Every year the Chechens, and other Muslims and non-Muslims mark the anniversary to commemorate the Day of the Chechen-Ingush deportations on February 23 as World Chechnya Day. On this day, 63 years ago, Josef Stalin ordered the mass deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush population. This resulted in the death of over half the population. Today the genocide, rape, killing, kidnapping, plunder and theft continue unchecked and with impunity, in an attempt to force the population into submission. The Chechens and their friends commemorate World Chechnya Day to remember those who died and to honour those still living and their struggle, and to what we can do to help.
Today the second Chechen war is raging. A quarter of the population has been killed and a similar number have been displaced. 70 percent of Chechnya has been classified as an ecological disaster area; eight children out of ten are suffering from psychological trauma and one in three is born with congenital defects. Russian forces commit an average of 109 extra-judicial executions in Chechnya each month. Villages are purged on a regular basis, supposedly of militants. Actually the civilian population is robbed, property is plundered, houses are left in ruins, large ransoms are taken for sons not to be taken to the concentration camps and for daughters not to be raped; those who cannot afford to pay ransoms are left grieving for their losses.
Since 2000, when Russia appointed Akhmat Kadyrov head of its administration in Chechnya, Kadyrov and his successors (today Ramzan Kadyrov, his son, is prime minister of Chechnya) have been assisting the Red Army to suppress their fellow countrymen. Today, tuberculosis is rife and starvation is the norm. Every man, woman and child in Chechnya carries their name, family name and the name of their village in a pocket because no one knows when they will be picked up, imprisoned, raped, tortured, executed, mutilated and left dead in a ditch miles away from their families. The idea is that the paper will tell the people who discover the body to whom to return it for burial.
This war, the second in contemporary Chechen history, started in 1999 when Putin, the then prime minister of Russia, attacked Chechnya with the objective of squashing ‘terrorism’. The pretext for war this time was Basaev’s incursion into Daghestan. Russian public opinion was prepared by a series of apartment bombings in Buinaksk, Volgodonsk and Moscow that were blamed on the Chechen separatists. It is suspected that the apartment bombings were actually perpetrated by the FSB (the Russian secret service). The real reason for the Russo-Chechen war can be found in the Kremlin’s plans to push Putin into power and to make up for the defeat suffered by the Russians in the first war. This incursion into Chechnya was in direct violation of the formal peace agreement signed by Yeltsin and Aslan Maskhadov in May 1997, at the end of the first Chechen war, which began in 1994 with the deployment of Russian troops in Chechnya to quell the independence movement in Chechnya.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Chechnya, along with other Eastern European states such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia and Ukraine, announced its independence from Russia. In 1992 Chechnya adopted a constitution defining it as an independent, secular state governed by a president and parliament. The independence of the other states was ratified and approved, but the future of Chechnya proved completely different; it faced over a decade of brutal aggression by the world’s fifth largest military force.
In 1994 there were almost a million Chechens living in a region slightly smaller than Wales. They had spent the 37 years from 1957, when Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev allowed the Chechens to return from exile, on restoring the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, rebuilding their homes and their lives, and reclaiming their homeland from the Russians who had occupied their land while they themselves were in exile. The Chechens had spent 15 years where no provision had been made for them and where they faced starvation, disease, hard manual labour, and hostility from the locals.
On Wednesday 23 February 1944, while the rest of Russia celebrated Defenders of the Fatherland Day (also known as Red Army Day), Putin ordered the Red Army, encamped in the mountainous regions of Chechnya and enjoying the hospitality of the indigenous Chechens, to round up the entire Chechen and Ingush populations, numbering 478,000, as well as 50,000 Balkars, and cram them into airless freight trucks for transportation to the dry plains of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Siberian taiga. This was during the cold Russian winter; no-one had been given time to put on warm clothing: the deportation took effect immediately. There was no food or water on these Studebaker trucks, which had been donated by the USgovernment. Many women died in childbirth, or from ruptured bladders because they were too embarrassed to relieve themselves in front of men.
Children, women with babies, the elderly, anyone who was deemed not worth the trouble of transporting to the Studebaker trucks, was summarily executed. One such case was the town of Khaibakh, with a population of 700. It was burnt to the ground, populace and all. Others were thrown off cliffs. The accusation was mass collaboration with the Nazis. There has never been any proof of this and the charge was dropped in 1957, when the Chechens were allowed to return from exile. In fact many of the leading officers in the Russian Army were Chechen. When ex-officers and generals protested against the Chechens’ treatment on these grounds, they were shot and the protests died away.
In exile, the locals had been told the Chechens were nothing but disease-ridden savages who were to be avoided at all costs. No provisions for shelter, food, water or work had been made for them. It is estimated that at least half of the deportees died in the trains and the subsequent exile.
And so February 23 is commemorated in many parts of the world as the Day of Deportation or World Chechnya Day. It is important that while Russia still exuberantly celebrates the Defenders of the Fatherland Day, the horrific deportations of the Chechen people and their neighbours should not be forgotten. Happy Red Army Day, Russia.
It should not be forgotten now, more than ever, when the war on Chechnya has taken the back burner for many years in the public eye. But this year Russia’s efforts to silence any outcry on behalf of the Chechens has become obvious to all who dare to look, see and understand. Specifically, I refer to the murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (on Putin’s birthday, October 9) and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.
This year, along with the remembrance of the deportees and the Chechens barely living today, Anna Politkovskaya will also be remembered as the often solitary witness to Putin’s ruthless war on the Chechens: a voice seemingly silenced and yet, if we take the time to read her books and articles and listen to what she had to say, her silencing can be made vain. And insha’Allah, we pray that the death of Litvinenko (a revert to Islam) will not be vain. He joins the ranks of many Chechen martyrs before him.