A Dervish Of The 21st Century – OpEd
No one in this world would choose to live in misery, and neither does Ricardas Lapaitis, a man who experienced some years of his life in the battlefield, where his soul traveled to the sorrow and the most painful feelings he ever had in his life.
It is not easy to go back to the time and places where you encountered the people with the scary wounds, suffering from hunger, losing their beloved ones, or were even disgraced by the scariest inhumane treatments in their own bodies, and all those pains are the same in every war, in every place on earth.
Opening the old wounds that have passed for twenty-five years, where feelings and thoughts were imprisoned with all the most frightening events in the history of human tragedy in the Caucasus region, it is really not easy to integrate the conversation written in accordance with the feelings and memories of this Dervish, even though they are still as fresh as when he was on the battlefield that time.
Ricardas was born on July 26, 1968 in the village of Papacha, part of Marijampole that is located on the banks of the Shesupe River, one of the tributaries that empties into the Neman river that is the main river in Lithuania, about 55 km to the southwest of Kaunas. The first inhabitants of Marijampole who settled in the second half of the seventeenth century were peasants and 60% of the population were Jews. German troops occupied the city at the beginning of the First World War until the founding of an independent New Lithuanian State in 1918.
Ricardas, who masters Polish language due to its geographical proximity to Lithuania, has had valuable life lesson even since he was a little boy. His parents’ house burnt down leaving nothing behing, and when he was in the fourth grade of elementary school, his parents divorced, and so little Ricardas lost the love from his kind-hearted and honest father. His father travelled the world as an entertainer in a Russian Circus.
From his parents, Ricardas inherited German blood and to this day he is still considered as a “strange” man by the Lithuanian society for helping many Muslims in Azerbaijan and Chechnya. Nevertheless, Ricardas most favorite food is Cepelinai, a typical Lithuanian puree with meat, cheese, and mushrooms served with creamy sauce.
In other part of the world, such as Indonesia and other Asian countries, it is perhaps only a few people who know that this Lithuanian man, who next year will turn 50, was the savior of hundreds of Azerbaijani children and elders during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1992. Ricardas Lapaitis was just 24 years old that time, young enough to deal directly with the Armenian soldiers. It was the first time that young Ricardas learned that there were citizens of the Soviet Union involved in the armed conflict. Armenia and the CIS announced aggression against Azerbaijan. It was then when Ricardas realized that his presence in Karabakh was coincidentally at the site of the Khojaly Tragedy, where he was at one of most dangerous battlefields in the Caucasus region; from the beginning when the war was raged until it ended, and he became the only journalist who survived the battle that lasted for almost 2 years. Like having nine lives, this religious man recognizes that God is always with him.
Ricardas came personally into contact with the victims, reunited the scattered children from their parents, looked for food supplies for children and the hungry elders. He recorded the pictures in his old camera and wrote notes carefully recording every inch of the land he passed while smelling the blood of the wounded and dead. He did this, while seeking shelter for refugees under the hot bullets of the Armenian soldiers supported by Soviet troop. All the events of brutality against humanity were well recorded in the mind of this journalist. Ricardas was the first journalist who wrote of this bloody event in Lithuanian media, his native country and after his article had been translated, a lot of media in the western country published his narrative.
This Alitusky College graduate has never worked in the field he studied. He was even more memorable when he was at Verstaminay Elementary School where he studied reading and writing that eventually led him as a journalist, writer, and poet.
When he had to go on military service in the era of the Soviet Union, Ricardas dedicated himself as a cryptologist expert and at that time, he seemed to be lost in the earth. After his military service was over, he returned to Lithuania which also gained its first independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. What he had learned in high school from the textbooks during the Soviet’s reign in his country was utterly untrue and he felt like a generation without identity.
Being adventurous ,Ricardas started a journey from Moscow by biking around the 15 Republics of the Soviet Union in 1990. He circled the Ural, exploring every corner of Siberia up to the Japanese sea border, then to Baikal, the world’s oldest lake that has a lot of mysteries, further to the city of Vladivostok, then to the North Pole located on the Taimyr peninsula where he learned about the lives of a handful of tribes known as the community of Cato, Evenki, Ganasany, Dolgans and others. For a year there was no communication with the family, and Ricardas was considered dead.
The event of massive extermination of the Khojaly population on the night of February 26, 1992 was imprinted on Ricardas mind. For his great service in the Khojaly tragedy, in 1993 Azerbaijan’s President Abulfaz Elchibey met him personally and rewarded Ricardas’ courage and dedication as a military journalist at his young age and for his coverage of the events in Nagorno-Karabakh. He was in the war zone from start to end. Not long after that, he met the leader of the Autonomous Region of Nakhchivan Azerbaijan, Geydarom Alievym.
After returning to Lithuania in 1994, Ricardas traveled back to Northern Russia. From 1995 to 1997, he worked as a military journalist in Chechnya. During 1996 a lot of militants were killed, including journalists and Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. It seems that Ricardas really was born with nine lives because he was the only one who escaped from death even when the city of Grozny was scorched by Russian forces the same year.Alla Dudayeva, wife of the number one person in Chechnya was able to read a series of poems before Ricardas in the middle of the devastated Grozny, and he still remembers the verses of poems uttered in a hysterical sorrow feeling by Alla Dudayeva who was also a poet. In 1998, before the second invasion of Russian forces in Chechnya, Ricardas was already there again.
In 2011, the “Endless Corridor” directed by Aleksandras Brokas from Russia began filming. In the film, Ricardas plays his protagonist role. A 90-minute film has captivated film critics at the international film festivals around the world and gained the best of awards, including ones from Jakarta and Bali. The real movie adapts the true story that happened in Khojaly, which was written very carefully by Ricardas and thas been translated in many languages, has been screened in over 100 countries all over the world, including in Indonesia. The film tells the cruelty of the Armenian soldiers who killed the people of Khojaly and also drove them out of their homes, their own land.
Since then, Ricardas began working as a representative of the IEPF (International Eurasian Press Fund) where he, as a main figure who continues to campaign for justice for the people of Khojaly and who helps through his voice for the Karabakh refugees who now reach to 1 million people. Ricardas travels to big cities in Europe such as Paris, London, Brussels, Prague, Moscow, Berlin, Strassbourg, Geneva, Baku, Vilnius and other cities under the institution of “Justice for Khojaly” chaired by Leila Aliyeva, wife of Azerbaijan President who is also Vice President of Azerbaijan. Ricardas attended many events organized by this institution and gave his testimony to what really happened with Khojaly’s tragedy. The event was widely covered by almost all mass media in Europe.
Ricardas, the man who stood for the Azerbaijani people during the Karabakh’s war, lives far away from the luxury despite receiving certificates and awards from the President of the International Eurasian Press Fund, Umud Mirzayez who has helped him in such ways. Among his daily busy days as an ordinary staff at a small company in the capital Vilnius, Ricardas is the President of the Writers Club in Lithuania called “Lazdiyu Mene”. Ricardas is also a member of the Journalist Association of Lithuania. As a poet, he has published several poetry books.
Ricardas is the hero to the oppressed Muslims of Azerbaijan, as well as Chechnya. The real story of Khojaly tragedy written in his diary and has been filmed, keeps his own sorrow as it turns out that, the film with many international awards in many film festivals in major cities in the world, including was awarded as the best documentary at the Accolade Global Film Competition in 2015 in the United States, is inversely proportional to his modest living condition in a small dwell, without adequate space heater when winter arrives, he calls it as a wolf’s house.
Ricardas has intentions to visit and help some of the families whosaved his life during the tragedy; the survivors who once hid him from the cruelty of the Armenian soldiers. Ricardas still holds hope for Karabakh’s future in a better peace way. He wants the next story to be heard well by people who have a conscience and those who can help him doing even greater for the humanity.
This year is the 25th anniversary of Khojaly’s human tragedy, which according to the documentation, took 613 lives mostly children, women and the old people, and 1,000 people became disabled, eight families were killed at once, 25 children became orphans and 130 children lost one of their parents. More than 1,275 innocent people were taken prisoners, and about 150 were unknown to the present day.
Even after twenty-five years of the tragedy, Ricardas still finds it difficult to tell what he witnessed. Time can heal the wounds of the body, but emotionally it will always be there in our lives.
I watched the video about the Trakai Castle that is located on an island in the lake of Galve, in Trakai city, Lithuania and is a red brick castle built in the 14th century by Kestutis. Suddenly, I heard the sound of the smartphone indicating that there was a message coming in. Ricardas felt grateful that he was interviewed by someone from the distance of 11,000 km away.
He stressed that he just wanted to deliver peace to all the people in the Caucasus region because war will never give happiness but sorrow and permanent wounds to the affected. Ricardas is simply a modest journalist, a real Dervish who never assumes to obtain something that would give him advantages. History is something we should remember and can be regarded as the life’s learning for everyone. No one wanted to be in the war, he did not either. This Lithuanian Dervish is more than happy knowing that there are still people who want to listen to his old story, at least the honest one.
*Nia S. Amira is an Indonesian author, journalist and linguist. She writes on culture, international affairs, multiculturalism and religious studies. Her articles have appeared in over thirty newspapers that are published in Europe, Asia, and United States.