The camp at Tabaga was surrounded by four thick, wooden stockade-like fences nearly fifteen feet high. Over each fence stretched several rows of barbed wire and another wire connected to the alarm system. Massive spirals of barbed wire lay between the first two fences. Armed guards with dogs patrolled the area between the last set of fences. If the alarm was triggered, a piercing screech would rip through the air and a flashing red light at the control point pinpointed where the alarm was set off, sending soldiers rushing to the location.
Most of the violators of the forbidden zones turned out to be stray cats and wild animals. But early one morning, a guard dog discovered a tunnel under the fence leading from the camp to freedom. Someone was preparing to escape!
The alarm went off. Soldiers rushed about. The prisoners were hurried from their work places to the open square in the center of the camp where attendance was taken. As usual, the number of prisoners present did not correspond with the number on the list. We were counted two more times before the numbers matched. No one had escaped.
That left camp authorities with the problem of finding out just who was preparing to escape. About thirty soldiers and officers faced the prisoners. They brought the dog that had discovered the tunnel. It was a large, fierce German shepherd trained to hate prisoners. At the sight of a man in a prisoner’s uniform, the animal’s hackles would rise and a deep-throated snarl curled its lips to reveal rows of gleaming teeth.
“Attention, citizen prisoners! An escape tunnel has been discovered!” the colonel announced. “Who prepared it? It will be better for you to speak up now. The dog will find you out in any case.” He pointed to the dog straining at its leash toward the prisoners. “Whoever dug the tunnel, three steps forward!”
Nobody moved. The colonel swore.
“Ha! You’re all scared! You’re not afraid to cause trouble, but you’re too cowardly to own up to it. Count off by threes!” he ordered.
One, two three, one, two, three. The numbers rang out.
“Every third one, move five steps forward,” commanded the colonel, thrusting his arm skyward.
A third of the prisoners moved forward five steps and froze. Victor was among them. An officer gave the dog an object to sniff, then released it among the prisoners.
The dog lunged toward the nearest prisoner who cried out with terror and pain as fangs pierced his flesh. With lightning speed, the dog grabbed for a second, then a third prisoner.
It was a nightmare. Prisoners screamed and shouted as the animal tore into them. The officers grouped together nearby to observe, chuckling maliciously. I saw Victor grimace in pain as he grabbed his leg where the dog bit him. Silently, I called out to the Lord to protect us.
As the dog lunged toward yet another prisoner, the man turned quickly and kicked the animal’s head with his heavy boot. The dog squealed in surprise and tucked its tail between quivering legs.
“What are you doing?” shouted an officer. “Don’t hurt that dog! We’ll punish you!”
But now the prisoners couldn’t be stopped. Some tried to get the dog. Others shouted. A soldier finally managed to grab the cowering creature and protect it from the prisoners. Order was soon restored and we were sent to our barracks. The dog’s victims received no medical attention for their wounds.
The next day it was determined that the “escape tunnel” was nothing more than the burrow of a wild animal! Closer examination revealed that, though the hole was wide, only a small child could have fit through it, certainly not a grown man.
Of course there were attempts to escape, but they were mostly unsuccessful. Thomas, who was about thirty-five years old, had been a prisoner for ten years already but could no longer stand the brutal conditions of slavery. In broad daylight, he scaled the first fifteen-foot fence just outside the work zone. The alarm malfunctioned, failing to alert the soldiers to the escape. Silent prisoners watched in fascinated horror as Thomas methodically picked his way through the masses of barbed wire and over the remaining three fences. Once out of the camp, Thomas walked slowly toward the river. He had gone about 200 yards before the soldiers set off in pursuit. They shouted to him, but he didn’t stop or even turn around. The soldiers opened fire and filled his back with bullets. No one will ever know what Thomas was thinking during his reckless act. Perhaps he was searching for death.
If a prisoner died at camp, a military doctor issued the death certificate. But even that didn’t completely satisfy the camp administration. Only after officers personally verified that the prisoner was, in fact, dead, was the body carried to the control point in a simple wooden box. There, in the presence of at least two officers, the lid was opened and guards stabbed the body several times with a bayonet. After this, the dead prisoner was “released” from the camp.
In Stalin’s time, the gruesome procedure was much simpler. Soldiers would break the skull of the corpse with an iron hammer, then throw the naked body into a common grave without any kind of casket.
At Tabaga, we had a middle-aged prisoner nicknamed “Chuma,” the Plague. He got the name because of the filthy job he had oiling equipment at the camp. His clothes were always dirty, torn, and stained with a dark, foul-smelling liquid. His prison career had begun when Stalin was in power. Over the years, he had been released several times but was always rearrested. Sometimes we talked about the concentration camps under Stalin in the territories of Kolyma and Yakutia.
“Petrovich,”—like many prisoners, Chuma addressed me by my patronymic—“if an investigative commission came to the North now to investigate the burial places of prisoners, I could show them hundreds of common graves where thousands of our fellow prisoners are buried. And I tell you, those corpses are intact and well preserved. The permafrost is an eternal freezer!”
“Weren’t they buried in caskets?” I asked.
Chuma laughed. “Are you so naive? Hundreds died every day. Where would they get that many caskets? And they buried the dead naked. Clothing was scarce here in the North. Why waste it? A little piece of wood with the prisoner’s number was tied to the big toe of the right foot. That’s all. So they lie there, even now, piled up. Thousands in each hole.”
“Somewhere in such an unknown grave in the North lies my father’s body,” I said. “He died of starvation in 1943 at a camp in Kolyma not far from Magadan.” And I told Chuma about my father and the thousands of other Christians tormented to death in concentration camps because of their faith.
By the time I was a prisoner, most camps in the North had cemeteries. The wooden box containing the body was carried to a grave dug just outside the fences. The lid would be opened in the presence of an officer and a metal plate with the prisoner’s number was laid on his chest. Then the lid was nailed shut and the box lowered into the hole. A metal bar also showing the prisoner’s number, not his name, was pounded into the ground to mark the spot. Family members of the deceased were permitted to visit the grave site, but they could not move the body to a cemetery in their hometown until the prison term that was being served actually ended.
Tabaga’s cemetery was on a nearby hill covered with scrubby pine trees. An officer often pointed that hill out to me. “When your ten-year term is up,” he’d say, “you’ll get another ten years. We’ll keep that up until you die. Deny God, and you can go home now!”
But other, quite different words echoed in my heart:
Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 10:32)
Oh, Jesus, help me to remain faithful to You to the end!