been impossible to resolve certain problems. They met many times with President Aushev, for example.

FRONTLINE: When you heard about these meetings with leaders, and maybe with Dudaev, did you think that maybe it was somewhat strange?

S: I did think it was strange, because Dudaev was a man protected by the tightest security. It was impossible to approach him just like that: after all, there was a war on and he was commander of a warring party. It was strange that they could simply find him and talk to him. Attempting to speak to him and actually speaking to him are two different things. And I don't know how close they ever got.

FRONTLIKNE: Did you ask Galina about it? Did you tell her it was somewhat strange?

S: When she told me about it over the phone, I expressed my surprise, asking what they needed to talk to Dudaev for. She said she didn't know. "We have to talk to him." That's all she said. I understood that it wasn't her idea. She must have been asked to do it, probably by Fred. I don't know, but the idea was there. Whether there was any possibility of carrying it out I don't know.

FRONTLINE: While Fred was in the United States, she and the doctors had a bad incident at Assinovskaya. Tell me about that, what she told you about that.

S: At one of these checkpoints along the road there were Russian soldiers. The soldiers stopped them and demanded their documents. "Why are you going in this direction?" they asked. "We're doctors," was the answer, " we are determining the amount of medical assistance needed." But they were detained anyway. And one of the doctors was beaten up.

Galina, who had told them she was the leader of the small group, was told to follow the soldiers, to check her story, I guess. How it was that they got to the airport I can't tell you, but there seems to have been a helicopter that was supposed to take them somewhere. And Galina was left behind, she and another woman, a local woman who was also engaged in work with refugee problems. There were the two of them. A truck full of soldiers passed by, and the women saw that no one was looking and they could escape. Their papers had been taken from them. So they just got in the truck and left. Later this was described as "escaping from the authorities". It was a long time before this discrepancy was cleared up. But it was cleared up and they went on working there, officially approaching the authorities for help many times, to be let through to some area surrounded by federal troops. It must have happened because their moves hadn't been given official approval. The men at the check points hadn't been told that they were coming through. That's what I think.

FRONTLINE: Now there are people who wonder how Galina escaped the situation so easily. Does it surprise you?

S: I'm not surprised because I know my sister. Living with your family for a whole year in the most extreme conditions, surviving three earthquakes and a flood - trying to escape the water rushing towards you - it sharpens your wits, you are constantly on the alert trying to survive. Such a person could do anything. I'm certain that if she were given a chance to start over, she'd do it all again. She never stopped to think that she might be required to report to someone. She just up and left. That's why I couldn't get over that I had no word from my sister for so long. I was sure that, given the least opportunity, she would have somehow have found a way to let me know she was alive.

FRONTLINE: So you expected to hear from her.

S: When I learned, much later, that there had been a note from Galina, and I was asked to identify her handwriting, I saw that the way it was worded was meant to tell me that things had gone wrong, that something needed to be done right away - before it got even worse. I could see from that note that they were in danger, that Galina was telling me indirectly to try to let people know, to head off what that was going to be done to them. What exactly was planned she couldn't tell me, but the tone of the note led me to understand that they were in danger, that a search must be mounted for them, and this must be done without delay. Unfortunately, by the time I found out about this note, all I could do was to say what I thought. If I had seen it right away, I could have said the situation was serious, that they were in real trouble.

FRONTLINE: I have a copy of the note. Could you read it for me and tell me what it is you notice, what she is trying to say?

S: It's not very legible, but I'll try.

"Please tell Liza to cancel the appointment with the American ambassador. And the rest, too." Since everything else is to be canceled, that means the situation may last a long time. "Fred will make new appointments when he gets back." That means that Fred hoped everything would turn out okay. "Also..." this part is hard to make out. "Let them know that Fred has been held up, that he will call as soon as he can. Meanwhile you should call the office in Dallas, and tell them that Fred may be delayed until early next week." She makes it clear that all this was dictated to her by Fred. "And now, a few words from me." This phrase means that before that was the official part, so to speak, and the rest was unofficial. "As usual, we're in deep shit." Well, here that means things are really bad, very scary. It means they've gotten into a real mess, it can't mean anything else.

"The situation does not depend on us. Ruslan will explain when he gets there." I think that means that Ruslan, who was supposed to tell us the story in person, would give us the details because he knew more about what happened than anyone else except them. They instructed him in detail, whom to contact, and when. So it depended on how soon Ruslan could report on the situation: the sooner he got to us, the sooner they could get out of there. I personally think that the words "the situation does not depend on us" means they could do nothing on their own because they were in custody and were being watched all the time. "If we are not back in three days, then ... that's it." You understand that the words "that's it" are written on a separate line by Galina. She means measures must be taken, and urgently. "Until we meet again - I hope." "I hope" is separated by a comma, her hopes are pinned on us.

If I'd seen that note the day they disappeared, I would have done everything I could to raise the alarm, start calling people, go any place that could help them. But the moment was lost - too much time had gone by, and that's why everything happened the way it did. You can see that this piece of paper was torn out of a notebook. It was written in a great hurry, maybe resting on one knee, the paper is all creased and folded. Maybe she gave it to him surreptitiously while nobody was looking. Anyway, I believe the opportunity to do something was lost.

FRONTLINE: You think Fred was telling her to say one thing, that he was optimistic, but then Galina writes, from herself, that she thinks they're in real trouble?

S: I think it was simply that Fred didn't believe, being a foreigner who had come on a humanitarian mission, trying to help people, that someone could be against that, not allow him to do it, and even do him harm. But Galena had been in a similar situation before, an armed conflict, when two groups of people, absolutely unrestrained, were trying to show each other who's boss, and you could find yourself in the crossfire or between the hammer and the anvil. So that sentence that she wrote after the "official" part of the letter...

Fred, I think, just couldn't believe, he didn't realize how bad the situation was, how it could turn out. Besides, not knowing Russian, he may not have heard what the men who detained them were saying to each other. A person who knew the language would tend to give the situation a more sober assessment. Just a word here and there, or even the intonation, would give a Russian a hint as to how serious the situation was.

So she must have decided that she had to give some warning. After what was dictated to her by Fred, about canceling the appointments and so on, her P.S., if you can call it that, about getting somebody to rescue them, and quickly, was the whole point of the note. She had to make it known that they were in trouble, since she couldn't go into detail. In fact, the note may well have been examined by somebody, she had to say it all in a few words, but they were very expressive: "we're in deep shit", "it doesn't depend on us", "Ruslan will explain", and "if we're not back in three days, sound the alarm" That means that everything possible must be done, every radical step taken, make a really big noise. "Until I see you again - I hope. Galya."

FRONTLINE: How did you find out your sister was missing?

S: The tenth of April is my sister's birthday. The night before the 10th, I called her to wish her happy birthday. Some man picked up the phone and said the group had left the week before and no one knew where they were. "What do you mean, a week ago?" I asked him. That's the first I heard they had gone anywhere. Some time passed, and late in April, someone called me from the Soros Foundation and said - here's what it sounded like: "Now please don't start worrying, but there's going to be a report in tomorrow's paper and on the television about an American and some people with him who are missing. We didn't send them, you understand, they got there on their own somehow and then just disappeared".

The main idea seemed to be that it wasn't the foundation's fault. At first I didn't fully react to what he was saying, you don't always, not right away, when you hear something like that. But the next day, we were all glued to the television, waiting for some sort of news about them. The first report was on the N.T.V. channel. They said that Fred Cuny and his group - an interpreter and two doctors - had disappeared in Chechnya. I never heard anything more, or indeed anything concrete at all, from any official. At the time the search was on, different Chechen commanders claimed they were alive. The latest report saying they were still alive came just before the May 9 holiday, the 50th anniversary of V-E Day. Bill Clinton was going to come, and they supposedly assured him that it was a hundred percent certain they were alive, that they would soon be located and everything was okay. Those were the rumors we kept hearing, so we always hoped it would soon be cleared up, that it was just a misunderstanding, they had merely been detained, because someone didn't know who they were, maybe they demanded a ransom. But officially, there was nothing - not that money was being demanded, nor that there was news of them, nothing at all.

FRONTLINE: Who do you think is to blame for their disappearance?

S: To be honest, I find it very hard to tell. I personally believe either side could have been holding them. But as to who would have been more likely to... and besides, there have been so many cases of senseless or accidental shootings, when someone fired at random, or didn't bother to find out who he was shooting at, it could so easily have happened, or some low-ranking officer at a check point could simply have had them executed, without even trying to figure out what was what. And then, to avoid a scandal, it was all hushed up. I won't deny that that could have happened.

But I don't know anything for sure, so I can't make any statement. That's the way it is. Some, the Russians, primarily, accuse the Chechen guerrillas; the Chechens swear it was the Russians. In this tangled circle, the Chechens say "we released them," yet they never got to the checkpoint because the Russians say "we never saw them here." I suppose somebody could have ambushed them along the way. I can't deny either story, honestly, I can't.

FRONTLINE: You know about the documents that were found in the pipe. Here's part of what was found of Galena's.

S: Yes. That's her passport. You are the first person to tell me about this document having been found. Yes, it's her passport all right.

FRONTLINE: You are sure that's her passport, a copy of her passport?

S: Yes, absolutely. Because in the first place, I've seen her passport before. Looking at the dates in here, I can confirm whether they at least approximately correspond to reality. Her photographs, even her belongings that were with her, I could identify them as being hers.

SJ: So her passport was found, and the passports of the two doctors were found.

S: Wasn't Fred's passport found?

SJ: And Fred's, too.

SJ: There is one more note.

S: There was something else?

FRONTLINE: It was found with Galena's materials.

S: This I did not see.

FRONTLINE: Will you read it for me?

S: Can I just glance through it first, because it's very... "Dear Aslan: We tried to reach you as promised with the medical supplies and two doctors. Fred Cuny is with me, the American you already know about, who came to meet with you, but was unsuccessful last time. Please confirm that you know about us and our mission. Yours sincerely, Galena Oleinik, Soros Foundation."

I must say that the handwriting of the last words, "Yours sincerely, Galena Oleinik, Soros Foundation," looks very different from the rest of the note. You get the impression it took her last ounce of strength to write those words. It's shocking. The writing starts out so evenly and ends up just a scrawl, barely legible. You will notice that like the other note, the page was torn out of a notebook. But it's smooth, not wrinkled like the other one. Did you notice that? That's strange, very strange.

FRONTLINE: Does it sound to you like she's desperately trying to get word to Aslan Maskhadov to help them?

S: I believe it's one of the attempts she must have made. Because she asks him to confirm that he knows them. That means she was seeking some sort of support. At the same time, if she is applying to Aslan Maskhadov for help, she must have been in the hands of the Chechens. It looks like that, because the Russian troops don't take their orders from Aslan Maskhadov. "Please confirm that you know about us and our mission." That means they had prior talks about a meeting... "Respectfully yours, Galina Oleinik"... You know, I'm seeing all this for the first time, and I can't take it in yet.

FRONTLINE: Since this was found in the pipe, it seems that this note never got to Maskhadov.

S: Since the note was together with the passports, they must have been trying to send them off to someone in order to confirm that these people were who they said they were be... It's horrible... I think that if the note had somehow gotten to Maskhadov, at least, then they wouldn't have dared to continue holding an American. They would have been afraid of creating an incident.

FRONTLINE: It seems to me that whoever arrested them, or was holding them, maybe told Galina that he would send this note, and then obviously, he never sent it.

FRONTLINE: At times, do you blame Fred Cuny for having taken Galina with him?

S: Oh no, no. Such a thought never entered my head. Fred Cuny got into the same situation as Galina did. They were together. If one of them had survived and the other had been somewhere else and been killed, I could perhaps have blamed him. But here, I felt it was... it was work, don't you see? My sister saw it as work. And if they got into such a situation, it was part of life. It was their fate. I wouldn't think of blaming him. I would be much more likely to blame our Russian authorities for allowing such a thing to happen. It's because of them that there have to be such humanitarian missions. These people go there to help and end up in this situation. They end up dead.

FRONTLINE: Have you imagined what might have happened to Fred and Galina? And the doctors?

S: You realize how hard it is for me to picture such things, but I believe something very bad must have happened. Because if it weren't so bad, they would have been able to defend themselves. They wouldn't have just lain down and died without a fight. Something obviously happened, but before it did, they must have struggled against it, tried to explain, to prove something. It must have been torture to have to wait for a verdict, to learn their fate. But since nothing has been learned in two years, and there's no telling when it might be learned...What can happen in wartime? They just stood them up against the wall and shot them. Without any kind of trial. During an armed conflict like that, a human life does not count for anything. One more, one less, who'll notice?

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Solitary NationApril 22nd