25 March 2004, 17:33

Phantom-limb pains

Memorial's office in Grozny, Chechnya, was almost empty: some officers were taking their exams at the local university; others, already practicing lawyers, had trial appointments. Usual routine. At last, someone was through with work, and we all went out to dine. Life bubbled in local "Broadway," Pobedy Avenue, and the signboards were surprising. Next to the door, there was at once Cure of the Organism and All of its Parts, Notary's, and Hot Chebureks [cheburek is a kind of meat pie originally cooked in the Crimea and the Caucasus - trans.]. Even the notary's seal, though, would not be able to dispel the arising suspicion as regards the filling of chebureks...

We called on a cafe. The interior, music, dishes, and prices were at first sight like in any Russian regional center. At table, my colleagues suddenly began to talk about Astafiev [a modern Russian writer, rather well-known - trans.], absolutely unaware that my companion was good friends with Victor Petrovich. The conversation livened up, and we were having a good time. Out in the Avenue, someone noticed some movement on the upper stories of a ruined apartment house across the street and determined using signs unknown to me: "That's the other side." A side of the war, not the street. That is, someone else, not federal sharpshooters, were hiding under the roofs in the middle of Grozny.

Entire life seems to be focused in 1 sq km here. Preserved houses are rebuilt or somehow repaired. There is even a square with a fountain. Television broadcasts from here. Next follows a void.

From a blank sheet

For some reason, it seemed Grozny would not be able to surprise or frighten. After all, for ten years I've been watching Russian artillery and aviation turning a Russian city of 0.4 million into ruins. However, those for the first time here were awed by the ruins. There is huge, of hectares, wasteland in the middle of the Chechen capital nowadays. The debris was removed before the presidential "election" in October, the grounds were made even, and TV camera crews could broadcast a "picture of work and high rates." The military, probably, feels safe - a sniper has nowhere to hide. My companions used to come back home this way in their student years - they are now vying to enumerate what we are passing by. The void around is growing covered by phantoms of past life.

The landmarks gradually acquire visible contours - away from the center, we get to ruins in the Oktiabrskii district. At the very beginning of the war, on October 27, 1999, Shamil Basaev's house was destroyed here from air - this is what was reported at least. The missile really left a deep hole where the house had stood, but that was a neighbor's, belonging to Nokha Osmaev, while the "addressee's" only lost the roof. Everything was later destroyed around here: a five-story house, a few two-story houses with 12 flats in each of them, a private single-story building, and a taxi parking lot with the vehicles. Similar "high-precision" strikes were dealt all over the city that day, though; hundreds of people died. The question of who was responsible for all that horror has long become rhetorical.

Almost nothing has changed here since, save, maybe, for the rampant shrubs - they will hide the ruins in spring - and some gates reading "People living here" have grown rusty. The words have been preserved since the storm and "clean-up" of the city; that time they were to protect the tenants as a kind of amulet. But they didn't. Four years ago federal forces were slowly entering Grozny left by guerillas. Forty-six were killed quite nearby, in the Zavodskoi district, in Novye Aldy. They were shot dead in their houses and yards, thrown grenades at, tortured and murdered... Investigation soon named the suspects - special police units from St. Petersburg and Ryazan, but it's gone no further since.

Under siege

Perm policemen at a post in lowland are in a nasty mood, matching the weather.

"We are scarcely 2,000 here for the entire city. At night, Chechens drive about with arms. We can't check their ID. They abduct people and carry them away - that way, see?"

He is not talking about guerillas, it's all about "Kadyrovites." As a matter of fact, the abducted are not at all carried off "that way." There are really a lot of holes across the river, in the industrial area, though. But that's not "zindans" [underground pits used to keep captives, slaves, and hostages - trans.] - that's how oil products are recovered, having leaked into the ground for decades. Facilities have been destroyed and there is no work, so the condensate business, unhealthy and dangerous, continues to be almost the only chance to earn some money. Workers get peanuts; the "cover" grows rich. They say Kadyrovites now take not as much as before... The police officer from Perm continues:

"They are afraid themselves of those who have come here. Over there, see? The hell knows who lives there, say, Khattabis..."

In the 1990s, people from villages came to Chernorechie, as well as to other Grozny districts. Local Russians and all the non-Vainakhs in general were not able to resist criminal pressure, and they sold their flats dirt-cheap at best. Grozny's Chechens, too, rather disliked the mountain people - the appearance of the most beautiful city in the Caucasus was changing rapidly and irretrievably; its many-aspect and many-language nature and tolerance towards foreigners were vanishing... However, Khattabis are much worse than the mountain people. The Perm guys have stood here for about three months. There are scarcely 0.7-0.8 million in Chechnya, no more than 0.2 million in Grozny. The task is simple for joint police units formed in other Russian regions: know all through in the neighborhood, learn to distinguish faces in a stream of people. Far from it: everything is alien and strange. The allies, Kadyrovites, in the first place.

"No one elected Kadyrov. No one attended. Everyone hates him."

The federal government has been able to make the armed conflict in Chechnya "internal" to a significant extent. Aside from Kadyrovites whose legal status is unclear, war on separatists is waged by both police proper (Chechnya's special police force) and commandant's companies of Yamadaev. This war is often cruel - no one has abolished blood feud in Chechnya. "Driving about at night, with arms, abducting people and carrying them off" - this is basically within the jurisdiction delegated to all these agencies by the ROH, Regional Operative Headquarters. They all, along with Kadyrovites, remain alien for an ordinary policeman from Perm. He says nothing about his colleagues from law enforcement and security agencies "abducting and carrying off."

The black hole

Abductions are the most terrible thing in today's Chechnya. Yet - it's a miracle! - every disappearance I handled while on this trip had a happy end, by local standards. The people are alive, they were released and thrown out alive. Now they are afraid, so let's pass over names. A village in the foothills - news mentioned its name about four years ago - was heavily destroyed, robbed, and scarcely rebuilt. Armored personnel carriers brought away two men; they were kept in a place for ten days, and all that time their eyes were blindfolded or taped. They are now trying to look cheerful, as is becoming to a Chechen man talking to a stranger. But I know: one of them has a broken leg and ribs, a fragment in the lung; the other one has frostbitten soft tissues of his feet and handcuffed wrists festering. Their relatives along with human rights advocates set up a clamor, and - a rare case! - the prosecutor made a couple attempts to get to the illegal jail. Such "jails" in military quarters are a flagrant violation of the law demanding that detainees be delivered to police in three hours. He was not allowed in the torture chamber, but the people did not disappear totally - thanks a lot... Should anyone have been exposed, who would have released the two men?

Two brothers from Grozny's outskirts. A rare luck - their relatives tracked the route of their abductors - towards Khankala through check-point 300. They applied everywhere, raised a clamor. The prosecutor finally got to Khankala, at the second attempt. He found there one brother's Niva car which the abductors had grabbed into the bargain. Finally, the neighbors of the "missing" blocked a road near Khankala. In the evening, they threw out the bothers by the road, beaten and tortured, shocked, but alive...

A well-known medical man who had left Grozny for Ingushetia at the very beginning of the war was abducted from his office. There was serious evidence: they said a year ago the Federal Security Service (FSB) had come to have an old picture taken back before the "first war" in which he is with some one of the guerilla commanders to be well-known in the future. It had been taken during a celebration or in a gym - the doctor had gone in for bodybuilding... It looks like they have not been able to catch the patient to date, but the doctor captured with him comes in handy. A clamor was raised globally after this abduction. Through Radio Echo of Moscow - they listen to this in the Caucasus - they addressed the law enforcement / security officers - after all, luckily, some officers of the FSB and the Regional Authority for Combating Organized Crime used to be among the doctor's patients. It is unclear if something worked or they simply figured out something, but the doctor - alive! - was thrown out in the open field...

One would like very much the happy end in all these cases - still happy in spite of injuries - not to be simply a coincidence. It's gratifying the Russian prosecution is trying to do its job; it's a pity, though, this happens seldom and helps even less frequently. The families of the above-mentioned five men are now concerned about their health. What are the relatives of those thousands concerned about that are still missing or have been found dead? Last year alone, according to Memorial's by far incomplete information, 155 people out of the 447 abducted were released or ransomed; 49 were found dead; 273 disappeared. Fourteen out of the 33 abducted people were released last January, and one body was found... Leaving Chechnya, we got stuck in a traffic jam. All drivers rushed to this road because the other was blocked by people from a village from which a man was abducted last night by "unknown armed people in camouflage and masks coming along by an armored personnel carrier." Three weeks was left before the explosion in Moscow's Metro.

February 16, 2004

Author: Alexander Cherkasov, Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow); Source: Memorial Human Rights Center (Moscow, Russia)

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