Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed four years ago today. Here we republish her last article for Index on Censorship
This article, “Cleaning Up”, first appeared in Index on Censorship magazine, March/April 2002
Under the banner of War on Terrorism, the russians have taken advantage of the license to kill, writes Anna Politkovskaia.
Do you still think you should be supporting the war in Chechnya because of some aim that’s being pursued? To stop things getting worse?
We have reached a stage in Russia now where every schoolchild knows that Chechnya is being “sanitised”, and adults no longer bother with the inverted commas. “Sanitisation” in this sense entails thoroughly sorting out someone or something and, on the whole, we prefer not to enquire too closely into who or what. For this meaning of a virtuous nineteenth-century verb we have the war in Chechnya to thank, and more particularly the high-ranking military brass who routinely update us on television with the latest news from Russia’s Chechen ghetto, popularly known as the “Zone of Anti-Terrorist Operations”.
It is March 2002 and the thirtieth month of the Second Chechen War. “Sanitisation”, if we are to believe the military, is precisely the aim of the current Special Measures. From last November until now, lunatic waves of Special Measures have been sweeping over Chechnya: Shali, Kurchaloy, Tsotsan-Yurt, Bachi-Yurt, Urus-Martan, Grozny; again Shali, again Kurchaloy; Argun again and again; Chiri-Yurt. Towns and villages are besieged for days; women wail; families try desperately to evacuate their adolescent sons — where to doesn’t matter providing it’s a long way from Chechnya; village elders stage protest demonstrations. Finally, we are regaled with general Moltenskoy himself, our supposed commander-in-chief of the “Front Against Terrorism”, festooned with medals and ribbons, there on the television screen, pumping adrenalin, larger than life; and invariably against a background of corpses and “sanitised” villages. The general reports some recently achieved “significant success”.
But they still haven’t captured Emir Hattab and Djokar Basaev, and you know full well that something isn’t right, because you went to school when you were little and can do enough mental arithmetic to add up the numbers of enemy fighters he claims to have caught over the past winter. It amounts to a whole regiment of them. Just the same as in last year’s warfare season.
So how many fighters do these people have? What exactly does “sanitisation” involve? What is the truth, and who is telling it? What have these Special Measures actually turned into? What is their aim? Last, and most important, what are their results?
“I was relieved when they took us out to be shot.”
“Relieved? What about your parents? Didn’t you think about them then, and how sad they would be?”
Mahomed Idigov, recently taken out to be shot, is 16. He is a pupil in the tenth grade of School No 2 in the town of Starye Atagi, Grozny Province. He has a favourite pair of jeans, a much loved Walkman, and a stack of pop music cassettes which he enjoys listening to. He’s a typical 16-year-old. The only disturbing thing about him is his eyes, which have the level steadiness of an adult’s. They don’t go with his teenager’s skin problems and adolescent gawkiness. There’s something wrong, too, in the measured way Mahomed relates the story of what was done to him. In the course of “sanitisation” he was subjected to the same electric torture as the grown men. Having themselves been tortured, these men pleaded with Russian officers not to torture the boy but to torture them again in his place. “No way,” was the reply. “We get good counter-terrorist information out of schoolboys.”
When I ask about his parents, Mahomed pauses for a time. His eyebrows finally arch childishly as he tries not to cry. He manages, and replies clearly and directly, as you can when something’s over,
“Other people get killed too.”
Indeed. Why should Mohamed have it easier than other people. Everybody is in the same situation.
The “sanitisation” of Starye Atagi from 28 January to 5 February was the second time the town had been “sanitised” in 2002, and the twentieth time since the beginning of the Second Chechen War. It is subjected to Special Measures nearly every month. The official explanation is plausible: with a population of around 15,000, Starye Atagi is one of the largest towns in Chechnya. It is 20 kilometres from Grozny and ten from the so-called “Wolves’ Gate”, as Russian soldiers call the entrance to the Argun Ravine. It is considered a trouble spot full of terrorist wahhabites and their sympathisers.
But what has this to do with Mahomed? On the morning of 1 February, when the twentieth “sanitisation” was at its most ferocious, masked men seized the boy from his home in Nagornaya Street, threw him like a log into a military truck and took him to the “filtration point”, where he was tortured.
“It was very cold that day. First we were ‘put against the wall’ for several hours, which means you stand with your hands up and your legs apart, facing the wall. If you try to lower your arms you get beaten immediately. Any soldier who walks past is likely to hit you. They unbuttoned my jacket, pulled up my sweater and cut it into strips with a knife, like a clown’s jacket.” “Why?”
“Just to make me feel the cold more. They saw I was shivering.”
I can’t bear it. Mahomed is too dispassionate. I can’t bear the calm, thoughtful look on his face as he relates his appalling story. I wish this child would at least cry and give me something to do. I could comfort him then. “Did they hit you a lot?”
“All the time. On the kidneys. Then they put me on the ground and dragged me through the mud by the neck.”
“What for? Did you know why they were doing it?”
“Just because. For fun.”
“But were they trying to get something out of you?”
“For a whole day there was nothing. They just hurt me. They took me to interrogation in the evening. They interrogated three of us. They showed me a list and said, ‘Which of these people are fighters? Where are they treated for injuries? Who is the doctor? Whose house do they sleep at? Which of your neighbours is feeding them?’ I answered, ‘I don’t know’.”
“And what did they say?”
“They said, ‘Do you need some help?’ And they tortured me with electric current. That’s what they mean by helping. They connected the wires and turned a handle, like on a telephone. The more they turned it the stronger the current that passed through me. They asked me where my older brother, ‘the wahhabite’, was as well.”
“And is he a wahhabite?”
“No, of course not.”
“What did you say?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“And what did they do?”
“They passed the current through me again.”
“Did it hurt?”
Mahomed’s head on his thin neck slumps down below his shoulders, into his angular knees. He does not want to answer, but it is an answer I need.
“It hurt a lot then?”
“Is that why you were relieved when they took you out to be shot?” Mahomed is shaking as if he has a high fever. Behind him is an array of bottles with solutions for medicine droppers, syringes, cotton wool, tubes. “Whose is this stuff?”
“It’s for me. They damaged my kidneys and lungs.”
There are a lot of people in the room, but it’s as silent as if we were in an uninhabited, sound-proof bunker. The men are completely motionless. Somewhere outside the Idigovs’ house the nightly artillery barrage is starting, but nobody so much as stirs at its uneven booming which sounds like the drums at a funeral.
I realise that this war, which from force of habit we still call an “anti-terrorist operation”, has been lost. It can’t be continued solely for the momentary gratification of a group of people who long ago took leave of their senses. The silence is broken by Mahomed’s father, Isa, a haggard man whose face is deeply etched with suffering.
“I was wounded serving in the Soviet army. I served on Sakhalin. I know the way things are. But! During the last ‘sanitisation’ they took my oldest son. They beat him up and let him go, and I decided to send him as far away as I could, to people I know, where he’d be safe. Was I wrong to do that? During this ‘sanitisation’ they’ve crippled my middle son, Mahomed. What am I to do? My youngest is already eleven. How long will it be before they start on him? Not one of my sons is a gunman. They don’t smoke or drink. How are we supposed to live?”
I do not know. I only know that this is unacceptable. I know too how it has come about: our entire country has joined hands to follow the lead of our great statesmen (and not only Russia, but Europe and America too), and at the beginning of the twenty-first century we are acquiescing without a murmur in the torture of children in a present-day European ghetto mendaciously called a “zone of anti-terrorist operations”. The children of this ghetto will never forget what we have done.
Do you still think you ought to be supporting this war because of some aim that’s being pursued and to stop things getting worse? Things cannot get worse. We have lost all sense of the morality and restraint we were taught in less tumultuous times, and something more vile and loathesome than we could ever imagine has erupted from the murkiest depths of our souls.