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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Racial Tensions Run High in Voronezh

MTSanca, sitting in his hostel room in Voronezh, holds a photograph of his roommate Limo, who was stabbed to death Feb. 21.
VORONEZH -- Amaro Antonio Limo and Adilson Weakta Dos Santos Sanca lived together for 1 1/2 years on the fifth floor of a student hostel in Voronezh.

Two of a few dozen Guinea-Bissau students in the city, they studied hard and went out little. After Sanca was stabbed on a bus last October, they and other foreign students rarely ventured outside after dark.

But their attempts to safeguard themselves failed when Limo, 24, was stabbed to death in a suspected racial attack in broad daylight and just a few hundred meters from the Voronezh Medical Academy on Feb. 21. The three assailants have not been caught.

"We knew instantly that it was racists," said Sami Akhmaidi, a friend of Limo's and the leader of the Sudanese students in Voronezh.

"If it had been any of us, it could have been another reason. But not with Amaro. He was very quiet. He used to walk to the university with his head down, looking at the ground. Everything he did was for his family."

"He was like a brother," Sanca said.

Limo's death has put the spotlight on racial tensions in this city of nearly 1 million residents, located about 580 kilometers south of Moscow. Foreign students -- who number about 1,500 -- have documented seven killings and about 70 attacks over the past five years against current or former students.

"Before they used to beat. Now they are attacking with knives," said Alkhirari Karim, a doctorate student from Syria. He said a fellow Syrian is currently in the hospital after being beaten up outside a nightclub.

Local police, who do not keep records of racially motivated attacks, say only two foreign students have been killed, and both were victims of ordinary crime. They and university officials usually blame hooliganism, not racial hatred, for the attacks.

Limo's murder came just a week after the stabbing death of a 9-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg in another suspected racist attack. Vladimir Lukin, the human rights commissioner, has linked both killings to "political extremism."

Limo's death led to a three-day walkout by angry students, drawing national media attention and forcing a meeting with the Voronezh mayor, regional heads and education leaders.

"We've lost a lot of friends here," Sudanese student Akhmed Altayev said.

Students returned to study Friday after the city and the university agreed to take steps to improve security.

But that same day a Russian student, Yulia Bordovskaya, told police that she had been stabbed by a black man -- in an attack that local media described as revenge for Limo's killing.

On Monday, Bordovskaya admitted that she had made up the story and purposely injured herself after getting into a fight with her parents over her boyfriend, said Galina Gorshkova, a spokeswoman for regional prosecutor's office.


Vladimir Filonov / MT

"We instantly knew that it was a racist attack," said Akhmaidi, right, a friend of Limo's and leader of the Sudanese student body.

But that brought no comfort to the foreign student community. Within a day of the reported attack, police had released a composite sketch of the alleged attacker, a black man in dark sunglasses, and rounded up more than a dozen foreign students for a lineup at the foot of Bordovskaya's hospital bed.

Samuel Dinis, a student from Guinea-Bissau who was among those taken to the hospital, said the police pressed Bordovskaya into making an identification. He said the girl replied, "If I don't recognize anyone, I can't just pick anyone."

"It's a frame up," Dinis said, speaking shortly before it was confirmed that the allegations were false. Dinis incidentally was among the students who met with the Voronezh mayor only a few days earlier.

Students especially expressed anger at the way the police immediately responded to the alleged attack on the girl but seem to have done little to catch the Limo's killers. Dinis said police are feeding racial intolerance.

"There is a lot of provocation from police, They ask for documents and they then start to shout, 'Why did you come to Russia, you monkey?'" he said. "Foreigners studying here have no freedom. You feel like you are in prison."

Voronezh police initially said the attack on Limo was not racially motivated because the assailants had hair and therefore could not be racist skinheads, Gazeta.ru reported. The Foreign Ministry blamed the attack on "hooligans" who did not belong to a neo-Nazi group.

Students said those who act aggressively toward them are mainly ordinary teenagers, rather than skinheads. Several cited as an example an incident in January when a group of about 40 young men gathered menacingly outside a student hostel in January and threatened to kill a student. There was no sign that the men were racists apart from their aggressive attitude and the threat of violence; hair was not an issue, they said.

Virtually all of the foreign students live in row of hostels on Ulitsa Friedricha Engelsa and one on Ulitsa Studencheskaya, making them easy targets for attacks.

However, after the widespread media attention in the past two weeks, police spokesman Sergei Shabunia said Monday that investigators were considering all options in Limo case.

The local prosecutor's office is reviewing cases in which foreigners were attacked over the past few years, said Gorshkova, the spokeswoman for regional prosecutor's office. She did not know how many years the prosecutors would go back.

But the police and the university continue to deny that there is a problem with racism.

"It could happen to all Russians. Foreigners are just more visible," said Sergei Karenim, the assistant to the rector of the Voronezh Medical Academy, where Limo was a second-year student.

Some Russian students tended to agree, saying that there was a big problem with juvenile crime all over the city.

"He called it on himself," linguistics student Katya said of Limo, pausing to talk with a reporter as she left a hostel where she lives with foreign students. "Nobody just gets stabbed for no reason. ... He messed with somebody."

"You know why Africans come here," said her equally unsympathetic boyfriend. "[To deal] drugs and to exchange money."

A different view, though, could be found late Saturday at the nightclub Pab, where hundreds of teenagers dressed as if they had just come out of Compton, rather than a provincial town, danced to American and local hip-hop groups.

Mokei Rusinov, his hair shaved off and dressed all in white, said right after performing with his hip-hop group Reproduktsiya that Voronezh has many problems with nationalists and that he planned a graffiti campaign to write "Stop Fascism" all over the city.

Meanwhile, in the room he once shared with Limo, Adilson sat with a photo album of his late roommate. Behind a curtain, Limo's belongings were still in place. His body remained in a morgue across town.

Friends planned to repair Limo's television and radio and ship it back to his family. The academy has offered to cover the cost of sending his body home.

The students, meanwhile, are waiting to see whether the city and university will make good on their promises to try to prevent attacks.

"We want to survive, we want to finish and go home," said Altayev, the Sudanese student.