Torture and rape stalk the streets of Chechnya

Sunday October 27, 2002
The Observer

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 abuses.

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 opponents.

Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, a Polish reporter.

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