Chechnya: The Hidden War

Inhabitants of mountain villages are unable to go home because of continuing violence between federal forces and rebels.

Chechnya: The Hidden War

Inhabitants of mountain villages are unable to go home because of continuing violence between federal forces and rebels.

Tuesday, 26 September, 2006
In the village of Yarysh-Mardy in the hills south of the Chechen capital Grozny there is no sign of life.

Yarysh-Mardy used to have a population of 620, a school, a library, a cultural centre, a post office and a mosque. Now there is nothing.

All the houses were completely destroyed back in 1999, at the beginning of the second Chechen campaign. Since then, the village has become overgrown with vegetation and has become a closed zone. There are dangers everywhere - mainly so-called “butterfly mines”, dropped from aeroplanes, and unexploded ordnance.

Even the few wild animals you see are wounded or maimed: wild boars and pigs that are missing a leg, birds with no wings or hares without ears.

This is a picture of devastation repeated across the hills of Chechnya. Although the authorities in Moscow have declared the war against rebels won, the residents of these villagers say they see no prospect of getting back to normal life any time soon.

The villagers of Yarysh-Mardy have made a series of official requests for help. A letter from the residents to prominent Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina begins, “We, the residents of Yarysh-Mardy, have applied to various authorities, from the regional level to the President of the Chechen Republic for a solution to our problems and the restoration of our rights. However, it is clear from the inaction of the government agencies and the replies we have received from them, that the regeneration of the village has been left to the mercy of fate and abandoned by the authorities.”

Sporadic military action is continuing in the mountains of Chechnya, despite the official proclamation of peace.

“Certain villages are still being bombed and shot at,” said Shamil Tangiev, head of the human rights organisation Memorial in Grozny. “People do not understand why this is happening, since the authorities have announced several times that military action in Chechnya ended in 2002; that there is peace in the republic; a government has been formed; there is a legal system and law and order has been re-established.

“Unbearable living conditions mean that we are seeing constant displacement from the mountains to the plains of the republic. In the on-going clashes between the federal soldiers and the fighters in Chechnya's mountainous areas, the civilian population is generally the victim.”

The mountain villagers are mostly forced to live with relatives or in makeshift accommodation in other parts of Chechnya.

Memorial reported that in 2002, two and a half thousand people from mountain villages in southeastern Chechnya were uprooted by fighting. However, because these people were displaced within Chechnya itself, their plight has not been dealt with by the republic’s migration department.

Markha Akhmadova, head of the demographics department of the government statistics agency Chechenstat, told IWPR, “The mountain villagers want to go home to their own land, but the army is there. They can’t let them into their villages because they still haven’t been de-mined and it’s simply too dangerous to live there.”

Akhmadova said it is impossible to determine how many people have moved from one village to another, since they stay registered in their original homes in order to get compensation for their destroyed property.

The villagers’ main request is for rehabilitation work to begin so they can go home.

Ruslan Musayev, a regional government official in Grozny, told IWPR reconstruction work would be finished by the end of the year in Yarysh-Mardy. But villagers say they see no signs of progress. And other villages have the same complaints.

“In Nozhai-Yurt, Vedeno and Kurchaloi regions many villages have been deserted,” said Khazmat Gadayev, who comes from one of Chechnya’s mountain settlements. “The federal soldiers are driving people out of the mountains on purpose. The village of Alkhazurovo was recently surrounded - they spent three to four days carrying out a ‘mop up’ operation there. They do it on purpose, to keep people in a state of fear. But people are sick and tired of war.”

Musayev described how the village of Kharsenoi has been so completely razed that not even the foundations of houses remain. “There was shooting there every night,” he said. “They said they were shooting at the detachment of Doku Umarov’s [the rebel leader of Chechnya]. The residents still haven’t been allowed back there.”

Musayev said that in two other villagers, Zumsoi and Bugaroi, federal troops had rounded up all the young men in a barn and threatened to set fire to it so that the fighters would not have any support. “Because of this ceaseless tyranny, almost everyone left a long time ago,” he said.

Another villager, who asked not to be named, said that in Shatoi an unshaven villager, a well-known alcoholic, had been arrested by Russian soldiers when he went to get firewood in the forest with an axe.

“The military does what it likes here,” said the villager. “They blow up houses, if they are of no strategic use to them, especially if there is no one living in them. But in spite of all this, many people, especially the elderly, want to go back to their homes. They want to be buried next to their ancestors.”

The Russian federal armed forces would not comment on the claims made by villagers and there is no mechanism for the villagers to complain.

Memorial says soldiers never reveal which units they are serving in and it is virtually impossible to bring them to account. For example, after an air strike and mopping-up operation against the village of Zumsoi last year, three adult men and a 15-year-old boy were detained and have not been seen again.

Shamil Tangiev of Memorial said that many villagers would accept the stationing of military units in mountain villagers, “so that there would be no opportunity for fighters to be there and people will not be accused of collaborating with the armed groups. And they can be helped in rebuilding so that they can begin to put their life in order. But so far the authorities have not responded properly”.

Asya Umarova is a correspondent for Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper.

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