Mass-graves containing bodies of civilians executed in the last four months have been discovered near Russian military bases in Chechnya by a Moscow-based human-rights group. The group says that war-crimes are still being committed in Chechnya 15 months after Russian troops reduced its villages and cities to rubble in order to help Vladimir Putin to become Boris Yeltsin’s successor. The group, Memorial, which uncovered 48 bodies, took the precaution of recording its grisly discovery on a video-tape, first shown in early March, that leaves no doubt that the Russians are still engaged in their genocidal programme.
Tatiana Kasatkina, executive director of Memorial, said that the bodies prove that Russian troops are guilty of commiting new atrocities, giving the lie to Moscow’s claims that ‘Chechen terrorists’ committed murders. At least five bodies were those of civilians, she said, adding that of the 23 bodies she saw, “all had been shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs”.
The bodies were discovered in cellars, in tall grass and in the streets of Dachny, a settlement of derelict and deserted homes on the outskirts of Johar-Gala (Grozny), the Chechen capital. Although the Russian military seized the area 15 months ago, these victims died long after: most of them with the last four months, according to Kasatkina. The Russians do not deny that they regularly detain large numbers of Chechen men of fighting age, claiming that their sole aim is to arrest the ‘separatist terrorists’ ‘infiltrating the ranks of the innocent and peaceful civilians’.
According to a recent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, many of those arrested are never seen again, while others are freed only if their relatives hand over the money or weapons demanded by Russian officers. Soldiers frequently demand money even for the release of bodies for burial. Kasatkina also confirms that money changes hands before bodies are released to relatives. According to her, some families received bodies of relatives after finding them in Dachny and then paying Russian soldiers.
Kasatkina cited in particular the case of a Chechen father of three who disappeared last December and whose body was found by relatives in a basement in Dachny in February. They paid $3,000: a lot of money for people made destitute by unremitting war. “They gathered the money for a day and a half”, she said; “after they got it and went to collect their body, there were two fresh bodies in the same basement.”
Memorial’s revelations about mass-graves have caused great embarrassment to the Russian leadership: they cannot easily be dismissed as false allegations by Western groups antagonistic to Russia, as Human Rights Watch’s recent report has been, all the more because the revelations have coincided with a report in Noraya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper, describing an underground pit in southern Chechnya “with ropes dangling from the edges” and “a bottom too deep to see”. Anna Politkovskaya, the newspaper’s reporter who visited a Russian military camp in the area, said that an officer had taken her to the pit and told her: “This hole is for the militants”.
It would be naive to suggest that the Russian government is not concerned at all about reports by foreign human-rights groups and journalists on the war in Chechnya. Of course it is. That explains why it ruthlessly prevents foreign journalists and members of human-rights groups from visiting the country. Those who succeed in making their way in are taken hostage by Russian military personnel who claim that the ‘Chechen terrorists’ are responsible for their disappearance, only to release them later for a hefty ransom. Almost 60 foreigners have been kidnapped since the mid-1990s, and ransoms vary from $30,000 to $300,000. This has had the effect of dissuading human-rights groups and non-governmental organisations from sending representatives into Chechnya. The Russian government takes selected reporters on conducted tours, and they do not meet Chechen fighters.
But the system is not as watertight as it sounds, thanks to the greed of Russian officers. Foreign journalists, for instance, who want to meet and interview Chechen fighters can do so by bribing Russian officers, the current price being $1,000. Apparently no Russian officer is above accepting such a bribe. Even members of the SFB, the successor to the KGB, are not immune to temptation. Such is the Russians’ greed that even the Chechen fighters buy most of their weapons from them. This may also explain in part why they are able to move easily throughout Chechen towns, including Johar-Gala. The main explanation for their mobility is, of course, that most of the population support the struggle for independence.
The principal reason that Moscow can live with hostile reports on Chechnya by foreign human-rights groups and journalists, but not with frank coverage by Russian groups and media, is easy to see. Moscow knows that Western and Muslim governments will continue to do business with it despite the atrocities, while the Russian people (who supported the second Chechen war when Putin unleashed it in October 1999) will take greater notice of local reports on the fighting than of foreign coverage. As continued support in Russia for the war depends on the popular belief that an early victory for the Russian army in Chechnya (without the loss of too many Russian lives) is possible, any coverage that suggests otherwise is unwelcome in the Kremlin.
In fact, recent reports suggest that the war is far from over, despite the destruction of almost the entire country, and the death or displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Moscow also privately admits that it cannot win the war, and that all it can hope for is to contain the Chechen fighters. Moreover, lobby groups in Moscow, such as the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, have begun to contradict the government’s figures for Russian soldiers killed in action. For instance, the government says that only 2,700 Russian soldiers have died since the beginning of the second Chechen war, while the committee insists that the true figure is 6,500. Indeed, the only explanation for the undiminished attacks on the Chechen people detailed in recent reports is the desperation and frustration of the Russian army in Chechnya that they cannot defeat the much smaller and more lightly-armed Chechens.
Few people in the world have shown such courage and stamina as the Chechens’. How long must they continue to be punished for their determination to fight for their rights, even in the face of the shameful silence of most Muslim governments?