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

Chechens Braced for Russian Reprisals

Moscow's determination to root out those connected with the theatre hostage tragedy sparks fears in Chechnya.
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Two Russian APCs with mud-spattered license plates pull up in front of a house on the outskirts of Alkhan-Kala near Grozny early one morning. Two soldiers enter the house, emerging moments later with a young man in handcuffs, who is bundled into the vehicle and driven off.


This is what Russian troops refer to as a "targeted mopping-up operation". Chechnya is being hit by a wave of these in the aftermath of the October 23-26 Moscow theatre siege, blamed on a group of Chechen rebels led by the warlord Movsar Baraev. Russian military officials have since been frequently quoted as saying they were looking for "terrorist accomplices" in both Moscow and Chechnya.


Defence minister Sergei Ivanov said recently that his department had uncovered evidence that new attacks are being planned. "In some villages, there have been reports of suicide bombers being recruited and trained," he said.


Alkhan-Kala resident Adlan was captured in a recent mopping-up raid and can now barely stand up as a result of beatings he claims he suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers. "They beat me with rubber batons and gun-butts, tortured me with electric shocks by wiring my handcuffs and drove needles into my body. They wanted me to admit my involvement in the Moscow attack," he told IWPR.


Adlan was released after several days in detention - but only after his family paid a hefty ransom for him.


Similar stories can be heard all over the country. Although the Moscow media named November 4 as the date when the clampdown would begin, federal troops had already conducted scores of raids targeting specific residences, blocks and entire communities during the previous week. Many Chechen men taken away by Russian soldiers have not been seen since.


Yet the Russian military feels entirely justified in carrying out such incursions. "There is no doubt the terrorists had associates both here and in Moscow," said one Chechen-based Russian secret service officer, who did not want to be named.


"The roots of that gory tragedy are here. We will certainly find and punish all the militants who had planned, prepared and perpetrated the Moscow siege which took the lives of so many innocent people."


The Chechen people, however, have some sympathy with the motives of the extremists. "With their hostage-taking operation in Moscow, Baraev and his associates were trying to stop the genocide of our people," said Markha Makhmudova from the village of Chechen-Aul near Grozny.


"But now, after the siege, Chechens both here and in Russia are in real trouble. Our village was raided on October 23, on the day the theatre siege began. One of the soldiers gunned down a dog and told us, 'From now on, we are going to shoot you Chechens like dogs'."


Eyewitnesses have told IWPR that Russian troops have carried out a series of raids in Prigorodnoe, Berdykel, Chechen-Aul, Starye Atagi, Alkhazurovo, Duba-Yurt, and Chiri-Yurt in the past ten days.


The villages are usually sealed off by armoured vehicles, then soldiers search villagers' homes and take men away for background checks.


The crisis was exacerbated on November 3, when a Russian Mi-8 helicopter gunship was shot down with the loss of nine lives. The gunman used a portable anti-aircraft rocket-launcher, which was fired from the ruins of a five-story apartment block on the outskirts of Grozny.


However, at the same time, the pro-Russian Chechen government has been trying to make light of the situation. "Nothing special is going on in Chechnya," said vice-premier Movsar Khamidov. "Military operations are being conducted according to schedule, but vigilance has been heightened."


Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the Chechen government, has said he would not allow any "mopping-up" raids. "There have been no raids, and none are forthcoming," he told the press the day after the Moscow theatre was stormed and the hostages freed.


A spokesperson for the Chechen General Military Commander's Office confirmed it had not received any new directives from Moscow following the hostage crisis. "All federal forces, both the military and secret police, are on their routine schedule. We have only stepped up car searches and passport controls. Routine special operations are underway in some parts of Chechnya," he said.


However, Chechens have been complaining of persecution and violence on the part of Russian law-enforcement authorities both in Chechnya and in Moscow.


The office of the Russian parliament deputy for Chechnya has received over 500 complaints about harsh treatment at the hands of Moscow police, and many Chechens having temporary registration in the capital have been given a week to leave.


On many occasions, police have apprehended Chechens on the grounds of their ethnicity alone. The official representative office of Chechnya in Moscow set up a help line to assist compatriots in distress.


Meanwhile, human rights groups based in Chechnya believe the situation will inevitably deteriorate in the wake of the Moscow tragedy.


"Whatever generals and high-level government officials say, the locals have always been extremely hostile towards Russian soldiers," said Chechen political analyst Murad Nashkhoev. "In turn, soldiers distrust the locals and think they are assisting the rebels."


Usam Baisaev of the human rights group Memorial told IWPR that Chechens were now dreading reprisals from Moscow in the wake of the hostage crisis. "Troops have spoken of vengeance. The coming winter promises to be the hardest so far for Chechnya, which is about to experience the full measure of Russia's heavy-handed tactics," he said.


Malika Elbieva of Gekhi has lost her four sons in this war. "Thousands of innocent women, children and old people have been slaughtered here over the past four years," she told IWPR. "Baraev and his group tried to make a small trouble to stop a much greater one. Too bad they failed."


Umalt Dudaev is the pseudonym of an independent journalist based in Chechnya.


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