Bloodshed, fear in Chechnya's wasteland
Date: April 30, 2002
Malika Khatayeva sat propped upright on a hospital bed and began to relive the morning three days before, when masked Russian troops sprayed bullets through her window, hitting her twice in the groin.
"There was blood everywhere. Blood and pieces of flesh," said the 63-year-old woman, her voice rendered flat by painkillers and pain. "I was crawling on my knees. I was naked and crawling. I was naked. It is so shameful to speak of it."
"They were such tall men, so tall," she said, raising her arms above her head. "The dogs! Why are you shooting?" I said. "Why are you killing me? Shame on you."
The Kremlin says the "military phase" of war in Chechnya is over and life is "returning to normal" in Grozny, the once leafy provincial capital of 400,000 people that Russia has bombed to dust in two wars with separatists since 1994.
But Chechen civilians and Russian troops are still consumed by hatred and fear -- palpable everywhere on a recent reporting trip despite the best efforts of Kremlin minders to steer journalists away from the violence.
The hosts showed off reconstruction projects, but there was little to see: a re-stuccoed railway station and two apartment blocs with new glass in the windows, fresh paint and some geraniums planted out front.
"Only about 0.1 percent of the federal reconstruction plan has been implemented," lamented Amnat Batyzheva, a deputy head of Chechnya's pro-Moscow government. As long as shooting seems about to start again, Chechens are in no rush to rebuild.
SEARCH FOR THE MISSING
At the gates to Russia's main Khankala base near Grozny, about half a dozen women maintain a vigil for lost sons, husbands or brothers who they say have vanished in Russian custody.
"They surrounded our house and took him. There were no markings on their APCs (armoured personnel carriers). They just took him away," Ruman Debisheva said of her son Albert. "I have been searching for him for 23 days now. I am a mother, what else can I do?"
Laura Abdulrakhmanova was searching for her two brothers, Ali Khan and Maydan, taken away on December 3 and January 4 in two separate sweeps in the Grozny suburb of Argun.
"They said they would check them and then let them go. We have no idea where they are," she said and began shouting at a Russian officer. He shouted back: "And where is my comrade, who was kidnapped while accompanying your village elders?"
The main tactic of the Russian forces in pursuing rebels is the "sweep," sealing off villages or neighbourhoods and detaining men of fighting age in mass arrests, or pulling them off the streets for passport violations.Russia says all arrests are documented and it is working to improve oversight by civilian prosecutors. But human rights groups say all too often, those detained disappear. Sometimes they turn up dead.
"While most of those detained are subsequently released after periods in acknowledged detention, dozens remain unaccounted for -- 'disappeared' -- and are not seen alive by their families again," New York-based Human Rights Watch wrote this month in its second report on disappearances in Chechnya.
The report documented 87 cases of disappearances between March 2001 and April 2002, including several in which those who went missing were found later dead in mass graves.
Memorial, a Russian human rights group with an office in Grozny staffed by Chechen lawyers, has recorded hundreds of disappearances and says the total may reach into the thousands.
Kremlin officials denied repeated requests by Reuters to visit Memorial's central Grozny office during a stay in the city.
Russian soldiers also live in fear, largely besieged in their camps. Grozny's outdoor market and other public places are off limits. Contact with the locals is kept to a minimum.
At Khankala, Russian forces have built an impressive permanent base of tidy brick barracks. Troops there march in formation in the morning, chanting songs about girls back home like extras in an army movie. Most have never left the base.
Outside, Russian troops are hunkered down at heavily fortified checkpoints, barely exchanging words with motorists as they search their cars.
Moscow declared victory two years ago when rebels withdrew from the last villages and towns. But the signs are the Russians and their Chechen allies are now dying faster than their enemies.
The rebels' deadliest weapons are home-made mines, with radio detonators made from cheap transistors or parts scavenged from remote-control toys, strapped to unexploded Russian artillery shells and buried under Chechnya's mud and gravel roads.
Lethal mine attacks can occur several times a week.
The rebels have also openly declared a campaign of murder of Chechens who cooperate with the Russian authorities, and have killed scores of pro-Moscow officials.
After a mine attack killed at least 17 pro-Moscow elite Chechen OMON police officers on April 18, the commander of the unit vowed on television to kill an equal number of the "best men of the clans of those who did this."
CULPRITS RARELY FOUND
Much of the violence in Chechnya is well documented, but pursuing the culprits is difficult.
Under new rules, proudly trumpeted in Grozny's pro-Moscow newspaper as a "great step toward peace," Russian troops and paramilitary police are not permitted to travel in unmarked vehicles or, in most cases, wear masks. But during Reuters' visit, those restrictions were flagrantly ignored.
So far, only four cases of police abuse of civilians have been brought to court, according to Chechen prosecutors. Military prosecutors have pursued 132 cases of alleged crimes by soldiers, but only 33 have led to convictions. Prosecutors say they have opened more than 2,000 criminal cases for crimes committed by suspected militants.
Inside Grozny's fortified pro-Moscow government compound, Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Nikitin held the police report of the attack on Malika Khatayeva, the woman in hospital who was shot in her home in the village of Chechen Aul.
"Unidentified men in masks and camouflage uniforms, on three APCs, entered Chechen Aul and opened fire" wounding Khatayeva and another woman, it said. A criminal case had been opened.
That the men were Russian troops or paramilitary police is all but impossible to dispute. Chechen rebels have not been seen on APCs for years, and there is no way they could have reached a village on the outskirts of Grozny and escaped.
Nikitin did not deny this, but shook his head.
"You want me to say this was federal forces. But until an investigation determines their exact identity, I cannot say who they might be. They could be homeless vagrants on APCs."
Back on her hospital bed, Khatayeva sees little hope.
"I don't feel sorry for myself. I've lived my 63 years. I feel sorry for the children, the innocent children," she said before her mind wandered again.
"The men were so tall," she repeated. "So tall. The dogs!"