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AJC: Going 'missing' in a sad war zone (R.Santana)

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  • Norbert Strade
    Going missing in a sad war zone By REBECCA SANTANA The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 04/01/04 Finding out that I was taking my last reporting
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2004
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      Going 'missing' in a sad war zone

      By REBECCA SANTANA
      The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
      Published on: 04/01/04

      Finding out that I was taking my last reporting trip to Chechnya as a
      correspondent in Russia, a friend of mine said, "Don't. It's always on
      the last ski run of the day that you break your leg."

      Looking back on her advice after a trip that included press accounts of
      my "disappearance," encounters with the Russian security services, but
      also some very good stories about people trying to survive in this sad,
      war-ravaged region, I wonder whether I should have taken that advice.

      Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has been a thorn in
      Russia's side and a magnet for journalists. Russian soldiers and Chechen
      rebels have fought two wars during the past decade — the first from 1994
      to 1996, ending in an embarrassing pullout by Russian troops. Opinion is
      divided about whether the second war, which started in 1999, is over yet.

      While the bulk of the fighting has died down, Chechnya remains a pit
      that has taken countless lives of both Russians and Chechens. The
      Chechens who haven't been able to flee are caught in the middle.

      For another employer, I traveled to Chechnya on a trip organized by the
      Russian government. It was a heavily stage-managed affair designed to
      show how life was "improving," but the Russians kept us away from
      average folks who might contradict that view.

      This time, after making some contacts with other journalists in Moscow,
      I found someone who agreed to take me into Chechnya for a few days.

      From Moscow I flew to a city near Chechnya, Mineralny Vody, where I was
      met by a contact, Ruslan Soltakhanov, who has worked with other Western
      journalists in Chechnya. But today, his job was only to drive me from
      Mineralny Vody to another city, Mozdok. There I was to meet with someone
      else — a free-lance translator and guide, what journalists call a
      "fixer" — to take me into Chechnya.

      When we arrived in Mozdok, the fixer I had arranged to meet wasn't
      there. After discussing the situation with Ruslan, we decided he would
      be my fixer. We made it to the capital, Grozny, shortly before nightfall.

      The capital is a scene of utter devastation. Block after block of
      apartment houses and buildings are destroyed, roofs gaping open to the
      falling snow and stray shards of glass clinging to otherwise empty
      window frames.

      Weapons and troops are in abundance. Some armed men wear blue
      camouflage. Some are in green. Some are in masks. Some are Russian. Some
      are Chechen. All carry weapons.

      Despite the rubble and chaos, Chechen women still try to dress up — even
      wearing high-heeled boots on streets drowning in puddles. One woman I
      spoke with said that when she travels outside Chechnya, she feels
      ashamed dressing up or wearing makeup. She feels: Who is she to wear a
      new skirt when people are dying? But here in Grozny, it's almost as if
      she's earned it, she explained.

      It was the third day of my trip, a Wednesday, when I discovered through
      a contact that, after my previous fixer and I had failed to meet, a
      full-scale manhunt for me had been launched, involving my press
      colleagues in Moscow, the U.S. Embassy and Russian authorities.

      Immediately, Ruslan and I returned to his house across the border in
      Mozdok, Russia, about a two-hour drive away. As we sat in the car,
      listening to Turkish pop music, I was almost frantic.

      After we arrived at Ruslan's house, I immediately called a friend in
      Moscow, my mother in California and my editor in Washington to let them
      know I was safe.

      Within about 30 minutes of our return to Mozdok, two police officers —
      in plainclothes and refusing to show their identification — showed up at
      the house, demanding to know who we were. Shortly thereafter, a man from
      the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, also showed up
      and took Ruslan and me to the local prosecutor's office.

      There we answered questions from the prosecutor, who said he wanted to
      determine whether I had been kidnapped or had gone to Chechnya voluntarily.

      In Russia, law enforcement officials are seen as people you need
      protection from, so all encounters with them are met with trepidation.
      Demanding documents, soliciting bribes, beating suspects and denying
      access to lawyers or family members are, unfortunately, the norm.

      The next morning, Ruslan drove me to the airport in Mineralny Vody,
      where I was met by another group of police officers and officials from
      what I believe was the Federal Security Service.

      They confiscated all my equipment: notebooks, film, camera, mobile
      phones, documents. They were returned to me a day later in Moscow. But I
      have never before felt such panic as when they took my notebooks,
      knowing that they wanted to find out whom I had interviewed in Chechnya
      and what those people said. So many times, I had told people that, when
      writing their stories, I would protect their identities. Had I lied?

      The next day, Ruslan's wife said that Russian officials had come to the
      house and taken her husband away. Thankfully, he has since been released.

      My conversations with human rights officials after my return to Moscow
      were a scary reminder of how common such incidents are in Russia. While
      everyone was amazingly generous with their help, they always cautioned
      that "we get these types of cases every day."

      Rebecca Santana covers Russia for Cox Newspapers.
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