Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 23

One of the most feared places in Chechnya is the huge Russian base at Khankala, just outside Grozny. It is feared not so much because it is the main headquarters for Russian military operations in the republic, but because it is a center for imprisonment and torture into which countless Chechens have disappeared without a trace. Anna Politkovskaya recounted in the June 23 issue of Novaya gazeta what happened to three Chechen boys, aged 14-15 and two of them brothers, whose families have the misfortune of living right next to Khankala.

Until not long ago the boys’ families had been living as refugees in Ingushetia, but like many others they were cajoled and pressured by the pro-Moscow authorities into returning to their native Chechnya. Their old homes had long since been destroyed, but the Grozny mayor’s office installed them and about 250 other refugee families in temporary housing next to Khankala–where no Chechen would voluntarily choose to live. On the afternoon of April 14, the three boys began walking home from school. They never arrived. Their dead bodies were released by the Khankala military command three days later.

The base command said that the boys themselves were to blame for what happened: They wandered into a minefield on the edge of the base and blew themselves up. The two families’ version is different. The parents told Politkovskaya that they spent those three days frantically seeking information about their missing sons from the military, the police and the local administration. The base command allowed a local police officer to enter the base only two days after he requested access; they then showed him the boys’ bodies, 500 yards inside the minefield. (According to Politkovskaya’s sources, that area is so thickly sown with highly sensitive mines that one could hardly enter it without setting them off.) One of the mothers showed Politkovskaya the shoes that her sons had been wearing–they were completely undamaged and showed no signs of having been anywhere near an explosion. She also said that one of her sons had a gaping wound on his forehead. The other mother said that her son had a mangled cheek. The families believe that Russian troops simply kidnapped their sons, dragged them onto the base and murdered them.

The families tried to file a criminal complaint, but procuracy officials refused to meet with them. Officials of the migration service disclaimed all responsibility, saying that they were powerless to defy the Russian military–a point on which Politkovskaya agrees. But in that case, she wrote, why did they choose to bring the refugee families back from Ingushetia and settle them in such a fatal neighborhood?