The remarkable campaign being waged by award-winning Russian war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya to shed light on the grim secrets of the present war in Chechnya is well known. In the no. 18 (March 14) issue of Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya describes the sanguinary aftermath of the thirty-third mopping up operation to be conducted in the village of Tsostsan-Yurt, Kurchaloi District, during the present war, noting en passant that, over the past month, “residents of [the village] have been finding human body parts on the edge of the settlement,” a woman’s scalp with a braid still attached here, a woman’s left leg there and so on. Presumably these body parts are being scattered about by the federal forces in an attempt to intimidate the populace of the village. In the no. 19 (March 18) issue of Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya described the twentieth mopping up operation of the war in the town of Starye Atagi; three more cleansing operations have been conducted in the settlement since that twentieth operation in late January and early February.
Less well known than Politkovskaya’s relentless efforts have been the persistent attempts of the daily newspaper Novye Izvestia to also reveal some of the secrets of the war. The March 19 issue of the paper contains a Russian translation of a detailed eyewitness report published by German journalist Florian Hassel in the March 12 issue of the Frankfurter Rundschau. Two days later, on March 21, Novye Izvestia carried a piece by its own correspondent Zoya Svetova, ironically entitled “Does the Kremlin Know about the ‘Mopping up Operations’ in Chechnya?”
Hassel began his coverage by describing an attack on Chechen civilians carried out in February by Russian spetsnaz forces operating in the village of Chiri-Yurt. Three Chechen relatives–two men and a woman–were driving into Chiri-Yurt, the native village of one of them, when “a Russian military helicopter touched down in the field next to the road. In the words of eyewitnesses, before the helicopter had fully landed, the soldiers opened fire.” “There were ten soldiers,” an eyewitness, a local teacher, Aishat Gasarieva, told Hassel. “They immediately began to fire [at the car], and they shot at us too.” In the car the driver, Isa El’bukaev, age 44, had instinctively moved over to shield his female cousin with his body and had been struck by several bullets. He died shortly afterwards of his wounds. Mogomed Umarov, age 26, was struck by a bullet to the groin and suffered other wounds. “When the soldiers came up to the seriously wounded [Umarov], they struck him with their automatic weapons and began to kick him with their boots. Then they threw a machine gun cartridge belt next to the wounded man–Magomed thus became a rebel who had shown resistance. Ten minutes later the soldiers returned to their helicopter.” Magomed was eventually taken to the Ninth City Hospital in the Chechen capital, “where he fought for his life. His mother died of a heart attack while waiting in the corridor of the hospital.”
Returning to the mopping up operation, Hassel writes: “On the morning of February 16, in Chiri-Yurt alone, at least twelve men were taken into custody, including the 43-year-old Khusein Zakriev, who lived on Karl Marx Street. He suffered from illnesses of the heart and kidneys.” The men were taken to a filtration point near the settlement of Starye Atagi, where they were tortured and interrogated. “There were twenty-five to thirty captives,” one of the victims told Hassel. “The soldiers put us up against a wall and began to beat us with automatic rifles, rubber truncheons and iron rods…. We said to the Russians, ‘Leave Khusein alone. He is seriously ill.’ But they beat him nonetheless, until he lost consciousness.” Several hours later, Zakriev, “the father of four children,” died.
Hassel notes that Zakariev’s family was lucky in one respect. “His family received his body back two days later and was glad of it. Because often the Chechens have to buy back corpses from the Russians, and the prices can reach several hundred dollars. Trade in dead bodies yields a good profit, as do the ‘mopping up operations’ in which many soldiers… take away money, rugs and television sets on their armored vehicles or in trucks.”
The men of Chiri-Yurt who had been swept up in the cleansing operation spent eleven days in prison. “When their wives learned where they were, they paid 20,000 rubles to free them. Such good fortune is not the lot of many. When the Russians go out to hunt for people, they habitually smear over the identifying marks on their vehicles with dirt,” so that the relatives of those taken away normally are not aware of what unit the soldiers belong to, or of where they have taken their captives.
Hassel observes that in the course of the sweeps the Russian soldiers do on occasion catch real rebels. “But many of those taken into custody have their ‘confessions’ beaten out of them.” As one Chechen told Hassel, “If they torture you for a sufficiently long time, you will call your neighbor or your brother a rebel and will confess to having committed the most horrible terroristic acts.” Such treatment of the civilian populace serves de facto to swell the ranks of the separatist fighters. One 21-year-old separatist fighter confided to a correspondent of Frankfurter Rundschau in the Chechen capital: “At least twenty of my relatives and friends have been murdered by the Russians or have disappeared [without trace].”
Interviewing a leading representative of the human rights organization Memorial, Andrei Cherkasov, Hassel is told: “From the summer of 1999 to January of 2002, we have registered 992 peaceful inhabitants who have been murdered [by the federal forces]. Probably that is not even half of those murdered. We do not receive any information from many regions.” In addition, “Many Chechens consider the registration of their deceased to be senseless.” “What is the sense of appealing to those who are killing our people?” one relative of the late Isa El’bukaev comments.
Cherkasov proceeded to describe to Hassel what is in reality happening in Chechnya. “Behind the façade of the prison system,” Cherkasov observed, “there acts an unofficial system with its center in Khankala [military base], the headquarters of the federal forces. Under this parallel system of justice, representatives of the special services and the spetsnaz torture their victims to death or execute them without trial, thus destroying the institution of the courts as a state body of power.”
The military helicopter from which soldiers opened fire on a passing car in Chiri-Yurt, Hassel commented, appeared to be part of a pattern of employing flying “death squadrons.” In one such instance, some Russian soldiers are, it appears, actually going to be punished: “In January , ten members of a spetsnaz detachment of the GRU were arrested after their helicopter set down in Shatoi District on January 11 and they killed six peaceful inhabitants there…. The arrest of soldiers of the GRU, which was the first such case in the course of the entire Chechen war, occurred only because the head of army intelligence was a witness of the crime and, as with two Russian prosecutors, he refused to hush up–as is usually done–the case involving his [GRU] colleagues.”
The case of Chechen civilians “disappeared without trace” is a particularly wrenching one. Andrei Cherkasov of Memorial has received from the pro-Moscow Chechen administration their list of such persons. One of the disappeared is “Yakub, the son of Khamzat Dzhabrailova, who was arrested on 14 December .” Yakub’s mother had gone to the local military commandant’s office and had “heard from the basement the screams of someone being tortured and had then recognized the voice of her son.” The commandant and an officer of the FSB insisted to her, however, that “they knew nothing of his whereabouts.”
Writing in the March 21 issue of the same newspaper, Novye Izvestiya, correspondent Zoya Svetova notes that even the pro-Moscow Chechen police are being severely victimized by the federal forces. “Excuse me, we were a bit rushed and executed your son,” the head of the Argun FSB, Sazanov, confided to Zubair Khizriev, the former head of the pro-Moscow Gudermes police. Khizriev’s son, who was also a policeman, and eight fellow pro-Moscow police officers, were taken into custody and then executed by the Russian forces conducting a sweep in Argun. “They seized him simply because he was a Chechen,” Khizriev commented. Obviously, summary executions of pro-Moscow police are unlikely to aid the process of “Chechenization,” which the Kremlin supports, at least in words.
Human rights organizations such as Memorial feel themselves helpless when confronted by the magnitude of the war crimes presently being committed by the federal forces in Chechnya. “In the list of the [pro-Moscow] government of Chechnya,” Cherkasov remarked to Svetova, “there are about 2,000 persons who disappeared without a trace. That is an enormous number. If one were to extrapolate that figure to Moscow, there would be many tens of thousands of ‘disappeared’ persons. Approximately that many people disappeared and were executed in Moscow during the period of the ‘Great Terror’ of 1937-1938.” “We have the sensation,” Memorial chair Oleg Orlov confided to Svetova, “that we are scooping out an ocean one spoonful at a time. We succeed in freeing someone, and, during that time, ever new crimes and more crimes after that are being committed.”
To conclude, while the Novye Izvestia reports inescapably lead one to the most pessimistic conclusions, it is nonetheless heartening that journalists like Florian Hassel and Zoya Svetova and human rights organizations such as Memorial are still on the job recounting the truth to a largely indifferent world community.