We Are the Lost Ones

The Chechens know they have been forgotten by the


By Anne Nivat

Wednesday, August 21, 2002; Page A17


The dramatic crash of a Russian military helicopter in

Chechnya this week, in which more than 100 members of

the armed services were killed, was a reminder to

those in the West of something many of them have

forgotten in recent years: The Chechnya war goes on.

It may be worse then ever.

Over the past three years, I have traveled extensively

throughout the tiny, mountainous republic, determined

to report fairly on this forgotten conflict, which the

Kremlin would like very much for the rest of the world

to ignore. The West needs to know that the real and

intended casualties have mostly been Chechen

civilians, local independence-minded governments, the

Chechen economy and the people's nonaggressive Sufi

Muslim culture.

The Russians, lacking dramatic military successes,

have managed to defuse Western criticism by

designating the conflict an "anti-terrorist

operation." They have depicted the Chechen people as

bloodthirsty terrorists who would impose Islamic law

on other Caucasian republics. Today even educated

Muscovites commonly say there is nothing wrong with

killing Chechen noncombatants, even babies.

Returning to Chechnya in June, I was hoping to find

that the situation was "under the process of

normalizing," as the Kremlin puts it. High-ranking

military officials have repeatedly said the "military

phase has been over" in Chechnya since March 2000.

Instead I found that the situation was deteriorating.

Many Chechens are preoccupied with planning ways to

avoid the "zachistkas," the frightening,

out-of-control raids of villages by masked soldiers

searching for young Chechen males. These operations

are conducted every day by the Russian army.

Afterward, families search out the fate of loved ones

who were dragged off. In every village, young men have

disappeared. Some lucky ones return after their

families pay for their release. Many never come back.

Chechens with whom I survived long hours of aerial

bombardment during the peak of the war in winter

1999-2000 talk of their fear that any male between the

ages of 12 and 60 can now disappear without a trace at

any moment.

I traveled in the garb of a Chechen peasant woman, a

scarf tied around my head, a long skirt brushing my

ankles and a satellite phone strapped to my belly.

From the start, I had declined to participate in the

Russian-organized tours. One day in 2000, while my

colleagues visited a flower market in the capital

city, Grozny, with a government escort, I was able to

make my own way to an arms market a few yards away.

The Russian secret services eventually found me in

February 2000 and sent me back to Moscow, but I was

able to return clandestinely later.

The Chechens know they have been forgotten, and they

no longer expect a Western intervention like that in

Kosovo. They know that Western aid organizations

consider the region too dangerous to venture into

because of the continuing fighting and the risk of

kidnapping. Food, shelter and medicine are delivered

in insufficient quantities and at irregular intervals.

The Chechens have become obsessed with three things:

how to survive in such a hostile environment, how to

pass safely through the many Russian military

checkpoints on the roads and how to save their young

men from being kidnapped. "We are the lost ones,"

Tabarka Lorsanova, 46, told me when I saw her again in


She had said much the same thing when we first met in

November 1999. She had fled Grozny for a nearby

village in the south of the country, which she thought

was safer. Now, back home in the capital, she was

trying to rebuild her life from piles of rubble where

shops had once stood, now without electricity, heat or

running water.

Tabarka has only one son and doesn't want to lose him.

In April 2001, he disappeared during a raid at the

University of Grozny, in an operation that left most

of the students in a state of shock. The mother

remembers how she argued with the Russian soldiers who

had encircled the building and prevented her from

entering. After insisting for two hours, she finally

made her way through with a group of other outraged


Ten students had been arrested, one of them her son,

for the simple reason that he "didn't look like his

passport picture." All ended up being released, but

two had to pay a ransom of $1,800 each. Tabarka

summarizes well the perplexity of the Chechen

population regarding the behavior of the Russian

military machine: "As soon as Putin announced that the

war was finished, we understood that on the contrary

the situation had gotten worse. After so many horrors,

how can we possibly trust them anymore?" For many

Chechens, the Russian president's declaration marked

the beginning of "the era of the zachistkas."

I arrived in Meskert-Yurt, a large village of 5,000

inhabitants, two days after the end of one of these

"mopping-up" operations, an exceptionally long one

lasting from May 21 to June 11. What I saw defies

description. In late May, in a scenario that replays

itself over and over, the village was sealed off --

encircled by masked Russian soldiers. Although an

order from the Kremlin known as "Decree Number 80"

forbade masks and mandated identification of the

soldiers and of the raid's purpose, it was ignored by

the perpetrators.

The method in all these operations is the same: Under

the pretext of searching for rebels, the military

enters each house, terrorizes every family and drags

away one or more civilian men, mostly very young ones,

even if their documents are legitimate. A few days

later, some of the families of the disappeared are

informed by intermediaries of the possibility of

"repurchasing" their loved ones with money or rifles.

In Meskert-Yurt the majority of the houses are farms,

sheltering geese, hens and turkeys, sometimes cows or

horses. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the only thing

I could see were the stupefied inhabitants of the

village, searching the fields and ditches in all

directions around their farms to recover the bodies or

body parts of their loved ones. When I met Maaka, 43,

a mother of six, she couldn't even manage to cry

anymore. Her three sons, Aslan, 15, Makhmud, 13, and

Rashid, 11, had been killed by enraged soldiers after

being horribly mutilated. She showed me their bodies

lined up beside many others. I saw no military attire

among the broken bones and shreds of flesh, but I did

see a woman's scarf and a teenager's basketball

sneakers. Eyes protruded, bloody flesh hung from

crushed skulls, sometimes enough to show the

expression of terror at the moment of death.

On the sixth day of the blockade, some grimly

determined women succeeded in passing an SOS letter to

inhabitants of the nearby city of Argun, who

transmitted it to the kommandantura (Russian

headquarters). Alerted, the head of the Chechen

administration, Akhmed Kadyrov, then tried to go to

the site but was not allowed to enter. Then it was

Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the single Chechen deputy of the

Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament), who took

a turn to try to force the blockade. On foot, through

fields, he managed with great difficulty to enter the

village. Four days later, the zachistka ended. Forty

people had disappeared.

This is the new Russian military strategy: to avoid

formal combat and air bombardment and to multiply the

clandestine raids under the pretext that terrorists

hide in these villages.

The Russians have identified four principal

"terrorists" who need to be captured to end the war. I

have interviewed all but one, and I had little trouble

getting to their hide-outs. In three years of war,

only one of the four has been eliminated, a Saudi-born

commander who called himself Khattab and who died last

April. In Chechnya, nobody believes Khattab was killed

by the Russian secret services. It is said he was a

victim of other fighters who may have wanted to remove

evidence of an al Qaeda connection or who simply

didn't need him anymore.

The Russian army must know exactly where the rebel

leaders are, thanks to information from intercepted

satellite phone calls, aerial photographs and paid or

tortured informants. Yet there has been no move to

kill or capture any of them. Why? Perhaps because as

long as the war goes on, underpaid Russian military

personnel can augment their incomes by preying on the

civilians. It has now become impossible to cross any

checkpoint in Chechnya without bribing a soldier,

usually a young draftee. And the benefits are shared

with officers. When a car stops, the driver is asked

for "the form number 10," which means a 10-ruble note

folded inside the passport. Sometimes the soldier may

ask for quite a bit more, "form number 50" perhaps.

Because of this situation, fewer civilians can move

around. People stay at home, even when the zachistka


There is no outcry in the West about a war fought on

the very edges of Europe. We seem to have heeded

Russia's justification for it: that this, too, is a

war on terrorism. President Vladimir Putin is welcomed

as a colleague and treated as a friend -- especially

after Sept. 11 -- by heads of state across Europe and

in the United States. But by showing its willingness

to wipe Chechen civilization off the map in order to

prevent a people's independence, Russia tells us a

great deal about how it might behave with its own

citizens under the pretext of "maintaining order."

For the time being, Tabarka, Maaka and the thousands

of other mothers, elderly people and children of

Chechnya wait. They have no other choice. Tabarka is

living in two tiny rooms of her house in one of the

most devastated neighborhoods of Grozny. A

professional accountant before the war, she would like

to find a job in the Kremlin-appointed Chechen

administration, but that is possible only by bribing

officials, and she has no money left. Her son, now 24,

is in Odessa, Ukraine, trying to make a living while

waiting for the war to stop. For now, she has

forbidden him to return home.

Anne Nivat is a Moscow-based writer. Her book "Chienne

de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the

War in Chechnya" won the 2000 Albert Londres Award in


 2002 The Washington Post Company


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