Sunday October 27, 2002
At 5am on 14 April 2002, an armoured vehicle moved slowly down Soviet
Street. A young brown-haired man, covered in blood, his hands and feet
bound, stood onboard. The vehicle stopped and the man was pushed off and
brought over to a nearby chain-link fence. The car took off and there
was a loud bang. The force of the explosion, caused either by a grenade
or dynamite, sent the man's head flying into the neighbouring street,
called Lenin's Commandments. 'It was difficult to photograph the moment,
though I have grown somewhat accustomed to this,' says a petite greying
Chechen woman, who has spent years documenting what Russia calls its
Blowing people up, dead or alive, she reports, is the latest tactic
introduced by the federal army into the conflict. It was utilised
perhaps most effectively on 3 July in the village of Meskyer Yurt, where
21 men, women and children were bound together and blown up, their
remains thrown into a ditch.
From the perspective of the perpetrators, this method of killing is
highly practical; it prevents the number of bodies from being counted,
or possibly from ever being found. It has not always succeeded in this
respect, however. Since the spring, dogs have been digging up body parts
in various corners of Chechnya, sometimes almost daily.
Meanwhile, the more traditional methods endure. On 9 September the
bodies of six men from Krasnostepnovskoye were found, naked, with
plastic bags wrapped around their heads. In June, a ditch containing 50
mutilated bodies was discovered near the Russian army post in Chankala.
The corpses were missing eyes, ears, limbs and genitals. Since February,
mass graves have been found near Grozny, Chechen Yurt, Alkhan-Kala and
For nearly 10 years, since the beginning of the first war in December
1994, the grey-haired woman has been patrolling with her camera. She
shows the gruesome images strewn on her table as if they were relics, or
photographs from a family album. She runs her hand over the contours of
an actual cracked skull, one of about a dozen found in February between
Meskyer Yurt and Chechen Yurt.
'The remains were unearthed not long after they died,' she says. 'The
tissue was still in good shape. The torn pieces of flesh suggest that
the victims were attacked by dogs. It's difficult to know. People don't
want to talk. They are scared that they will be next.'
The Society for Russian-Chechen Relations, in collaboration with Human
Rights Watch, reports that in the span of a month between 15 July and 15
August this year, 59 civilians were shot dead, 64 were abducted, 168
were seriously wounded and 298 were tortured. Many men simply
disappeared after being detained by Russian soldiers or security police;
others were shot outright. During an operation in Chechen Aul between 21
May and 11 June, 22 men were killed. The majority were aged 20 to 26;
two were 15.
Since Chechen Aul is considered hostile territory, it has undergone 20
such 'mopping-up operations' this year. Usually the raids are conducted
by federal armed forces (particularly OMON, the police special forces,
and Spetsnaz, its army equivalent) and occur at any time of day or
night. Typically a village will be encircled by tanks, armoured vehicles
and army trucks, one of which, known as the purification car, is
designated for torture. According to Human Rights Watch in New York,
torture is a preferred method of gathering intelligence. Cut off and
isolated, Russian troops' best hope of discovering guerrilla activity is
by grabbing citizens, almost at random, and coercing from them whatever
information they might have.
In its most benign form, such raids are limited to theft of personal
property - from cars, refrigerators and television sets to jewellery,
clothes, pots and pans, and, of course, money. But they frequently turn
ugly. 'They arrived on 23 August at 5am,' says Zuhra from Enikaloi.
'There were about 100 army vehicles, all packed with soldiers. We ran
out to meet them with our documents. God forbid you encounter an
impatient 'federal'. If you do, then in the best-case scenario you may
be tortured or shot dead on the spot. In the worst case, they take you
away. About 20 of them, armed to the teeth and wearing masks, climbed
into the yard and the house. As always, they were dirty, unshaven and
reeking of vodka. They cursed horribly. They shot at our feet. They took
my identification papers and started to shred them. I had bought them
for 500 roubles. They cost me everything I had. They went to our
neighbours' house, the Magomedova family. We heard shots and the screams
of 15-year-old Aminat, the sister of Ahmed and Aslanbek. "Let her be!"
screamed one of the brothers, "Kill us instead!". Then we heard more
shots. Through the window we saw a half-dressed OMON commander lying on
top of Aminat. She was covered in blood from the bullet wounds. Another
soldier shouted, "Hurry up, Kolya, while she's still warm".'
Sometimes those who survive wish they were dead, as in Zernovodsk this
summer, when townspeople say they were chased on to a field and made to
watch women being raped. When their men tried to defend them, 68 of them
were handcuffed to an armoured truck and raped too. After this episode,
45 of them joined the guerrillas in the mountains. One older man, Nurdi
Dayeyev, who was nearly blind, had nails driven through his hands and
feet because it was suspected that he was in contact with the fighters.
When relatives later retrieved his remains, he was missing a hand. The
relatives of another villager, Aldan Manayev, picked up a torso but no
head. The families were forced to sign declarations that Dayeyev and
Manayev had blown themselves up.
Usually groups of people simply disappear. Shortly thereafter their
families begin feverish searches in all the army headquarters and watch
posts. If they can track down a missing family member, they might be
able to buy him or her back. The going rate for a live person is in the
thousands of dollars. For a dead body, the price is not much lower. If
they cannot find the person, family members mail letters to Putin
(Russia's president) and file petitions with social organisations and
rights groups. They post photographs with the caption missing.
And they wait. Most of the abductees never return and the trail grows
Those who do return are often crippled, with bruised kidneys and lungs,
damaged hearing or eyesight and broken bones. It is almost certain they
will never have children.
The Russians do not deny that these things happen. Indeed, an official
order has been issued banning such abuses.
But what most journalistic accounts from the region overlook is the
savagery committed by the other side. Anyone considered a 'collaborator'
by the guerrillas is subject to abduction for ransom or summary
execution. This summer a remote-controlled mine, presumably intended for
a Russian military convoy, exploded at a bus stop in the Chechen capital
of Grozny, killing 11 civilians, including two children.
Analysts say that guerrilla leader Aslan Maskhadov, once regarded as
comparatively secular, has succeeded in consolidating his often
fractious forces by welcoming back into his command several rebel
commanders regarded as radical Islamists. New rebel videotapes play down
nationalist imagery in favour of Islamist symbols.
It all suggests that the brutality of the Russians has also resulted in
a growing radicalisation of their opponents.
Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, a Polish reporter.
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