Dispatches from Chechnya No. 20

Lawlessness Rules in Chechnya

GROZNY, December 31, 2001 – At the end of the year 2001, the situation in the Chechen Republic continues to worsen in all respects, despite the hopeful announcements from the Russian army and the optimistic media coverage. World public opinion seems to have forgotten about us.

The claims of several Western politicians regarding the greatly improved human rights situation in Chechnya are completely groundless. In actuality, the population of Chechnya has not only been deprived of all civil rights, but has been stripped of the most important right: the right to life.

Russia’s policy of terror toward the peaceful population in Chechnya has assumed unprecedented dimensions and forms. Law enforcement agencies, particularly the prosecutor’s office, are completely idle. In these conditions, war crimes and other criminal activities have become a regular occurrence in the republic. The crime rate in Chechnya has reached new levels. Regular executions without trial have become the norm, and whereas before it was military and government officials who were being killed, now almost every night the victims are social activists and civilian workers. This has brought fear and panic into Chechen society.

Such a situation, of course, suits the Russian military, which has shown itself to be completely incapable of bringing any sort of order into the republic. It is unlikely, though, that this was ever one of its goals. But these conditions of chaos and lawlessness have allowed the Russian military to blame all criminal activity—theft, burglary, murder—on the separatist fighters.

The civilian population of Chechnya is caught between a rock and a hard place, and like lambs, the Chechens are struggling to keep their footing on a steep cliff. Any person in Chechnya who dares to protest, or even to simply speak about it, can be killed. The Russian army’s violations of the rights of the civilian population cannot be compared to anything in their sheer magnitude.

The civilian population of Chechnya is particularly suffering from actions committed by the Russian armed forces under the auspices of so-called “mop-up operations” or passport control checks.

The leadership of the Russian military has long admitted the ineffectiveness of such measures, which they refer to as “passport control,” in rooting out separatist fighters. These mop-up operations, which are accompanied by theft, vandalism, and extortion, have turned into a full-fledged terror campaign against the civilian population of Chechnya. More than 90% of those arrested during the operations have no connection to the separatist fighters. In the best-case scenario, those arrested are bought back by their relatives, beaten, crippled, and barely alive.  Quite often, however, all that is left are mutilated corpses, which the families are frequently forced to buy from the Russian soldiers.

During the last few months Russian police have begun arresting 13 to 15 year-old boys, supposedly for laying landmines on the roads. Mothers are being forced to send their young sons away from Chechnya in order to protect them.

These mop-up operations are nothing more than a means for carrying out a policy of genocide in which the entire 15 to 40 year-old male population is being destroyed, more often than not without any criminal charges. Especially targeted for arrest and execution are strong, healthy young men, who are considered potential guerrilla fighters.

There were many different types of provocations, murders, and mop-ups in the month of November. This was mostly likely connected with the intensification of public discussion on negotiation possibilities between representatives of Putin and Maskhadov. Extremists from both the Russian and Chechen sides had a similar reaction to the possibility of political regulation of the crisis. This reaction was nothing new and totally predictable, since for both factions and for others, the war is a highly profitable business.

A chain of mop-ups swept through Chechnya in early November, which can only be described as military actions against the unarmed civilian population.

In the city of Argun, Russian forces carried out an inhumane “special operation” that resulted in an unprecedented number of casualties. It began in connection with an event that occurred not far from the city. Unknown persons fired on the car of Akhmad Kadyrov, the interim head of the Russian-backed Chechen administration. Kadyrov himself was not injured, but within a short time Russian troops were brought to the city. Argun was subjected to intensive artillery fire throughout the night. After the shelling stopped, the troops entered the city, purportedly to conduct a mop-up operation, but in essence to collect the shrapnel and fragments of their shells, to collect the dead and finish off the wounded.

According to rough data, 33 people were killed and 25 wounded as a result of the “special operation.” But it is an irrefutable fact that among them were women, children, and the elderly, since photographs of their mutilated bodies were shown throughout the city. Appalled by this massacre, the residents of Argun organized a meeting on that same day. Representatives of the interim government promised at the meeting that they would investigate the incident and punish the guilty, but so far no culprits have been found.

The following story concerning Chechen students, which took place a bit later in Grozny, is typical in Chechnya today. Around noon on November 12, two armored personnel carriers with Russian soldiers drove up to a building at Chechen State University. They had allegedly come to the university in order “to check documents and search for rebel fighters among the students.”

Having burst into the building, the soldiers herded the students into one of the lecture halls, insulting them and beating them with their automatic rifle butts. It turned out that the real goal of the soldiers was more prosaic and materialistic: to take from the students their stipends, which the students had just received that day.

When the soldiers left, they took with them young men who happened to turn up outside the hall in which the majority of students had been gathered.

The detainees’ parents and students came to the Lenin regional commandant’s headquarters to look for them and to demand that the army stop its lawlessness, and free the young men who had been arrested without any concrete charges.

An uncontrolled fire was started above the heads of the students and parents who had come for a spontaneous demonstration. An officer in the Russian-backed Chechen militia, who had been on the roof of the building, and the bus driver who had transported the students, were both injured in the fire. The protesters did not disband, demanding the release of the arrested students and the punishment of the soldiers for the brutal beating of the students, including female students. After the unsuccessful attempt to break up the rally, three arrested students were thrown out on the street in the Khankala area. One of them managed to reach the protesters and tell them that the others had also been set free.

Still more tragic for the residents of the village of Tsatsan-Yurt were the results of the “special operation” carried out by Russian troops. On November 7, a column of armored personnel carriers entered the village, where a routine “total mop-up” was beginning. Russian soldiers searched every house and yard, supposedly to check people’s documents and passports. In fact, the document check turned into blatant robbery of the local population. The soldiers took everything that they could get their hands on—food, housewares, money, and jewelry. Whatever they could not or did not want to take with them they destroyed. The “documents check” lasted five days, during which the soldiers slaughtered cattle belonging to the villagers. To even the slightest sign of dissatisfaction they responded with threats and insults.

Several dozen villagers were arrested, the majority of whom were then sold back to the relatives. However, nearly all of them had been tormented and beaten by the soldiers.  In the course of the mop-up, one resident was killed and his body burnt. Several houses were burnt to the ground. Residents of Tsatsan-Yurt sent a letter of protest to the Russian administration and representatives of the international community, in which they enumerated all of the outrages committed by the troops, but it is unlikely that the perpetrators will be found and punished.

Many civilians—innocent people with no ties to the separatist fighters—also suffered during the mop-up operation conducted in the village of Bachi-Yurt. Similar operations, with the same results, were conducted throughout the entire region of Grozny and also in the villages of Novye Atagi, Starye Atagi, Chiri-Yurt, and other villages in Chechnya.

The current situation in the Chechen Republic demands closer attention and more severe interference from international organizations (the Council of Europe, OSCE and the UN), since the human rights violations against the civilian population have reached genocidal levels. But the situation does not only concern the actions of the Russian army; “death squads,” whose affiliations are unclear, have recently appeared in Chechnya. They work at night, armed to the teeth, masked, speak Chechen, and attack people in their own homes. These attacks are destroying the intellectual prime of the Chechen nation, the most socially active and respected members of society. It is not clear how the squads are getting through the many Russian military checkpoints or how, once they have committed their crime, they are disappearing without a trace. These crimes are only reported in the few instances in which the victims or their relatives have managed to resist.

The Russian army has yet again demonstrated that there is not one army in the world capable of resolving political conflicts. Only negotiations between official representatives of the warring sides and a transition to a peaceful regulation of the conflict will establish law and order in the Chechen Republic.