The no. 31 (July 31-August 6) issue of the weekly Moskovskie Novosti contains a report, entitled “They Showed Us How They Hate Us,” by the well-known Russian writer Lidiya Grafova, who is the head of the “Migration” Information Agency, concerning a recent fact-finding visit which she made to the Chechen villages of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, both of which had been subjected to a brutal “special operation” by Russian federal forces during the month of July. Grafova interviewed a number of the victims of the operation during her visit.
At the beginning of July, Grafova noted, when a “loud scandal” erupted in Russia over the mopping up operation performed in the two villages lying close to Chechnya’s border with Ingushetia, it finally appeared that “the madness of the Chechen war had been recognized by everyone.” General Vladimir Moltenskoi, the then acting commander of the Russian Combined Group of Forces, declared that the operation represented a “broad-scale crime,” while Akhmad Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow chief of administration in Chechnya, accused the Russian soldiers of having “mocked innocent residents.” Retired General Viktor Kazantsev, the Russian presidential representative in the Southern Federal District, apologized for the behavior of the soldiers at a session of the Chechen administration and offered to pay compensation to those who had suffered, while the office of Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky announced that six criminal cases had been opened against Russian officers who had participated in the operation.
Then, suddenly, on July 27, Grafova continued, “it became known that not one of the officers had been taken into custody and not a single criminal case had been opened.” This despite the fact that in Sernovodsk, 300 residents had submitted written complaints to the procuracy and in Assinovskaya, more than 400 had done so. What was particularly surprising and unexpected about the operations in these two villages, she added, was that Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya were “considered the most peaceful regions [of Chechnya]; during the entire second war there had been no battles there, and the populace was noted for its loyalty to the Russian authorities.”
All of this changed, Grafova emphasized, when on July 1 a vehicle containing Russian police from Kemerovo was blown up near Sernovodsk. It should be noted, she added, that “local residents immediately informed the [pro-Moscow] Grozny police station of the persons they suspected of having done the deed. But those persons were, for some reason, not taken into custody and were permitted to leave the village.” The following day, July 2, a Russian military vehicle was blown up outside of Assinovskaya. “These two events in the two villages took place according to the same scenario within a one-day period. From the morning [of August 2] on, the villages were encircled and armored vehicles stood at every crossing. The numbers of the armored vehicles were smudged over with dirt or concealed under rags, while the soldiers wore masks. The verification of the [internal] passport regime began in many homes with the soldiers immediately demanding money. Some were able to keep themselves from being taken into custody for 200 rubles, while others had to pay 800 rubles. But the next group of soldiers who came to verify the same homes behaved themselves far more harshly.”
In the two villages, Grafova related, the Russian soldiers carried off everything they physically could “from cars to handkerchiefs.” The villagers told Grafova: “They carted off four lambs from our home;” “they dug up three bags of potatoes from my garden, and I am a woman-pensioner living alone;” and “they tore the earrings out of our ears, taking part of the ear with them.” The Russian soldiers cursed so loudly and violently that they frightened small children in the villages.
Particularly severe was the treatment of the men from the two villages. “Seven hundred men from Sernovodsk and 800 from Assinovskaya were taken out into a field. When taken into custody, they had been forced to pull a shirt or a tee shirt over their heads, so that they could not see anything. Several were forced to strip naked.” The men were then required to squat, a most uncomfortable position. Many of the men were pushed into pits that had been cut into the ground, twenty to forty men to each pit. Next to the pits the soldiers “set up tents where they took the men, one by one, to be tortured.” Some of the men in the pits were forced to assume “the ostrich position,” holding up one leg in the air for an extended period of time.
Officially, all males ages 13-60 were to be taken out into the fields. But there was at least one 90-year-old from Sernovodsk there and one 12-year-old from Assinovskaya. “On July 3,” one villager told Grafova, “they took away my husband and my 12-year-old son, saying that he [the son] would grow up to be a bandit. On the second day, they came back to my home and demanded 2,000 rubles; they also shot up our entire farmyard, set our hay and our shed on fire, killed two calves and lobbed a hand-grenade into our cellar. I located my son in the hospital; he had been beaten and tortured.”
The soldiers also took away some women, including two sisters. “They simply beat up the younger one; the older one (our interlocutor) they tortured with electric shock treatment.” The soldiers were particularly savage in their treatment of the handicapped and the retarded. “They threw an invalid lacking both legs like a sack into an armored vehicle.” They tortured a deaf mute in an attempt to make him talk. “They beat a mentally ill young man so badly that he is unable to open one of his eyes.” A doctor showed Grafova a man from one of the villages who had a “very deep black wound” on the inside of his upper arm, the result of electric shock torture.
The local hospital was trashed by the soldiers and had to be closed, as were the local school and the club. “On the walls [of the hospital] were obscene drawings and these words: ‘For the free Chechens-a railroad car [a sinister reference to the 1944 deportation and genocide of the Chechens under Stalin]. With warm greetings, the Yakut OMON [police commandos].” During a pogrom conducted at one of the farms, the residents were shown a portrait of Stalin by the soldiers, another none-too-subtle reference to the 1944 genocide.
On July 2, the troops told the villagers: “Today we have come for your men. Tomorrow we will come for your women and give them to our Colonel Budanov. They will find him not guilty for sure.”
Grafova spent some time with one refugee, Said-Akhmed, and his family. The soldiers had sliced a deep swastika into Said-Akhmed’s back with a knife, saying they wanted to “baptize” [krestit’] him. Said-Akhmed and his brother had been seized in a cornfield when the cleansing operation had already officially ended. His wife told Grafova: “You’ve seen in films how people emerge from concentration camps? Ours looked even worse. Their entire bodies were black-and-blue; there was dried blood on their faces; they were barefoot, filthy, half-naked…. Some had broken ribs, others had damaged kidneys.”
Said-Akhmed’s brother told Grafova: “I tried to prove to them I was not a rebel and not a Wahhabi. I’ve worked the land my whole life, I said. But they beat me anyway, saying that they couldn’t care less. ‘The main thing,’ they said, ‘is that you are a Chechen.'” The two brothers were released only when they “agreed to cooperate with the FSB.” They did so because “they wanted to live.”
Grafova cites a single example of a Russian soldier, named Sergei, who tried to help the Chechens. “Don’t go to Samashki, lads,” he warned residents of Sernovodsk, “they’ve set up an ambush there for you.”
Grafova concludes her essay by asking what was the significance of these mopping up operations “conducted in the most peaceful districts of Chechnya.” Was it simply “lack of control by soldiers who had been driven to the point of insanity?” Was it “a provocation against Putin, for whom it would be simply beneficial to end the war? Or was it the mercantile calculation of ‘hawks’ for whom it is profitable that the war should continue and that there should be more rebels?” “Indeed,” Grafova asked, “how long can a force 80,000 strong war with rebel detachments consisting, as they say, of 1,500 men? Or is someone possessed by a plan to foment a popular rebellion in Chechnya in order to turn everything there into a bloody mash?” The mopping up operation in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, she concludes, “was a carefully thought-out action, performed with the assistance of ethnographers, who know how more painfully and deeply to insult and humiliate the Chechen people.”
To sum up, Lidiya Grafova has posed some important and relevant questions concerning the true motives of the Russian forces that chose to conduct a savage mopping up operation in two villages previously known to be peaceful and even pro-Russian. One must, following Grafova, ask whether a popular rebellion by the Chechens was not being intentionally and brutally provoked by the Russian forces themselves, in order then to justify a second genocide-on the model of what took place in 1944–of this small people?