Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 2

By Nabi Abdullaev

Kidnapping in Chechnya and the adjacent areas is as common today as it was before the Russians began their second military offensive in the breakaway region in 1999. Despite the torments of the war with Russia, Chechnya’s notorious kidnapping gangs have been thriving, in the process helping to undermine Chechen attempts to win sympathy in the face of the overwhelming Russian military machine.

It is a frighteningly common occurrence for local residents in Russia’s southern Caucasus to witness a kidnapping. Many residents fear that they or their family members might be the next victims of cross-border raids from Chechnya.

Three years ago, my brother-in-law, Rashid Aliev, was kidnapped in broad daylight in Djohar [Grozny], the Chechen capital, and held in Chechnya for eighty days, until my family collected US$30,000 to pay for his release. I attempted to get the Dagestani Ministry of Interior–the local branch of Russia’s Interior Ministry–to open an investigation into the case. They took my petition and did nothing. The incident took place between the two military campaigns in Chechnya and the local authorities were trying to maintain the republic’s good image in order not to frighten investors.

Today, despite the ongoing military conflict in Chechnya, kidnappings continue. As proceeds from the region’s black market trade in oil, now under Russian control, have dried up, kidnapping has become much more attractive to both the warlords who carry on the rebel cause and to ordinary criminal gangs.

“Now, since the Russian law and order agencies have had the opportunity to act in Chechnya, which was impossible during the period of Chechnya’s de-facto independence, the kidnappers have changed their tactics,” commented Colonel Ahberdilav Akilov, head of the Russian Interior Ministry’s regional antikidnapping directorate. “Earlier the bandits’ usual practice was simple–to grab the victim and run over the border back to Chechnya. Today, the kidnappers have developed and carry out very competent abductions: They conduct initial reconnaissance of the planned crime scene, take care to ensure that the transportation and hiding of their hostages is secure and even spread misinformation aimed at the investigating agencies.”

As those who might be considered good prey for kidnappers tend to stay away from Chechnya itself, the hostagetakers tend to choose victims from the neighboring areas–usually the impoverished North Caucasus republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia. Kidnapping rings employ a division of labor: For example, Dagestani gangsters seize the victims and deliver them to Chechnya for a price; the Chechen bandits then keep the hostages and negotiate with their families for a ransom.

My brother-in-law, who is 33 years old, was kept in the far reaches of Chechnya’s mountainous Vedeno region along with four other hostages–two other Dagestanis, one Armenian and an Azerbaijani.

“Our masters were never short of new victims,” my brother-in-laws said, speaking about his gruesome experience as a captive. “They were bringing them to the village where we stayed almost every day.”

“I was kept in a dark pit along with my fellows victims, and we were regularly beaten,” he said. “The local population guarded the compound and used us as slaves. No one there considered us as human beings.” Kidnapping is nothing new in Chechnya and Dagestan. Some of the local ancient traditional songs and tales have the motif of kidnapping and selling a victim. The slave market in the Dagestani village Endirey-Aul was the largest in the region, and existed even under Tsarist administration up until the October Revolution. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the state’s overall police powers slackening, the kidnapping business proliferated in the Northern Caucasus, especially in de-facto independent Chechnya.

The inability of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov’s government to put a stop to kidnapping has contributed to the government’s isolation and thus hampered its ability to build support internationally. Even the bravest of international relief agencies pulled out of the Caucasus in 1996-1997 because their workers were repeatedly targeted. The International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, even the United Nations–groups who have a natural sympathy for victims of war–keep their staff away from the scene of the suffering, largely because of Chechnya’s kidnappings.

The Russian media, which was highly critical of the 1994-96 war against the rebels, has also felt the sting of kidnappings. Chechen hostagetakers captured former NTV television star Yelena Masyuk, a crew from ORT television, Vladimir Yatsina of Itar-Tass and Dmitry Balburov of Moskovskie Novosti, along with several other reporters. That bitter experience may help explain why Russia’s media has been far less critical of the Russian military campaign this time around.

The Russian government uses evidence from the kidnappings–videotapes of hostages being mutilated and executed–to keep anti-Chechen sentiment inside the country high and to deflect criticism abroad. I remember seeing Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s Emergency Situations Minister and Vladimir Putin’s political ally, almost forcibly shoving these tapes to members of the PACE delegation who visited Dagestan a year ago.

Another memorable case took place in late 1999, when then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin played a gruesome tape at a special screening for Western journalists during a visit to Oslo, Norway. One journalist fainted during the screening and made himself a laughingstock for some of the Russian media.

I kept the videotape that the mediators brought to us several weeks after my brother-in-law was kidnapped in Djohar. Somebody snaps their fingers behind the camera and we see Rashid’s bruised face. He is sitting at the bottom of the dark pit. On the video, he looks spiritually and physically broken. He monotonously repeats, “Father and Mother, don’t report this to the police or these guys will kill me. They don’t like jokes. Give them whatever they want. I am miserable here.”

The savagery of the kidnappers has increased their effectiveness. The most notorious case took place in 1997, when the severed heads of the six British and New Zealand telecom engineers, who had been invited by the Chechen government, were found on one of Chechnya’s highways. Two Dagestani hostages who witnessed this horrific execution were later freed by Dagestan’s RUBOP–the Interior Ministry’s anti-organized crime unit and told the story to the unit’s chief, Lieutenant-Colonel Imamutdin Temirbulatov. Last November, Temirbulatov told the newspaper MK-Dagestan that Maskhadov ransomed the decapitated corpses and returned to the victim’s relatives in zinc coffins.

Temirbulatov also revealed what had happened to another kidnapping victim–Herbert Gregg, the American preacher who lived with his wife in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital. On November 11, 1998, the 51-year-old Gregg was kidnapped at the gates of the town’s basketball club, which he had created, and taken to Chechnya. His kidnappers initially demanded a US$3 million ransom. To force payment, his captors produced a videotape showing how they cut off Gregg’s finger and passed it along to one of his Moscow friends. This film was shown on Russian TV several times. According to Temirbulatov, fter numerous meetings between top Dagestani police officials, Chechen officials–including Vice-Prime Minister Turpal-Ali Atgiriev and Interior Minister Aidamir Abalaev–and several independent warlords who acted as middlemen to hand over the ransom (which had dropped to US$2 million) Herbert Gregg was released. Temirbulatov said nothing about whether a ransom was ultimately paid.

The ransoms demanded for native hostages kidnapped during the period between the two Chechen military campaigns were low by Western standards–in part due to the large number of kidnappings, but also because of the relatively humble incomes in the region. Depending on a victim’s social status, ransoms could run anywhere from US$1,000 to US$3,000. This was the typical price range for the Russian soldiers and Dagestani who were guarding the border around Chechnya and routinely targeted for kidnapping. The kidnappers sometimes demanded that relatives or friends be liberated from Russian prisons in exchange for certain hostages. Hostages were often traded between the gangs and such exchanges sometimes involved dozens of people–victims, masters and mediators.

Over the past seven years, the Dagestani Interior Ministry registered almost 600 cases of kidnapping, and thirty persons remain in captivity. According to the Russian Interior Ministry, 704 people were kidnapped in the region in 1998-2000, and 931 kidnapping victims were freed. According to Oleg Yelnikov, a ministry spokesman, about 700 people are believed to be currently in captivity. But the figures are misleading. Hundreds of kidnappings go unreported because of threats from the hostagetakers of reprisals if the families involve the police.

With Russian troops, police forces and intelligence units now amassed in the region, and with travel and communication made more difficult, the kidnappers have become more picky in terms of their prey. Police officers are no longer taken. Instead, the gangsters have focused their attention on the region’s well-off elite.

In February 1998 the 20-year-old son of the Deputy Rector of the Dagestani Medical Academy, Said Abusuyev, was abducted in Makhachkala. He was heading to his university when his car was hit by another vehicle. The vehicle’s driver invited Said to a repair shop to evaluate the damages. When they reached the Makhachkala suburbs a group of awaiting kidnappers forced Said into their own car. He was held for sixteen months in a pit in a Chechen mountain village. The kidnappers first demanded UD$1 million for his release, but then reduced their demand to US$300,000. By the time Abusuyev was freed in October, 2000, his muscles had atrophied so much that he could not even stand.

In August 2000, Dzhamal Gamidov, the 11-year-old son of the former Dagestani Finance minister, was grabbed while he was playing soccer with his friends in front of his apartment building. He was whisked away in a car which had no license plates.

The son of the former Dagestani Prime Minister Kamil Mirzabekov was kidnapped in Moscow and held in Chechnya by the leader of the Dagestan’s religious extremists, Bagaudin Magomedov, for more than a year. He was freed by a Russian intelligence special operation during the second Chechen military campaign.

The son of the chief prosecutor of the Dagestani town of Caspiysk was kidnapped in April 1998, after which his relatives collected a US$50,000 ransom to secure his release. Three of the relatives who travelled to Chechnya to transfer the money were found dead three months later not far from Djohar. The boy was never returned.

The head of the Kizlyar Cognac factory, Vladimir Grigoriants, was kidnapped in April 1998. He was returning home from a party thrown by one of his friends when the tires on his car were shot out and he and his wife were forced into the kidnapper’s vehicle. His wife was later released to pass a ransom demand to Kizlyar Mayor Vyacheslav Palamarchuk. Palamarchuk applied to the Dagestani Government and Grigoriants, badly wounded during the kidnapping, was ransomed.

The usual way to protect families from the well-off local elite is to keep them in the villages of the mountainous countryside. Strangers are quickly detected there and it is not so easy to travel in these areas unnoticed. In addition, bodyguards are provided for the targeted. The 11-year-old grandson of Magomedali Magomedov, head of Dagestan, attends school accompanied by bodyguard, as do the three teenage children of Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, who are always accompanied by bodyguards when they travel around the town and attend university. Some of the rich prefer to send their heirs abroad. One of my distant relatives, Akhmed Yusupov, a head of the successful construction company, keeps his 14-year-old daughter in Great Britain. He says: “Although it costs me a fortune, I sleep better knowing that my daughter is far away from here.”

While Chechen kidnappers are thought to be holding hundreds of captives at any given time, their prime targets are foreigners, especially aid workers and journalists, who command higher ransoms.

The more publicity a kidnapping case gets, the larger is the ransom demand. The largest ever asked was for Russian Deputy Interior Minister Gennady Shpigun, who was abducted in Chechnya in 1998. Soon after the Russian Interior Ministry and Sergei Stepashin, who was then prime minister, declared that Shpigun’s release was a matter of personal honor, the kidnappers asked for US$25 million. Following the ransom demand, the kidnappers sent the law enforcement agencies evidence that Shpigun was alive–a photo showing Gennady Shpigun grey, shaggy, haggard and long-bearded, reading a newspaper with a headline reading “General Shpigun Kidnapped” and a photo showing him shaved, well-trimmed and in full officer’s dress. Shpigun’s body was found in Chechnya in the spring of 2000. His captors probably left it behind as they retreated into the mountains under Russian artillery and aviation bombardment.

Probably the largest ransom ever paid for a single person in the Caucasus was given in 1998 for Vincent Cochetel, a UN humanitarian relief worker. While the common official practice in such cases is to deny that ransom was paid, Magomed Tolboev, the former head of the Dagestani Security Council, told journalists that the kidnappers received US$4 million. High-profile kidnappings like this or the recent kidnapping of Medecins Sans Frontiers’s representative in Northern Caucasus, Kenneth Gluck, have forced humanitarian organizations to reduce their missions in the Northern Caucasus or completely withdraw their staff from the region.

“Kidnapping is an extremely sophisticated business,” Colin Connor, UN Security Coordinator in Northern Caucasus, once commented on the situation. “The incomes [from it] give the kidnappers all the means they want.”

Nabi Abdullaev is a freelance journalist based in Northern Caucasus.