About Tanya Lokshina
Tanya Lokshina is Russia Program Director at Human Rights Watch
Articles by Tanya Lokshina
The heavyweight guide to Ukraine
A heavy, stifling heat envelops the Caucasus in midsummer. During the day the sun fries your brain, your throat itches from the hot dust, and the night brings no relief, only hordes of maddened mosquitoes.
It happened on a Friday. Armed men in camouflage uniforms drove up to Nazir's house in a small village in Chechnya's mountainous Vedeno district. They turned Nazir's home upside down. Nazir had some wooden boards he was going to use to repair the floor, and when the armed men started setting up the boards for a bonfire, he understood what was about to happen. Nazir was scared - not for himself, but for his neighbors. He singled out the person in charge of the large group, approached him, and tried to explain: "I know that you want to burn my house. I don't understand why I am being punished. Why do I have to pay for the crimes of my relatives over whom I have no influence? But if this has been decided, I can't do anything about it. However, please listen to me. My roof touches my neighbor's roof. If you start burning my house, the fire will spread over to my neighbor's house."
Nazir's nephews have been allegedly involved in Chechnya's still smoldering insurgency for almost a decade, and Nazir knew that he was now going to pay the price for failing to convince them to surrender.
To be fair, the serviceman Nazir thought to be in charge understood the situation, but said that the decision had been made at the top, that he had orders from higher up. The house was to be burned. But Nazir proposed a compromise. He said to the commander, "An excavator operator lives nearby. He could separate the roofs. And then perhaps nothing bad would happen... Could you please send your soldiers to fetch him?" Twenty minutes later the excavator operator and his machine were brought to the house, and the excavator driver, following the elderly man's directions, separated the roofs and broke a part of the wall that was less than one meter from his neighbor's house. Then Nazir's house was set on fire. Everyone, including Nazir, stood by and watched the flames rise.
Nazir and his family are now homeless. At least two dozen other families in different districts of Chechnya have had their houses torched in 2008 and 2009 by local Chechen law enforcement personnel to punish them because their relatives are allegedly insurgents, and to coerce the insurgents to surrender. This report documents these episodes of collective punishment.
Today, the armed conflict in Chechnya has subsided and the capital, Grozny, has been largely rebuilt. However, abuses such as torture, illegal detention, and extrajudicial executions persist (albeit on a smaller scale), and impunity for past and ongoing abuses is rampant. The perpetrators of ongoing violations are mainly law enforcement and security personnel under the de facto control of the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Although insurgent attacks in Chechnya are now distinctly less frequent than in the neighboring North Caucasus republics of Ingushetia or Dagestan, they continue to occur sporadically. The insurgency has a loose agenda to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state in the Caucasus. Working toward those objectives, insurgents have been using a variety of violent tactics, including killings and house-burnings, against members and supporters of the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities: policemen, security personnel, administration officials, and their family members.
The perpetrators of these and other crimes must be held accountable under the law and in accordance with international fair trial standards. However, unlawful tactics used by insurgents can in no way justify the use of similar tactics by government forces fighting against the insurgency, particularly burning of houses and other types of persecution against families of alleged rebel fighters.
Human Rights Watch is aware of 25 cases of punitive house burning that can be attributed to Chechen law enforcement personnel between June 2008 and March 2009 in seven districts of Chechnya: ten in Kurchaloi, six in Shali, four in Vedeno, two in Naur, and one each in Shatoi, Achkhoi-Martan, and Grozny districts. Also, just several days prior to the release of this report Human Rights Watch learned of yet another, most recent case of house-burning. On June 18, around 5 a.m., unidentified law enforcement servicemen reportedly burned two homes belonging to elderly parents of an alleged insurgent in the village of Engel-Yurt, in the Gudermes district.
All the affected families, whose homes were burned, have among their close relatives alleged insurgents, usually sons or nephews. In most cases, prior to the house-burning, law enforcement and local administration officials strongly pressured the families to bring their relatives home "from the woods" and threatened them with severe repercussions for failure to do so. Some burnings occurred very soon after a rebel attack in the vicinity and therefore appeared to have been motivated by retribution.
Notably, in 2008 high-level Chechen officials, including President Kadyrov, made public statements explicitly stating that the insurgents' families should expect to be punished unless they convince their relatives to surrender. While such statements may not constitute direct instructions for law enforcement agents to destroy houses of insurgents' families, they encourage such actions by police and security personnel by sending a strong message that lawless, punitive actions will be tolerated or condoned.
Thirteen episodes of punitive house-burning are documented in detail in this report. These cases follow a strikingly similar pattern. They were generally perpetrated at night, with law enforcement personnel-often masked-arriving in several cars, breaking into the yard, and forcing the residents out of their house. The perpetrators would prevent residents from approaching their home, treating them roughly and in some cases holding them at gunpoint.
The assailants torched the houses methodically and unhurriedly. They looked around the inside of the house, piled furniture together, put easily flammable objects on top, doused gasoline around the house, and set it on fire. They would stay for up to an hour watching the fire spread, to make sure the residents or their neighbors did not attempt to put it out before the house was well ablaze.
The victims were generally told in clear terms that complaining about the house-burning would lead to further repercussions. Consequently, only in three cases known to Human Rights Watch did victims file complaints with the authorities. In another three cases the victims agreed to have Memorial, a leading Russian human rights NGO working in the North Caucasus, raise their cases with competent authorities. At least two of the families were then threatened by the district law enforcement authorities and forced to sign a statement that the fire had been caused by their own carelessness. At this writing not a single criminal case into the allegations of house-burning in Chechnya has been opened by the law enforcement authorities.
The Russian government has overwhelmingly failed to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations during a decade of war and counterinsurgency in Chechnya. Indeed, in more than 100 judgments to date, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found Russia responsible for serious violations in Chechnya. One Chechen government official told Human Rights Watch that this failure has helped to create in Chechnya an acceptance of impunity as the norm. This situation cannot be tolerated, and calls for prompt and effective measures.
Russian federal and Chechen authorities should immediately put a stop to collective punishment practices, including house-burnings, against families of alleged insurgents, and ensure meaningful accountability for perpetrators of these and other human rights violations. Accountability includes ensuring effective implementation of ECtHR rulings on Chechnya cases. Other governments, in particular European Union states and the United States, should use multilateral forums and bilateral dialogues to call on Russia to stop collective punishment practices, and put an end to impunity for human rights abuses in Chechnya.
This report is based primarily on field research conducted in close cooperation with Memorial Human Rights Center, a leading Russian human rights organization, in March and April 2009 during two Human Rights Watch missions to Chechnya. In the course of these missions, a Human Rights Watch researcher visited and photographed house-burning sites and interviewed 37 individuals, including owners and former residents of homes destroyed by house-burning, and witnesses of the house-burnings. We also interviewed 14 human rights activists, lawyers, government officials, and law enforcement personnel. Field research was conducted in the Achkhoi-Martan, Kurchaloi, Naur, Shatoi, Shali, and Vedeno districts of Chechnya, where the burnings had taken place, as well as in Grozny, where some victims, witnesses, activists, and officials were interviewed. Several interviews were done in Moscow or by phone from Moscow. Sites of house-burnings were identified based on information received from Chechnya-based human rights activists as well as from some victims of house-burnings who happened to be aware of other similar cases. All interviews were conducted in Russian by a Human Rights Watch researcher who is a native speaker of Russian.
Also, Human Rights Watch examined official documents, prosecutor's office decrees, public statements by Chechen officials, analytical reports published by Russian human rights groups, and media accounts. Transcripts of televised statements by President Kadyrov and several other high-level Chechen officials were translated by a native speaker of Chechen.
The present report documents only those house-burning cases for which we were able to interview victims and witnesses to the burnings and make our own site visits.
The vast majority of those interviewed for this report were deeply concerned about possible repercussions for their families and asked Human Rights Watch researchers not to use their real names. Consequently, we chose to assign pseudonyms to victims and witnesses quoted in the report who gave us their names (the pseudonyms were chosen randomly from a comprehensive list of Chechen names at a specialized website http://www.n-a-m-e-s.info/dat_imya/chechenu.htm).
Few people really understand what is happening there. It is hard to get an objective picture of events in such a complex place, home to more than 30 different ethnic groups speaking many different languages. In fact, it is all but impossible, even more so when the media propagate myths that are often completely absurd.
Gudben - the myth
Gudben, a village in the Karabudakhkent District, has something of a reputation. People outside and inside Dagestan say that it is a ‘wahhabi' village. They'll tell you all sorts of stories about what goes on there. You get the idea that the village has been completely taken over by Islamic radicals, that they've more or less imposed sharia law there, as they did in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi before the outbreak of the second Chechen war. They say that the women are all hidden behind veils and girls do not go to school, while the boys study in the Koranic school, where they are turned into future martyrs for Islam. At any rate, they're supposedly ready to take to the forests. Indeed, they say that Islamic fundamentalism has got such a foothold in Gudben that the doors of people's houses have two handles - one for men and one for women. It's not for nothing that a counterterrorist operation has been underway there since March.
Islam does indeed play an important part in the life of Gudben. It is as an old village with deep-rooted religious traditions. Even during the Soviet years, local people stubbornly defended their right to believe and pray openly. The Dagestani authorities complained to Moscow that, "in the village of Gudben, in 1956, a group of religious fanatics, acting without permission, opened a mosque", and that "it is very hard to stamp out the relics of the past in people's minds and lives: the religious authorities forbid the young people from joining the komsomol and constantly undermine the communist ideology". (http://www.chernovik.net/news/245/MONOTHEOS/2007/10/12/3444)
People from Gudben were among the first Russian Muslims to make the hajj in the early 1990s. Salafist preachers were active in the village, and it certainly had its share of aggressive fundamentalists, though there can't have been too many of them, because when Shamil Basayev invaded Dagestan, they were swiftly dealt with by their own fellow villagers. The villagers gave them a beating, kicked them out of the madresa and made them promise that they would not under any circumstances help Basayev and his friends. In other words, the radicals were not the dominant force in the village.
So how is it that 10 years later there is no secular education and even door handles are segregated according to sex? Or is this just hearsay?
Gudben - the reality
It's hard to say who thought up the story about the door handles. The doors in Gudben are extremely ordinary, with just one handle. As for the women, they are not hidden behind burqas, but wear long dresses and cover their hair with a scarf thrown over the shoulder. You don't see anyone smoking in the streets, and you certainly don't see anyone drunk. People here are serious about their religion, they stick to the rules, and pray five times a day.
There are over 12,000 people living in the village, and the locals say that four villagers have gone to join the insurgents in the forest. Just four, not hundreds or even dozens. When the ‘counterterrorist' operation began in March, the security forces, worried by the news that Gudben had been taken over by wahhabi fundamentalists, began picking out families who were not sending their children to school. They came up with a total of around 30 children who were not receiving any secular education. This is not a good thing of course. But to put it in perspective, Gudben is a big village, the families all have many children, and 30 children is a drop in the ocean.
As for the question of education, the real problem is not that there are children who don't go to school, but that even those who do go to school have no chance of getting a decent education. The teachers are recent graduates of the very same local school with precious little experience. They speak to the children in Dargin, but the textbooks are in Russian. The children learn to read out the syllables, but they don't actually understand what they're reading. They learn basic arithmetic, and that is about as far it goes.
The better-off families try and send their boys, especially their older sons, to boarding school or to relatives in the towns of Makhachkala, Buinak and Kaspiisk. If the boys have certificates proving that they've had nine years of schooling, schools in the towns usually reluctantly accept them into the sixth year and try to help them catch up, though they are probably more like third year students. Village families don't send their daughters away to study. There is not enough money to go around, and they need helping hands at home. While this is certainly sad, the same is true of many villages in the North Caucasus.
Gudben is an ordinary village, old, with narrow winding streets that not every car can manage. But the streets here were not designed for cars. It has picturesque stone houses and a huge cemetery on the hill, from where you get an excellent view of the mosque, the same mosque that Gudben's fearless rebels built against Soviet atheism in the late 1950s. The village women and girls look exotic to urban-dwelling outsiders with their colourful headscarves and traditional clothes. It is a picturesque Dargin village high up in the mountains, a place with its own customs. The local life is full of interest. It would be good to make a documentary about it, to be able to show the daily lives of these people who want only to be left in peace to follow their traditions without the upset caused by endless ‘special operations'.
Beard = wahhabi
"Young men with beards can't show their faces here", said a strongly-built man of around 40, shaking his head. "The security people, if they see a beard, that's it - they're taken into custody straight away. They don't touch the old people, but the young ones... best not to go out. People here prayed during the Soviet years. They prayed in secret, but they kept the religion alive. After the old regime collapsed, we started travelling all around Dagestan, preaching Islam, teaching Muslims who'd lost their knowledge. We had up to 400 people during the holy Ramadan month. We found mosques that had been turned into storehouses, cleaned them, and people began coming to them again...
"Later, at the end of the 1990s, this talk of ‘wahhabis' began, some sort of enemy. People became afraid of receiving us. Now life's become impossible. I get called a wahhabi, but I've not held a gun since I was in the Soviet army. I simply want to follow my beliefs. Yes, I practise pure Islam. Muslims need nothing except what the Prophet God sent and what's written in the books. But here we have fundamentalists like me, and traditionalists who follow the sheikhs. We all pray together, all go to the same mosque. It's shameful to say, but I don't wear a beard, though I should. I should be setting an example. But the security people would only cause me grief. Look what happened to Saihadji Saihadjiev. He's the same age as me, not even a young man, and now he's left seven children behind. Who is going to bring them up? Two others were killed along with him. And me, I want to raise my children..."
On October 21, 2008, just 10 kilometres away from Gudben, there was a clash between the insurgents and security forces. Five police officers, including a local policeman from Gudben, were wounded. The security forces surrounded the village and over the next four days detained about 40 local people. They were then sent to police stations in Kaspiisk and Makhachkala. There, they were questioned about the insurgents. Many were beaten, threatened, but they were released fairly quickly.
The villagers thought the incident was over. But on October 27, three Gudben residents, Saihadji Saihadjiev, Nustap Aburakhmanov, and Akhmed Hadjimagomedov, ‘disappeared'. Forty-four year-old Saihadjiev went that evening to pray at the mosque and never came home. Hadjimagomedov collected his daughter from school, then went to the mosque, and disappeared too. Abdurakhmanov was in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, at the time. He was abducted there. In all three cases relatives soon found eyewitnesses to confirm that the three men were taken away by law enforcement officials. On October 28, the families were told that the three men were killed during a ‘special operation' in Dagestan's Sergokalinsk district, while putting up resistance to law enforcement officers. The families' requests for the bodies to be handed back to them were rejected at first. Under Russian law, terrorists' bodies are not handed over to relatives. But Saihadjiev's father turned out to have connections in high places and after two difficult days, he and the other two families were able to get back their sons' bodies. They could see that they had been subjected to torture.
Magomed Saihadjiev is 76. Taking his guests up to the second storey of his house he sits down, upright, his silver-white beard neatly combed. His wife Kistoman sits on the stairs, watching attentively, not saying a word, only shedding silent tears from time to time, shyly covering her eyes with the edge of her white headscarf.
"My son left the house and drove to the mosque", Magomed says. "He entered the mosque. There was a white car waiting beside the mosque. When he came out again, the law enforcement people took him away. There were witnesses. We didn't have a clue about what was going on. There was just this report on the news, this special operation, three insurgents killed, and Saihadji among them. If it hadn't been for my connections we'd never have got his body back. He would've been buried somewhere and we'd never have known what happened. But they ended up having to hand over his body. When I saw what they'd done to my son... One of my relatives, Abdula Rasudlov, is a doctor. We called him, got him to examine the body and explain what he saw, and we filmed it all on video. I'll put it on for you to watch now..."
Magomed put on the recording. The screen showed a horribly tortured body accompanied by the doctor's calm and even voice. Broken bones, burns, bruising...
"We went to the prosecutors. We have a lawyer too... But there's no hope here. Our lawyer says that if we take the case to the European Court of Human Rights we would definitely win, because we have all the proof. But I heard this would take a long time... Do you know how long we'd have to wait, a year, two years? What, five whole years? Isn't there any way to speed things up? Please try to do something. You saw yourselves what they did to him? And for what? Saihadji spent his whole life doing nothing but good for others. He never caused anyone any harm. And then there was this shootout with the police, our local policeman got caught in it too. Then they came and took him and the two others away by way of punishment... Innocent people! He's left four sons behind. How are they going to manage now?"
Saihadji's youngest son is two years and eight months old. His relatives say that the boy spends whole days sitting on the windowsill, waiting for his father, asking when papa will come home.
On the village outskirts, the big cemetery on the hill offers a wonderful view of the mosque, that same mosque which the villagers opened without permission more than fifty years ago. Saihadji is buried near the cemetery fence. His mother often visits the grave with her little grandson. While his grandmother prays, the little boy runs around, hiding behind the white stone gravestones.
He doesn't yet understand the meaning of death.
There are terrible traffic jams in the center of the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala. The main form of transport is shuttle taxis. Drivers competing for clients cut each other off, overtake in the opposing lane and pretty much ignore all traffic rules. There are way too many shuttle taxis here, but the driver pays a kickback to the city authorities for each "trip," so the powers that be have little interest in reducing the number of shuttle taxis to a relatively sensible figure. Everyone here knows this, with the possible exception of newborn babies.
Corruption in Dagestan long ago reached astounding proportions. The power structures seem to have merged fully with the criminal world. The sandy beaches remain wild and abandoned because starting any large-scale project is simply pointless: they'll ask for money from you before you start making any kind of profit. This seemingly heavenly spot -- the warm sea washes the shore and the beauty of the mountains takes your breath away -- is shivering in poverty and dust.
The traffic is as chaotic and aggressive as the city itself. When they hear the complaints -- "No one drives this appallingly badly anywhere in the Caucasus!"-- Makhachkala residents sniff, though not without pride. They need, after all, to have at least one thing to be proud of.
The locals don't like their city - it is sprawling, clamorous and disfigured by clumsy, ugly buildings. They constantly curse it and their plight in general. There are no jobs to be had. Women make do by selling things. Men work as drivers. They can also go into law enforcement. The pay there is good, but this is a job one might want to think twice about - police officers are being shot by the dozen.
A young dark-haired taxi-driver shakes his head: "I served on the police force for four years and then gave it up. Nine of my friends were killed. They have families and small children... It's better to be a driver. It's enough to live on, and that's OK: I don't want my children to be orphans."
"Who killed them, Akhmed?"
He takes a drag on his a cigarette and sighs: "Supposedly Wahhabis.... Although who knows. They blame everything on Wahhabis here, even ordinary crimes. If you're an officer they ask you to catch Wahhabis and make them confess.... That means you have to beat them. And you look at this guy and think, he also has a family."
Akhmed's mobile phone rings. He picks it up, listens and answers something in Avar - something unprintable, judging his tone- and smiles guiltily: "You know, you'll get to your destination more quickly on foot. They've found another bomb around here and the neighboring streets have been cordoned off. We'll be stuck for another hour at least. So, today there's a bomb. Yesterday an officer was shot literally on that corner. And that's how it is every day."
The war between the "Wahhabis" and "authorities" has become an essential part of everyday life. It's obvious who the "authorities" are: officers of the Interior Ministry and FSB. But the "Wahhabis," or "Wahs" or "Vovchiks," as the slang goes, are a much more complicated matter.
In Dagestan Wahhabism is effectively regarded as terrorism, and even, uniquely for Russia, prohibited by law. This law was passed by the local parliament back in 1999, after the incursion by Shamil Basaev and his followers, which marked the beginning of the "Second Chechen War". In other words, Wahhabis are perceived as armed Islamic radicals who want to destroy secular government and create a Shariah state in the Caucasus. To the government, they are the chief natural enemy of the state.
On the other hand, there are actually a large number of people who are followers of "pure Islam" (researchers on the issue call them Salafis) in Dagestan. These are Muslims who preach a return to the five pillars of Islam and do not accept worship of Sufi sheikhs as intermediaries between Muslims and Allah. They are generally not hard to spot, as they have beards and pray at their special mosques. The vast majority of these people do not, of course, roam the mountains with automatic weapons. They lead ordinary lives. But they are also branded as enemies and harshly persecuted.
The situation is aggravated by a preexisting conflict between the Salafis and the "traditional" Sufi Muslims ("Tariqahs"). In Dagestan acting Sufi sheikhs have many "murids" in government and in law-enforcement enforcement agencies, including in high positions. A murid is a follower obliged to obey his sheikh, and, as experts have noted, the sheikhs do not hesitate to use high-ranking murids to suppress their religious opponents. Being a salafi in Dagestan is dangerous. Men who make themselves visible as Salafis by wearing Muslim clothes and long beards create such a threat for themselves and their families that few of the followers of "pure Islam" dare to take the risk.
A dark yard on the dirty outskirts of Makhachkala. It's around 10 in the evening. It's so dark you could easily break your leg in a pothole, and finding the right door is almost impossible. But one of the doors opens, a boy looks out and gestures me to come in. You can't see anything in the entrance, but the lift is unexpectedly working. At the entrance to the apartment there are two girls, ages 7 or 8, with long dresses to the ground. Their pale, serious faces are framed by hijabs - one white, the other blue. They politely whisper hello, and look at me intensely, not responding to my smile. From the other end of the corridor, their mother emerges with a tiny child in her arms. Her clothes reveal only her hands and her face - from her chin to her eyebrows. She invites me into the room.
It is almost completely empty. There is a rug on the floor and a lonely plastic stool in the corner. A tall, thin man with a short beard sits on the rug, leaning against the wall. His eyes are sunken and he has a tubercular cough. His swarthy, yellowish face is thin and, despite his exhaustion, he looks quite young. Eldar is 25. An hour ago there was an attempt to abduct him. This was evidently the "sixth department" -- employees of the Extremism and Criminal Terrorism Directorate of the Dagestan Interior Ministry. They won't leave Eldar alone because he is a "Wahhabi." Eldar looks at the guests through half-closed eyes, mumbles a greeting and turns to his wife: "Bring us some tea."
Eldar Navruzov had in fact already been abducted, just over a year ago. On the morning of March 13, 2008, armed men in camouflage attacked him on the street, dragged him into their car, put a sack over his head, planted a hand grenade in his pocket and drove him to the "sixth department." There Eldar was beaten and tortured for over a day, until he admitted that he was part of a gang of one Vadim Butdaev - Eldar said he found out only later who this Vadim was - and had been attacking policemen. Three days later, a lawyer was finally able to get to Eldar, and he retracted the testimony he had given under torture. But he spent around 11 months in prison on remand, until the charges of attacking employees of the law-enforcement bodies and organizing a criminal society were dropped for complete lack of evidence.
Eldar was released in February this year, and found a job at a building site. He thought he was being followed - he noticed cars driving around outside his home and suspicious people following him. But the charge against him of illegally possessing and carrying a weapon had not been dropped, so he was only freed from custody after he gave a written undertaking not to leave the city. When he will be released from this order, God only knows.
On the evening of April 22 at around 9 p.m. Eldar was returning home from work. He was on the mobile to his wife, Aisha, telling her he would be home soon, when a silver 99 Lada with Dagestan number plates drove up to him. Two people jumped out of the car and shouted at him to stop. Eldar ran toward his home, which was very close, shouting to his wife that he was being kidnapped again. The car overtook him, hitting his left leg, but he kept running, because he knew what would happen if he fell down. Another car was waiting for him in the yard, right in front of the entrance. It was also silver and had tinted windows. Some men tried to drag him into the car. He fought them off, screaming at the top of his voice: "I'm being kidnapped!" The neighbours looked out of their windows. Aisha, along with another family who was visiting her at the time, flung open the door and grabbed hold of Eldar. They also started shouting. This was too much noise and too many witnesses for the "officers," so they abandoned their victim, got into their cars and drove away.
"Until the next time..." Eldar coughs, sipping some dark infusion from a cup. He is curing his tuberculosis with "sunna", i.e. prayers and herbs. He doesn't trust secular medicine. "Inshallah..." Eldar continues, "It was probably the sixth department again. They are the only ones who can kidnap people like me, apart from the FSB and they don't bungle things like that. In any case, there's no letup. They've branded me a Wahhabi. I won't swear oaths to the Sheikhs, I pray directly to Allah, I have a beard, as Allah's messenger said to do.... When I got out of prison in February, my cellmates told me: "Drink, smoke and go to brothels, then no one will touch you. That's the only solution." But I would rather reject my family, although I am prepared to give my life for them, than reject my faith. Others advised me not to leave the house. There were another three men who were in the remand prison on the same charge as me and were released at the same time - we were supposed to be part of a gang. Two of them haven't left the house all these months. The third only goes outside with his relatives, and not very often. But I have to work to feed my children. That's no solution either. I have one weapon against them, the doa - prayer - and Allah has heard my doa. But he won't hear theirs. They don't have a protector, like I do. His will is everything. Allah does not ask of people things they cannot do."
Aisha nods in agreement. Eldar takes the little boy from her, lightly throws him into the air, kisses his forehead and whispers something tender. The girl in the fluffy pink jumpsuit stretches out her arms to her father and laughs.
Nariman Mamedyarov doesn't look anything like the others who are branded "Wahhabis". He has no beard and is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. He's an ordinary Caucasian guy, who doesn't look his 33 years. Nariman lays tiles for a living. There is enough work for him to feed his wife and children and to rent an apartment in an outlying district of town. But it's hard for him to work now - he can't bend his left arm at the elbow properly as the ligament is torn. The doctors say it's too late for an operation. They could try of course. But it's probably pointless - it will just be torture for him. Nariman's arm was injured at the "sixth department." He didn't notice how it happened because that night he was not only beaten, but subjected to electric shock torture. The pain was so great he couldn't feel anything else.
Nariman was taken last year, in the early evening September 25. It happened not far from School No. 57. A car stopped by him, and four "officers" in masks and camouflage jumped out, dragged him into the back seat, and put a black bag over his head. They drove for about half an hour, then threw him to the ground and started beating him. They asked him about Vadim Butdaev, but Nariman had no idea who he was. They gave him electric shocks by connecting up wires to his thumbs.
Then he was pushed into the car again and taken to the division. Nariman realized where he was going, because the sixth department is next to the central mosque, and during the namaz prayers he heard the voice of the muezzin. If he had not heard this, he would not have known where he was as no one took the bag off his head. The electric shock torture went on all night and his nails were pulled out with pliers. He screamed: "Kill me, I don't know anything! I've never seen this Butdaev! I can't take it anymore." The officers laughed: "After what we do to you, you'll envy the dead! You'll admit to everything!" By morning, he had said he had taken weapons to this mysterious Butdaev, just so they would leave him alone. And he really was left alone. For a few days he lay on the floor with the bag on his head. He was given water twice and taken to the toilet once. He was not given any food at all, but to be quite honest he didn't want any.
Nariman says that on September 28 he was taken to the police station in Buinaksk. A police chief finally took the bag of his head-- and put an automatic weapon in his hands, so as to put his fingerprints on it. Then he told Nariman to sign a statement that the police officers had found him in the forest, in dirty clothes, with a broken arm and that he had sworn at them. Nariman signed everything because they told him that if he didn't sign it, he would simply be taken into the forest and killed. And the gun would be placed on top of his corpse. It would be a great special operation.
In total, Nariman was given 10 days of administrative arrest for using obscene language. It was cold in the police cell. And he was hardly given any food. But on the first day his arm was put in a cast. And he wasn't beaten. What else could he ask for? Nariman wanted something else - he wanted to go home. He was taken back to Makhachkala after 10 days, and taken to the Leninsky district prosecutor's office. The investigator said: "Sign here and you'll go straight home. This is a report that you were interrogated as a witness." Nariman said he signed without reading it. He was just very tired, and wanted to go back to his family.
But instead of going home he was taken to the Makhachkala police cells, where a lawyer came to see him. She told Nariman that he had confessed to supplying weapons to "Butdaev's gang" and, as part of this group, had planned to kill law-enforcement officers. Nariman rejected this testimony. During the night officers from the "sixth department" came to his cell. They told him that it was not a good idea to go back on his words and beat him up a little to drive the message home. Nariman really didn't want electric shock torture again, so he promised to repeat his testimony. But when the investigator came to see him in the morning, he decided not to do this. There were three more night visits from officers of the sixth department. Then some other officers came along, who said they were from the general investigation department. They threatened to take him to the Russian military base in Chechnya at Khankala: "you've been giving us all this trouble for nothing, and there you'll either tell us everything quickly, or you'll disappear." But in the end they didn't take him.
These talks had all taken so long that Nariman had been held in the police cells for 26 days, instead of the 10 days stipulated by law. He was moved to a remand prison, where he met Eldar Navruzov, who was also being held under the "Vadim Butdaev case" and who also had no idea who this person was. Itwas only later, once they were released, that Mamedyarov and Navruzov got to meet the Butdaev family.
Like Eldar Navruzov, Nariman Mamedyarov was released in February because all the charges fell through - apart from one, involving the automatic weapon with his fingerprints on it. The Buinaksk police knew what they were doing when they put the weapon in his hands.
Nariman has given a written undertaking not to leave town. He tries not to leave his home without a relative. He has noticed someone following him several times. But he cannot sit at home all day. He has to work. There is no one else to feed his family. He shrugs: "They kept asking me at the prosecutor's office whether I was a Wahhabi. In fact I go to an ordinary, traditional mosque. But I pray regularly and before Ramadan I and a few other guys spent 10 days in prayer in the mosque. For a Muslim this is a good thing to do. Three of those guys were arrested with me. Two of them were soon released. But the third was held for several months, like me... I think the police can't catch the real "forest brothers," but they have to have some statistics to report. They take guys in when they notice that they go to the mosque a lot. "
I was taken to see Nariman Mamedyarov by Vadim Butdaev's brother in an old, shaky truck. Butdaev was killed by officers when they stormed a house in Makhachkala on last November 17. In Dagestan he is portrayed as an important figure in the "Wahhabi underground." The press implied that he was receiving money from Al-Qaeda. If he did get money, it was clearly not enough to support his family.
Butdaev did take off for the forest the previous summer. His family-members believe that he would not have joined the insurgents if he could have lived and prayed without persecutions, beatings and humiliation.
His brother Ismail shakes his mane of gray hair, and looks into my eyes: "I'm not going to talk about Vadim any more. You didn't know him, you didn't see him. Why should you believe me? But you've just talked to this guy Nariman. Is he an enemy? A terrorist? What can a person do if he is not allowed to believe in God? What can he and his friends do if they cannot protect themselves? You know, if you drive a rat into a corner, it will bite you in the face... These guys are forced to do the same thing."
This article first appeared on http:// www.polit.ru and http://www.islamnews.ru
On January 23, Human Rights Watch published a 200-page report, Up in Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations in the Conflict Over South Ossetia, summing up its extensive findings regarding the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that occurred during the conflict in South Ossetia and uncontested Georgian territories. The armed conflict as such lasted only one week in August 2008, but the consequences will indubitably endure for much longer. The conflict and its aftermath have seen lives, livelihoods, homes, and communities devastated in South Ossetia and bordering districts of Georgia. As the conflict broke out, Human Rights Watch researchers immediately began documenting the violations that were committed by all sides. All this data, including more than 460 interviews over several months of field research, formed the basis for the legal analysis presented in the final report.
Human Rights Watch's research documented a number of indiscriminate and disproportionate artillery attacks by Georgian forces on South Ossetia and other attacks, which were part of the ground assault. These attacks caused excessive harm to civilians with respect to the military advantage that was to be gained. In particular, Georgian forces made extensive use in civilian areas of multiple-rocket launching systems, known as Grad (Russian for hail), which cannot be targeted with sufficient precision to distinguish between civilian and military objects - thereby causing indiscriminate harm to civilians. The very use of Grad rockets in areas populated by civilians is just one way in which Georgian forces conducted attacks in South Ossetia disregarding the safety of civilians.
Human Rights Watch found that, in a number of instances in South Ossetia and in undisputed Georgian territory, Russian forces used indiscriminate aerial, artillery, and tank fire strikes, killing and wounding many civilians. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which Russian forces occupying the Gori district in Georgia opened fire on civilian vehicles, killing or wounding civilians.
Russian and Georgian forces both used cluster munitions, causing civilian deaths and putting more civilians at risk by leaving behind unstable "minefields" of unexploded bomblets. The impact of cluster munitions on civilians in the conflict demonstrates why, in December 2008, 94 governments signed up to a comprehensive treaty to ban cluster munitions. This was negotiated just months before the conflict commenced: Russia and Georgia notably failed to sign.
South Ossetian violations
Georgian forces withdrew from South Ossetia on August 10. Over the following weeks South Ossetian forces deliberately and systematically destroyed ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia that had been administered by the Georgian government. The South Ossetians looted, beat, threatened, and unlawfully detained numerous ethnic Georgian civilians. They killed several, on the basis of their ethnic and imputed political affiliations, with the express purpose of forcing those who remained to leave and ensuring that no former residents would return. South Ossetian forces also arbitrarily detained no fewer than 159 ethnic Georgians. They killed at least one detainee and subjected nearly all of them to inhuman and degrading treatment and detention conditions. They also tortured no fewer than four Georgian prisoners of war and executed at least three.
The role of the Russian forces
As an occupying power in these areas, Russia failed in its duty under international humanitarian law to ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety. Instead of protecting civilians in the territories under its effective control, Russian forces allowed South Ossetian forces who followed in their path to engage in wanton and widescale pillage, the burning of Georgian homes and attacks on ethnic Georgian civilians. Such deliberate attacks are war crimes and, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic pattern, may also be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch concluded that the actions of the Ossetian forces against ethnic Georgians in several villages in South Ossetia, coupled with their intent to ensure none returned, amounted to attempted ethnic cleansing.
In Georgian territory adjacent to the South Ossetian administrative border, which at the time was occupied by Russia, South Ossetian militias looted, destroyed, and burned homes on a wide scale. They deliberately killed at least nine civilians, and raped at least two. Russian forces were at times involved in the looting and destruction, as passive bystanders or active participants, or by providing militias with transport into villages.
More than 20,000 ethnic Georgians who fled the conflict in South Ossetia remain displaced. Ethnic Georgians in the Akhalgori district - a remote area in the east of South Ossetia, currently occupied by Russian forces - face threats and harassment by militias and anxiety about a possible closure of the district's administrative border with the rest of Georgia. Both factors have caused great numbers of people to leave their homes for undisputed Georgian territory. The permanent forced displacement of thousands of people cannot be countenanced, and as long as Russia remains in effective control it should publicly promote the right of all persons displaced by the conflict to return and live in their homes in safety and dignity. It also has an obligation to ensure that this right can be effectively implemented and provide security to all persons living there, regardless of ethnicity.
The Way Forward
Human Rights Watch stresses the need for both Russia and Georgia to undertake an impartial and thorough investigation into abuses committed by their forces. Russia should also investigate the crimes committed by South Ossetian forces, since it exercises effective control over South Ossetia. Russia and Georgia should not only hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes, but also provide appropriate redress to the numerous victims of the conflict.
The report Up in Flames measures each party's compliance with their obligations under international humanitarian law, not against the conduct of the other party. Exposing violations committed by one party does not excuse or mitigate those committed by another party. Nor under international humanitarian law does a violation by one party justify or mitigate violations by another party. Which party started the conflict has no bearing on their obligations to adhere to international humanitarian law and to hold violators accountable. Those seeking answers to questions about who committed worse, or more violations, or who bears responsibility for starting the conflict, will not find answers in this report. Human Rights Watch is also concerned that focusing on who started the war or who committed worse atrocities, as some observers are, misses the point: the urgent need to hold all who are responsible accountable and to allow displaced people to return home safely.
See the whole Human Rights Watch report:
Among those few Russian journalists who dared write the truth about the second Chechen war, Anna Politkovskaya is number one. That is, she was number one. It's still almost impossible to fully understand and accept that Anna is no more. She was travelling to the armed conflict-zone for so many years, wrote about such burning issues, took such tremendous risks that at some point many of us thought that she had already transcended the danger.
Certainly, back in 2001, when she published a series of articles on how Russian policeman Sergei Lapin tortured to death a Chechen young man, Zelimkhan Murdalov, the perpetrator started threatening her, and the threats were so serious that she even had to leave the country. At that time, some people thought that Politkovskaya would never return to Russia, and that even if she did, she'd never go to Chechnya again. But she did return several months later, continued her work on that case - and returned to the region again and again, published more striking stories about lawless violence and human suffering. In September 2004, she was allegedly poisoned on the plane to prevent her from going to Beslan, North Ossetia, to investigate the school siege which had ended in the deaths of hundreds of people.
Anna was ill for a long time after this incident, but she survived and kept working. Her hard-edged publications made such a name for her that she became an icon of a sort to her readers in Chechnya, Russia and the west. In recent years it seemed inconceivable that she could be simply, cynically killed. After all, President Putin and his team could not possibly afford such a terrible ugly scandal. Apparently, they can. Anna is dead - four gunshots were certainly more than enough.
Whenever I traveled to Chechnya, some local residents, having found out I came from Moscow, would always ask: "Have you met Politkovskaya? Are you personally acquainted? Really? Could you then pass these documents to her. Please ask her to write a piece on this case. And on this one, too. If it had not been for her, no one would've known of our pain, we would've been all killed in silence, all of us. Please thank her for us."
Tanya Lokshina is head of the Russian human-rights think-tank Demos
Also by Tanya Lokshina in open Democracy:
"Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)
Also in openDemocracy:
Anna Politkovskaya, "Chechnya: Russia's shame"
(9 October 2006)
Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)
A fighter for truth
For the Chechens she was, first and foremost, the woman who cared, who tried to change something. She was respected by friends and enemies. Even Chechen officials, including those from the security agencies who knew that Politkovskaya was working against them and condemned her for it, sometimes praised Anna for her tenacity and courage ("she's brave, that woman, you can't frighten her").
Anna was a fighter for truth, more than anything else. And she was certainly no saint. Strong-willed, unyielding and forceful, she would attack even her colleagues and supporters. She always felt no one was doing enough to help those in need and to save the world. She was convinced that no compromises were possible and seemed to believe that if all the honest people fearlessly upheld truth and together beat their heads against the wall, the wall would crumble from their pressure.
Anna doggedly uncovered the crimes of the military and the security services. In the past three years, she wrote a lot about Ramzan Kadyrov and his men, and about the abductions, executions and torture perpetrated by them. She openly declared that she dreamed of seeing the Chechen leader behind bars and was systematically working to achieve that objective.
Anna frequently walked on the very edge, risking not only her own life and safety but also the life and safety of those who helped her get the information. There were people living in Chechnya in permanent danger, who shared facts and leads with her, drove her around, hid her in their homes for the night. When one tried to reason with Anna, her reaction was always dramatic. She screamed that someone had to do this, someone had to speak despite all danger and not be a chicken. She stressed that if some people hadn't been too careful - "yes, people like you!" - the overall situation would not be so desperate.
Today, several scenarios of Politkovskaya's murder are proposed: it was organised by Ramzan Kadyrov himself; planned by someone who wanted to paint Kadyrov black and ruin his chance to acquire the presidency of Chechnya; perpetrated by a figure from the military or the security services whose crimes Anna had exposed; or, more personally, was an act of revenge by a mate of that policeman Lapin who, thanks to Anna and a few others, ended up in prison for eleven years. Politkovskaya's enemies were numerous and came in different guises.
The most disturbing and absurd aspect of the situation is that each of those narratives seems quite plausible. This would be conceivable in a normal democratic society, but in our country there are too many people, forces and agencies likely to seek to get rid of an uncompromising, relentless journalist. No one doubts that the motive for Anna's murder was political.
Voices and silence
Several hours after the killing, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, issued a brief statement. The American president and the French president paid their tributes, as too did various Russian politicians. Diplomats, ambassadors, heads of international organisations all spoke to condemn the crime and express their hopes for a speedy and effective investigation. It seemed that not only Russia but the entire world awaited President Putin's response. But the Russian leader remained dead silent.
Finally, three days later, he grew tired of the media debates on the meaning of his silence and told a German newspaper: "murder is a very grave crime before the society and before God. The criminals should be found." Putin could have left it there but chose to add: "Politkovskaya's political influence inside the country was of little significance. She was more known in human-rights circles and to the western media. And I think that Politkovskaya's murder caused more harm to the Russian and Chechen authorities than her publications."
So, according to the president, Anna's efforts had next to no impact. In other words, she wasted her life. At the same time, there is a certain paradox in his utterance: if the president says her publications were somewhat harmful to the state, then she must have had some influence... One way or another, Putin's line of thinking implies that Anna was a problem when alive and remains an even worse problem for Russia once dead. The Russian president is probably a very honest person - he cannot help but speak his mind. However, speaking ill of the deceased is inappropriate for any layperson, not to mention a state leader.
Today, western reporters and politicians are all asking the same question: will Russian journalists and human-rights defenders stop speaking of Chechnya and exposing human-rights violations altogether? Certainly, they have very good reasons to quit.
Anna Politkovskaya was a household name, but her fame did not protect her from a horrible, brutal death. This clearly shows how absolutely, frighteningly vulnerable everyone involved in this area of work is. At the same time, to keep silent now, after Anna's murder, amounts to becoming complicit with her killers. This would be to bury her for the second time, and wipe out the results and the very meaning of her work - the work for which she paid with her very life. People who understand this will not remain mute.
Anna Politkovskaya was born in New York in 1958 to a family of Soviet diplomats. She studied at Moscow State University, and earned a diploma in journalism before working for several Russian newspapers and broadcasters.
She visited Chechnya for the first time in 1998 (on assignment with Obshchaya Gazeta ) to conduct an interview with the president, Aslan Maskhadov. By the time of the second Chechen war in 1999, she was working for the independent democratic newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. She reported the war extensively and visited Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia dozens of times.
In 2001, she received the Golden Quill Award for a series of reportages from Chechnya. Many of these were collected into her books, among them A Small Corner of Hell (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy (Metropolitan Books, 2006)
Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building. The killer dropped his gun next to her dead body and fled
We are on our way to Avnevi, a big Georgian village in the south west of South Ossetia which over the last three weeks has been burnt to the ground. Or almost. Some of the houses are still standing - or were five days ago. The vineyards along the dusty road, dotted here and there with yellow or red cherry plum, the bridge, the shell of the school and the police station building with its charred red walls. Empty burnt-out houses and fresh fires. Actually there aren't very many new fires - one month after the war in this, as in other, enclave villages almost nothing is left to burn. But there are dozens of elderly Georgians who didn't leave the enclave villages when the population was fleeing before the war. The nights are chilly already and in another month they will be very cold indeed. These people have no homes, no means of getting warm and what is left of their kitchen gardens will soon no longer provide enough food for them. They can't last long. If, however, they are handed over to the Red Cross, they will be sent to Gori and put in hospital. Any relations they may have in Georgia will be located, but if there are none....God knows, they still can't stay here.
On our way from Tskhinvali to Avnevi we are accompanied by Timur. Just recently he was hunting down Georgian tanks at the entrance to the city: he is still laughing at the fact that that he, a respectable man of fifty, should have had to do such a thing. Timur has his own reason for wanting to go to Avnevi: he wants to check if the house of his close friend is still standing. But how can this be? An Ossetian warrior friends with a Georgian, the ‘sworn enemy'? Timur laughs. "I never had any problems with Georgians. Of course, there were shootings and killings...but never any real problems! True, it was kind of difficult to explain things to the children. My youngest said to me recently ‘I hate the Georgians, they can all drop dead.' ‘What about Uncle Mishiko, him too?' I asked him. My boy thought for a bit, then said ‘He's no Georgian, he's absolutely one of us. He loves us!'"
At this point I can't help remembering the story of the boy from the Chechen village of Alkhan-yurt. He was taken as far away from the war as possible, to the Tver region of Russia. When the time came for him to go home again, he was almost in tears. "I don't want to go back. Let's stay here. It's good here - there are no Russians!" The only Russians he knew were drunken soldiers in camouflage uniforms with machine guns; the people he saw around him in this small Russian town could in no way come into that category. They were completely peaceful and kind - friend, not foe.
"Our" Georgian Misha has six children. He took his family to Tbilisi as his wife comes from there and they somehow managed to find a place to stay with her relatives. But they have a big family: there is not enough room for everyone and Misha is embarrassed at adding to the burden. At the very end of August Timur went to see what had happened to Misha's house. It was untouched, although everything around it was burning. Timur wrote on the wall that he house belonged to an Ossetian. He had a word with the local militia and with the looters to ensure that they didn't touch it. He said he was taking over the house himself, and hoped that all would be OK.
A week later, however, only the charred shell remained. Anything with any value at all had been taken and the rest set alight. In the deep, damp cellar Timur found some old rags and a few old cooking pans. The spacious courtyard was hung about with vines. Some of them are burnt: the leaves are black and withered and the fruit baked to raisins. Dark, heavy roses are still blooming by the fence. Timur mutters to himself as he carefully picks the tomatoes that have survived the fire. He brings a couple of jars of cherry preserve from the devastated cellar. Why should good things go to waste? On our departure Timur says over and over again, more to himself than to us, that he has done everything he could, but not managed to save the house. But Misha has so many mouths to feed, how can he possibly find the words to tell him....?
The house was probably set alight yesterday to judge from the greasy soot and the overwhelming smell of burning. Timur feels that it can't just be the looters - he had, after all, come to an arrangement with them! No, he is absolutely sure the authorities issued an order to destroy everything that was still standing. Who knows? In the Georgian enclave villages to the north of Tskhinvali, which have been practically razed to the ground by fire, tractors and bulldozers have already started to clear the charred shells of some of the houses. Here too, in Avnevi, two columns of smoke curl up into the sky at the other end of the village. Whether by design or by chance, it is clear that the last remaining houses have just been torched.
That house over there, for example, is burning so intensely that the heat scorches our faces. The beams are cracking, the roof buckles and collapses before our eyes and a wall of fire flickers in the windows. Behind the house, a bit further down the path, there is a dilapidated little hut. I don't know why we look that way, possibly surprised that it is still standing. Inside, among the buckets, pots, bowls, the carefully arranged squash and potatoes there is a tiny ancient woman with a thin, dark face. Elena Zoziashvili. Elena....her son is in Tbilisi, but she doesn't remember his name. She is half blind and very hard of hearing. She smiles quietly at the group of strangers. There are two grey cats at her feet and five half-grown kittens tumbling about in the corner. "Granny, we'll get the doctors for you and they'll take you to Tbilisi." She keeps smiling and spreads her hands helplessly, looking about her in confusion. At last she grasps what we are saying. "No, I don't want to...." she repeats, stroking the fluffy cat with a hand that is covered with scratches and gnarled with arthritis.
At the other end of the village we find a house that has miraculously survived. Next to it stands an old man of about eighty. He has a tube in his throat from a tracheotomy long ago and can't say a word, but writes on a scrap of paper for us that his name is Vakhtang Durgishvili and he is completely alone. Mobiles don't work properly here and calls to the Red Cross are continually cut off. We go to the edge of the village and suddenly see some more people. Georgians? Not very likely....
A lively Ossetian woman of about sixty is talking incessantly. Zalina is married to a Georgian, but what are they to do? How can they leave for Georgia proper when they have lived all their lives in Ossetia? She clasps her hands together. "All sorts of pro-Georgian officials came here and said ‘You must leave, there is going to be a war. When we are victorious, you can safely come back to your houses.' But my husband and I did not give the idea much thought. The thing is that our house is set apart a bit and I didn't notice that people were starting to leave. I didn't even see our daughter leaving with the children. I went to see her one day, but she wasn't there. There was no one there at all!"
A gaunt, stooped Georgian with a black moustache appears from the back of the courtyard with a pile of small peaches in the hem of his shirt. He smiles timidly and comes up to us. Here, he says, have some of these, you are welcome to whatever we have! "We have had a lot of trouble from looters recently," he admits. "They pester us....they took our cow." "And they almost set fire to the house!" interrupts Zalina. "We were kissing their hands, anything, as long they left us in peace. But they take first one thing, then another. Our neighbour Anna Stepanovna lost all her money to them, down to the last kopek."
Anna Stepanovna is a wizened dark-skinned school -teacher with a white scarf tied over her greying hair. She comes running up to make our acquaintance. She, poor thing, had been saving for a year to pay for crowns on her teeth, which are indeed in a bad state. She had amassed quite a tidy sum, as much as one thousand five hundred roubles ($60), and they took it all, even threatening to burn down her house. Her husband is, after all, a Georgian.
Nearby there live some Ossetian women with Ossetian husbands. The husband of one of them, Tamara, was wounded during the shooting and the Georgians took him with them to Gori, where they apparently put him in hospital. But who knows how he's faring? There are no communication links at all. Electricity is down so you can't charge your mobile, and if you go into the city to make a call, your house will be completely destroyed while you are away. So Tamara has no information at all about her husband. The husband of another woman, Elizaveta, had a heart attack during the shoot-out, so the Georgians took him away too. She was on the point of starting the mourning process, sure that he was dead. But the day before she had nonetheless decided to leave her house and managed to get through to some relatives in Georgia on telephone. They told her he was alive and even getting better. But Elizaveta is so scared on her own, especially at night. She sits and shakes...her daughter's house has already been burnt down. The looters are completely ruthless and the fact that she is Ossetian will hardly protect her.
Zalina insists that we all sit down at the table on her terrace. She has managed find something to offer us, although she has had no flour for a long time and no oil. But on the table are things from better times: homemade cheese with holes, fruit from the garden, nuts and homemade wine. She chatters away. "All the houses were untouched on 10 August, only the school was burning. But after that it really got going and there seems to be no end. I am really sorry that all those Georgians have lost their houses. Many of them were good, simple people who absolutely did not want war. Their sons mostly worked in Tskhinvali. But I can understand the arsonists too. During the first war, in the nineties, Georgians burnt many of the Ossetian houses. Then everything went quiet, of course. But recently, when the Georgian police erected their posts in the area, they really tormented people from the Ossetian villages. To get from town to town you had to go through these checkpoints and they stopped all food bought in Tskhinvali, saying it was smuggled goods and that everything had to be bought in Georgia. They asked all sorts of questions and searched our things. This made life unbearable for so many people. I think that if there had been no Georgian police checkpoints and no harassment, there would have been no pillage and arson. There's a village not far from here, Archnetti, where Georgians and Ossetians still live side by side quite peacefully."
In ethnically mixed villages and even in purely Georgian villages without a pro-Georgian administration the situation is quite different than inside the enclave. Georgian houses in the Leninogorsk district, at the edge of the Dhava district or even here, west of Tskhinvali, are not burning. For instance in the village Zalina mentioned, Archnetti, ten of the sixty houses are Georgian. Here the Georgians sit as quiet as mice, demonstrating their loyalty to the Ossetian authorities, and they have so far been left in peace. In another village, Znauri, local Georgians were also left alone, but now the head of the administration is simply in tears - they are harassed, picked on and soon, if the Ossetian police authorities don't intervene, there could be bloodshed. But they don't seem in any particular hurry to do so.
Zalina insists on giving us a bag of nuts. When we promise to ask the Red Cross to bring her and her neighbours some flour, oil and other humanitarian aid, she suddenly says "My husband and I actually belong to a Christian organisation. Perhaps they might help us. When you go back to Moscow, could you find them and tell them about our troubles?" We ask her which Christian group in Moscow we should look for. She holds out an unusual-looking Bible in a black cover and says proudly "We have been Jehovah's Witnesses for 18 years, since we saw the light!"
Jehovah's Witnesses? God really does move in mysterious ways! The great thing is that it won't take much to find the Witnesses. At least once a month they come knocking at my door - I note cynically that they make a point of coming early on Sunday morning. The next time they come we'll have a good chat about how they should be helping their fellow brethren in a humanitarian catastrophe zone.
But joking apart, what should we actually do? Elena, who has almost lost her wits, and Vakhtang, who has lost his voice, will be taken by the Red Cross to Georgia, of course. But those mixed families, or the Ossetians, left behind in burnt-out villages? There's no one for them in Georgia: they live here. The looters have completely cleaned out the Georgian houses and are now high on arson and robbery, unable to stop. And finally....if in one hour we saw so many helpless people in Avnevi, how many more must there be in other burning enclave villages?
It would seem that if the Ossetian authorities provide no protection in the enclave villages for residents' property and the remaining old people, this should be taken on by the Russian army. After all, Ossetian territory is under their control. And quite recently things appeared to be moving in that direction. When villages to the north of Tskhinvali - Kekhvi, Achabeti, Kurta and Tamarasheni - had been burning for two days, the Russian military set up their checkpoints on 13 August, preventing Ossetian local militia and looters from passing through. The fires and robberies immediately decreased in number; the military found about a hundred old people in these villages and sent them with a convoy of peacemakers to Georgia. The army was really doing something essential and worthwhile. But less than a week later, the checkpoints were dismantled and everything returned to the grim status quo.
Why did this happen? What is preventing the Russian government from tasking the numerous Emergencies Ministry personnel and the military currently in the republic with taking the situation under their control? They should go through all those villages, looking into every courtyard and collecting up the old people who want to leave and have some hope of care and safety in Georgia. They should offer to protect those not prepared to leave and stop the looting, when all is said and done. There could be a solution for this problem and why Russia at the present time is not trying to solve it is a question that needs to be raised.
11 September 2008
Tanya Lokshina is Russia Researcher, Human Rights Watch
"Tskhinvali today, right?" I raise my head from the pillow, and try to open my eyes. At least one eye, my left... Over the past few days - I don't remember how many - we have been getting about three hours of sleep a night. The days blend into a succession of pictures in a viewfinder: armoured personal carriers, tanks, infantry vehicles, ‘Grad' emplacements, ‘Uragan' emplacements, shells, shards, rocket fragments, ruined houses, burning houses, houses burnt to the ground, broken glass, holes in walls, rockets flying up in flames into the bright blue sky... When the phone rings and a journalist asks how long we have been here, I ask after a brief pause what day it is. We flew to Ossetia on Sunday morning, the 10th of August... Is that only three or four days ago? It seems like a month or a year...
Tskhinvali yesterday, Tskhinvali today... As I finally manage to focus my gaze I see the round face of our hostess, and behind her - o God, not that, please, not in the morning! - an unshaven guy in camouflage gear with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. I draw the blankets up: "Please, go away for a second! Let me get dressed!" "What?" the guy asks, "You need to go to Tskhinvali, don't you?" The hostess says reassuringly: "He's a good boy! He'll take you there!" Across the room, something's stirring. My colleagues blink sleepily: "All right! Let's get going! We'll have tea and get off right away!" The guy leaves the room, and the woman follows him. "What was that?" comes a voice from the bed next to mine. "I think the guy said he was prepared to take us for a ride..." I put one foot on the floor, then the other...
My jeans are so covered in dust and soot that they are actually rustling. Luckily, the tea-shirt is clean. It's the last one, though. The woman of the house comes back into the room, kneels by the bed, and brings out an AK-47 from under it. Then another one... She takes them on to the terrace, comes back, dives under the bed again, and delivers another four AK-47s.... The woman is tiny; she barely reaches my shoulder. "Wait, let me give you a hand!" I pick up the sub-machine guns and drag them out of the room. On the porch is yet another man in camouflage fatigues. This camouflage everywhere, it really blurs your vision, particularly when you haven't had enough sleep. He nods, smiles and takes the weapons. "The boys went off and asked me to hide the guns. Now they want them back," the hostess explains. Back in our room, I get down on my knees and look under the beds - are there any more down there? Luckily, the arsenal seems to be empty - there's nothing left but dust.
We get into a jeep with two Ossetian militiamen, who promise to take us to our destination. But after five minutes, at the nearest checkpoint, federal soldiers refuse to let us through. Well, not us, but our escorts. The purpose of this checkpoint is specifically to stop the Ossetian militias from entering Georgian villages on the Tskhinvali road. Its commanding officer, a Russian lieutenant colonel, shrugs phlegmatically: "We're trying to stop the looters. They steal and set fire to things. We've carried out the military operation in one direction, all the way to Georgia. We've done what we had to. Now it's only sensible to do the same thing in the other direction, on the way back. Otherwise this'll never stop. Given what the Ossetians are doing in those villages, there isn't a hope in hell that the others won't take revenge on them later on. I see no end to this."
A swarthy young major from Dagestan, perched on an APC, refuses to let the militia men through the checkpoint. "Who gave you the right? You're supposed to be helping us, but what are you doing?" they shout. He repeats: "I can't let you through. I've got my orders. If my superiors told me to shoot at women, I wouldn't do it. No. But otherwise I've got to follow orders." The man is dog-tired, and the heat is stifling. But he never raises his voice: "You can't be from the Caucasus if this is how you treat us!" "I am from the Caucasus. But I'm also a soldier. Just doing my job!"
Despite the wretched prospect of having to wait in the scorching heat for a Russian military vehicle prepared to give three crazy civvies a ride to the wrecked Tskhinvali, one can only admire the perseverance of the soldiers. Yesterday in the Georgian villages on this road, these houses were being torched by the dozen. Armed men in fatigues had gone on the rampage stealing furniture, rugs, TV sets, vacuum cleaners and crockery left behind by the owners. Laughing and shouting, the looters piled the stuff into the cars. The road, jammed with armoured personnel carriers and assorted vehicles of the Ossetian militias, was thick with smoke from exhaust fumes and burning houses. Our Niva jeep got hopelessly stuck, and walking along the road with my camera I took pictures half-blindly, almost randomly. A hysterical Georgian woman, flailing her arms beside the burning remains of what had been her home just a few hours ago, was cursing both the Ossetian militia and President Saakashvili. A frail old man with burned hands and singed hair was hopelessly trying to put out the hissing, smouldering boards with water from a small plastic bucket... A dark-haired fighter in camouflage grimacing: "Taking pictures? We're burning these to make sure people have to houses to come back to. Otherwise, if they come back, there'll be an enclave here again, and we can't live with that. We answer blood with blood. What is happening here is an apocalypse. Do you understand? People are turning into animals. And there's no way back."
A drunken militiaman prods me with his gun: "Hey, are you Georgian?" Another physiognomist to deal with. Screaming over the roar of the tanks, I launch into a well-rehearsed string of obscenities: "Do I look like a f...ing Georgian, open your eyes, you moron, I'm Russian, f... it" As I expected, swearing works better than any identification document. Ten meters further on there is a ruined bank with the remains of a shiny cash machine - Georgia put loads of money into these enclave villages, clearly trying to show how good life could be if only South Ossetia put itself under Georgia's wing: modern shopping centres, cafes, tennis courts, even a swimming pool... Today, the vestiges of this former prosperity only seem to provoke the looters even more .
A young guy in a dirty shirt and camouflage pants waves frantically: "Come here!" "What for?" "Come here, I said! I won't hurt you!" The boy points to a wooden bench by the side of the road and sits down. "Are you a journalist? Take off your headscarf. You look a lot like a Georgian in it. They'll do you in, and that would be a shame..." Cursing through my teeth, I rip off the scarf wrapped around my hair to keep the soot away. If and when I get back to Moscow, I'll probably have to shave it all off. But better bold than dead, right? "Are you in the militias?" His eyes are focused on the ground and his fingers are performing a nervous dance on his knees: "I came from Vladikavkaz. Going home now. I've had enough fighting. On the day this started, I just had a shower, put on my fatigues and drove all the way over here with a bunch of friends. There were 70 of us." He falls silent and his eyes are glassy. "You probably have family here then?" The boy waves his hand and suddenly almost shouts: "I don't have any relatives here, no one at all. I just thought - how could I not defend my own people? The Northerners and the Southerners are one nation, right? But these highlanders - on both sides - they're like animals. The things they do to each other... In the city, you know how many corpses there are lying on the street? Have you ever seen a body that's been run over by a tank? Shredded to pieces, without a head, arms or legs... When I close my eyes I can still see them..." All of a sudden, the traffic starts moving. The Niva beeps, and I get up hurriedly to catch up with my colleagues: "Good luck! Safe journey home! Really hope you never have to fight again!"
Everyone is so pathetic. The Ossetian volunteers, who were teenagers just yesterday, and the Georgian student reservists (some soldiers they are - a few weeks of training, sing-alongs with a guitar, and then off to battle). Those corpses... Sure I saw them. This is August, and the temperature is over 30 degrees. The Ossetians buried their own, of course, but the Georgians were lying all over the city, naked and rotting. The very thought of that smell makes me feel sick.... A ‘Ural' military truck stops by the road-bloc. Are they taking us? Great timing! The soldiers move over to make room on the wooden bench. They look scared and very young. What are they, conscripts? Yes... They've been traveling from Rostov for four days now. Three months before demobilisation, now they're thrown in the middle of this mess: "What's happening in Tskhinvali at the moment? Is there shooting? A lot? How'll we manage?" Their eyes are bright with fear. Looking at them is unbearable.
Yesterday was Tskhinvali. Today is Tskhinvali. Ruined houses. Two women in black on Geroev Street, crying their eyes out. In the night of August 8, their father died under Georgian fire. He looked out of the cellar, saw the roof of his house aflame, lost his head and ran to put the fire out. He was wounded in the hip by shrapnel. A few hours later the old man died from loss of blood in the arms of his wife. They ran out of rags to stop the bleeding and there was nothing to use as a bandage. And a few days later, when everything was over, his daughters buried him. Soon after the funeral their brother sat on a bench by the house to rest, cried out suddenly and fell to the ground. It was a heart attack. He was rushed to hospital, but it was too late. The priest is now saying prayers over his body. The red velvet lid of the coffin leans against the wall of the shed. From the bushes you can smell the sweet stench of rotting flesh, and a swollen dead arm of a Georgian soldier sticks out. And nearby, on the balcony of a multi-story building, a half-dressed man is throwing out debris left over from the shelling: fragments of brick and glass.
Dozens of civilians died in the city. Hundreds of people have nowhere to live. There is no water, electricity or anything at all. For two days or longer, women and children shivered in cellars while Tskhinvali was bombarded by rockets and artillery fire. Some panicked and tried to escape with their children after the fighting started, on the 8th of August. Cars carrying refugees were fired at. Children cried. Mothers writhed in hysterics. Ossetian volunteers armed with knives and sub-machine guns attacked the Georgian tanks. How many militiamen died is unclear. Russian military losses are 74. Over 200 Georgian soldiers were killed. Dozens of civilians were also buried in Georgia. There are unexploded shells on both sides which could detonate at any moment. So it isn't over yet.
Next to the house in the Ossetian village of Dzhava, where kind people gave us shelter, two 500-kilogram bombs glitter in the grass like gigantic, monstrous flowers. They were dropped from the air on a Russian tank column, but missed their target. And now they are lying here, and will probably continue to do so for some time to come - one on a hill, another in a ravine. Minesweepers shake their heads. They can't detonate them -the bombs would destroy half the village at least. But they can't remove them either - if the bombs blow up when they're being moved, the result will be the same, and some soldiers will be killed too. Leaving the bombs alone isn't an option either. This is an area of seismic activity. Only last night there were some tremors, which could've easily set the bombs off.
I don't know what is right under the circumstances. But surely there must be some kind of solution? But all I really want is to get some sleep. Even next to this iron monster in the shade of a plum tree, even just for half an hour...
The setting sun paints the sky a tender pink. A tiny yard on the outskirts of Tskhinvali is quiet. The walls of the house are dented by shrapnel. A new car, the pride of its owners, is only good now for scrap. A fluffy dog runs around waiting to be petted. On a wooden table next to the porch, there is a bowl with slightly overripe cherry plums and a plastic canister of homemade red wine. As she talks about her experience in the bombardment, imitating the sound of the rockets, the mistress of the house pours the wine. Suddenly in the distance, a few kilometers away, there is a low and terrifying crash. The dog squeals and hides under the bench. "Yes," smiles the woman, "Belochka has been with us all these days, and as soon as shelling starts, she is always the first in the cellar. God won't forgive those Georgians! May their entire vile nation be wiped from the face of the Earth..." She sighs and offers a full glass to a neighbour who has come just to visit. The elderly Georgian drinks it in one gulp and wipes her mouth. "Damn that Saakashvili to hell. We had such good lives..." Another neighbour, a young Ossetian girl, talks excitedly about Georgian infantrymen who came into their yard, and how she was afraid that they would kill the children and rape the women, but they turned out to be mere teenagers. They just stood there and blinked in amazement: "We thought everyone had fled a long time ago, that there were only soldiers left! How did you survive the bombardment? Don't worry, we won't do anything bad to you. Do you think we want to kill or die? If it weren't for Kokoity, Putin and Saakashvili, we wouldn't be here at all! Who needs this war?!"
There are many mixed marriages here. And almost everyone has relatives and friends in Georgia. Although some Georgians in South Osssetia were detained, imprisoned and are now being exchanged for Ossetian prisoners, there are still many elderly Georgians in the city who have been left alone. They have been living here for a long time. They are clearly locals. And who would dream of offending these people who were also shaking with terror in the bombardment, who when their turn came, ran to fetch water for all the others? The woman of the house pours out more wine, and we drink a toast that the war will end once and for all. That people will, surely, reach some agreement.
It used to be peaceful here. The border of Chechnya and Ingushetia marked the line between war and peace. Crossing this line, returning from war to peace, you sighed every time: "Now everything will be fine. It's safe here..." Of course, there's poverty, dirt, corruption, but people don't get killed, shot or kidnapped here. There it's part of everyday life