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

Chechnya: Conflict Empties Villages

Dozens of mountain settlements are being steadily depopulated by the ongoing conflict.

A narrow, snow-covered dirt road leads to a few deserted houses with broken doors and windows, collapsing roofs and fences. Everything suggests this village has long been abandoned by its residents.

This is Usum-Kotar, a tiny village in the alpine Nozhai-Yurt district in the southeast of Chechnya – one of dozens of mountain settlements whose residents have been forced to flee in a process of depopulation barely reported to the outside world.

“This community was named after my great-grandfather Usum, who had founded it in the early 1900s,” said Yahya Usumov, 52, who lived in Usum-Kotar before the second Chechen conflict began in 1999.

“My grandfather and father lived here, as did my family and I, and my cousins with their families. But we’ve all had to leave. It’s no longer possible to stay in Usum-Kotar.”

Usumov lost his wife in the war. Although she died of a heart attack, the villager blames the constant bombing and shelling for wrecking her health. “My wife was only two years younger than me, and had never had health complaints before,” he told IWPR.

“The war took her away, like so many other Chechens. There was a lot of shooting and bombing going on all the time. Many people die of heart failure [here] because of all the anxiety, stress and fear. But no one cares.”

Usum-Kotar is situated close to a forest, making it vulnerable to Russian air or artillery strikes. The Russian military is suspicious of forested mountain areas in the south, which it believes are used as hiding places by guerrillas loyal to rebel Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, warlord Shamil Basayev, and other commanders.

“Since the war began in the autumn of 1999, the Russians have been constantly bombing and shelling the mountain gorges and forests both in our district and across southern Chechnya. They’re still doing it,” said Usumov.

“The locals were forced to flee, fearing for their own lives and those of their next of kin. Any village can be targeted at any time. Russian soldiers can break into your home any time, kill or kidnap you or your family members, and then vanish without a trace and no one will catch the perpetrators.”

As Chechen mountain villages have no gas or coal, people have to heat their homes with wood - but this has to be gathered in the forest, and few want to stray there. As well as the danger posed by the scores of landmines planted there, villagers run the risk of being captured by the Russian troops who comb the area looking for guerrillas.

Traditionally, people in mountain villages lived off the land by cattle farming, beekeeping or growing maize and potatoes. In summer, the men would leave to find seasonal work in Russia, Kazakstan or elsewhere in the Soviet Union. But this kind of life has become impossible.

“The troops have driven people away with their bombings, mop-up raids and special operations,” said Usam Baisayev of the Memorial human rights organisation, referring to the house-to-house operations carried out by Russian soldiers and their Chechen allies.

“The odd village still has one or two families living in it, but others have been completely depopulated, especially in the districts bordering on Georgia and Dagestan, Shatoi, Itum-Kale, Vedeno and Nozhai-Yurt. Those who can afford it buy housing to quieter parts of Chechnya, up north, others move in with their relatives or friends.”

Human rights activists have compiled an incomplete list of more than 20 villages that have been wholly or partially abandoned because of the conflict.

Yahya Usumov now lives in his relative’s house in Nozhai-Yurt, further down the valley. He said, “When the war began, they sold this house to me for a little money, and left Chechnya. I consider myself very lucky. My other fellow villagers and friends have it harder. Property prices have gone up sharply, so they can neither find permanent housing, nor return to their homes in the mountains.”

Memorial’s Baisayev said, “The exodus from the foothills and mountains peaked in 2001 and continued through 2002, when the cruellest mop-up raids were carried out.

“These villages were subjected to the most inhumane treatment. Soldiers rampaged through the communities again and again, breaking into homes, and taking people away. All this was accompanied by incessant shelling and bombing. Villagers had no choice but to flee to more peaceful places on the plains.”

Many ordinary Chechens believe the Russian military is pursuing a coordinated policy to drive people out of the mountains as a way of undermining the rebels’ support base.

“This theory was prompted by a certain document, which appeared on the internet at the beginning of the second Chechen War,” said Baisayev. “The document, allegedly adopted by Russia’s Security Council, called for all mountain villages between Bamut and Dargo to be liquidated,” he said.

The line between the two villages cuts across the map of Chechnya from west to east.

“The provenance of that document may be questionable, but subsequently, it was communities south of that line that were targeted in particularly heinous raids, forcing the locals to migrate to the plains,” he said.

Most recently, Russian federal troops launched a bomb and rocket attack on a forested area close to the village of Zumsoi on January 14-16. Memorial activists later established that the home of local resident Mahmud Tamayev was destroyed, and that three more locals had been taken away by soldiers. In the “mop-up” raid that followed, federal soldiers allegedly stole cash and valuables from many homes. A similar attack happened in October 2003, and of the village’s 56 homesteads, only 15 are now still inhabited.

Second Lieutenant Vladimir Yerofeev of the Russian security services insists there is no coordinated policy to make the residents of mountain villages leave.

“This kind of information is just the latest myth-making put out by the Ichkerian [rebel Chechen] propaganda machine,” he said.

“From time to time, they make up something new. In the early Nineties, when [pro-independence president Jokhar] Dudayev came to power, the Chechen government scared people with rumours of the imminent deportation of all Chechens to Siberia or elsewhere in Russia. People who had suffered deportation in 1944 believed this, of course, and backed the Dudayev regime.”

However, Yerofeev conceded that life is much harder for Chechens in the mountains than on the plains. “They are facing lots of problems, but these… have built up over years and even decades. The military operations in Chechnya have simply made those problems more acute.”

Salavdi Eskiev from the village of Shatoi partially agrees. “I used to work for the government during the Soviet era, so I know what life is like in the mountain villages,” he said. “It was the same then as it is now, minus the shooting and mop-up raids. People had no work, no gas, no electricity, and took their water from nearby springs.”

Eskiev said that for example when the Chechens were allowed to return from exile in the Fifties, the residents of the mountain village of Chai-Mokhk were not allowed to resettle there.

“The only person who had ever made it back to his ancestral home in Chai-Mokhk was a distant relative of mine, who had to get a job as a forest ranger in order to do that. He and his family lived there all by themselves till the start of the war in 1999. But he too has since left.”

Umalt Dudayev is the pseudonym of a Chechen journalist and IWPR contributor.

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