Chechen Refugees Describe Atrocities by Russian Troops

Chechen Refugees Describe Atrocities by Russian Troops

Villagers Tortured, Killed In Assault, Reports Say

By Sharon LaFraniere

Washington Post Foreign Service

Saturday, June 29, 2002; Page A16

NAZRAN, Russia -- Kuslum Savnykaevna has no intention

of heeding the Russian government's wish that she

abandon the converted car repair shop where she and

her five children live in Ingushetia and return to

their former home in neighboring Chechnya.

And if she ever had any doubt that they must remain

refugees in this impoverished region in southern

Russia, she said, what she witnessed in the last month

erased it.

In mid-May, Savnykaevna went to visit her parents in

Mesker Yurt, a village of roughly 2,000 about seven

miles east of Grozny, the ruined capital of Chechnya,

where separatist rebels have been battling the

pro-Russian government. She had not been there long

when Russian troops suddenly surrounded and closed off

the village to conduct a zachistka, or cleansing

operation, that lasted three weeks.

She said she saw some of the victims of the operation

after their relatives carried them back from a field

the soldiers had occupied at the edge of the village:

a man whose eye was gouged out; another whose fingers

were cut off; a third whose back had been sliced in

rows with the sharp edge of broken glass, then doused

with alcohol and set afire, according to his

relatives. Her brothers and nephews were spared, she

said, only because her family paid the soldiers a $400

bribe not to hurt them.

"I have never imagined such tortures, such cruelty,"

she said, sitting at a small table in the dim room

that has housed her family here for nearly three

years. "There were a lot of men who were left only

half alive."

The troops left the village on June 10, and so the

full story of what happened at Mesker Yurt is not yet

clear. But Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's elected

representative to the Russian State Duma who brought

eight victims to the hospital, said, "Every rule and

law that could be broken was broken."

Memorial, a Russian human rights group that is

investigating the military's actions there, said at

least eight villagers died and 20 more are missing.

Savnykaevna said she attended 25 funerals, and others

in the village at the time estimated the death toll at

20 or more.

Russia's military commander in Chechnya, Col. Gen.

Vladimir Moltenskoi, told the Defense Ministry

newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda earlier this month that the

mop-up operation was conducted properly and found a

large cache of weapons and evidence of a school for

rebel snipers. "Mesker Yurt is a pro-bandit village. A

group of at least 50 fighters was active here," he


A Russian colonel in Grozny told Russian Tass, the

semi-official news agency, that soldiers killed 14

rebels who put up armed resistance during the


Human rights investigators said the zachistka in

Mesker Yurt is the latest example of a pattern of

killings, torture, rape and extortion by the Russian

military since it began a campaign to subdue militants

in Chechnya in October 1999. Russian President

Vladimir Putin insists that the conflict is over, that

life is slowly returning to normal in Chechnya, and

the 147,000 refugees camped out in tents and abandoned

buildings in nearby Ingushetia should return and begin

to rebuild their villages and towns.

But the accounts of residents, evidence collected by

human rights groups and the Russian military's

statistics suggest the opposite. Investigators for

Memorial said Russian soldiers are killing Chechen

civilians in greater numbers than before -- a trend

some attribute to dwindling criticism of Russia's

actions from such Western nations as the United


Memorial said it has documented proof that 946

innocent Chechens died at the hands of Russian troops

in just three of Chechnya's most populated districts

during a 14-month period that ended in November.

Another 1,200 to 2,000 are listed as missing, the

group said. Meanwhile, the rebels, who try to blend

into the general population, continue to kill an

average of one to two Russian soldiers every day.

Ingushetia, a tiny region of 300,000 people on

Chechnya's western border, has provided a safe haven

for those fleeing the violence for nearly three years,

housing 32,000 in tent cities and another 115,000 in

everything from old cow barns to abandoned factories.

Provided with gas, electricity, water and some food

from international aid groups, and protected from the

Russian military's dreaded raids, the refugees have

been demonstrably better off than the population in

Chechnya, estimated to number between 800,000 and 1.1


But with the recent replacement of Ingushetia's

independent-minded president with a Kremlin-friendly

leader, the refugees here are feeling more vulnerable.

Murat Zyazikov, a general in Russia's security

service, was elected in April in a runoff vote that

critics charged was tainted by fraud. He said in a

radio interview earlier this month: "We do not intend

to chase out the refugees." And on Monday, a U.N.

representative, Olar Otunnu, said Russian officials

had promised him they would not force the Chechens to

return home.

Still, the recent detention of half a dozen refugees,

including a Chechen dentist arrested about 10 days

ago, has stirred fears that Ingushetia's new

government is allowing Russian soldiers a freer hand.

Some advocates for the refugees see the Russian

government's halt of bread distribution to the camps

as another form of pressure.

Mikhail Ejiev, deputy director of the Russian-Chechen

Friendship Society, a human rights monitoring group

partly funded by the U.S. government, said as long as

refugees remain in Ingushetia, Chechnya will command

some measure of international attention. "If they go

back home, they [Russian authorities] can say the

problem is over," he said in an interview in the

Nazran office of the society. "But the refugees will

stay, because they don't want to die."

The refugees are unsure how long their welcome will

last. But those interviewed last week said they would

not return to their homes -- what's left of them --

unless the Russian soldiers depart. "You can go into

any tent, and you will hear the same thing," said

Maldat Shabazava, whose tent in the Sputnik camp is

lined with metal bunk beds for seven children. "We are

afraid for our male population, afraid we will have no

husbands or sons."

Oleg Mironov, Russia's human rights commissioner for

Chechnya, acknowledged that there are "systemic and

massive violations of human rights" there. But other

Russian officials insisted the government was taking

corrective steps, including a regulation issued in

March that requires soldiers to identify themselves

and be accompanied by civilian officials when they

check documents of people living in Chechnya.

But Aslakhanov, the Duma deputy, said any improvement

was short-lived, and brutal zachistkas are again the

rule -- as he saw when he traveled to Mesker Yurt this

month. In interviews last week, residents and visitors

who were trapped in Mesker Yurt described what took

place in the 21 days that the village was shut off

from the outside world.

The interviews were conducted in Nazran, less than 10

miles west of the border with Chechnya, where some

residents of the village traveled at the request of a

reporter. Others who talked were refugees living in

Ingushetia who had been caught in Mesker Yurt during

the cleansing operation and returned to Nazran to tell

their stories.

Their accounts could not be verified immediately, and

some Chechen residents have exaggerated the degree of

abuse by Russian troops. One person interviewed said

there were, in fact, at least two people in the

village who served as financial couriers for the


But the villagers said the arrests in Mesker Yurt were

not targeted at individuals, but involved dozens of

civilians with no known links to the guerrillas. They

insisted they were describing only what they had

witnessed personally, and their descriptions fit a

pattern of lawless behavior by the Russian military

that has been extensively documented by human rights

organizations and journalists.

The trouble in Mesker Yurt started on May 18 when a

group of men abducted a 36-year-old Chechen named

Sinbarigov, who some villagers said worked for

Russia's Federal Security Service. The next day, his

head was found on a stick next to the village

administration building, according to Memorial. The

Chechen rebels' Web site said the man was executed

because he had helped the Russian authorities.

The following day, Russian troops circled the village

and blocked the roads with armored vehicles.

Savnykaevna, the Ingushetia refugee, said residents

decided their only defense was to send every male

resident from the ages of 13 to 35 to the red brick

mosque in the center of the village. She said 200 to

300 men fled there. She and the women of the village

surrounded it, trading places when they grew tired of

standing in front of the soldiers' pointed guns.

After three days, she said, the men went back to their

houses, because the soldiers threatened to blow up the

mosque. "Then on the fourth day, after lunch, they

started arresting, killing, torturing," she said.

More than a dozen soldiers rushed into her parents'

house, she said, and slipped black masks over the

heads of her three brothers and her nephew. They

demanded 12,000 rubles -- about $400 -- to let them

go, she said.

Other men were dragged off to the field where the

soldiers had camped and were tortured, villagers said.

When the streets were clear of soldiers, Savnykaevna

said, she visited the homes of her parents' neighbors.

Three brothers from one family were arrested, she


"They brought back only a bag with their bones

inside," she said. A worker from the Russian-Chechen

Friendship Society, who visited the village,

identified the brothers as Apti, Adam and Abu


In another house, Savnykaevna said, two brothers lay

in bed, one with an eye plucked out, the other with

four fingers of one hand missing. She said his parents

told her both had been tortured with electricity,

leaving dark marks on their faces and arms.

She said she saw soldiers beating the bare feet of one

man with an iron pipe while the man's legs dangled

outside the opening of a tank. Later, when she visited

his home, she said his relatives told her the soldiers

had sliced his back with broken glass, rubbed salt in

his wounds, then doused his back with alcohol and

burned him.

The family of Said Abubakarov, 19, found his shirt

with his fingers in the pocket, according to the

account provided to the Russian-Chechen Friendship


Three miles away, in the town of Argun, Zena

Gazihanova, 50, heard about Mesker Yurt and organized

busloads of women who protested for days outside the

headquarters of the pro-Russian government in Grozny.

"We were screaming very loudly," she said. "Release

our sons and brothers! Stop the genocide!"

Word leaked to Moscow, where angry Chechens filled the

office of Aslakhanov, the Duma deputy. He flew to

Ingushetia and drove to Mesker Yurt on June 9, the day

before the Russian troops left. With him was a

civilian prosecutor and military prosecutor assigned

to Chechnya.

At the village, he said, he found representatives of

numerous Russian military and law enforcement

agencies. They refused to let them enter the village,

he said, telling him it was too dangerous.

"They humiliated me, a colonel, a deputy, when they

didn't let me in," he said, in a telephone interview

from Moscow.

"Everything that concerned Chechnya is a lie sitting

on a lie," he said. "The worst part of this story is

that there is no way to find the guilty ones."

While Aslakhanov cooled his heels, the soldiers

prepared to depart. Asmalika Ejieva, 41, said the

soldiers told the villagers to show up at the field at

8 the next morning and their relatives would be

released. The next morning, the field was deserted,

she said. In freshly dug pits, she said, they found

parts of bodies that appeared to have been blown up

with explosives.

Ejieva said people are terrified that if they describe

the horror, they will be killed. Some are leaving for

the relative safety of Ingushetia, she said, because

the Russians left with a promise:

In 10 days, they would come back.

 2002 The Washington Post Company


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