Mass Graves Discovered in Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 26

Kommersant reported on July 3 that the first mass grave dating from the period of the second military campaign in Chechnya has been discovered in the republic’s Groznensky district. According to preliminary data, the grave could contain the remains of as many as 300 people. Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, has asked Russia’s prosecutor general, Yury Chaika, to launch an investigation into the grim discovery. According to Nukhazhiev, the grave contains the bodies of people killed by federal artillery fire in 1999 as they were fleeing Grozny via the so-called “green corridor” that was set up for civilians trying to leave the besieged Chechen capital.

According to Kommersant, Nukhazhiev was informed of the mass grave by people who witnessed the shelling of the fleeing refugees in October 1999. According to the witnesses, at that time a large column of refugees from Grozny and other population centers caught up in the fighting in the republic was moving along the road between the villages of Petropavlovskaya and Goryachevodsk, which had been designated a “green corridor” for those fleeing the fighting. “Our column was fired on from tank and artillery guns located on the heights of the Tersk mountain range,” a survivor of the attack named Malkan, who asked that her last name not be made public before the start of the official investigation, told Nukhazhiev. She was able to save herself by hiding in a drain pipe, but lost seven members of her family in the shelling. “The second day after the shelling I recognized my father’s car among the bent up automobiles, but there were no bodies on the road. Those, it later turned out, had been collected by the military.”

Kommersant quoted Malkan as saying that it was not until eight months after the incident that she learned that the bodies of her relatives and the others killed in the shelling had been buried on the grounds of an asphalt factory located near Goryachevodsk. She said that the mass grave there would have remained undiscovered were it not for the fact that in the summer of 2000, a tractor on the factory grounds got stuck in a pit in which children’s clothes and remains were subsequently found. According to Malkan, the bodies of her father and other members of her family— including two nieces, one of whom was only two weeks old at the time of her death—were found in the pit.

Kommersant quoted a Goryachevodsk resident, Sultan Makhaev, as confirming Malkan’s account. “When the column of cars with refugees had ascended and began to go down the mountain in the direction of our village, either tanks or self-propelled guns located on the heights at a distance of two kilometers from the road opened direct fire on [the column],” he told the newspaper. “I saw how shells fell directly on a GAZ-53 [truck] on [the back of] which people were standing tightly together. I saw how after the shells exploded body parts flew in different directions.”

Later, according to Goryachevodsk residents, a group of soldiers offered them the bodies of four victims of the attack in exchange for food. “We ransomed four bodies and buried them in the cemetery in our village,” they said. According to witness, the shelling killed around 300 people, whose bodies were then collected by the military and buried in a pit on the territory of the asphalt factory.

No one had earlier discussed the mass grave publicly. “I think that people were simply afraid to testify [to what happened] and therefore kept quite,” Nukhazhiev told Kommersant. The eyewitnesses decided to go public about the mass grave only after an official investigation of another mass grave discovered in Grozny’s Leninsky district began last month. As Ekho Moskvy radio reported on June 23, Nukhazhiev appealed to Prosecutor General Chaika for special measures to be taken related to the Leninsky district mass grave, which was discovered near an Orthodox cemetery on the outskirts of Grozny. Ekho Moskvy quoted human rights activists as saying they believed that this mass grave contained the remains of some 800 people, mainly civilians, who were killed when federal troops stormed the Chechen capital in 1995.

On July 2, Nukhazhiev asked Chaika to send an investigative group to Grozny for help in setting up a special laboratory in Chechnya for identifying exhumed bodies. “That, of course, is very difficult work, but we must do it and try to see that the guilty are punished so that people believe in justice,” Nukhazhiev told Kommersant. Chechnya’s prosecutor, Valery Kuznetsov, told the newspaper that the republic’s investigative bodies have already begun to check information from human rights activists concerning mass graves in the republic. “In Chechnya, representatives of various power structures committed quite a few crimes against the civilian population, but, unfortunately, the law-enforcement organs did not react to peoples’ appeals in a timely manner, thus such scandals arise,” Kuznetsov said.

According to Kommersant, Chechen human rights activists believe that determining the circumstances surrounding the mass grave discovered in Groznensky district could lead to multiple lawsuits. Ruslan Badalov, head of the Chechen National Salvation Committee, told the newspaper: “I remember this tragedy well; the unit which opened fire is well known and there are even the names of commanders against whom charges could be brought today.” He added that the “main hope” for the victims is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

The newspaper Gazeta reported on July 3 that the Chechen government held a meeting on July 2 concerning people who disappeared without a trace and were kidnapped in the republic during the period 2000-2008. The meeting was chaired by Chechen Vice-Premier Abdulkakhir Izraiilov, who heads the Chechen presidential and governmental administration. Other participants included Chechnya’s prosecutor, Valery Kuznetsov; the head of the military investigative unit for the Combined Group of Forces, Konstantin Rozhkov; and Nurdi Nukhazhiev, Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman.

“This month a new burial place was discovered where, according to residents of the district, from 250 to 300 people are buried,” Nukhazhiev told the meeting, apparently referring to the mass grave discovered in Chechnya’s Groznensky district. “All in all, according to our information, 4825 people disappeared without a trace in the Chechen Republic from 1994 to the present.”

Immediately following the meeting, Nukhazhiev’s press service said he had appealed to Prosecutor General Chaika to investigate the Groznensky district mass grave containing the bodies of refugees killed in October 1999 while escaping fighting in Grozny. “On that day, they (residents of Chechnya), believing the assurances of the federal authorities that a corridor had been opened for refugees, proceeded to the so-called liberated districts of the republic,” Nukhazhiev’s press office said, citing the testimony of eyewitnesses. “The column was fired on in broad daylight from tank and artillery guns. People, among them elderly people, women and children, were finished off by snipers. The military took the bodies of those killed to the grounds of a factory located on a road descending from the mountains toward the village of Goryachevodskoye, and they were buried there.”

Usam Baisaev of the Memorial human rights group told Gazeta: “That incident was described back in 2005 in the third part of our documentary book, ‘People Live Here. Chechnya: A Chronicle of Violence’. But the Prosecutor General’s Office was not interested then. Today, when representatives of the republic’s leadership have begun to talk about the mass grave, results can be expected.”

According to Gazeta, Akhmed Dakaev, who heads the department for cooperation with law-enforcement organs and power structures of the Chechen presidential and governmental administration, called for creating a forensic laboratory to identify exhumed remains. Another participant in the meeting, Aset Malsagova, chairwoman of the North Caucasus Peacemaking Center public organization, told Gazeta: “I was extremely surprised when a representative of the military prosecutor’s office reported that it had only launched two criminal cases concerning crimes against the civilian population. That is against the backdrop of 200,000 crimes. In general, the statements by military officials at the meeting had the character of a routine report, nothing more.” Malsagova noted that similar meetings had been held before, but not at such a high level. Still, she expressed cautious optimism, given that Chechen officials have now made it clear that they want an investigation into the mass killings.

Still, Usam Baisaev of Memorial said he thought that many of the cases will not be thoroughly investigated. He recalled that after Memorial called attention to mass graves discovered in Khankala in 2002, military “criminals” changed their tactics. “Since that time, the military has not set up mass graves, but has simply blown up the bodies,” he said. “In such a case it is practically impossible to identify a body.”

Meanwhile, according to Gazeta, the European Court of Human Rights is expected to render three verdicts connected to kidnappings in Chechnya on July 3. In two of the cases—Musaev vs. Russia and Umarov vs. Russia—the plaintiffs are being represented by the Memorial human rights group. In the third case, Akhyadov vs. Russia, the plaintiffs are represented by the Russian Justice Initiative. “In 2000, my son was taken away for the fact that he had a non-resident’s registration permit,” Khapta Musaeva, the mother of kidnapped Yakub Musaev, told the newspaper. “Since then, we have been looking for him, but all of our attempts have been in vain. [In response] to all of our appeals to the prosecutor, [to] the State Duma, [to] the Russian president, we received promises and assurances that searches are being carried out. But in actual fact there are no results.”

Musaeva told Gazeta she hopes to get a positive verdict from the European Court of Human Rights but that there are no guarantees. “It is possible that after the European court’s decision they [the Russian authorities] will finally pay attention to our case and start to look for those guilty,” she said. “There are several thousand like me in the republic. But the [republican] prosecutor’ office is not spending a lot of time on their cases because many of them are not strong in legally protecting their interests.”