Haji Berzek, son of Adagva, was the supreme commander of the Ubykhs for twenty years. He emerged victorious after many bloody battles, and when the generals of the Russian czar could not take him by force, they decided to get rid of him by cunning: they announced they would give one thousand silver rubles to anyone who brought them the head of the recalcitrant supreme commander
of the Ubykhs.
However, his good fortune continued: not one man turned traitor. In the end, he stepped down from his leader-ship voluntarily.
I never did know the real reason: perhaps he did it because of his advanced age, or maybe the course of events took the people further and further along a path that the old and experienced warrior thought was too dangerous, but didn’t have the strength to avoid. At any rate, he suddenly resigned as military leader, returned home, and died soon afterwards. That happened the year after the end of the big war between the Russians and the Turks. His nephew Haji Berzek Kerantukh took over as the new supreme commander.
Many were unhappy with the replacement; they thought he wasn’t the best choice. But a war was on, so there was no time to argue or hesitate, and besides, the man’s uncle had been a great leader.
Soon after Haji Berzek Kerantukh became the leader of the Ubykhs many decided the choice was right; he proved to be firm and brave, although rumor had it before that he could wobble like a rotten tooth, back and forth, and the reputation was well-deserved. Not long before the beginning of the big war, he made peace with the czar’s generals; he even received a military rank from them and was paid in silver rubles. Then for several years while his uncle was fighting at the head of the Ubykh army against the czar’s generals he sat at home on his carpet and played backgammon.
If it hadn’t been for the Crimean War, my dear Sharakh, the fate of the Ubykhs might have been altogether different. When the Russian army retreated from the Abkhasian and Ubykh coast during the war, the Grand Vizier Omar Pasha landed his troops in Sukhumi. Mullahs came across the mountains from Daghestan and sailed in from Turkey. They went through our communities telling the people the Russians were defeated and would never return.
“We have come to you forever,” they said, “to raise high on your mountains the sacred banner of the great sultan, the representative of Allah on earth.”
That’s when our Haji Kerantukh turned away from the czar to the sultan, tore the shoulder straps from his Circassian coat and stopped taking the silver rubles.
The sovereign prince of Abkhasia, Hamutbei Chachba, remained on the side of the czar, but our Haji Kerantukh went over to the sultan. That’s when he was made our chief and he did not turn back when the Turks soon afterwards began sending their soldiers on ships back to Turkey.
The czar’s generals began returning one after another to take up the fortifications they had left. Here Haji Kerantukh showed his firmness and courage that many of us had not expected the Turks were gone, but he continued fighting the czar’s generals. The czar’s warships began landing soldiers near Tuapse, Adler, and at the mouth of the Sochi River. They were in no hurry to advance deep into the territory of the Ubykhs. They just built or restored their fortresses where they landed, but we all realized they would not stop at that. And our chief, Haji Kerantukh, knew that very well. Wherever he could, he tried to interfere with the landing of the czar’s troops and rushed to attack their fortifications before they were finished.
We were proud of our own staunchness, but to tell you the truth, dear Sharakh, by then our people were worn out by war. People didn’t have time to come together even for funerals or weddings, to hoe what was sown, or to bring in the corn that they had managed to hoe.
My Lord, how long ago that was and how many times since then everything has changed in this uncertain world!
Life is often compared to the sea and rightly so, because, as in life, the sea’s pitiless waves sometimes destroy and bury all life forms in their way, and sometimes, satisfied with their easy prey, quickly retreat. But there, where the waves have rolled back and forth life disappears just the same, like the water left on shore to dry on the blistering hot sands.
I always remember that when I think about what happened to the Ubykhs, and I hope to God I can tell you everything about it step by step.
Suddenly good news ran through our villages: the Russians wanted to sign a peace treaty with the Ubykhs, and within a week on the banks of the Mzymta, where the ferry crossed the river, a general sent by the czar was to meet with our leader, Haji Kerantukh. The mediator in these talks would be a man brought up by the Ubykhs, Abkhasia’s sovereign prince, Hamutbei Chachba.
Haji Kerantukh had had disagreements with some of the influential people from other noble families, but after proving his bravery in battle, the Ubykhs trusted him. If you want to know what he was like
then I can tell you he was no longer a young man, but still did not have gray hair, he was of average height and strong build, moved quickly like fire, had a powerful and loud voice, and a heavy, imperious look. He liked staring at a person to force him to look away or lower his eyes.
Like many other young Ubykhs, I was intoxicated by Haji Kerantukh’s fame and courage. I loved him so much I was always ready to shield him with my body, but through no fault of mine, I never had the opportunity in the three years I was one of his bodyguards. Three years I was near him and tried to imitate him in every way the way he tucked the flaps of his tunic into his belt; the way he rode on horseback letting his hand in with the whip hang, and leaning his saddle slightly to the left.
Now that my long life had made me wiser with experience, when I remember what Haji Kerantukh thought and did, then and later, I realize he was too impetuous, too conceited, too impatient, and most important, too shortsighted. But in those days because of my youth and my inexperience I did not notice any of this.
Oh, youth! The best thing about it is that it knows no fatigue and is unable to look back.
I had been in raids, and in battles many times; with my saber bared I had raced through gunfire and I no longer looked away at the sight of death, but all the same I felt young and carefree, unaware that I was hanging by a thread.
I remember well that day was unusually cold; spring had already changed to although summer.
One and a half thousand soldiers ready for the march stood holding their horses by the rein in the wide clearing near the holy place of Bykhta. Haji Kerantukh was meeting with the most influential Ubykhs under the seven age-old oaks I told you about. All the warriors saw how they argued for a long time but few of them knew what it was they were quarreling about. But I was a bodyguard and was close enough to hear what was going on. Haji Kerantukh was adamant about not taking so many soldiers with him to negotiate with the czar’s general.
“I don’t want him to think I’m afraid of him,” said Haji Kerantukh. “I’ll only take ten men, and the rest will wait here.”
But the others wouldn’t agree with him. They said the meeting could end not in peace, but war; that the czar’s general could not be trusted; that they had already been known to take leaders arid Caucasians prisoner one by one and send them to Siberia with its harsh climate; that if this meeting would have a dangerous outcome the Ubykh leader needed soldiers nearby.
Finally Haji Kerantukh agreed. They all rose to their feet at the same time, he jumped on his horse, and led his one and a half thousand horsemen to the Mzymta River.
Usually when so many soldiers marched together they all sang. That morning we moved in silence; we were ready for battle, but behind us were our homes, our families, our neglected fields. Although we were ready to fight, we could not help but think the bloodshed must someday end. Perhaps the decision to end it would be taken today before sundown.
Suddenly Haji Kerantukh, who was galloping ahead of the rest, stopped abruptly, dismounted and gazed into the sky.
We also got down and lifted our heads to the sky. What we saw was a flock of ravens flying westward, forming a thick black trail across the sky. We were all unnerved, but we kept quiet and waited to see what Haji Kerantukh would say.
“Call Sakhatkeri over here,” he said while continuing to peer into the sky.
In a minute Sakhatkeri had pierced through the ranks of the warriors and stood before Haji Kerantukh. He was a very tall, thin man with long whiskers and a white turban. He was the Ubykhs’ main mullah and the only one among us without a weapon.
“What could it mean?” asked Haji Kerantukh pointing his finger to the birds already far in the distance.
“It’s a bad omen,” said Sakhatkeri. And just like Haji Kerantukh, continuing to look into the sky after the birds, lie added: “I don’t know if you should continue on your way. The crows blacked out the light of day for us today, and the infidels you’re supposed to meet won’t let us live tomorrow. Allah has already given us His blessings to leave this land and move to another. The sooner we carry out the will of Allah, the better it’ll be for us!”
Haji Kerantukh stopped looking at the sky, and stood thinking for a long time with bowed head. One thousand five hundred dismounted soldiers also stood in silence waiting for his decision. Only the horses’ snorting could be heard.
Haji Kerantukh jumped on his horse so quickly that I did not even have time to hold the stirrup for him. We galloped on.
After crossing the Khosta River, Haji Kerantukh ordered the troops to divide into three units: one unit he sent to the sea, to the mouth of the Mzymta River to watch the sea approaches, the other upstream to block off mountain paths in case of an attempt to hit us from the rear. He took the five hundred remaining men with him down to the Mzymta ferry crossing.
There was a hut built for our leader on this side of the river under some big plane trees. Two tents, one for the general and one for the sovereign of Abkhasia, were on the other side.
A Russian officer with an interpreter came over to our side of the river and returned to the other side along with one of our Ubykh noblemen.
After brief negotiations it was decided the meeting would be held on our bank.
A ferry approached bringing the Russian general, his officers, bodyguards, and the Abkhasian sovereign prince Hamutbei. The last time I had seen Hamutbei was when he came to mourn the death of his foster parent, Haji Berzek, son of Adagva. Although he had cried then, he looked even more somber this time; as he walked uphill from the ferry he was quiet and seemed to have trouble putting one foot in front of the other.
The czar’s general was wearing a uniform with shining epaulettes, had a round face and a round, red beard.
I had never seen a czar’s general up so close. Although he was an infidel, there wasn’t anything special or frightening about him.
When everyone met at the center of the meadow near the tent the sovereign prince of Abkhasia, Hamutbei, made the first move toward Haji Kerantukh. He bent over to kiss his chest as it was correct for him to do since he had been raised in an Ubykh family.
When the talks began I, guarding Haji Kerantukh, stood over his shoulder arid heard every word.
Don’t be surprised, Sharakh, that although I have forgot many other days of my life, I remember every minute of that day, from the first to the last. It was the day that decided the fate of my people. Later there were other days crucial to our fate, but that was the first of them. I remember everything, even the dried stalks of last year’s corn crackling under our feet. I remember what the weather was like that day: the sun would hide behind the clouds, then appear again. And I remember the wind blowing from the sea and how it began to drizzle several times, then stopped. And I remember how long the argument lasted, how it got louder and louder, because Haji Kerantukh was like a rider being thrown around on an untamed horse he could not control himself, nor the conversation. His face changed every minute, and a vein throbbing on his forehead looked like it would burst a sure sign he was hardly able to stop himself from thrusting his dagger at all those who disagree with him.
I knew him and knew that anything could happen, and was ready at any moment to come to his aid. I guess that’s why, although I heard every word said, at times I stopped understanding what was being said, because I was thinking of something else: that the daggers would any minute now jump out of their cases by themselves.
The Ubykhs were represented at the talks not only by Haji Kerantukh, but also by Dziapsh Ahmed, son of Barakai. He was a man well known all over the Caucasus. In his youth he had studied in Istanbul, spoke several languages, and when the leader of the Ubykhs was old Haji Berzek, son of Adagva, Ahmed, son of Barakai, was his councilor in business with foreigners. He helped straighten things out for the Ubykhs several times, traveled to the sultan, to London, and to St. Petersburg. He was a passionate man, but cunning. He could go up to the edge and stop there when he had no other alternative. And so as you see, Ahmed, son of Barakai, was at those talks for a good reason.
The czar’s general spoke first and the sharp words he used were out of line with his calm face and voice, so that I thought in the beginning the general was saying one thing and his interpreter quite another.
“You belong to the famous Berzek family, Haji Kerantukh,” said the general. “You are a man of noble birth, so it is beneath you to do one thing today and another tomorrow. His Excellency the Emperor presented you with rank and title, but you proved unworthy of the Emperor’s favor. When the war began you relinquished the rank and title conferred by the Emperor. Instead of being faithful to Russia, you went over to the Turks and not because you were forced to, but by your own free will. Since then you have been violating our agreed terms, keeping all your man armed, attacking our fortifications, conducting secret negotiations with the Turks, and getting weapons from them.”
“General, Sir, you should watch your words more care fully when you speak to me,” said Haji Kerantukh. “I’m not a rabbit that has been chased here by your hunting dogs. I am standing on my own land and not in shackles, but armed.”
Blood rushed to Haji Kerantukh’s face, but the general, unruffled, waited calmly for the interpreter to finish.
“But this isn’t enough for you,” the general continued from where he left off as though he had not heard Haji Kerantukh. “You are still counting on the Turkish sultan. We know you’re asking military aid from him, that you’re hoping to get it, but although you’re certain there’s no one stronger than the sultan, you’re seeking aid elsewhere as well, just in case. We know that Ahmed, son of Barakai, who is standing near you now, went to London three years ago and on your behalf asked the British for defense and military aid against us. It was reported in British newspapers and so it’s no secret. And recently you sent a letter to the British Consul in Sukhumi. That’s no secret either. We have that letter now and can show it to you. I don’t mean to offend you, but I can’t call your actions anything other than betrayal.”
The first time Haji Kerantukh interrupted the general I thought he would pull out his dagger instantly. But after that first outburst he stood and listened, immobile, like a post dug deep into the ground—with one hand held on his waist, and the other on the white bone haft of his sword. He did not look at the general, but over his head to the top of the mountains where clouds were gathering. It appeared as though he could not see or hear anything. The interpreter was nervous, mixed up words and stuttered, so Haji Kerantukh, who understood Russian, finally got tired of it all and without waiting for the interpreter to finish, with an angry grin on his face, spoke directly to the general:
“Yes, you’re right. It would have been betrayal if, like some other sovereign princes in the Caucasus, I had traded my people for your ranks and your silver rubles. But praise be to Allah, as you see, no one has tempted me. General, you call that betrayal. But what do you call what you’re doing, coming here with so many troops to expel the Ubykhs from their land?
“Tell me, if all great sovereigns came together in council and asked your czar what we Ubykhs have done to hurt him, what we are guilty of, why we are being annihilated, I would like to know what he would answer.
“Yes, you are right: we once took your citizenship hoping we would live well. But we were deceived. We are used to trading by sea with whomever we please, without asking someone else’s permission. You forbade all ships but yours to dock on our coast. You began calling our noblemen thieves and didn’t allow them to sell war prisoners into slavery. We have our laws, and you have yours. We don’t want your alien laws to be a yoke around our neck. You want to deprive us of our Muslim faith. We know that just as soon as we are under your power you’ll force our children to be christened. In time of war when you can’t defend this coast from Turks, you leave and we have to take care of ourselves! Then when you return you call us traitors! And so I ask, what kind of peace can there be between us?”
Without replying, the general took a handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped the sweat off his white forehead, put his hands behind his back, went up to a plane tree and began looking at its trunk as though he were figuring out the best way to chop it down. Then he turned around suddenly and spoke to Ahmed, son of Barakai:
“Honorable Ahmed, son of Barakai, I believe you are not the least important of the Ubykhs and so I’d like to hear what you have to say on the matter.”
Ahmed, son of Barakai, stood tall and erect, not moving a muscle, and did not answer the general’s question right away, only when everyone already thought he would not reply:
“You do not understand us, General, and we don’t understand you.”
Haji Kerantukh’s eyes flashed in anger; he probably didn’t like Ahmed talking so calmly.
Hearing this, the general smiled:
“You are too wise, Ahmed, son of Barakai. You would like, as you say, that the chicken be brown on all sides and that the stick which turns it over the fire remain whole. But such wisdom is not for war. It doesn’t work that way in war.”
The general folded his hands behind his back, paced back and forth slowly, and standing in front of Haji Kerantukh, said loudly and with deliberation:
“You were the ones to force His Excellency the Emperor to take such drastic measures against you. Other Caucasians were more farsighted than you: they either moved into the valleys, or put down their arms and promised to live with us in peace, but you are still fighting, still counting on the sultan to help. His Excellency the Emperor, just last year when he was in the Caucasus, deigned to make an extremely important decision that I must remind you of once again, and probably for the last time: ‘The Ubykhs must decide whether they wish to move to the Kuban Region, where they will have perpetual ownership of the land and will retain their own system of government and courts, or emigrate to Turkey.”
The general stopped talking. He did not add his own comments to this fatal pronouncement that was no longer new to anyone at the talks. After the czar had said these words to a large crowd as he sat on a tree stump covered with a Caucasian felt cloak, they traveled quickly throughout the Caucasus. But their repetition that day at the peace talks was nevertheless like a bolt out of the blue.
“If those distant plains of the Kuban, where you want us to move, could sustain life, people would have settled there long ago,” said Hajj Kerantukh. “We live by the sea and are accustomed to trading. We are used to hunting in the mountains; we like our cattle to graze in mountain pastures. We are used to living here, not there. No, General, we will not put our heads into your trap. Just as soon as we leave our mountains that protect us from you, to resettle in the empty plains of the Kuban, you will do whatever you want with us. You will tell our peasants that you have abolished serfdom, but how are we to know in what way you are going to distribute or sell the land in return for the lands you are taking away from us? You want our peasants who move there to start fighting with us, their patrons, so they will lose their respect for us and stop obeying. You want to encourage these divisions so you can control us more easily!”
This time Haji Kerantukh could not remain calm. He spoke passionately, quickly, and inconsistently while the general stood quietly waiting for him to finish.
When he finished, however, it was not the general who spoke, but the sovereign prince of Abkhasia, Hamutbei Chachba, who had so far said nothing.
“If there is only one road through a mountain pass and no other, a traveler must take that road,” he said. “Do not take offense, but you Ubykhs don’t have any more time to vacillate; there’s only one road leading through the pass.”
Hamutbei Chachba said this quietly and it was obvious he spoke each word with difficulty.
“No matter what difficulties we may be having, we would rather work it out with the Russians ourselves. I don’t want you to mediate anymore,” interrupted Haji Kerantukh angrily. But this did not stop Hamutbei.
“I was nursed on Ubykh milk and brought up in an Ubykh family. I am a foster brother of the Ubykhs, I feel obligated to save them from disaster. I wish the Ubykhs the same as the Abkhasians—no more, no less, no better, no worse. If necessary, I am willing to prove it no matter what the sacrifice.”
But Haji Kerantukh interrupted him again, would not let him finish:
“It’s hard to believe you. We Ubykhs remember how you fought against us together with the czar’s generals. You mentioned Ubykh milk. But you were the one who mixed it with blood. And you have nothing to boast of to your own Abkhasians. Did you not spill the blood of those of them who opposed giving in to the czar?
“You say you pity us. But did you really pity your own people?
“Did you not bite yourself with your own teeth?
“If your grandfather Kelishbei, who once united us all, were still alive, neither you Abkhasians nor we Ubykhs would be on the verge of disaster now! But he was killed, and your father Safarbei gave the Russian czar all of Abkhasia without firing one shot, and now you want to throw the noose around our neck too.”
The sovereign prince stood frozen with his head lowered while Haji Kerantukh raged in front of him hurling one insult after another.
“No one gave us this land,” said Haji Kerantukh after turning away from the sovereign prince and stopping in front of the general. “And no one can take it away from us as long as we live. We are asking for a truce, and if you refuse, we shall continue to fight.”
Haji Kerantukh squeezed the haft of his sword with his left hand, and thrust his right hand forward as though unsheathing his arms.
The interpreters hardly had time to translate. I didn’t take my eyes off the general and the Russian officers with him so I would have time to pull out my sword in case of danger.
The general watched Haji Kerantukh closely in silence, then he smiled ironically and finally said:
“Fine. If it’s war, let it be war. But I would still like to ask you, who dare decide the fate of your people, one more question: I know that if you sell all your belongings you will be able to buy weapons from the Turkish merchants and the English smugglers for some time. You still have guns and we even know that you recently received from Britain six rifled cannons plus two instructors to train your soldiers. But you must realize that relatively speaking there aren’t that many of you. Can you not understand that you are incapable of beating us with your small numbers?
“And if you understand you have no hope for victory, why do you want to condemn your entire nation?”
Everyone waited for Haji Kerantukh’s reply; no one knew what he would say to that.
“Don’t worry about us, General,” Kerantukh practically shouted, trying to raise his voice as loud as he could so he would be heard by as many as possible. “No one has yet gauged the courage of a people by their numbers. And be sides, we have enough weapons and men who know how to use them. If we don’t have enough warriors some day, we will slit open the stomachs of our pregnant women to get more soldiers from their wombs!”
When he finished, Haji Kerantukh looked my way and shouted, “The horses!” in such anger as though I had done something wrong.
The general did not reply. He only shrugged his shoulders and looked at the sovereign prince of Abkhasia as if to say: “So now you see for yourself that it was a waste of time.”
But Hamutbei Chachba did not budge; he still did not want to leave. Standing with his arms crossed, he suddenly addressed our leader slowly and softly:
“My foster brother Haji Kerantukh, I ask you once again to hear me out. None of us should be hasty in choosing between life and death. Before you bare your sword again think about the fact that the war is over in Daghestan, that it is over in Chechna, that it is over everywhere in the Northern Caucasus. The Caucasus has been taken over by the Russian Emperor, and those who don’t go along with this are moving across the sea where, as far as I know, nothing good awaits them. No matter what, the future will bring peace, good or bad, but peace. And it will come to every one in the Caucasus. Perhaps the Ubykhs, up to their knees in blood, theirs and that of others, still don’t understand that the war is coming to an end, that if they continue the war they will eventually perish. Who is pushing them into this madness, someone else’s hand or someone else’s tongue?
“My foster brother, I beg you in honor of the memory of my foster father, Haji Berzek, son of Adagva, in honor of the man who for many years led the Ubykhs, allow me to come to you. Send out messengers to call together the wisest of the Ubykhs: on the day designated by you I will come alone, without the general, to talk it over together—you, me, and the people. Before we part what is your answer?”
“Since you ask me this in honor of the memory of Haji Berzek, son of Adagva, I cannot refuse you, even if I wanted. Come to us and listen to the opinion of the people whose milk nurtured you. But come no later than the end of next week. We cannot wait long for you. Goodbye!”
Haji Kerantukh put his hand to his heart, bowed his head for an instant, and went quickly to his horse.
Looking back I saw how the general and the sovereign prince of Abkhasia boarded the ferry. They were probably watched from the other side of the river, too; drums beat as the soldiers stood up from under the trees where they had been resting and assumed formation.
The Ubykhs, led by Haji Kerantukh, already sat astride their horses. He cracked his whip in the air and that very second the horn began blowing shrilly. It was the signal that the talks on a truce had broken down and everyone bearing arms should again be ready to use them. That is what the horn said.