The killing of Natalia Estemirova is a sign of the republic’s drift into lawlessness and violence under President Kadyrov, writes Lucy Ash
When Moscow announced that its 10-year “anti-terrorist” operation in Chechnya was over in April, I quickly applied for permission to visit. As a journalist, I hoped that I would finally get a chance to work there without the obstruction of minders from Moscow.
In the past few years, several of my colleagues had been flown in on short trips, escorted around the reconstructed capital and driven to the town of Tsenteroi for interviews with the 33-year-old president, Ramzan Kadyrov, who effectively took power after his father’s assassination in 2004.
My colleagues would come back with colourful anecdotes about Kadyrov and his pet lions; his heavily guarded compound has a zoo filed with exotic animals and birds. But they were frustrated by restrictions on their movements and by a lack of access to ordinary Chechens.
For my BBC documentary, I wanted to find out how people were rebuilding their lives in the shadow of Chechnya’s two devastating wars. At first sight, it is hard not to be impressed by the almost miraculous renovation of Grozny. In 2002, the United Nations called it “the most destroyed city on the planet”. Now the Chechen capital boasts a gigantic mosque, pavement cafes, boutiques and department stores.
Like his father before him, President Kadyrov struck a deal with Moscow: his job was to keep a lid on Islamic insurgents and make sure that Chechnya stays part of Russia. In return he got a free hand and huge wads of reconstruction cash from Moscow.
Despite the flower beds and sushi bars, there was an air of unease when I visited Grozny in June. Even then, claims that Chechnya had become a normal part of the Russian Federation looked like wishful thinking.
Recipes and stories of loss
Since June there have been almost daily shootings and explosions both in Chechnya and in the neighbouring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia. Shortly after I left this supposedly stable republic, a human rights activist and the head of a children’s charity were abducted and murdered.
“It is not, neither in Ingushetia nor in Chechnya, calm and peaceful,” Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, said on 10 September after a visit to the two regions.
The day I arrived in Chechnya the president’s press spokesman, Alvi Karimov, assured me that the authorities had the situation under control and that Grozny was now safer than most Russian provincial towns.
Yet he insisted that my producer Nick and I should be accompanied everywhere by somebody from his office — for our own security, he said. We politely declined. He stopped smiling, put down his tea cup and demanded to know exactly where we were going and who we would be speaking to.
I told him that among other things we wanted to look at the work of one NGO called Dobrota (“Kindness”) which is helping a number of female-headed households to scrape a living. In many villages the male population has been all but wiped out, leaving mothers and grandmothers as the sole breadwinners.
I explained that we wanted to visit the mountainous region of Shatoi, a couple hours drive from the capital. I had agreed to meet some women there who were writing a cookbook which would combine traditional Chechen recipes with the stories of their lives.
Blocking the foreign press
A few days later, we were stopped at a road block at the entrance to the town of Shatoi. “We’ve been expecting you,” said the soldier on patrol. Minutes later, a young guy from the FSB, the Russian Security Service, zoomed up with a van load of men in plain clothes.
He was impeccably polite with a Moscow accent and he said we had two choices: we could turn around and drive straight back to Grozny, or we could go back after meeting the local mayor. Going any further unaccompanied was out of the question.
Anxious not to offend protocol, we went to see the mayor, Beslan Khadzhaev. He seemed embarrassed by our predicament — after all, a number of families were expecting us. One member of the local disability group had limped on his crutches all the way to the road block to meet us.
As we drank tea in his office, the mayor made a few calls to contacts in the security services but to no avail. The young FSB guy sat watching him impassively. Although the counterterrorist operation was supposedly over, the insurgency continues and so the security regime can be reinstated anywhere without notice, he told us. We had three separate press accreditations — from the Foreign and Interior Ministries and from President Kadyrov’s press service — but these did not impress him. What had we come here for, he asked.
I started to explain again about the impoverished families and the cookbook project. But the FSB guy cut me short. “Nobody’s starving, you know. People are well provided for.” The mayor nodded hurriedly. It was time to leave. To my consternation, I noticed that the plainclothes men were taking personal details from all the local people who had come to meet us.
In Kadyrov’s Chechnya, it seems as if even the most apolitical NGOs are suspect. How else could you explain what happened to Zarema Sadulaeva, a woman who ran a charity that helped children injured in the war to acquire artificial limbs.
Less than two months after my visit, a group of armed men — some in military fatigues, others in civilian clothing — walked into her office and grabbed her and her husband. The couple had just got married. A few hours later, their bullet riddled bodies were found in the boot of a car near Grozny.
While the FSB appeared very thorough in its surveillance work of journalists like us, it seemed incapable of protecting Chechen citizens or of instilling law and order in the republic.
Trouble in “paradise”
“They tell us we live in a paradise”, said an old woman I met in a village near the Dagestan border. “But dying is the only thing people here are allowed to do. That’s it. Everything else is forbidden.”
“Women have a fantastic life in Chechnya”, President Kadyrov told me when we met after a match at Grozny’s football stadium.
But that was not the impression I got after watching a rash of new mobile phone videos. These show armed men snatching girls off the street and pushing them into cars. Their fate — to be forced into marriage. These “bride stealing” films are set to jaunty music and look almost comic until you hear the screaming and the gunfire.
If any mention of hardship or trauma in the new Chechen “paradise” is discouraged, it’s unsurprising that officials did not want to talk about abducted women.
The president’s press spokesman assured me that bride stealing was a thing of the past. But a women’s centre in Grozny had done its own survey, which found that as many as one in five brides had been stolen. They told me that many of the kidnappers work for local security forces and their victims are often very young, sometimes teenage schoolgirls.
At least the parents of girls kidnapped for marriage eventually discover what has happened to their loved ones. But there’s no such comfort for many other families whose daughters have simply disappeared into thin air, their fate unknown.
Abductions by masked men
I came across one such case of a “disappearance” — 29-year-old Zalina Shidieva, who suddenly vanished on her way to work in May. I met members of her distraught family in the office of the Russian human rights group, Memorial. They were telling their story to the woman in charge there — Natalia Estemirova. They told me they had nobody else to turn to. They were terrified that talking to the authorities might only make things worse.
By law, the police are meant to launch an official investigation within three days of a disappearance. But that didn’t happen, and weeks went by for Zalina Shidieva’s family. In a rare moment of candour, one police investigator suggested that somebody in “the structures” might have taken the young woman.
That could mean rogue elements inside the police, or it could mean the president’s own men. Officially his militia is the anti-terrorism squad, but everyone refers to its soldiers as “Kadyrovtsy” or “Kadyrov’s guys”. It’s a group that has been accused of torture, kidnap and murder by human rights groups such as Memorial and Amnesty International.
I had heard many stories of people being dragged from their homes in the middle of the night by masked men. I had heard about houses burned to the ground and families savagely punished if one of their relatives had “gone into the woods” — shorthand for joining the insurgency.
I had also heard about young women who were kidnapped and then forced to work in brothels for soldiers. But when so many people were terrified of speaking out, it was difficult to corroborate such stories.
Silencing the messenger
Speaking out job has become immeasurably harder now that Natalia Estemirova is no longer around. In her small office filled with meticulously labeled cardboard files and a few elderly computers, she checked all these rumours and carefully marshaled the facts. When that process was complete, she was not afraid to call the prosecutor’s office or to petition local MPs.
Nor was she afraid to investigate the murders of seven women who were somehow connected to a former commander of Kadyrov’s security forces. The authorities suggested these were the victims of honour killings — women punished for disgracing their families — but Estemirova dismissed that theory. So did the brother of one of the victims; he told me that two of the women had last been seen being driven off in a van by men in paramilitary uniforms.
She took me to the spot where three of the women’s bodies were found last November on the outskirts of Grozny. She explained how they how been killed, execution style with bullet wounds in the heart and the head.
I knew that Estemirova was brave and unusually outspoken. But as we walked together along the desolate marshland where the bodies were dumped, I never imagined than three weeks later she would suffer a similar fate.
On the morning of 15 July, unidentified armed men kidnapped her from her home in Grozny. Her body was found later that afternoon. It showed signs of a violent struggle and gun shot wounds and had been dumped on the side of a road in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.
Blind eye to murder
A couple days before I left Grozny, I heard that a young woman had been attacked in Grozny’s Berkat market. Apparently she was getting off a bus when she was seized and dragged into a car. Several witnesses there confirmed the story but they refused to be filmed. Eventually we found the bus driver. He didn’t want to show his face but agreed to speak about the incident on tape.
At first he thought the woman was being stolen as a bride but the armed men shouted that she was a “shahidka” or a female suicide bomber. They knocked her over, beat her and pushed her into the car. “She was just an ordinary, modestly dressed young woman. Perhaps she was a terrorist — who knows? But she didn’t look like one to me”, he said.
I asked Suleiman Vagapov, the Russian Federation’s representative in Chechnya, if he could tell me any more about this incident and some of the other cases I had encountered. Was he not concerned about the numbers of armed men on the streets, the climate of impunity and that apparently people are being abducted in broad daylight?
Vagapov did not want to talk about the seven murdered women last year, nor about abductions and disappearances. He flatly denied that the incident in the market had ever taken place. Then he suggested a local website, the Caucasian Knot, had deliberately run the story because its editor knew BBC journalists were in town.
I must have looked incredulous because then he snapped that this was all part of an “information war.” He explained that foreign media consistently distort reality in Russia, especially in the Caucasus region, where the West is always seeking to sow instability.
Slouching towards Turkmenistan
Following Estemirova’s murder, and the harassment of one of her colleagues, Memorial has stopped its work in Chechnya. When the children’s charity boss and her husband were killed last month, Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper said it would pull its journalists out of the republic.
These moves are not so much protests as strategies for survival. Hopefully they are temporary, but Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch recently said that Chechnya is becoming a closed country, like Turkmenistan.
In Chechnya today, the personality-cult trappings of a Turkmenistan-style totalitarian regime seem in place already. Kadyrov’s portraits are plastered all over the republic accompanied by slogans such as “Ramzan, We Are Proud of You!”
One lady I met on a street corner spontaneously recited a gushing poem in which she compared the president to a wizard from an Oriental fairy tale. But behind closed doors, others call Kadyrov “Little Stalin”.
Civil society in Chechnya may have been silenced for the time being, but it has not died. Despite the information vacuum, some news will still get out. But it’s vitally important that the outside world carries on listening. People there — both Chechens and Russians — have suffered intensely throughout the entire post-Soviet period.
We owe it to brave individuals like Natalia Estemirova to make sure these people’s stories are told and that Chechnya is not allowed to simply drop off the international radar.