Torture and rape stalk the streets of Chechnya

Polish writer Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich visited the

region where she witnessed the brutal work done by

Russia's soldiers in their fight against separatists 

Sunday October 27, 2002

The Observer,6903,820261,00.html

At 5am on 14 April 2002, an armoured vehicle moved

slowly down Soviet Street. A young brown-haired man,

covered in blood, his hands and feet bound, stood

onboard. The vehicle stopped and the man was pushed

off and brought over to a nearby chain-link fence. The

car took off and there was a loud bang. The force of

the explosion, caused either by a grenade or dynamite,

sent the man's head flying into the neighbouring

street, called Lenin's Commandments. 'It was difficult

to photograph the moment, though I have grown somewhat

accustomed to this,' says a petite greying Chechen

woman, who has spent years documenting what Russia

calls its 'anti-terrorism campaign'. 

Blowing people up, dead or alive, she reports, is the

latest tactic introduced by the federal army into the

conflict. It was utilised perhaps most effectively on

3 July in the village of Meskyer Yurt, where 21 men,

women and children were bound together and blown up,

their remains thrown into a ditch. 

From the perspective of the perpetrators, this method

of killing is highly practical; it prevents the number

of bodies from being counted, or possibly from ever

being found. It has not always succeeded in this

respect, however. Since the spring, dogs have been

digging up body parts in various corners of Chechnya,

sometimes almost daily. 

Meanwhile, the more traditional methods endure. On 9

September the bodies of six men from

Krasnostepnovskoye were found, naked, with plastic

bags wrapped around their heads. In June, a ditch

containing 50 mutilated bodies was discovered near the

Russian army post in Chankala. The corpses were

missing eyes, ears, limbs and genitals. Since

February, mass graves have been found near Grozny,

Chechen Yurt, Alkhan-Kala and Argun. 

For nearly 10 years, since the beginning of the first

war in December 1994, the grey-haired woman has been

patrolling with her camera. She shows the gruesome

images strewn on her table as if they were relics, or

photographs from a family album. She runs her hand

over the contours of an actual cracked skull, one of

about a dozen found in February between Meskyer Yurt

and Chechen Yurt. 

'The remains were unearthed not long after they died,'

she says. 'The tissue was still in good shape. The

torn pieces of flesh suggest that the victims were

attacked by dogs. It's difficult to know. People don't

want to talk. They are scared that they will be next.'

The Society for Russian-Chechen Relations, in

collaboration with Human Rights Watch, reports that in

the span of a month between 15 July and 15 August this

year, 59 civilians were shot dead, 64 were abducted,

168 were seriously wounded and 298 were tortured. Many

men simply disappeared after being detained by Russian

soldiers or security police; others were shot

outright. During an operation in Chechen Aul between

21 May and 11 June, 22 men were killed. The majority

were aged 20 to 26; two were 15. 

Since Chechen Aul is considered hostile territory, it

has undergone 20 such 'mopping-up operations' this

year. Usually the raids are conducted by federal armed

forces (particularly OMON, the police special forces,

and Spetsnaz, its army equivalent) and occur at any

time of day or night. Typically a village will be

encircled by tanks, armoured vehicles and army trucks,

one of which, known as the purification car, is

designated for torture. According to Human Rights

Watch in New York, torture is a preferred method of

gathering intelligence. Cut off and isolated, Russian

troops' best hope of discovering guerrilla activity is

by grabbing citizens, almost at random, and coercing

from them whatever information they might have. 

In its most benign form, such raids are limited to

theft of personal property - from cars, refrigerators

and television sets to jewellery, clothes, pots and

pans, and, of course, money. But they frequently turn

ugly. 'They arrived on 23 August at 5am,' says Zuhra

from Enikaloi. 'There were about 100 army vehicles,

all packed with soldiers. We ran out to meet them with

our documents. God forbid you encounter an impatient

'federal'. If you do, then in the best-case scenario

you may be tortured or shot dead on the spot. In the

worst case, they take you away. About 20 of them,

armed to the teeth and wearing masks, climbed into the

yard and the house. As always, they were dirty,

unshaven and reeking of vodka. They cursed horribly.

They shot at our feet. They took my identification

papers and started to shred them. I had bought them

for 500 roubles. They cost me everything I had. They

went to our neighbours' house, the Magomedova family.

We heard shots and the screams of 15-year-old Aminat,

the sister of Ahmed and Aslanbek. "Let her be!"

screamed one of the brothers, "Kill us instead!". Then

we heard more shots. Through the window we saw a

half-dressed OMON commander lying on top of Aminat.

She was covered in blood from the bullet wounds.

Another soldier shouted, "Hurry up, Kolya, while she's

still warm".' 

Sometimes those who survive wish they were dead, as in

Zernovodsk this summer, when townspeople say they were

chased on to a field and made to watch women being

raped. When their men tried to defend them, 68 of them

were handcuffed to an armoured truck and raped too.

After this episode, 45 of them joined the guerrillas

in the mountains. One older man, Nurdi Dayeyev, who

was nearly blind, had nails driven through his hands

and feet because it was suspected that he was in

contact with the fighters. When relatives later

retrieved his remains, he was missing a hand. The

relatives of another villager, Aldan Manayev, picked

up a torso but no head. The families were forced to

sign declarations that Dayeyev and Manayev had blown

themselves up. 

Usually groups of people simply disappear. Shortly

thereafter their families begin feverish searches in

all the army headquarters and watch posts. If they can

track down a missing family member, they might be able

to buy him or her back. The going rate for a live

person is in the thousands of dollars. For a dead

body, the price is not much lower. If they cannot find

the person, family members mail letters to Putin

(Russia's president) and file petitions with social

organisations and rights groups. They post photographs

with the caption missing. 

And they wait. Most of the abductees never return and

the trail grows cold. 

Those who do return are often crippled, with bruised

kidneys and lungs, damaged hearing or eyesight and

broken bones. It is almost certain they will never

have children. 

The Russians do not deny that these things happen.

Indeed, an official order has been issued banning such


But what most journalistic accounts from the region

overlook is the savagery committed by the other side.

Anyone considered a 'collaborator' by the guerrillas

is subject to abduction for ransom or summary

execution. This summer a remote-controlled mine,

presumably intended for a Russian military convoy,

exploded at a bus stop in the Chechen capital of

Grozny, killing 11 civilians, including two children. 

Analysts say that guerrilla leader Aslan Maskhadov,

once regarded as comparatively secular, has succeeded

in consolidating his often fractious forces by

welcoming back into his command several rebel

commanders regarded as radical Islamists. New rebel

videotapes play down nationalist imagery in favour of

Islamist symbols. 

It all suggests that the brutality of the Russians has

also resulted in a growing radicalisation of their


 Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, a Polish reporter, filed

this dispatch for Newsweek's Polish-language edition.


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