May 1933—Sinkiang Province,
"PAPA, where Are you?”
I couldn’t understand why my daddy wasn’t with us. It seemed like only minutes ago he was carrying me through the ooded rice elds. As I peered out from behind a huge rock, all I could see were those dreaded open elds. So easy for the border patrols, both Russian and Chinese, to spot anyone trying to escape. Our weary band of refugees had made it safely so far on our long walk to freedom. But my daddy was out there somewhere.
“Papa, where are you?”
That at single question ricocheted through my mind as I searched the eyes of Misha, my twelve-year-old brother. Misha was over seven years my senior and always seemed to have answers. Surely he would know why our daddy wasn’t in hiding with the rest of the family.
“Not so loud, Vanya. Someone might hear us,” Misha whispered as he li ed me up and pointed in the direction of the rice elds.
“Over there,” he said. “See that mound? at’s Papa lying on it.”
I squinted, trying desperately to focus in the predawn darkness. Minutes later, as morning light re ected o the ooded elds, I noticed the raised mound. Sure enough, that was Daddy’s coat lying there. But where was he?
Only when the sun peeked over the horizon did I notice the shock of jet-black hair sticking out from my daddy’s coat. at must be Papa’s head, I thought. But why isn’t he moving? He looks like he’s sleeping, so peaceful, so vulnerable. I wanted to run out to my daddy. I wanted to feel his arms around me. I wanted Papa.
“Vanya, get down o the rock. Someone might see you.” I reluctantly obeyed Misha and plopped down beside my two sisters, Marusia my oldest sister, and Lena, two years older than I. Marusia was always calm, even in fearful circumstances. Misha told me that Marusia had been accidentally dropped when she was three years old and severely broke her le hand. Since no doctors were available, her broken bone had become infected and never healed properly. at’s why her le hand looked so awkward, almost as though someone had twisted it grotesquely. Her hand was always festering, and yel- low pus oozed out of a persistent sore. But she commanded respect, and at age thirteen she was given much of the responsibility of caring for us.
Lena had eyes that were as black as her hair, with dark circles around them. ose eyes made her appear serious, like she was always in deep thought about something. She was a spunky girl, never lack- ing for something to say. But now she sat with us in silence, four hun- gry children in ragged clothes, clinging together in fear and hope.
Other families huddled nearby. As I noticed one father gently comforting his children, my own heart longed for the comfort of my
daddy and mother. Papa was lying all alone out in the rice eld and Mama...where was Mama?
e events of the past few days were a blur in my four-and-a-half- year-old mind. I remembered that Mama had crossed the border with us into China. Our group, forty-six people in all, had very little food and water when we ed by night from Zharkent, a city in the Soviet Repub- lic of Kazakhstan, some twenty kilometers from the Chinese border.
Night a er night we had all walked to get to this strange and lonely place, how many days I couldn’t remember. ese were ter- rible days, days I wanted to forget. I know we got lost along the way and nearly died of thirst. It seemed like some of the younger children cried the whole way. I cried, too, but most times I tried not to let it show. Crying did no good, but sometimes I got so sad because of the heat, the hunger and thirst, and the fear and fatigue. ankfully, we were now safely across the border and well hidden.
Yesterday at rst light, four women, including Mama, had volun- teered to walk to nearby villages to buy bread. e men stayed behind and guarded the children. When Mama le , I wanted to go, too, but my legs hurt so much I couldn’t walk another step. e only thing I could do was wait and pray. Hour a er anxious hour we scanned the horizon, hoping the women would return with food to satisfy our raging hunger. With each hour we grew more anxious and restless. en Misha cried out. He was the rst to spot the women on the horizon, and he and I dashed out to meet our mother. To our horror, she was not with them.
“Where’s Mama?” we pleaded.
“Ah, she’s probably still looking for bread,” her friend Masha said. “I’m sure she will be back soon.”
Papa’s face fell when he heard that Mama had not made it back. In silence we ate the at, round bread we were given, and our anxious daddy urged us to pray.
Toward evening, Mama was still not back, and the leaders of our group wanted to move on. ey were afraid we were too close to the border. We all knew the consequences of being arrested—the men would be sent back to face imprisonment, beatings, and possi- bly death. Our main church elder, Ivan Verhovod, said we needed to go much farther into China before we would be safe. Not knowing how far into China we needed to be, we could hear the clear sense of urgency in the elders’ voices as they instructed us to move out under cover of darkness.
I’ll never forget the look in Papa’s eyes as the group prepared to leave. He protested loudly, trying desperately to persuade the group to wait for Mama, but to no avail. I heard Ivan Verhovod say to him, “We need to leave now, and you need to trust God to bring Pelageya back.”
Torn between waiting for Mama and going ahead with the group, Papa told us to prepare to leave. Marusia and Misha began packing our meager belongings and helping Lena and me get ready. I kept asking Misha when Mama was coming back, but his only reply was a pained, tearful glance. Marusia began to cry, but none looked sadder than Papa. I had never before seen him so heartbroken as the moment we resumed our journey. He was usually smiling and singing as we walked, but now he groaned and slumped noticeably.
It had been dark the night before when we stumbled out into that huge rice eld. e leaders wanted to go around the eld, but it was too wide. Because of the waist-deep mud, walking through it was painfully slow. Several times as Papa carried me through the eld, he stumbled and dropped me. Someone nally noticed his struggle and scooped me up out of the mud and began carrying me.
“Hurry, everyone! e sun will rise soon!” I could see the worried look on the face of Ivan as he shouted these words. We were safe only as long as it was dark, and less than an hour of darkness remained.
“There!” someone shouted. “Let’s hide in that ditch by the road.”
Now I recalled how we had gotten to this muddy ditch. But why was Papa out in the middle of the rice eld? My young mind just couldn’t make sense of it. I asked Misha the same question, and he said, “When the leaders told us to run and hide in the ditch, Papa was too weak to go on. So they found a dry area in the eld and laid him on it. at way no one would spot him.”
As I slumped against the wall of the ditch, I noticed mud oozing from my shoes. Papa had twice repaired my shoes, always giving them back to me polished and looking like new. What would he think now of their awful condition? What would Mama think? Why hadn’t she found us? Why wasn’t Papa coming to join us? Why was this happen- ing to our family?
Tears rolled down my dirty cheeks, and not even the comfort of my brother could stop them.