Writing in the No. 11 (February 14) issue of Novaya Gazeta, the award-winning Russian war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya presented her version of what happened to and around her on February 8-9 in Shatoi District, located in the Chechen highlands. She began by noting that Interfax had written on February 9 that “I had been taken into custody by the district military commandant’s office during the conducting of a special operation in that district because I did not have the appropriate documents.” Other Russian news agencies had provided similar distorted information.
“This,” Politkovskaya then continued her account, “is what happened. On 8 February, on the second day of my trip, having reached the district center of Shatoi from Grozny, I went, not concealing myself from anyone, to the head of the district department of internal affairs, Sultan Magomedov, and told him about the goal of my trip: namely, to investigate one of the loudest and most tragic events of January 2002 in Chechnya—a summary execution which involved the burning of six peaceful residents who were returning home from the district center of Shatoi to the mountain settlement of Nokhchi-Kuloi.” After speaking with the local pro-Moscow police, Politkovskaya added, she then went “as is required” to the district administration building and asked them to stamp her papers confirming that she had physically arrived in the district; they then affixed the appropriate stamp on her papers at the administration building.
Accompanied by two pro-Moscow Chechen policemen who were traveling with her during her visit, Politkovskaya then proceeded to the district military commandant’s office, to speak with the commandant himself, Colonel Viktor Mal’chukov. “Why to him? For a very simple reason: I have been acquainted with him for a long time, and I respect how he relates to the people in the villages…. We sat down and worked out a plan of how I should best perform the task that I had been set by my editors.”
Noting that her colleagues in the Russian press had wrongly reported that she had then been “taken into custody” and had “fled” the district, Politkovskaya underscored that nothing whatever had happened to her on February 8 and that, on the 9th, nothing occurred until “the FSB involved itself” in the affair of a Russian journalist investigating a murder committed by “an elite special detachment of the GRU.” At 11:00 a.m. on the 9th, she had an appointment to interview Colonel Andrei Vershinin, a military prosecutor working in Shatoi District “who is conducting an investigation right now into the criminal case of the execution [of the six Chechen civilians].” Vershinin’s office is located at the headquarters of the 291st regiment, quartered in the settlement of Borzoi, several kilometers from the district center of Shatoi. She and Vershinin had a pleasant conversation, “and we parted friends.”
It was at this point, Politkovskaya underlines, that the FSB stepped in. “It turned out that while the interview [with Vershinin] was taking place, the police guards accompanying me were being interrogated by the FSB-concerning me.” Officers with whom Politkovskaya was unacquainted quietly advised her to leave the regiment, “since my arrest was being prepared, and since the FSB was categorically opposed to journalists sticking their noses into ‘that case’ [that is, the alleged murder of six civilians by the GRU].” It was at this point that Politkovskaya organized her own “disappearance” from Shatoi and her eventual reappearance at the offices of the human rights organization Memorial in Nazran’, Ingushetia. “Perhaps,” Politkovskaya apostrophizes the reader, “you think that I was playing at being a spy? Nothing of the sort. I hate that style of life. The situation which was created by the power structures in Chechnya-in the first instance by the employees of the FSB and Ministry of Defense-makes me ill, since a situation in which the lawful desire of a journalist to obtain full and broad information concerning an event results in direct threats to her life.”
In interviews with correspondent Ol’ga Allenova of Kommersant and with Ekho Moskvy Radio, Politkovskaya added some details to the account she published in Novaya Gazeta. Fearing that she might be seized at one of the military checkpoints located near Shatoi, she had the two pro-Moscow policemen drive her to the Argun Gorge, whence she proceeded on foot to Achkoi-Martan, from where she eventually reached Ingushetia. She was dressed in the guise of a local Chechen woman, for example “taking off my glasses because Chechen women don’t wear them” (Kommersant, February 14).
One result of the murder of the six Chechen civilians, she told Ekho Moskvy radio, was that “there had appeared 28 orphans. The murderers were arrested and kept in prison, so my assignment was to meet with the military prosecutor. The main witness in that case is the major, one of the military, a major of army intelligence.” The GRU soldiers who killed the civilians were, she remarked, “in the condition known as the Chechen syndrome. The people affected with the Chechen syndrome cannot stop making war, and anyone coming from anywhere is an enemy” (Ekho Moskvy Radio, February 13, from Federal News Service).
Commenting on the incident involving Politkovskaya, Gazeta.ru wrote on February 14: “Immediately after the flight of Politkovskaya from Shatoi, the military declared that they would in general not permit her on the territory of the republic, and in Moscow they are asking that her accreditation be rescinded at the press service of the Combined Group of Forces.” Perhaps, Gazeta.ru reflected, that is what will happen if facts are not produced confirming Politkovskaya’s account concerning “the bestial actions of the GRU spetznaz.”
In the meantime, other Russian journalists are also looking into the incident being investigated by Politkovskaya and her newspaper. Citing the human rights organization Memorial (Ingushetia office) as his source, correspondent Bakhtiyar Akhmedkhanov, writing in the February 14 issue of Obshchaya Gazeta, provided the names and other biographical information on the six victims of the attack. One of six victims listed was a pregnant woman: “Zainap Dzhavatkhanova, age 38, the mother of seven children, a resident of the village of Nokhchi-Kuloi, who was in a pregnant condition.” In his account, Akhmedkhanov also underscores a key point: “the case [against the GRU soldiers] is being investigated by military prosecutors. That means that the issue concerns a crime committed by soldiers… If the murders had been committed by Chechen rebels, then the [pro-Moscow] Procuracy of Chechnya would be investigating the crime.”
On February 12, Ekho Moskvy Radio asked several leading pro-democracy journalists to comment on the Politkovskaya incident. “Politkovskaya,” Igor’ Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, observed, “is undoubtedly a journalist in the real sense. And that is why she reacts very sharply to any attempt to restrict her activity. Her activity makes life very uncomfortable for people who try to supply one-sided information about what is happening in Chechnya.” “What has been going on in connection with Anna Politkovskaya,” Valery Yakov, deputy editor of Novye Izvestia, emphasized, “is virtually the finishing touch put by the Kremlin to the information embargo in Chechnya. It all started with Andrei Babitsky [of Radio Liberty]. Anna was the last there, in my opinion. And the determined efforts by the authorities to force her out just go to show that sad times are ahead. Because if Chechnya is closed to independent media, this will be used as the blueprint, in my opinion, for the rest of Russia” (Posted in English translation on Ichkeria.org, February 13).
To sum up, in the course of her interview with Kommersant, Politkovskaya noted that she had to date made thirty-nine trips to Chechnya as a reporter and that the most recent one was the first in which she had had to disguise her appearance. Will, one wonders, the Russian authorities permit this intrepid journalist to conduct a fortieth visit to the war-torn republic?