Almost everyone in Chechnya knows someone who has vanished.

The Globe and Mail (Canada) -- Page A1
Tuesday, July 31, 2001


GROZNY, RUSSIA -- When they took him to the pits, Tamerlan feared he 
would be the next Chechen to disappear without a trace.

Russian police had handcuffed him and wrapped his head in a pair of 
army pants that were bound so tightly he could see nothing and barely 

Then they drove him to an unknown location, where he was placed in a 
pit by unidentified Russians who punched him in the head and told him to 
confess to killing policemen.

"Usually if they take you to a pit, they don't release you ever," he 
said. "They use those pits when they don't want anyone to find them. It's 
very cold and hard to breathe. If you don't get released in a couple of 
days, you'll probably disappear."

Hundreds of Chechens have disappeared while in Russian custody in 
recent months, including dozens whose corpses were later found in mass graves.

Tamerlan, a 25-year-old student at Grozny University, had been walking 
near the campus an hour after an explosion killed two Russian policemen 
there last month.

He was among a dozen Chechens arrested in a police sweep.

He was lucky. He begged his captors to phone his father-in-law, a
lieutenant-colonel in the Russian army, who assured the police that he
wasn't a guerrilla fighter. After six hours in the pit he was released.

Since returning to Grozny last year, Tamerlan has been arrested three 
times despite his efforts to protect himself by acquiring fake documents,
including one identifying him as a Russian army sports instructor.

He tries to stay inside his house as much as possible. When he goes to
classes, he avoids the main roads and checkpoints.

"You can be arrested at any moment," he said. "If there's an explosion,
everyone nearby is rounded up and arrested."

Almost everyone in Grozny has a neighbour or relative who has 

Nina Dubayeva weeps as she remembers her 28-year-old son, Beslan. He
disappeared after being arrested in Grozny last year. "He went out to 
fetch water and he never came back."

Human rights organizations have compiled lists of hundreds of Chechens 
who disappeared while in Russian custody. More than 1,000 people have 
vanished since the latest Chechnya war began in 1999, according to the Memorial
human-rights group.

More than 50 bodies were found in a mass grave near the Russian army 
base on the outskirts of Grozny earlier this year. Of the 19 bodies that were
identified, 16 were Chechens who had disappeared after being detained 
by Russian forces.

The Council of Europe, the leading human-rights group of the European
democracies, said in a report this month that at least 53 Chechen 
prisoners died as a result of beatings and torture in Russian detention last 
year. Russia is a member of the group, but council members said the 
authorities had refused to co-operate in the investigation.

Money is a big factor.

For low-paid Russian soldiers, the best way to make cash is to sell
prisoners and corpses to their families.

Some families are charged as much as $4,000 (U.S.) for the return of an
imprisoned relative; others are told to pay large sums if they want to
recover the body of a relative.

In a case that provoked outrage this month, hundreds of Chechen 
villagers were beaten and tortured with electric shocks in a Russian security 
sweep after an explosion killed five Russian troops on a nearby road.

Several villagers were killed and about 20 disappeared after their
detention, according to human-rights groups and Chechen leaders. They 
said the Russian soldiers rampaged through the villages, looting homes, 
blowing open safes, stealing from pharmacies, and raiding a school and a 

After an outcry, six Russian soldiers were arrested on suspicion of
kidnapping and robbery. At first, Russian commanders acknowledged their
troops had committed "widespread crimes and lawless acts" in the 
security sweep. But later they declared the troops had merely committed 
"individual violations of the procedures and rules."

President Vladimir Putin has said he opposes any human-rights abuses by
Russian soldiers. Yet he is openly sympathetic to the soldiers, 
describing such actions as "perhaps an inevitable consequence of the battle 
against terrorism."

In a village near Grozny this month, Chechens blocked a road to protest
against illegal detentions. In one incident, three Chechen villagers 
who had been arrested last month were found covered with bruises and 
lacerations and unable to speak.

They were taken to hospital in critical condition.

The head of Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, said 
the abuse of the three men was "bestial."

Civilians are often arrested by men in ski masks, who refuse to 
identify themselves. Even in the 40-degree heat of Grozny last week, soldiers in 
ski masks could be seen in Russian military vehicles.

"If there is a law-enforcement system here, as we are told there is, 
let them arrest people with an official arrest warrant and take them to 
court," said Lida Usupova, a lawyer with Memorial.

"There is no reason for people to vanish into thin air. Yet it happens 
every day, every night. It's a nightmare."

About a dozen Chechen women, whose relatives have disappeared in 
Russian custody, have formed a committee called Hope of the Heart to search for
missing men. They have filed more than 300 complaints to Russian 

The committee's president, Roza Bazayeva, has not seen her twin 
19-year-old sons since they were arrested in March of last year. She estimates that
thousands of Chechen men have been arrested and transported to the 
Russian military base at Khankala, on the outskirts of Grozny, where they are 
often held in pits or used as slave labour.

"Khankala is a very sinister place. It's like a Bermuda Triangle," said 
Ms. Bazayeva. "And even when people are lucky enough to get out of 
Khankala, they are so frightened that they don't want to file a grievance about 
their treatment."

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who has investigated the arrest 
and disappearance of Chechen civilians, says the pits have become "a 
synonym for death."

The pits are a form of medieval torture, she wrote recently. "These 
pits are, in fact, unlawful investigation wards. It's the modern Gestapo 
under the command of Russian officers."


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