In the war waged by Russia troops in the small mountainous Caucasus republic of Chechnya tanks and air power are overshadowed by torture, kidnappings, and extrajudicial executions targeting not only active separatists but those who have laid down their arms, and even their sympathizers.
“The artillery does not scare me — you can see who’s shooting and where,” a tearful cousin of bullet-riddled Ibragim Sangariyev told Agence France-Presse (AFP) during a burial ceremony in Stary Atagi village.
“It’s this danger you can’t see that destroys me,” he said fighting back his tears and asking not to be named.
Shepherd boys found the body of Sangariyev, 25, in a field north-east of Grozny on February 26, a month after being dragged away by one of the masked squads that still terrorize Chechnya. His hands had been bound with his own leather belt and he bore eight bullet wounds.
“One bullet was from a pistol and had been fired into the back of his head, exiting through his jaw,” said his cousin.
Masked militants, who had no arrest warrant and did not identify themselves, stormed Sangariyev family home on January 30. They beat his wife and sister when they tried to come to his rescue, said the cousin. The raid was typical of many others recounted to AFP across Chechnya.
Ismail and his wife Khava, also residents of Stary Atagi, had lost three of their four sons the same way.
“We don’t sleep at night. We have that feeling every night that they’ll come again. We’re afraid they’ll take our last son, who’s just 13.”
According to the top Chechen government human rights official, more than 7,000 people have been kidnapped or have disappeared during the last decade. The rights organization Memorial says that just in 2005 316 people were kidnapped and less than half of them came back alive. Memorial and local sources say most of the kidnappings and secret killings are no longer carried out by the regular military, but instead are the work of a 5,000-strong militia loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, Moscow’s strongman. In a report issued last March, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) branded as a crime against humanity the wide-scale “forced disappearance” of Chechen citizens with the full knowledge of Russian authorities.
Since 1994, the small mountainous Caucasus republic has been ravaged, with just three years of relative peace after the first Russian invasion of the region ended in August 1996 and the second began in October 1999.
On December 11, 1994, former Russian president Boris Yeltsin ordered Russian troops into Chechnya to subdue an increasingly powerful separatist movement. After two years of horrific fighting, Russian troops pulled out in 1996. In 1999, then-prime minister Vladimir Putin pushed some 80,000 Russian troops into Chechnya in what Moscow called a lightning-strike “anti-terror operation.” Though a force of some 50,000 troops and police is still battling Chechen separatists, President Putin announced on January 30, 2006, end of the Chechnya operation.
At least 100,000 Chechen civilians and 10,000 Russian troops are estimated to have been killed in both invasions, but human rights groups have said the real numbers could be much higher. Thousands of refugees from war-torn Chechnya live in battered tent camps in neighboring Ingushetia and refuse to return home because of continuing insecurity.
Kadyrov is now playing the religious card in an attempt to win the people’s hearts. After outlawing gambling last year, he has this year called for polygamy, an end to non-Chechen radio music, and more newspaper articles on religion. He plans to build a huge mosque in the obliterated center of the Chechen capital Grozny and his police recently announced a crackdown on drugs and the confiscation of hundreds of thousands of illegal bottles of alcohol. Kadyrov also insisted that women on local television wear hijab.
The campaign appears aimed at bolstering Kadyrov’s own credentials as a national leader, rather than Kremlin puppet. His initiatives are in stark contrast to the suspicion of Islam shown by Russian officials elsewhere in the turbulent North Caucasus region.
Born into Chechnya’s biggest clan, the Benoi, Kadyrov was eased into his leadership role following the assassination of his father Akhmed Kadyrov in 2004 while serving as Putin’s hand-picked Chechen president. Thanks to Putin’s personal backing he has become indisputably Chechnya’s most powerful man, despite officially holding only the second highest post of prime minister.