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

Chechnya: New Year, New Brutality

The new year begins with an upsurge of violence and abductions.
By Umalt Dudayev

Members of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow presidential security service – or “Kadyrovtsy” as they are more commonly known – supported by Russian federal soldiers surrounded a series of villages in the Achkhoi-Martan region in the west of the republic last week and carried out the brutal search operations known as “clean-ups”.


All the villagers in Valerik and Kotar-Yurt were made to show their documents and many houses were forcibly searched. The January 4 operation was led by deputy prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov, son of former Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov after whom the presidential unit is named.


In Kotar-Yurt, several locals were detained and have since disappeared. One of them, Aslan Gairbekov, had recently returned from Russia. Another man, a 27-year-old with the surname Yamlikhanov, had reportedly fought in the first Chechen conflict of 1994-96 and been officially amnestied, but this did not save him from being taken away by the Kadyrovtsy.


“In our village several Russian soldiers came into houses and demanded food,” said Aziz Muradov from Valerik. “They said that they had eaten nothing for two days. They said they were carrying out a ‘clean-up’ operation because they had information that [separatist president] Aslan Maskhadov had spent the night there with his guards. But we don’t know anything about that.”


The pro-Moscow forces say that winter is the most favourable time for them to go on the offensive.


“Experience shows that with the onset of winter many members of bandit groups leave their bases in the mountains, come back to their villages, and try to melt into the local population,” said Alexei Matyukhin, a captain with the FSB intelligence service in Chechnya.


“For our part, we use information we receive and other methods to identify and neutralise the bandits who come down from the mountains for a winter break. The local population is tired of the bandit lawlessness, and that helps us find the bandits.”


Matyukhin said that other rebel fighters take refuge in the neighbouring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia. He cited as a success a federal operation on January 8 when a group of guerrillas was killed in the Ingush city of Nazran.


The rebels admit that winter is the hardest time for them. “In winter the intensity of fighting goes down to almost zero, because when autumn starts it is much harder for us to move around and keep hidden,” said 37-year-old Ramzan, commander of a rebel group that was recently operating in south-western Chechnya.


“It’s practically impossible to keep a lot of people in bases in the mountains in winter. Besides, the Russians are constantly bombing and shelling the mountain regions.”


Ramzan said that the rebel side was also suffering as a consequence of denunciations by informers, who tell the pro-Moscow authorities about the presence of insurgents in their midst. “We lose even more of our comrades from these ‘special operations’ and ‘clean-ups’ than we do during all the fighting in the spring, summer and autumn,” he said.


Many believe that the upsurge in brutality, especially on the part of the Kadyrovtsy, stems from their ambition finally to track down Maskhadov and radical Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, both of whom have operated freely in Chechnya for more than five years since the start of the second Chechen conflict in 1999.


On January 2, more than two dozen Kadyrovtsy made a raid on a house in the Proletarskoye suburb of Grozny and detained 23-year-old Zaurbek Gaziev, father of two small children.


“Around 25-30 men in camouflage burst in at three in the morning, and opened fire on my husband and gravely wounded him,” wrote Gaziev’s wife Liza in a statement to the human rights organisation Memorial. “They interrogated him on the spot for around three hours without giving him any medical help, even though he was losing blood. When I tried to go to my husband one of them seized me by the hair, shoved me up against a wall and didn’t let me near him any more.”


“They did not let any of the neighbours in, and when I tried to take my two children, aged one and two-and-a-half, who were in a state of shock, over to the neighbours they told me, ‘You can all kick the bucket together.’ At around 6 am, they finished searching the house, and took away gold, clothes, the telephone and other things.


“When I asked them where they were taking him they told me it was none of my business… The people who took Zaurbek were all Chechens and their leader was called Mukhtar.”


Gazieva said that her husband was now under guard in hospital in the Nozhai-Yurt region of south-eastern Chechnya. His relatives have not been allowed to see him, he does not have a lawyer, and no criminal charges have been laid against him.


Memorial says that since New Year, 11 people have been murdered and 32 abducted in Grozny alone, and that almost all the abductions were carried out by armed men in military uniforms.


Mairbek, a 43-year-old Grozny resident who did not want his surname to be given, said that people were being tortured into giving confessions, “The first question they ask their victims is where Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev are. And I know this not only from friends and acquaintances who have fallen into the clutches of the Kadyrovtsy or the Russians, but from my own bitter experience.”


In December, Mairbek spent three days in a basement being tortured by the Kadyrovtsy.


“First they demanded that I should tell them where Maskhadov and Basayev are hiding,” he said. “Then they ordered me to give the names and addresses of fighters or [radical Islamist] Wahhabis that I know. They gave me electric shocks, beat me with an iron rod, hung me up with handcuffs, beat and kicked me and did not allow me to sleep, eat or drink.


“These are the methods they use to get a confession. It’s not important to them whose name you give, or whether the person is a fighter, a Wahhabi or just a drug addict. The main thing is just to get a new victim, so that through him they learn something substantial.”


The wave of arrests has spread fear throughout Chechnya, but the people who are most afraid are the relatives of well-known rebel leaders.


A month ago, armed men in masks and camouflage gear driving unmarked vehicles seized the sister and two brothers of Maskhadov - all of them over 70 years old.


Mairbek said he thought the abductions were designed as an ultimatum to force the rebel leader to surrender. He added, “Apparently Maskhadov replied that even if the Russians or local strongmen take all his family hostage or even his whole teip [Chechen clan] he will carry on fighting.”


Murad Nashkhoyev, a historian and political analyst, commented gloomily, “For me the most frightening thing about all this business is that they are forcing Chechens to destroy one another, they are forcing us to hate one another. They are forcing an ‘Afghan’ scenario on us, whose consequences for our people will be simply awful.”


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


More IWPR's Global Voices