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LRB: Anna Neistat: Diary

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  • David McDuff
    London Review of Books LRB | Vol. 28 No. 13 dated 6 July 2006 | Anna Neistat printable layout tell a friend http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n13/neis01_.html Diary
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      London Review of Books

      LRB | Vol. 28 No. 13 dated 6 July 2006 | Anna Neistat

      printable layout tell a friend

      http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n13/neis01_.html

      Diary

      Anna Neistat

      Wherever you look in Grozny there are gaping shell-holes in the walls,
      crumbling balconies, empty window frames, and doors so pockmarked by
      bullets that you can see right through them. When I went back this
      spring, however, the central avenue in the city, called Prospect
      Pobedy, looked strikingly different. The pavement had been mended, the
      buildings were freshly painted and new windows had been put in. Here
      at last was tangible backing for Russia's claim that the situation in
      Chechnya is returning to normal, and that reconstruction is underway.

      Only when I got closer did it become clear that these buildings were
      uninhabitable. There was nothing behind the painted façades: no roofs
      or floors, no internal walls, just piles of rubble and broken steel
      supports. A `Potemkin village' is usually no more than a metaphor. In
      Grozny, the Potemkin villages are real, but it's not clear who they're
      meant to impress, apart from the TV cameras.

      Officially, the war is over. Russian troops mostly stay inside their
      heavily fortified bases. Chechen fighters hide in the mountains,
      occasionally carrying out attacks on police vehicles or military
      convoys. Russia claims that the situation is under control: more
      specifically, that it is under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov, son of
      the republic's last president, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in
      2004. The younger Kadyrov, who has been made a Hero of Russia by
      Putin, recently became prime minister and has been held back from the
      presidency only by his age: he is not yet 30. Under his command, the
      Chechen security forces or `Kadyrovtsy' – made up of various police
      units, the recently reorganised Anti-Terrorism Centre and the
      so-called Oil Protection Regiment – have been entrusted with restoring
      and maintaining order. Most of the troops are amnestied rebel fighters.

      Chechens, who have survived Russian aerial bombardments, massive sweep
      operations and the loss of their families and homes, say laconically
      that the situation now is `worse than war'. During the Russian
      bombings they at least knew what to expect and how to try to escape.
      Now, the threat is constant and unpredictable. Many families live in
      constant fear that Kadyrov's men in their black uniforms will come and
      take them or their relatives away. They don't bother locking the door
      because the Kadyrovtsy would break it down anyway. They don't talk to
      the neighbours, fearing that the neighbours will inform on them.

      During the short period of `independence' between the wars of 1994-96
      and that of 1999 Chechens were worn down by lawlessness and increasing
      Islamic fundamentalism. They wanted the Russians to come and clear the
      republic of the `wahhabis', but Russia's indiscriminate brutality
      destroyed their trust. Then they hoped that the Chechen officials who
      took over from the Russians would bring peace to the region. But now,
      abused and humiliated by their compatriots, they don't know where to
      turn. They fear that their teenage sons who've grown up knowing
      nothing but war will join the rebels: not because they support the
      cause, but because they can't see any other way of recovering their
      dignity and remedying the injustices done to them. They know how
      little the world cares about their fate and about the `dirty war' that
      is ruining their lives and their hopes for a liveable future.

      In this atmosphere of fear, despair and mistrust, Chechens are
      reluctant to talk about their experiences to visiting human rights
      researchers or local human rights groups. Those who agree to talk ask
      us not to mention their names, their villages, or anything that would
      enable the authorities to identify them. The Kadyrovtsy, they believe,
      will find them wherever they are. As one elderly Chechen put it,
      `Every word you say will be used against you.'

      A few months ago, Movlid M.'s wife and brother left their home in a
      small village in central Chechnya, for a short trip to a nearby town.
      They never returned. Movlid started looking for them. After his
      brother's burned-out car was found, he petitioned the authorities,
      requesting an investigation. Eventually he was called in to identify
      his brother's mutilated body, which had been found in a remote forest.
      He redoubled his efforts to find his wife and repeatedly visited the
      prosecutor's office and police stations, to no effect.

      A few weeks later, as Movlid was watching the evening news, three cars
      stopped outside his house. Armed men in uniform dragged him away,
      pushing aside his three children. He was released the next day –
      thrown out of a car in the city centre. His ribs and cheekbones had
      been broken and his feet burned with electric wires. The security
      forces had questioned him about his efforts to find his wife and
      brother and he was convinced that the people interrogating him had
      been involved in their abduction. But he doesn't dare ask any more
      about what happened to her. He was warned that if he did he would
      suffer the same fate as his brother.

      Remaining silent is no guarantee against abuse, however. The members
      of the anti-terrorism unit are eager to prove their industriousness.
      `When I first joined them,' a former member of Kadyrov's security
      service confided to me, `I kept asking: "How are we going to find the
      rebels or their caches of ammunition?" And they told me it was a
      "chain": we go after someone, and "work" with him until he gives us
      names, and then we follow up, and so on, until someone confesses.
      Eventually someone always confesses.' In villages across Chechnya we
      found evidence of this strategy in action. Young and old, men and
      women, healthy and disabled: no one is safe from being made a link in
      the `chain'. You don't have to look very far to find a torture victim
      in Chechnya. I spoke to dozens.

      Ruslan R., an elderly construction worker, was shaking as he got into
      our car. Two weeks earlier, a group of armed, masked men had broken
      into his house in the middle of the night and taken him away. He spent
      a day at the local base of the Anti-Terrorism Centre – followed by
      nearly two weeks in hospital. The interrogators accused him of
      supporting the rebels, kicked him violently, and then used an
      `infernal machine' to give him electric shocks. `They attached the
      wires to my toes, and kept cranking the handle to release the current.
      I couldn't bear it. I was begging: "Give me any paper – I'll sign it,
      I'll sign anything; if you want I'll confess I sold the rebels a tank
      or a MiG, anything."'

      A refusal to confess often results in even worse treatment. Khasan
      Kh., who is 19, refused to confess or incriminate others. He was
      tortured for 13 days in a row. He thinks he was held in the basement
      of the local commander's house, one of the secret prisons the
      Kadyrovtsy have established all over Chechnya. In the middle of
      winter, they kept him in the cellar wearing only his underwear. His
      captors said they would give him food if he started to talk. Day after
      day they suspended him by his feet from a tree, and beat him with
      shovel handles. On the 13th day they told Khasan they were taking him
      out to execute him, but instead dumped him in the forest, bound and
      blindfolded. Villagers found him and took him home. His mother fainted
      when she saw him: he looked like a skeleton, she said. He had an open
      fracture on his arm and was in the early stages of kidney failure as a
      result of the beatings. Khasan's arm is now permanently disfigured:
      the family was too frightened to take him to hospital.

      Those who are released, in whatever condition, consider themselves
      lucky. They know it could be worse. It often is, particularly if you
      have a relative, even a distant one, who has been involved with the
      rebel movement. Targeting families is considered an essential and
      effective part of the anti-terrorism operation. Security forces often
      keep family members in secret detention centres to force a rebel's
      surrender. If the rebel is subsequently killed or captured, the family
      may still pay for what he has done, often with their lives.

      Isa I.'s house was raided by the security forces so often that he
      eventually suggested they pitch a tent in his backyard. They were
      looking for a distant relative who had joined the rebels several years
      before. The family had no contact with the man, and had publicly
      repudiated him in accordance with Chechen tradition. But the
      Kadyrovtsy were persistent. On 24 February, Isa's brother was taken
      away. The family had no news of him until mid-March, when his body was
      given to them. He had been shot in the head and chest; the body bore
      marks of torture.

      Shakhman Sh.'s son joined the rebels last year, after he had twice
      been detained and tortured by the Anti-Terrorism Centre. Shakhman, who
      was disabled, with only one eye and a brain tumour, spent the time
      between his numerous operations searching desperately for his son; he
      failed to find him. Last October the Anti-Terrorism Centre came after
      Shakhman himself. Witnesses who saw him in detention told the family
      that he had been beaten to death with metal rods shortly after his
      arrest. The family has still not received official confirmation of his
      death or been able to retrieve his body.

      These killings, disappearances and acts of torture are happening,
      unabated, in a country that is a member of the newly formed UN Human
      Rights Council. Russia is the current chair of the Council of Europe
      and is preparing to host the G8 summit, to be attended by George Bush,
      Tony Blair and other world leaders, in St Petersburg later this month.
      This incongruity is hard to fathom, just as it is hard to understand
      how European governments – in spite of their much touted commitment to
      human rights and the rule of law – can continue to refuse to raise the
      issue of the continuing abuses in the region. It used to be the case
      that one could at least be certain that Western governments would
      speak out against human rights abuses in the USSR. There can be no
      such certainty with respect to Putin's Russia.

      Russia has done everything in its power to ensure that no accurate
      information about Chechnya gets out. On the rare occasions Russian TV
      crews go to Chechnya, they film Kadyrov against a backdrop of freshly
      painted walls, carefully keeping the rest of the ruined city out of
      the frame. Foreign journalists can enter the region without
      authorisation, risking at best their accreditation in Russia and at
      worst their life, or they can have an official tour, accompanied by
      Russian security. International human rights organisations do not have
      permission to enter Chechnya at all: `security concerns' are the
      excuse. Russia has methodically expelled international observers from
      the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the
      Council of Europe.

      The West should stop pretending it knows nothing of the daily reality
      of the Chechen war. Local human rights activists and a few journalists
      are risking their lives to report the situation in Chechnya.
      Organisations such as Human Rights Watch publish regular reports on
      abuses, briefing embassies and foreign ministries, as well as
      officials at the UN, EU and Council of Europe. But the international
      community chooses to accept Russia's claims of normalisation, because
      – and these are words we repeatedly hear – mentioning Chechnya might
      `make the Russian president angry'. An angry Russian president, they
      fear, might turn off the gas, leaving millions of European homes
      without heating. Besides, nobody wants to upset such an important ally
      in the `war on terror'.

      The pact of silence is culpably short-sighted. Russia's anti-terrorism
      operation has been ineffective: many would argue that it has actually
      fuelled terrorism, and that the threat is spreading. Since 2002, towns
      across Russia have faced the most brutal attacks in the country's
      history. In the last two years, the Chechen conflict has begun to
      spill over into the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan,
      Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia. Even Russian government analysts
      warn that it is just a matter of time before a new large-scale crisis
      breaks out in the North Caucasus. Last June, Dmitry Kozak, a
      presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, submitted to
      Putin a damning analysis of the situation in the region. According to
      a leaked version of the report, Kozak accused local leaders of
      corruption and abuse of power and warned that the North Caucasus could
      turn into `a macro-region of sociopolitical and economic instability'.

      The Russian leadership, meanwhile, appears satisfied with the results
      of its policy of `Chechenisation', according to which the Chechens
      themselves do the dirty work. The Kremlin refuses to acknowledge the
      explosive potential of the crisis it has created. The authorities are
      trying to address the spread of fundamentalism in the Caucasus by
      persecuting Muslims and closing independent mosques – but this helps
      only to strengthen the radicals and attract more young people into
      their ranks. On my way to Chechnya I visited the city of Nalchik,
      where last October Islamic rebels carried out a major assault on
      police and government buildings. `The authorities responded by
      cracking down on Muslims,' a local human rights activist explained.
      `They closed down five mosques in our town. But what have they
      achieved? People who used to attend the mosques, some six hundred men,
      went underground.'

      In the past year, Europe and the US have started to express tentative
      concerns about the reversal of democracy in Russia. Recent remarks by
      Condoleezza Rice and Angela Merkel, as well as official statements by
      the leadership of the EU, have been critical of Russia's attacks on
      civil society, including the doing away with political opposition,
      media censorship and the crackdown on NGOs. But the connections
      between the forgotten war in Chechnya and these worrying developments
      in Russia are ignored. Russia's current repressive policies all have
      some connection with Chechnya. The first TV reports to be subjected to
      full-scale censorship were from the Chechen war zone, in 2000. The
      first groups targeted by Russia's anti-NGO policies were the human
      rights organisations that criticised the war in Chechnya and
      publicised the abuses there. Thousands of Russian policemen who have
      served in Chechnya are now applying the brutal practices they learned
      there across the country. The head of a veterans' organisation in
      Moscow, a policeman himself, once told me that in Chechnya the police
      get `to yell and curse, and brandish their automatic guns'; bringing
      this experience back home, he said, `causes a total lawlessness in the
      police force'.

      Russia uses its position of power not just to shield itself from
      accountability in Chechnya but to undermine any Western initiative it
      doesn't favour: the EU sanctions on Uzbekistan, for example, that
      followed the Andijan massacre in which several hundred demonstrators
      were killed; or support for democracy in Georgia or Ukraine – both
      countries faced significant economic consequences after they took a
      pro-Western stance. The West should stop pretending it does not have a
      choice. Europe and the United States can continue to admire the
      painted façades that hide the ruined cities, ruined lives and growing
      instability of the Caucasus. Or they can start treating Russia as a
      normal partner, and hold it to account for its brutal and illegal
      policies.

      Anna Neistat is emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch and the
      author of many reports on Chechnya. All names in the article have been
      changed to protect witnesses' identities
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