The young woman was riding in a taxi to the airport when she decided to make the call. She had just left her home in Russia's southern Chechnya region -- for good, she thought, first on a flight to Moscow to pick up emigration documents and then on a plane out of the country.
But the taxi driver was eavesdropping. And when the woman told her friend she had run away, he locked the car doors and drove her back home, fearing potential consequences for his role in her planned escape.
The 22-year-old woman was a lesbian who claimed that her relatives had beaten and threatened her with death after learning of her sexual orientation. Within a week of the fateful taxi ride, she was dead. Her family says she succumbed to kidney failure. Some who knew her believe she was poisoned; but a close friend rejects that claim, telling RFE/RL that she had indeed suffered from kidney problems.
The woman's case, first made public in a July report by a Russian rights group, highlights the often terror-filled double lives that lesbians are forced to live in mainly Muslim Chechnya, where homosexuality is publicly condemned and rights groups accuse authorities of carrying out a campaign of torture and murder targeting gay men.
There are no indications that such a campaign has been undertaken against lesbians in the region, which Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has ruled for a decade. Instead, lesbian and bisexual women often lead personal lives in complete secrecy -- if at all -- communicating with girlfriends via pseudonymous social-media accounts and dedicated SIM cards, and limiting their real-life contacts to a tiny circle of verified people.
Hovering over them is the pervasive fear of being outed and ostracized in a society where a woman's reputation is considered a linchpin of family honor -- or of falling victim to an "honor killing" in a putative bid to protect the family's name.
The young woman who died in July after trying to flee, whom RFE/RL is not identifying due to the stigma and reported abuses lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people face in Chechnya, assiduously hid her sexual orientation. But somehow screenshots of her online conversations with her girlfriend and other friends ended up in the hands of her relatives, who became enraged.
The Russian LGBT Network, the St. Petersburg-based group that recounted her story in a recent report, quoted her as saying before her death that her brother had given her a gun and begged her to kill herself to save the family's honor -- and that her relatives would say it was an accident, not suicide.
"Kill me yourself if you want," the woman recalled telling her brother, according to the report. "I'm not going to kill myself."
Like 'Coming Across A Unicorn'
The plight of LGBT people in Chechnya triggered international condemnation following an April report by the respected Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which alleged that gay men in the region were being detained, tortured, and in some cases killed in a coordinated campaign.
After that report, gay Chechens told RFE/RL and other media outlets of the abuses they had fled. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron raised the issue directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, the Canadian government secretly worked with rights activist to exfiltrate more than 20 LGBT people from Chechnya.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that when police in Chechnya returned most of the gay men allegedly targeted, they outed them to their families and indirectly suggested relatives carry out an honor killing.
Kadyrov, whom rights monitors accuse of using security forces under his control to impose order and crush dissent, has called the allegations of antigay persecutions in Chechnya "lies," telling the U.S. television channel HBO: "We don't have those kinds of people here. We don't have any gays."
While lesbians may not have been targeted by the alleged campaign of abuse by Chechen authorities, it has heightened fears among lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LBT) women that they could be outed.
"Before the story with gay men, we would interact on social media, but now everyone is lying low," one Chechen lesbian told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.
Previously, she said, members of the LGBT community would meet for offline connections at secret parties held in rented apartments, obtaining alcohol through trusted contacts and keeping the noise to an absolute minimum so as not to tip off the neighbors. But the alleged campaign of violence against gay men has put an end to these gatherings, she said.
In its July report, the Russian LGBT Network calls LBT women "the most vulnerable group" subjected to the "strict traditions" of the North Caucasus, the mountainous southern Russian region where Chechnya and other mainly Muslim republics are located.
"Women, more often than men, are subjected to honor killings, and they can be judged only based on suspicion, even in the absence of facts," the report notes.
"Relatives aren't only scared that their daughters might be lesbians. They're scared of the terrible shame. Public opinion in Chechnya is the primary court," Irina Kosterina, gender coordinator at Germany's Heinrich Boll Foundation who has conducted surveys of women in the North Caucasus, told RFE/RL.
"If it comes out that your daughter is a lesbian, that means no one will marry your other daughters, and no one will allow your sons to marry their daughters.... In the Caucasus, reputation is collective, and the reputation of that young woman automatically extends to some 60 people," she added.
Earlier this month, a woman from Chechnya who was attempting to flee to Norway was detained in Belarus and handed over to her father, Novaya Gazeta reported. She had received threats after a photograph of her was posted on a social-network account criticizing Chechen women and girls for not wearing traditional Islamic clothing.
The Chechen lesbian who told RFE/RL about the now-defunct LGBT parties said that many women, both straight and lesbian, face enormous pressure to stay close to home and under the close watch of male relatives. Men, meanwhile, can more freely pursue study and work in Russian regions with greater personal freedoms.
She is preparing to tell her parents that she wants to leave Chechnya, though she intends to hide the fact that she wants to move abroad.
"I won't be happy here. I will depend on all of my relatives, on all of the men who know me, knew me, or will know me," she said.
She added, however, that she does not know yet how to make her plan work.
"Leaving the country is as implausible as coming across a unicorn," she said.
One lesbian from Chechnya was quoted in the Russian LGBT Network report as saying that she got married to protect her family's reputation but eventually managed to leave the region.
"My mother shunned me, and my entire family ultimately learned that it was a sham marriage," the anonymous woman was quoted as saying. "After that I got a flood of threats from the men in my extended family. They are still looking for me to punish me for the lie and for how I lead my life."
Pressure To Marry
Many young women in Chechnya of all sexual orientations are refraining from marrying at a young age "so they don't end up in domestic servitude and being a servant their entire lives," Kosterina of the Heinrich Boll Foundation said.
This trend has provided cover for some lesbians in Chechnya who tell their parents that they want financial security, an education, or a job before considering starting a family.
"My parents have wanted to marry me off for a long time already, looking for suitors, playing matchmaker, asking me every day if I have a boyfriend," another lesbian in Chechnya, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL.
"But for me, marrying a man who thinks it's his right to touch you, it's tantamount to being raped every day. A lot of girls would probably rather die."
Kosterina said that she knows of at least two cases in which LBT women in the North Caucasus were forced by their respective families to marry men who were much older and of a lower social status.
In such a situation, "the man can turn a blind eye to certain things, because the marriage gives him status and, in some cases, financial advantages," Kosterina said.
LBT women in Chechnya "are roughly in the same category as young women who have lost their virginity before marriage," she added.
"Parents will typically try to hide [their sexual orientation] and marry them off as quickly as possible so that the husband would be responsible for her behavior," Kosterina said.
One gay Chechen man living in Moscow told RFE/RL of a lesbian friend of his who, at age 19, accepted a marriage proposal from a man and lived with him for two years, all the while trying to avoid sexual relations. Eventually she returned to her parents "and was treated for a long time by a psychiatrist for panic attacks and depression."
Merely finding a private space for sexual relations is exceedingly difficult for lesbians in Chechnya. While men can rent an apartment for such encounters, women of any orientation have no such option.
An open same-sex relationship between women is virtually unheard of in Chechnya. Kosterina told RFE/RL that she knows of just one case in which two Chechen women convinced their parents to let them rent an apartment together. They argued that it was a cost-saving measure but did not reveal that they were in a relationship.
"The parents aren't exactly thrilled that they aren't living at home, but somehow they agreed to it," she said.
The issue of LBT women is so taboo in Chechnya that only a handful of such relationships are known to researchers, rights activists, and journalists who learned of them by chance.
"I've been working in the Caucasus for six years, and many people there know that I also work on LGBT rights," Kosterina told RFE/RL. "During that entire time, almost no one asked for help until the situation with gay men surfaced."
The 22-year-old Chechen woman whose friends believe was poisoned in an honor killing had tried to leave the region several times prior to her failed final attempt in July. After one such attempt, she was placed in forced psychiatric care for three months, according to the Russian LGBT Network.
In May, she managed to convince her parents to let her travel to Moscow, where she contacted rights activists and settled in a shelter for LGBT people fleeing persecution in the North Caucasus. But according to the Russian LGBT Network, circumstances forced her to return to Chechnya for what she thought would be a temporary sojourn.
Instead, her family kept her holed up in a room and under constant monitoring. Describing the final attempt to free the woman, the group's report reads: "Unfortunately, the special operation was unsuccessful and fell apart as it was being carried out."
The Russian LGBT Network report casts doubt on the official explanation of her death, which it described as "kidney failure due to complications after the flu."
"Only her older brother was home at the time. She didn't complain about her heath. People don't die of kidney failure that quickly," an acquaintance of the young woman told RFE/RL.
A close friend told RFE/RL a different story: that the woman's family loved her deeply, especially her father; she had kidney problems and had gone to Moscow to seek treatment; her health deteriorated and she eventually died at home.
"Of course a lot of people want to see a brutal murder due to her connection to the LGBT community, but it's nothing like that," the friend said.
Due to religious considerations, families in Chechnya often bury their dead before autopsies can be conducted. RFE/RL was unable to confirm if the woman had undergone an autopsy.
Written by Carl Schreck on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Sergei Khazov-Cassia