Dispatches from Chechnya No. 15

Current Conditions in the Chechen Republic

GROZNY, July 16, 2001 – Over the past two weeks, the situation in Chechnya has become much worse.  In an attempt to punish the people of Chechnya, the infamous mop-up operations – which are essentially the kidnapping of innocent civilians by Russian soldiers – have become more frequent. During these operations, Russian law enforcement officials (it is generally they who run the mop-up operations, with the support of the army) take whatever they please from people’s homes – audio and video equipment, gold jewelry, decorative knives and money. They arrest innocent people and demand bribes for their release. The price of a prisoner can rage from $100 to $3000.

 The mine war has also intensified. Landmines explode daily in Grozny, Gudermes, Argun and Urus-Martan, along the roads where federal troops usually travel. But it is often not soldiers but civilians who are injured or killed, usually women, children and the elderly. It is also common for those who set the mines, generally teenage boys, to be killed by explosions.

 Russian troops generally take punitive measures immediately after any landmine explosion. Any man from 15 to 45 years of age who happens to be nearby will be taken to the so-called filtration camps. Most of those who are taken, if they make it out alive, are crippled or ill. It is not uncommon for young men who have left the filtration camps to die under mysterious circumstances within two or three weeks of their release.

 Recently, an unknown group set up a landmine in front of the Russian command post in the village of Stariye Atagi. Immediately after the explosion, 19 villagers were arrested. Two of them were killed and several more were seriously injured. A few days later, soldiers from the command post robbed the local hospital. They forced all the patients out into the street, where they insulted and threatened them. Finally, after taking money from several female patients and doctors, they ran off.
These are only some of the many examples of the barbaric nature of this war, which is being fought without concern for human rights or even the most basic of international norms.

 Both the Russian and Chechen sides violate the human rights of civilians.  Especially bad are the so-called Wahhabis, who have initiated a campaign of terror against ordinary Chechens. People are shot in their own homes, in front of their children. Over the past two months there have been more than 20 such attacks on peaceful, unarmed people. The victims are more often than not socially active people – local government officials, clergy and Chechen human rights activists. Extremists have even begun attacking members of President Aslan Maskhadov’s administration.

 Nonetheless, no one will take responsibility for the murders that have been committed. The Russian government insists the murders have all been committed by Chechen soldiers. President Maskhadov, however, denies that his troops have had any part in these murders and claims that they were committed on the orders of the Commander of the Russian armed forces. The Wahhabis, while not denying that they took part in the murders, do not claim responsibility either. Generally these crimes are committed by ethnic Chechens wearing camouflage fatigues and masks.

The entire population of Chechnya is paralyzed with fear of attacks from both the Russian army and extremist Chechens. The social and economic life of the Republic has come to a standstill.

The new [Russian installed ed.] government of Chechnya has neither power nor influence in the Republic. Power remains in the hands of the Russian troops who are engaged in a full-scale genocide against the Chechen people. The Russian armed forces are literally hunting down young Chechens. They arrest, shoot or maim the most talented and healthy young men. Drug addicts, alcoholics and criminals are free to go where they please without anyone paying them the slightest attention.

In the midst of total destruction, Russian soldiers support an illicit oil drilling industry that causes irreparable harm to the natural environment and to the health of Chechnya’s people.

Specialists estimate that 2,000 tons of petroleum products are exported from the Republic every day. The profits from this primitive oil industry serve mostly to line the pockets of Russian generals.

Three institutes of higher education are still in operation in Grozny – the State University, the Teacher Training College and the Petroleum Institute. There are several dozen elementary and high schools remaining.

Children study in very difficult conditions, and their lives are constantly in danger. Both the school and university buildings are periodically shelled by Russian troops.

Teachers and professors have not received their salaries in months. They experience frequent threats from unknown individuals who demand that they cease their work or face violent consequences.

The work conditions for doctors are no better. According to the head doctor at one of Grozny’s hospitals, medical facilities in the city receive no funding, and they lack necessary equipment and medicines.

Chechnya is still under a curfew. Anyone who goes out on the streets after the curfew takes effect will be shot without warning.

In the midst of all this, crime, especially in Grozny, is flourishing. Every hour, dozens of crimes are committed in the city, from pick pocketing to robbery to murder. Over half of the crimes in Chechnya are committed by Russian soldiers. In the past three months soldiers murdered several drivers with the intent of stealing their cars. Crimes are reported only when there is a witness or the victim is left alive. In reality there are probably many criminal acts that go unreported. Around Grozny there are frequent discoveries of new mass graves, all containing the remains of people who were shot without trial and without witnesses.

At a recent session of the Russian State Duma, Vladimir Kalamanov testified that the official number of people missing in Chechnya is 950. In reality, there are well over 5000 people who have disappeared without a trace.

Earlier this spring, the Russian government attempted to drive Chechen refugees out of the camps in Ingushetia and back to Chechnya. On April 1st, the government stopped providing aid to refugees in Ingushetia and officially prohibited humanitarian organizations from distributing aid. But despite this, refugees refuse to return to Chechnya until the military campaign is brought to an end.

On June 15, three refugees living in the Sputnik camp on the Chechen-Ingush border began a hunger strike, demanding that the Russian government stop the war and begin negotiations with President Maskhadov. Today there are 37 people participating in the hunger strike. They are being monitored by doctors from the Sleptsov regional hospital. Several of the hunger strikers are in serious condition and have already been given medical assistance. This act of protest by Chechen refugees has already been shown several times on Russia’s NTV television station, but to this day there has been no official reaction from the Russian government. A few high-ranking bureaucrats called the hunger strike a ploy of the Maskhadov regime.

In sum, the conditions in the Chechen Republic are very troubling and they are getting worse every day.