Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Chechen Breaks Russia's Information Blockade

A Chechen human rights activist describes dodging Russian checkpoints and risking his skin to expose the conditions of refugees and prisoners of war in Chechnya.
By Erik Batuev

During his last visit to Chechnya, Inalbek Sherilov was sentenced to death. A Chechen passport combined with an uncompromising stance on human rights was enough to convince Russian border guards that Sherilov was a dangerous rebel spy. They led him off into a nearby wood and jabbed an AK-47 into his back. A shot rang out.


Sherilov's life was miraculously saved, but this brush with death has done little to weaken his determination. The 28-year-old Chechen documentary film director is head of Pravozaschita ("Rights Protection"), an organisation which campaigns for human rights and civil freedom. Sherilov's work covers the whole gamut of human suffering in Chechnya, from the plight of Chechen refugees to the treatment of Russian POWs.


During the 1994-96 conflict, Russian human rights activists stood their ground in Chechnya. Since Moscow again moved troops into the region in September last year, they have been forced to keep their distance. Sherilov has twice succeeded in breaking through the Russian blockade, crossing the ragged frontline during some of the fiercest fighting.


Q: I understand that your organisation was only recently founded.


A: Our centre was founded last year just after Moscow police began arresting Chechen nationals en masse, on suspicion of involvement in the terrorist bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk. We launched an investigation at the time and discovered that, in Moscow alone, 768 Chechens were taken into police custody. Many of the suspects later claimed they were severely beaten by investigators and held indefinitely without formal charges being brought against them.


But incredibly, not a single one later lodged a complaint with the Russian Prosecutor-General about illegal detention and police brutality. This would suggest that many Chechens living in Russia simply aren't aware of their own rights or at least don't believe that the Russian Constitution will protect these rights. Desperate to secure their release, they simply took the easiest way out - paying bribes or appealing to influential friends.


Q: What was the purpose of your trip to Chechnya earlier this month?


A: I wanted to see with my own eyes what was going on there, to find out how prisoners of war were being treated and the problems being faced by refugees. Many Russian POWs refused to have anything to do with me because I am a Russian human rights activist, rather than a representative of a foreign organisation. One prisoner was so terrified that he actually burst into tears when I came up to him. They don't want to give their names or talk about their ordeal. They find it easier to relate to foreign journalists. Some don't want their parents to know where they are; others are afraid of what will happen to them after the war - they think they might be court-martialled. It was the same during the last conflict: plenty of POWs, who feared possible repercussions from the Russian authorities, simply never returned home after the fighting was over. Some took the Islamic faith and joined the Chechen rebels in their bid for independence.


In general, the fighters treat the prisoners well and feed them regularly. Of course, they aren't so favourably disposed to the "kontraktniki" [hired mercenaries] and the professional soldiers. The prisoners are made to build defensive positions and dig trenches. That's why they're afraid that, after the war, they may be accused of collaborating with the terrorists.


It's hard to tell how many Russians have been taken prisoner so far. The Chechens told me that there are more than 1,000 Russian POWs in Grozny alone, and a handful scattered through the mountain regions. In the highlands, most of the fighting involves elite airborne units who generally put up a fierce resistance and don't get taken prisoner. Apart from anything, rebels in the mountain strongholds have constant problems with supplies.


Q: Did you have any trouble getting into Chechnya?


A: It wasn't hard getting in, the problem was getting out. Especially when it came to crossing the frontline. I crossed it twice, first in Grozny and then near Dubay-Yurt. There are several federal outposts along the road into the capital. When the military checked my documents and discovered that I was a human rights campaigner, they immediately branded me a traitor. "It was you lot who didn't let us finish off the war last time," they said. And then they started threatening me, "If it was up to me, I'd shoot you on the spot." In the end, they returned my documents and sent me on my way.


I got out of Grozny with a Russian woman. She had been living in a cellar for several weeks, sheltering from the bombardments. Then, during a lull in the shelling, she decided to make her way to Rostov where her daughter lived. The woman was very frail but she insisted on pushing along this little cart loaded with her worldly possessions. I offered to help her. I pulled her cart for about two kilometres until we ran into a military checkpoint.


One of the OMON [Special Police Unit] troopers immediately pointed a finger at me and yelled, "Take him to Mozdok!" [headquarters of the Combined Federal Army Group in Northern Ossetia]. He didn't even ask who I was. His men tried to grab hold of me but the Russian woman stood in their way. "What are you doing? He saved my life!" She fell on her knees and began to sob, begging them to let me go. In the end, the soldiers gave up. They checked my bag for weapons, audio or video tapes but they found nothing and let me through.


Then I ran into problems at Dubay-Yurt. It was just after all the Russian TV and radio channels had announced that any Chechens aged between ten and 60 would be considered rebel suspects and barred from refugee convoys. I went along to one of the checkpoints to find out if [acting Russian President Vladimir] Putin's directive was actually being implemented. Sure enough, any male Chechen aged over ten was being taken aside and detained. I went up to the soldiers and said that I was a human rights activist and demanded that they let all the refugees past. But an army captain ran up to me and shouted, "We'll let them through when they hand over Khattab and Basaev [Chechen rebel leaders]."I replied indignantly, "What's that got to do with the refugees?"


But there was nothing to be gained by arguing with the soldiers. They still wouldn't let the male refugees go. Towards evening, the crowd melted away. They went off to a nearby village in search of a bed for the night. On the next day, I returned and made a second attempt to pass through the checkpoint. But I ran into the same captain. He asked for my documents, opened my passport and saw that I was a Chechen national. "Who do you work for? Basaev? Khattab?" I said I didn't work for anyone. "We'll soon loosen your tongue." I told him again that I didn't work for anyone, that I was campaigning for human rights. It was then that he ordered his men to take me into the woods and shoot me. They led me away.


"What the hell are you doing? Where are you taking me?" I wanted to ask them. But every time I opened my mouth, they hit me in the back with their rifle butts. Then there was a shot. I thought they had fired at me and it was a few seconds before I recovered my senses. Then I realised that the shot hadn't been aimed at me - it hadn't even been fired by my would-be executioners. Apparently an OMON police officer had noticed the soldiers leading me off to the woods (I was wearing a red jacket at the time). He asked the captain what was going on and was told, "We've caught some human rights guy!" That's when the OMON officer fired into the air, to stop them from carrying out the execution.


Erik Batuev is a journalist with Svet newspaper in Nazran


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