November's deadly blaze at a People's Friendship University dormitory left over 40 foreign students dead and focused attention yet again on the plight of Africans and Asians living in a Russia that is more openly racist and xenophobic than in the Soviet years when the university was founded. In 1960, the university -- then named after the Congolese revolutionary and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba -- was created as a showcase for the best and brightest of Third World students who traveled to Moscow for a subsidized, quality education. The school's fortunes have faded since the Soviet collapse, but it is still a draw for many foreign students with few higher-education alternatives -- despite the many dangers. RFE/RL visits People's Friendship University to talk to African students about their experiences there.
Prague, 2 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For a moment, it looks like a dormitory anywhere in the world. Books and papers clutter the desks. Laundry hangs drying from lines crisscrossing the room. Loud music spills from speakers mounted over the door, flooding the hallway with sound.
It's the music of the West African republic of Guinea-Bissau -- the only connection the residents of this Moscow dorm room have with their distant homeland.
Nearly a third of the 12,000 students at People's Friendship University come from developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
It is not an easy life. Like many young people studying abroad, Russia's foreign students must contend with homesickness and poverty. Few can afford even an occasional trip home. But the difficulties they face are compounded in a country like Russia, where simmering racism and xenophobia have long been tolerated. The post-Soviet upswing in nationalism -- evident in the rise of white-supremacy groups and the recent parliamentary sweep of parties running on extremist patriotic agendas -- have brought the problem bubbling to the surface, often in the form of violence.
Haoussou Kolbassia, an engineering student from Chad, says even traveling from the dorm to off-campus classrooms can be fraught with danger. "Never go out alone," he says, citing the common wisdom shared among Friendship University's foreign students. "Look around you. Stay alert."
"We just get organized so that there's at least 10 of us when we go to class. We get up in the morning, and then we all leave together," Kolbassia said.
Traveling to class from the university campus in Moscow's southern suburbs means a 10-minute bus ride and a long Metro commute. Kolbassia, who had a run-in with skinheads just days after he first arrived in Moscow in 1999, says he learned the rules of survival quickly.
"I would sleep with everything on me. Even my passport. I had everything, everything with me in my pockets. That's what the older students told us -- 'carry everything with you.' Even to go from one dorm to another, I used to be afraid of even crossing the road. Even a policeman could have attacked me. There have been cases like that, where students have been attacked by the police. In a word, when you know what freedom is, [living in Russia] really feels like going to jail," Kolbassia said.
Human rights groups in Russia have documented numerous instances of racist harassment and abuse, and ambassadors from African nations have appealed to the Russian Foreign Ministry for better protection for their citizens. But Gabriel Kochofa, the head of Moscow's Foreign Students Association, says the authorities have repeatedly failed to respond adequately to such requests. Every month, there are five to 10 attacks on Africans in Moscow. The best advice for students, Kochofa says, is to keep to the relative safety of their dorm rooms as often as possible.
But even there, Kolbassia says, it's impossible to feel completely safe. He recalls the fate of his friend Abdu, who was killed in a hallway of the dormitory.
"He was a student from Guinea, from Conakry, working as a guard at the entrance of this dorm. And one night -- it was probably four or five o'clock in the morning -- a woman, a cleaning lady who works here, arrived [for work] and knocked at the door. She knocked and knocked. It may have taken him a while to open the door. She screamed at him, insulted him. Then she had her sons come over with clubs and a hammer. They beat him. He died," Kolbassia said.
Life in the dormitory still has its prosaic moments. In a kitchen at the end of one dorm-room floor, Paolo, a student from Guinea-Bassau, chats about exams with a friend as he washes dishes. The kitchen, which services about 30 students, comes equipped with a single gas stove and one sink. "This is what our world is reduced to," Paolo shrugs.
It's a far cry from what many had dreamed of when they first set their sights on Moscow. Kolbassia says he studied hard to win his scholarship to People's Friendship University, which includes board and a $15-a-month stipend. For years, he says, his father -- a Chadian official who had traveled regularly to the Soviet Union -- dreamed of his son receiving an education in Moscow, and refused to believe Kolbassia's tales about the racist hostility he was encountering on a nearly daily basis.
All that changed, Kolbassia says, after the fire. In late November, a deadly blaze ripped through a neighboring dormitory, killing at least 42 students, mainly from China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and several African countries.
Russian media later cited a police source as saying all the doors leading to the fire escapes had been blocked. Kolbassia and Paolo were forced to watch helplessly as students jumped to their death from fifth-story windows. And Gedewon Belihu, a law student from Ethiopia, says the fire officials did little to battle the blaze. It was three hours before the blaze was extinguished.
"The firefighters arrived, without water, without anything. Probably the life of a foreign student is not worth anything to them. So they just stood around, smoking," Belihu said.
The human-rights watchdog Amnesty International reached a similar conclusion in a report, issued last month, expressing concern that "the response of the emergency services to the recent fire may have been hampered by racial prejudice."
Police have officially ruled the cause of the fire as faulty electrical wiring. But many students say they suspect arson. The campus of People's Friendship University is easily accessible to non-students, and just four days after the fire, a group of skinheads attacked six students -- both male and female -- on university grounds.
It's a situation that has forced foreign students to go to certain extremes. Many have taken up martial arts in order to better protect themselves. Others have simply given up and gone home. Gedewon Belihu, for one, says his entire family contributed money so that he could study, and he is determined to stay. Asked if he would have come to Moscow if he had known about the difficulties, Belihu looks surprised, then answers, "Of course. I want to fulfill my dream of getting an education. And Moscow is still the best place for that."
"It's also the only one," Haoussou Kolbassia adds dryly. With visas and scholarships a rarity in Europe for African students, Russia remains the only viable option.