In recent months,” journalist Maura Reynolds concluded grimly in the March 14 issue of the Los Angeles Times, “bodies have been turning up all over separatist Chechnya. Sometimes they are found in pairs, sometimes half a dozen or more at a time. Usually the victims were bound and blindfolded. Often, if the bodies are not too badly decomposed, they bear signs of torture-severed ears or fingers, cigarette burns, deep bruises.” Indeed, as the pro-democracy Russian press has been reporting, the corpses of Chechens–most of them young men–are turning up in a number of locations throughout the republic.
The no. 11 (March 15) issue of the weekly Obshchaya Gazeta featured a piece by journalist Irina Dement’eva, who recently accompanied a researcher from the human rights organization “Memorial,” Natal’ya Estemirovaya, on a trip to Djohar (Grozny). They arrived on a Russian holiday, Women’s Day, and witnessed some thirty Chechen women holding a demonstration with placards and photographs of young men who had been taken away by Russian troops and then disappeared. “To be a male in today’s Chechnya,” Dement’eva notes, “is lethally dangerous.” The women told the onlookers their stories one after another. The mother of one young man, Tasu Timarov, knew precisely what had happened to her son and to two of his friends: Ramzan and Rustam Reskhanov. On December 9, 2000, at 1:00 a.m., the three young men had been forcibly taken from their homes by Russian soldiers. On March 6, 2001, they returned the young men’s bodies to their mothers. The Reskhanov brothers had been tortured: “Ramzan Reskhanov’s throat had been slashed, his extremities had been fractured, there were blue traces on the skin behind his ears, evidently he had been tortured by electric shock…. Rustam’s eyes had been pricked out, his nose had been sliced off, his hands were tied, and on his clenched fist a ‘W’ had been branded. That English letter is the symbol of the [retired General] Shamanov brigade.”
The weekly Novaya Gazeta recently described what is shown on a videotape of an officially conducted (by the pro-Moscow authorities) exhumation of a shallow grave accidentally discovered by a tractor driver from the town of Starye Atagi. Three young men–Imran Kuntaev (born 1964), Adam Sadaev (born 1969) and Adnan Abdurazakov–had been taken into custody near Starye Atagi at a Russian military checkpoint in the summer of 2000. Medical examiners held up their skulls for the cameraman to film–all three young men had been executed by a shot through the head. During the course of the exhumation, another “completely fresh” shallow grave was accidentally discovered. Edilbek Isaev had been seized in public in Starye Atagi just three days previously. “The [local] women,” the report notes, “had tried to tear Edilbek away from the [Russian] soldiers, who were wearing masks, but they had calmed them down, saying: ‘We’ll only check his documents.'” Several days later, Isaev’s body was unearthed: “Isaev had been scalped. His arms were broken. His fingers had been chopped off. His ribs were sticking out of body. His executioners had carved their initials on his stomach. They are clearly visible.” Pro-Moscow Chechen procuracy employees present at the exhumation, however, chose to ignore these initials (Novaya Gazeta, no. 17, March 12).
As reported, an estimated fifty to sixty unburied bodies were found last month at a dumping site adjacent to the largest Russian military base in Chechnya, Khankala, situated near Djohar (see Chechnya Weekly, February 27, March 13). On March 13, the pro-Moscow prosecutor of Chechnya, Vsevolod Chernov, announced that thirty-four of the bodies had been buried due to their advanced stage of decomposition. The March 14 issues of both the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times carried reports by correspondents Colin MacMahon and Maura Reynolds concerning three of the victims. The two journalists interviewed Said-Alvi Luluev, a former Russian judge, concerning his wife of twenty-two years, Nura Lulueva–the mother of four children, ages six to twenty-one–and concerning her two cousins, Markha and Raisa Gakaeva, all of whose bodies turned up at the dumping site.
On June 3, 2000, the three women had been opening up their fruit stand at an open-air market in Djohar when “An armored personnel carrier arrived with at least a dozen armed men dressed in camouflage and wearing black ski masks…. When local [pro-Moscow] Chechen police arrived… one of the men flashed an identification card and told the police ‘not to interfere'” (Chicago Tribune, March 14). The soldiers rounded up at least nine civilians, all but two of them women. In February 2001, the three women’s blindfolded and badly decomposed bodies were found at the dumping site (they had apparently not been tortured). “Being a judge by profession, [Luluev] knows that executing anyone, including a suspected rebel, without a proper judicial inquiry is illegal. And he knows that if procedures had been followed, his wife would be alive” (L.A. Times, March 14).
On March 13, the online daily Gazeta.ru carried an item titled “FSB Reveals Details of Chechen Operation.” The FSB, it was reported, has launched an operation officially called “Mujaheddin,” aimed at rooting out rebels posing as peaceful citizens. A second purpose of the operation was “to spread panic among the separatists.” The operation commenced more than two months previously in Dagestan and in other areas of Russia adjacent to Chechnya. In Dagestan, over 700 persons had been detained by the FSB on suspicion of being rebels posing as peaceful residents. Forty-one had already been convicted on charges of belonging to the illegal armed formations. Outside Chechnya, the aim of the operation was to prevent rebels from returning to the republic with the advent of the so-called “green season.” The FSB had also stepped up its efforts to recruit local Chechens as informants to tip them off about suspicious movements and persons, but the recruitment had been proceeding with difficulty.
On March 11, the existence of Operation Mujaheddin was made public in Chechnya, when it was announced that federal units had implemented the first stage of the operation in the Chechen towns of Argun and Urus-Martan. According to the Glasnost-Caucasus Daily News Service, on March 11-14, the FSB sealed off the city of Argun. “Over 100 men and two women were detained in the operation…. The majority of the people were released on the day of their detention and were [then] hospitalized…. The fate of the remaining is not yet known…. On March 14, desperate women held a rally in the city center demanding the release of their men…. A Special Police unit dispersed the crowd. There were clashes between the women and police…. Another rally was held the following day” (Daily News Service, March 16).