Accessibility links

Breaking News

'The Main Mistake Is Trusting Anyone': Woman From Russia's Daghestan Flees Forced 'Treatment' For Atheism, Bisexuality

“Anyone running away from their family in the [North] never completely safe," according to Elina Ukhmanova, who says she has fled Daghestan after years of violence and abuse from her relatives.
“Anyone running away from their family in the [North] never completely safe," according to Elina Ukhmanova, who says she has fled Daghestan after years of violence and abuse from her relatives.

In August, 20-year-old Elina Ukhmanova fled her home in the Russian region of Daghestan for the third time. She feared for her safety after what she describes as years of violence and abuse from her relatives capped off with several harrowing months undergoing forced “treatment” for atheism and bisexuality at a dubious rehabilitation center in the regional capital, Makhachkala.

Only now, after several months under the protection of human rights activists in an undisclosed location, does she feel safe enough to tell her story.

“Anyone running away from their family in the [North] Caucasus -- it doesn’t matter if it is a young man or a woman -- is never completely safe, even outside of Russia,” Ukhmanova told RFE/RL’s Caucasus.Realities. “Even abroad, there are no 100 percent guarantees.”

Ukhmanova, a college physics student from the city of Khasavyurt, said she remained terrified for some time after activists from the support group SK SOS, which assists LGBT people threatened with violence in the North Caucasus, helped her escape Daghestan.

“I was constantly afraid,” she recalled. “I felt as if they might burst into the room at any moment and force me to go back.”

Ukhmanova’s story is far from unique in the North Caucasus, a patchwork of regions -- most of them predominantly Muslim -- in southern Russia. In October, a young man from Daghestan named Magomed Askhabov complained publicly that the authorities were doing nothing to investigate his allegations that he had been “tortured” at a self-proclaimed rehabilitation center called Start, where he had been sent by his parents to “cure” him of homosexuality.

Disturbing Video Shows Police Seizing Chechen Woman From Shelter​
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:42 0:00

In late 2021, a gay Chechen woman named Khalimat Taramova alleged that she had been abducted and held for three months at a clinic outside of Moscow called Invia Elite. During that time, she was allegedly subjected to exorcisms and other procedures aimed at chasing away demons. Russian authorities did not react to her claims.

'Beatings And Arguments'

Ukhmanova said her problems at home began when she was about 10, when her mother began instructing her and her younger sister in the daily Muslim prayer rituals.

“I didn’t understand why I needed this, but the adults used force and beatings to force me to pray,” she said. “Any attempt to talk to them just led to more beatings and arguments.”

Around the age of 14, she began to realize her bisexual orientation when she developed feelings for a girl at her school.

“I told my parents about my orientation when I was in college,” she wrote in an essay for the Kholod website. “They started calling me a prostitute.”

Her first major act of disobedience came when she was already a university student in Makhachkala in June 2021. Her department had several days off to prepare for exams, and Ukhmanova concealed this from her parents and did not return home as usual. Instead, she took a job in a café.

“On the very first day, my father called,” she said. “He had found out about the break and knew that other students had come home. I understood that I couldn’t hide from them anymore, so I wrote to my mother and said I was not coming back home…. Together with a boyfriend, we hid in [the Daghestani city of] Kaspiisk. We stayed there for two days.”

At that point, they found out that the police had been questioning their friends. When Ukhmanova called the police, she was told her parents were worried about her, concerned that she intended to join a “terrorist group” or run off to Syria.

The police, she said, told her to come in and write a statement saying that she had left of her own volition and that all was in order. They promised to release her. But when she showed up at the station, she was immediately taken back to Makhachkala and handed over to her parents.

'A Mass Phenomenon'

A few months later, she and her boyfriend ran off again. This time they remained hidden for several months and Ukhmanova was even able to get a passport, potentially enabling her to leave Russia. But in the end, she said, she was discovered by employees of the Alyans Rekaveri rehabilitation center in Makhachkala, working at the behest of her parents. They abducted her, she said, and took her by force to the center for purported treatment.

“Over the four months I was there, there were between five and 10 others,” Ukhmanova said. “Mostly they were drug addicts or alcoholics. Several of them had been in ‘rehabilitation centers’ before and said that they had seen other ‘problematic’ young people like me. They couldn’t say what their ‘problem’ was.”

Ukhmanova added that most of the others at the center had also been abducted against their will.

She said there were no doctors or psychologists at the center. All the staffers were former “patients.” The addicts were, she said, regularly punished by having to do hundreds of push-ups or squats and were sometimes handcuffed to railings in such a way that they had to stand on their toes for prolonged periods.

“Such methods weren’t really used on me,” she said. “Most likely because they knew my parents or because I wasn’t an addict. Mostly they just made me write a lot. Once when I had an argument with another patient, we were handcuffed together for an entire day.”

RFE/RL was unable to contact any representative of Alyans Rekaveri for comment. The center is not registered as a medical organization in Russia. Its website stopped working shortly after Ukhmanova’s story was published.

Ater Ukhmanova’s allegations, the Russian website NewsTracker published comments from an unnamed man who was presented as the center’s director. He claimed all the charges were false and that the center had closed 18 months ago.

At some point after she had been at the center for several months, Ukhmanova’s relatives told her the family planned to send her to an “Islamic education center” in neighboring Chechnya. She had been thinking about running away a third time, but this news made up her mind.

“The day before I left, a neighbor came over to visit my mother, which distracted her,” Ukhmanova said. “I was able to find my passport, which they had hidden. I had been searching for it at every opportunity…. I took this as a good sign.”

In her previous escape attempts, she had confided in friends who were later pressured into revealing information about her whereabouts and plans. This time, she realized she couldn’t do that.

“The main mistake is trusting anyone,” she said. “And the second mistake is thinking you can do it on your own.”

This time, she turned to SK SOS.

“Now Elina is in relative safety,” a spokesperson for the group told RFE/RL. “She is not under direct threat. Many families in the North Caucasus have connections in Moscow and other major cities, so we are not revealing her location.”

In an interview with RFE/RL in October, SK SOS spokesperson Miron Rozanov said “there are quite a few” such rehabilitation centers in the North Caucasus and there have been numerous complaints of LGBT people being abducted and forcibly “treated” at them.

Aminat Lorsanova (file photo)
Aminat Lorsanova (file photo)

Aminat Lorsanova, a native of Chechnya, “has told how she was held in a rehab center for several months in 2019,” Rozanov said. “She was forcibly medicated with drugs that affected her cognitive abilities under the guise of treatment for a made-up diagnosis.

But Lorsanova’s allegations never became the basis for an investigation, although thanks to her we learned about the existence of such centers.”

“We can’t say exactly how many there are, but it is a mass phenomenon,” he added, explaining that officially they present themselves as spiritual centers -- which are unregulated -- rather than medical facilities.

Written by RFE/RL feature writer Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Caucasus.Realities

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.