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

Chechnya: Disappearances Mount

Concern is growing over the rise in night-time raids by masked Russian soldiers, with few of the men they detain ever seen again.
By Umalt Dudayev

The pro-Moscow Chechen authorities have joined the chorus of anger over Russian soldiers' arrest and abduction of ordinary Chechens, as evidence shows that more and more people are disappearing without trace.


In recent months, Russian forces have wound down their notorious "clean-up" operations in Chechnya and replaced them with a new tactic, in which masked men raid houses in the middle of the night and seize men, almost all of whom are never seen again.


These disappearances are now drawing ever more outspoken condemnation from the loyal pro-Moscow administration in Grozny, which has been strengthened by March's referendum result.


At the end of April, security council secretary Rudnik Dudayev told local television that 215 residents of Chechnya had been abducted this year - 45 of them since the referendum was held on March 23.


To the surprise of viewers used to more cautious statements from local leaders, Dudayev directly accused the Russian military of being behind the kidnappings.


He said that Russian servicemen "in armoured personnel carriers, with the number-plates covered over, go into villages without announcing themselves and take people, without saying where they are going".


The overwhelming majority of those abducted, Dudayev added, were "law-abiding people".


Previously, the Russian military carried out mass round-up operations in daylight hours, known as "cleanups" or "zachistki," in which they intimidated whole villages, ransacked and looted homes, and took away large numbers of men. The new operations are more "targeted cleanups" conducted at night by soldiers in masks, who go to certain addresses and detain the people there.


Villagers and human rights activists say that, following the daylight raids, it was at least possible to locate the abducted people and try to secure their release. But they claim that there is virtually no chance of finding the victims of the "targeted clean ups" alive. Some men disappear altogether, the abused bodies of others are dumped and found at the edge of villages.


And the situation has deteriorated following the constitutional referendum - which was supposed to make things easier for the people of Chechnya.


"Despite the assurances of the Russian and local authorities, the situation has not improved," said Grozny resident Adnan Saidov.


"It's a rare night in our Oktyabrsky district that masked soldiers don't burst into someone's home and take someone away. It's like an endless horror film. Every day you wait for the nightmare to end but it just gets worse."


The Naur region in north western Chechnya, which has had the reputation for being one of the quietest and safest parts of the republic, has not been exempt. On April 11, respected Islamic scholar Uzum-Haji Jalilov and his colleague Lechi Baitazov were travelling through the area by car, when they were stopped by Russian soldiers. Nothing has been heard of them since.


"It's practically impossible to find out what happened to a person who has disappeared after being detained by the military," said local woman Zura Alieva.


"If the relatives begin to take some steps independently, they get a 'polite request', which is actually a warning - stop searching or it will get worse."


Le Monde's Moscow correspondent Natalie Nougayrede, who had obtained a secret official 30-page document chronicling the continuing murder of civilians and discovery of mass graves in Chechnya, brought the current situation to light in a recent article.


The document - apparently compiled by Chechen official Sheiakhmed Abdurakhmanov, who deals with missing persons - recorded that 1,314 Chechen civilians had been killed in 2002, not including those who died in fighting. It also records that nearly 3,000 corpses had been found in mass graves in Chechnya.


Moscow denied any knowledge of the document and it was barely reported in the media. The Russian authorities routinely deny all reports of human rights abuses in Chechnya, or justify them on grounds of security.


Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration head Akhmad Kadyrov called the Le Monde document a forgery and an "attempt to distort the true situation, which is normalising after the referendum."


However, several officials in Kadyrov's government have now made statements very similar to the Le Monde report.


Sheiakhmed Abdurakhmano, in an interview with the Chechen newspaper Vesti Respubliki in February this year, gave a list of statistics that were almost as bad as in the Le Monde report. He said that 1,178 people had been killed in the first nine months of 2002 and 654 had disappeared.


"No one has any exact statistics on this issue," Abdurakhmanov said. "And if anyone possesses them, then I think they will be terrifying. Don't forget that we are talking about civilian casualties."


In another recent interview Chechnya's deputy prime minister Movsur Khamidov said that 2,500 Chechens had disappeared without trace in two wars and 49 mass graves had been discovered.


And in another leaked document, Chechen prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko reported that "over the period of the anti-terrorist operation on the territory of the Chechen Republic" (the military campaign that started in 1999) 1,178 criminal cases had been opened for the abduction of 1,663 people - the vast majority by Russian soldiers. Almost half were committed last year.


Many human rights activists are sceptical about the Kadyrov administration's apparent concern. "When this information became public, the local authorities had no option but to pretend that they were deeply worried about what is happening and support the accusations against the military," said Ruslan Badalov, head of the Chechen Committee for National Salvation.


"I do not believe in the sincerity of these statements. I doubt these people are acting according to the dictates of their hearts. It's more likely they are getting orders from above."


Murad Nashkhoyev, co-chairman of the Independent Consultative Council comprising public organisations, believes that the Kadyrov regime is trying to win public support ahead of the republic's upcoming elections, which are scheduled for December.


"Why did they start talking about acts of brutality by Russian soldiers now?" Nashkhoyev asked. "The regime is simply trying to make the best of a bad situation. I don't believe they have any other goals [than the election] in mind."


Umalt Dudayev is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist working in Chechnya