Federal forces first betrayed, then tortured and murdered separatist guerrillas in the Urus-Martan district southwest of Grozny after the guerrillas surrendered some four years ago in response to an offer of amnesty. That is the conclusion drawn by Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya gazeta from what she described in an April 12 article as a “sensational videotape” recently obtained by her newspaper.
The video, stills from which can be seen on the newspaper’s website (http://2004.novayagazeta.ru/nomer/2004/25n/n25n-s12.shtml), shows Chechen prisoners being transferred at gunpoint from freight carriers. On the side of the freight carriers is the Russian abbreviation for “Ministry of Justice.” According to Politkovskaya’s accompanying article, she and her colleagues believe the prisoners to be those who accepted a federal offer of amnesty in the year 2000, ending the siege of the village of Komsomolskoye. That conclusion, she wrote, is based not only on the account of the junior officer of a Ministry of Justice commando unit who gave Novaya gazeta the video, but also on her newspaper’s own research among relatives of the guerrillas who surrendered at that time. Three families said that they recognized their own men among those shown on the video.
In March of 2000 federal officials announced that some seventy-two rebel guerrillas had surrendered at Komsomolskoye and that all were being amnestied. The families of the three seen on the video told Novaya gazeta that they had heard at the time that these three had accepted the offer of amnesty–but that the three never did in fact return to their homes. Quite possibly the video shows them only shortly before they were killed.
It is known, wrote Politkovskaya, that all the captives from Komsomolskoye were sent to a prison at Chernokozovo. Other Chechen prisoners, who were held there at the same time but later released, have said that they were forced to load onto freight carriers the bodies of dead guerrillas from Komsomolskoye. The dead evidently had been killed quite recently, at Chernokozovo itself, because rigor mortis had not yet set in. Their bodies showed signs of torture.
“This video recalls only one image: movies about Nazi concentration camps,” wrote Politkovskaya. She noted that the captive guerrillas included two women, who unlike the men did not show signs of beating and who were being led off somewhere. The video shows seventy-four men and adolescent boys being herded onto two freight carriers; Russian voices are heard off-stage saying that “they said 72, but there are 74.”
Most of the male prisoners seen in the video are able to walk under their own power, but some have to be carried by their comrades. Almost all are wounded, some have missing limbs. Many are emaciated, and many are barefoot or even fully naked. Some seem utterly disoriented, unable to understand commands.
No doctors or nurses are visible among the Russian soldiers guarding the prisoners. As ordered by these guards, the prisoners unload comrades who have died while being transported, forming a mountain of corpses next to the railroad tracks. There is not the slightest sign of the guards trying to distinguish between those who have been given guarantees of amnesty and other prisoners.
According to Politkovskaya, the Russian officer who made this video at first enjoyed showing it to his friends and family after his return from Chechnya. “But time passed, and he came to a sober, horrified realization of what he himself had done.” Making the video public was his own idea; he hopes it will help free him from “a nightmare which continues to torture him right up to the present.”