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Canadian model finds fame in Chechnya

By Ivan Watson, CNN
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Canadian model is face of Chechnya
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Canadian former fashion model is perhaps the most famous foreigner in Chechnya
  • Her TV shows range from currents affairs to religious instruction to hobbies
  • She defends Chechen president who was named one of 40 "Predators of Press Freedom"
  • But Chrystal Callahan is also a symbol of peace and stability

Grozny, Chechnya (CNN) -- The news in Chechnya has an unlikely Canadian face: a former fashion model with a catchy name who anchors the news in English on state-run TV.

"Good evening. This is Chrystal Callahan and these are the highlights of the week," says the smiling anchor at the start of her program. "The Chechen Republic is steadily becoming a region of example for other parts of Russia!"

Aided by a constant stream of Chechen sub-titles, Grozny TV's English-speaking anchor from Toronto has arguably become the most famous foreigner in post-war Chechnya.

Callahan first traveled to what was long the most war-torn, dangerous corner of Russia several years ago, while filming a documentary about a Chechen Greco-roman wrestling team.

"When I [first] came to Chechnya I was so happy and grateful that I got to come here," Callahan said, in an interview in one of the studios of Grozny TV. "It was so awesome. Everyone was so nice. And my first impression was "wow, this place rules.""

Today, Callahan lives in Grozny and hosts a series of current affairs and cultural programs.

Grozny's dramatic decade of change

The program might show her on any given week learning to manipulate manikins at Grozny's puppet theater or preparing traditional Chechen recipes in the station's kitchen studio.

Video: Tenuous stability in post-war Chechnya
RELATED TOPICS
  • Chechnya
  • Russia
  • War and Conflict

She says she has a responsibility to broadcast to members of the Chechen diaspora who have lost touch with their homeland after being scattered around the world by a decade of war.

Though she is not a Muslim, Callahan also offers viewers weekly lessons in Islam, the main religion of the region.

"This week in Islam, we learn about Doomsday," Callahan announced, at the beginning of a recent interview segment with a Chechen Islamic scholar.

And the tall, dark-skinned Canadian has even begun singing and dancing traditional Chechen folk songs in music videos.

"Everyone needs entertainment and a lighter side of things. So the show I do is light and it's entertaining," said Callahan, during a walk through a park in Grozny that includes a memorial to slain journalists. "It's such a drag, can you imagine? Everyone talking about the war, the war."

But her "lighter side" approach to the news also extends to Chechnya's young leader. Callahan devotes a lot of time to documenting the daily achievements of Chechnya's 33-year-old rebel-turned-Russian-backed-president.

"Horse-racing season has begun in the Chechen republic. The president of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, opened the tournament," announced Callahan in one recent broadcast. "The horse races were devoted to the counterterrorist operation's regime cancellation day as well as the birth of a son from a close friend of the president," Callahan narrated, over video of Kadyrov watching the contest with uniformed officers.

Kadyrov had a race track constructed at the entrance of his presidential mansion. "In the second race the president's horse Ergies took first place."

For years human rights groups have accused Kadyrov and his security forces of kidnapping, torture and even extra-judicial killings.

In 2010, the Paris-based watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders added Kadyrov to its list of 40 "Predators of Press Freedom."

The group pointed out vocal critics of Kadyrov keep getting murdered. Most recently, Austrian police linked one of Kadyrov's top aides to the fatal shooting of a Chechen dissident named Umar Israilov in Vienna, Austria.

Kadyrov routinely denies these charges. Callahan dismisses them too.

"If there's no proof and there's no concrete evidence, who cares?" Callahan asks.

"Do I think he killed him [Israilov]? Absolutely not," Callahan says. "What would he have to gain by that? You know, he did so much to try to make this a safe place so kids could run around. There's no war!"

She speaks while strolling through a Grozny park where elderly women sit chatting on benches and music plays from speakers at an outdoor café that serves instant coffee.

In this relaxing place, Kadyrov's most enthusiastic and visible Western defender is something of a celebrity.

Young Chechens begin drifting up to Callahan, asking to pose along side the Canadian for photos snapped on their cell phones.

"It's really nice that she's from Canada and that she traveled here to host the show," says 18 year old Avsan Veshal after smiling for the camera.

To these star-struck Chechens, Chrystal Callahan is more then just a mouthpiece for the Kadyrov government. The presence of Grozny's most famous foreigner also symbolizes something everyone here is hoping for after years of conflict: stability and peace.

 
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