Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Chechnya: New Russian Atrocities Exposed
The inhabitants of this southern Chechen village are so used to surviving from one Russian military "clean-up" operation to the next that they talk about their lives in a surreal fashion. "Do you remember, that was during clean-up number 19?" they say. Or "My neighbour was killed in clean-up number 23."
Stariye Atagi, 20 km south of Grozny, is one of the largest villages in Chechnya, with 15,000 inhabitants. The eight-day "passport checking operation" that occurred there two months ago was the twentieth such action since the start of the second Chechen war, and definitely the worst. The village is a troubled place, home to many Islamic militants, usually referred to as "Wahhabis", which makes it the object of sustained attention from Russian soldiers. But locals, telling the story of what happened, wonder if it is really the Islamists that they are after.
Clean-up number 20 lasted from January 28 to February 5. As in earlier operations, federal forces besieged the village, using heavy armour, aviation, artillery and a contingent of 5,000 troops. Inhabitants were forbidden not just to leave the village, but also to move from one street to another or from house to house.
The soldiers came to the house of two sisters, Markha and Taus Musayeva, on Nagornaya Street at about 9 am on the morning of January 29. They are a poor family, who live off food they grow themselves and the pension of their old and almost bed-ridden father.
Markha said the soldiers immediately began demanding cash, but there was none. "Then we will screw you in front of your mum and dad," said the soldiers. They surrounded Markha, pushing her from one to the other like a punching bag, pulling her by the arms and hair. Tearing herself away, she rushed to the man who seemed to be the most senior, perhaps even an officer, wearing a black mask. Two fine calm green eyes looked at her and the man said, "Give us 300 roubles [about 10 dollars] and we won't screw you."
Taus, Markha's sister, who was being held in another room, cried out, "I'll run to the neighbours and bring it!" But the same drama was being played out there. Soldiers had forced Milana Kutsayeva, a beautiful 18-year-old from Grozny, with a one-year-old son in her arms, into her house, while her husband and father-in-law were made to stand against the wall in the courtyard. Milana was given a simple choice: be raped by the soldiers or pay 500 roubles.
Over the past two years, the mass document-checking process in Chechnya has turned into mass looting, as the soldiers "clean up" whatever they like, especially cash and jewellery. This time, however, for the first time in this second Chechen war, the soldiers ravaged the village by extorting money - or indulging their own sexual pleasure.
The federal forces took 300 roubles from the poorer-looking houses and 500 from the richer ones. Women were spared rape if they handed over earrings and necklaces. The poorest in Stariye Atagi suffered worst of all, because they had nothing to give the Russians. Milana Kutsayeva was able to pay off the soldiers, but Markha and Taus weren't - and suffered the brutal consequences.
Money was also demanded from men. Entering houses, the soldiers told them that if they paid up, they would be free from checks or suspicion of links with members of armed resistance groups. If they didn't, they could be taken away to "filtration points", where they would be interrogated and tortured.
Payments from men ranged from 500 to 4,000 roubles, depending on their age (younger men paid more) and how wealthy they seemed. From Saidash Akhmadov, of 26 Kooperativnaya Street, they extorted 3,500 roubles, as well as a commercial consignment of chewing gum he was planning to trade worth 2,700 roubles. Khozh-Ahmed Akhmadov, an old man aged almost 70, paid 4,000 roubles - money he had collected for his own funeral arrangements.
The same process applied to property throughout the village. For not destroying or not expropriating items, the soldiers demanded payment in return, with the price for a car, for example, beginning at 1,000 roubles.
According to the Russian General Staff, a contingent of 70,000 soldiers is facing around 1,500 members of "illegal bandit formations" in Chechnya. The "passport-checking regime" or "clean-up" operation is deemed an essential part of the "counter-terrorist" actions. But there appears to be no connection between the operation in Stariye Atagi and warriors, terrorists or Islamic extremists - the official targets of the vast military contingent sent into Chechnya two and a half years ago. On this occasion in Stariye Atagi, the soldiers did not even check the villagers' documents.
"As always, the real bandits bought themselves out and sat it out at home," said Said-Emin Apayev, who lives on Nagornaya Street. "They have a deal with the federal forces." Apayev did not want to buy his freedom. As a result, on February 1 he was taken to a filtration point, where, together with eight Stariye Atagi police officials employed by the Russian authorities, he was tortured for three days and nights.
One of the policemen was Ramzan Sagipov. A junior sergeant in the patrol service, he was injured on duty in Grozny at the end of December. And so, on February 1, his arm was in plaster, the stumps of his torn-off fingers were bleeding and shrapnel was still digging into his legs. The soldiers seized him, took away his gun and began to beat him, aiming straight at his bandages.
But didn't he cry out that he was a policeman? "Of course," said Sagipov, "They said, 'You're all one band! We will shoot you all! You are sheltering fighters!' Then they tied me up and threw me into the back of a military truck on top of live bodies. They were other policemen who had tried to defend their fellow-villagers from looting and rape. When I tried to lift my head or move it, they immediately kicked me in the head or beat me with a rifle-butt."
The detained men were taken to a semi-abandoned poultry farm on the edge of the village.
"First they drove us 'down the line'," said Sagipov. "The soldiers formed two files facing each other and threw us out of the truck at their feet, so that each one could kick us, just as he wanted to. Then they put us against the wall. I was all bandaged up and one man came up, turned me to him and said, 'He is sick', and immediately hit me with a truncheon over the head. Then they took off my bandages and began to squeeze, trample and crush me."
After they had finished with Sagipov, they let him go. He said they detained him and his colleagues "in order to humiliate us, to break our spirit.
"They put us against the wall with our arms raised, legs spread out and heads lowered," said Apayev of his ordeal at the filtration point. "It was forbidden to move or speak. For every act of disobedience blows landed on us from behind. They beat us with their feet, hands, rifle-butts, whatever they wanted. We stood there for six or eight hours."
"On the morning of February 2 they led us back to the wall and kept us in the same position until evening," he went on. "At dusk they took us to interrogation with an investigator, who demanded the time and itinerary of the fighters' movements, their hiding places and addresses. On February 3, they again stood us against the wall, then in the evening they forced us to sign in a book that 'we had no complaints' and let us go."
In fact, all of Russia saw Apayev on its television screens during this period in reports from Stariye Atagi. He was standing behind General Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of federal forces in Chechnya, as the general declared that they had arrested bandits with guns, whom the local police had been defending. "We were all at home," said Apayev. "We had no weapons. We simply didn't buy ourselves out."
The operation ended on February 5, when armoured cars, loaded with loot, left the village. A few days later, a different set of looters arrived in the village, also wearing camouflage and black masks. These were members of one of the Wahhabi units, who were demanding "money for jihad". Like the Russian soldiers, they wanted money from young men, or would take them away by force.
Two days later, local people say, a group of young men from Stariye Atagi staged an armed revolt against the Wahhabis, which was crushed by Russian units. Relatives of the young men said that the Russians had been summoned by the Islamists to assist them. As a result, the local mutineers were all killed, while the Wahhabis escaped into the hills.
Two and a half years after the beginning of the second Chechen conflict, the Russian war machine is being operated with methods which only serve to create new recruits for terrorism and inflame hatred and the desire for revenge amongst ordinary Chechens. Meanwhile, bandits on both side profit.
Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta, was given Index on Censorship's Most Courageous Defence of Freedom of Expression award on March 21 for her reporting on Chechnya. She visited Stariye Atagi earlier this month.
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