Contributed by Gerald Sarmiento
July 25, 2011
Omskaya Oblast, Russia
It has been a productive afternoon. I’ve been sitting in the same spot for hours trying to finish my monthly report due the next day. It has to be in my boss’ mailbox before our Doha office opens. Thanks to the five-hour difference between Omsk and Doha, I am now down to my last seven days in Omsk before heading back to Qatar. I’m done with my internship and going back to corporate slavery whether I am ready or not. Note to self: Get your souvenir shopping done and start packing.
My friend Nikki will be celebrating her birthday tomorrow. I just sent her a photo of myself with a sign “Happy Birthday Neeks” with a wide, toothy smile. Shameless selfie. It was one of those typical photos but little did I know that this particular one will eventually be memorable. The last photo I had with a relatively straight smile. The last photo where my teeth were properly aligned and I was screw-less.
The lights were out and Yura ws sleeping. Misha went out of his room and asked if I was up for a walk. Like most nights that I had been staying with my host family, we would kill time having a long walk around the city. It was summer and the sun was just about to set at 10pm. I know I would miss the cool Siberian breeze so I thought, why not? Probably last few “walks” around the city that I am getting more familiar with.
We decided to go out and walk. Galaktika, the cinema just across the street, was still open and the neon signage was now lit. The night is still young. Misha and I were talking about how his day at work was and how the feeling of anxiety was creeping in as I had to go back to Doha. My entire stay in Russia has been memorable and the people that I met were amazing. I guess I spoke too soon and jinxed it.
We stopped by a convenience store and grabbed a bottle of beer and string cheese. I’ve grown fond of Baltika. I’ve tried almost every variant and my go-to now is Baltika 3. We sat by the park and carried on talking.
The sun had finally set right before midnight and darkness filled in. Street lights were now brightly illuminating the sidewalks. That was our cue that it was time to walk home. Misha had to work in the morning.
The streets were getting empty as we walked the same path. We passed by the park where old Soviet tanks were on display and saw a group of kids looking at us and approaching our way. They’re actually not kids, I stand corrected. Probably teens or in the early twenties. I saw six guys, two ladies and a dog all walking towards our direction.
“Who are you? Where are you from?”, one guy asked. In my broken Russian, I introduced myself and said that I am from the Philippines. I even shared that I was in the city doing volunteer job. I’ve been asked over and over by the locals during my stay and all along, I thought this was just one of those street encounters. Misha started talking to them in Russian and my poor grasp of the language barely understood what was going on. Another guy hugged me and murmured something on my ear while Misha asked me to go on and keep walking.
But before I even reach an arm-length distance, another guy tapped my back and as I turned my head, I saw his fist towards my face. A jab. A big blow I didn’t see coming. I lost my balance and fell on the ground. Things were happening so fast that the next thing I know, I saw all eight of them hitting me aimlessly. I could feel someone hitting my head, kicking my sides and my mouth. I lost count how many but it went on for a good couple of minutes. My teeth felt loose as my wire fell off the ground. I was holding my phone and wallet as I try to cover my head fearing that I might have a concussion with all the hits and blows I was getting.
Still in my bad Russian, I was yelling for help and asking for them to stop. Bystanders were looking from afar as if they were watching an action flick. The only difference was that, no director will shout “Cut!”. The scene would continue as if it was an epic saga. No one bothered to stop our attackers. No one bothered to help.
I found myself bleeding so bad while I was running as fast as I could. It was one of those moments that I could say I was literally running for my life. I still had my wallet and phone with me. It wasn’t an attempt for robbery. But why did do that? Was it because I am a foreigner? An Asian? A brown-skinned dude walking on the street? I stopped thinking what could be the reason why they did such a horrible thing. All I could remember was that Misha tried to push them while they were attacking me and shouted “Run Gerald!” on top of his lungs. And so I did.
It might be pure adrenaline rush that I was able to run quick and didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t know how bad my condition was until I reached home.
We reached home and Misha called an ambulance. I was still clueless of how bad the damage was and even refused to call for help. “I am fine”, I said. That’s what I thought. I just needed some ice to aid the swelling (like how they do in the movies), but to my surprise, there was no ice. It hit me that I was in Russia and by default, it is usually cold so ice is not a common sight. I raided the fridge and resorted to having the ice cold bottles of vodka to soothe my swollen face.
I went to wash my face and only then I saw how bad it was. My left cheek was crushed and deformed. My front teeth were off. I started reciting the alphabet and letter by letter, my pronunciation was getting worse. I could not sound it off properly. I could lose my job! But before I can think further, the ambulance came and I was rushed to the hospital.
I found myself in an ambulance with Misha and brought to the hospital. I can’t remember the name of the hospital but it was quite a ride from our house. I was asked to get an X-ray immediately. It was then when I realized that it was not just a random attack. It could have been fatal. For no reasons, they had hit me so bad that my left cheek needed an immediate operation and my teeth need to be “planted”. I was thankful there was no concussion.
As if the mishap was not enough, I suddenly remembered the fact that I flew in without a travel insurance since my visa came in late and my flight was booked last minute. And since I was on my last week, my cash was running low and just enough for the rest of my remaining days. Undergoing a reconstructive surgery would surely cost an arm and a leg and the last thing that any backpacker would want is to have such blow on his or her finances.
But I was left with no choice, I could not wait for an entire week with broken cheeks and teeth dangling. They refused my suggestion to have my surgery in Doha when I get back. An operating room was booked for me by 10am. I had to go for surgery that same day. While we waited for my schedule, they asked us to go to the police station and report the incident.
The station was quiet when we arrived. The day was just about to start while on the other hand, it had been quite a long, awful night on my end. The police officer was busy making coffee. He took his time finishing his breakfast over immediately attending a bleeding, beaten-up Asian. It was a long, staggering process of trying to recall every single detail of what had happened. He was writing down on a piece of paper all that I had been narrating while Misha was translating them into Russian.
It took a good two hours for us to get it done and had our separate complaints filed. They said they would call me once they get any lead about my attackers. I wasn’t hoping for anything because all I know was that I would be leaving in a week. It wouldn’t make that much of a difference.
We reached the hospital by 9am and I was famished. I was still wearing the same shirt from last night and I hadn’t eaten anything substantial. The empty calories from the beer and cheese was all that fueled me until then. Soon, they had prepped me for my operation. Misha was still with me explaining the procedure and how much would it cost me. Apparently, the doctors had agreed to do the operation pro-bono and I would only be paying for the anesthesia and other medications.
Nobody was speaking in English and it was a huge struggle. I had a myriad of questions but I couldn’t raise them. Pain was striking every time I opened my mouth and moved my jaw. I decided to keep it shut. Misha wasn’t allowed to join me in the operating room. He had to wait outside. Realizing that I was in a foreign land, without my family and no one could understand me, my spirit had sunk rock bottom. I was trying to ask if they would need to shave my hair off but nobody bothered answering. As I tried to point my hair with my fingers, a nurse grabbed my arm and injected the anesthesia.
That was my last memory before I passed out and everything went pitch black.
The next thing I knew, I was already in the recovery room. Misha, Yura (his twin brother), Vika, Andrey and Anton were all there waiting for me to wake up. In that instance, they were not strangers to me but my family. They looked after me – an estranged Asian intern.
12 hours after
Twelve life-altering hours of my life which has greatly shaped me into the person I am today.
From then on, I have to wear metal screws on my cheeks as my cheek bones were crushed. Teeth had been planted back and several screws and even more wires are holding them into place.
My left cheek is now connected by metal plates/rings. It dawned on me that my plan of reapplying for a Qatar Airways position (slated September) would have to be on hold indefinitely. My teeth are far from meeting the required alignment. I’ve been preparing for it the past year and my bracket treatment was about to finish that month. And then this happened.
I have to bear in mind that I have to bring my medical certificate every time I travel because I am occasionally beeping at the metal detectors.
I have kept a dozen copies of my medical certificate for airport officials (in case needed). Hassle. But I can’t even sulk because I all I can think of is how thankful I am to survive such attack and still be alive.
You lose some. You gain MORE.
Looking back, I might have lost valuable opportunities due to the mishap and it might have cost me an arm and a leg having further treatments after I went back to Doha but up to this day, I could not find a room for regret.
While most people that I have shared my story with will tell me how sorry they were for what had happened, I cannot (and would) not feel sorry for my own self. In fact, I am thankful that it happened because I gained more than what I lost.
I wouldn’t be the same person if that incident didn’t happen. It taught me that life is indeed short and I am living on a borrowed time. Every single day is important as it might be my last. Accidents do happen and mine happened quite bad and unexpected. But it taught me to value every moment and make the most out of it.
I became a more responsible traveller and even more adventurous. Such situations shouldn’t hinder anyone from exploring more places. The world is dangerous on its own. One should be vigilant and responsible for oneself.
It has been six years and the memories are still vivid. I hope to keep them as fresh for as long as I could because I will always look back to it with a happy heart. Life has taught me a valuable lesson throughout this whole experience. God spared me from a possible death to live the life He has planned for me and to tell this story.
We all have stories to tell and each one needs to be heard. Things unfold as they are meant to be. Good or bad, there is always a lesson to be learned.
There is always beauty in adversity. A good friend would always remind me “Bend but don’t break”. Well, I guess I just did that. I might be beaten up, but my spirit and adventurous self remained intact and will never be broken.