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

Hostages Relive Chechen Ordeal

Fears are growing that the Chechen rebels will attempt to break the military deadlock by seizing hostages and using them to bargain with the federal authorities
By Dmitri Nepomnyaschy

Kirill Perchenko, a 20-year-old student, was seized at random from a Moscow street and smuggled into Chechnya on a goods lorry. For six months, he was held captive in a tiny underground cell, living from day to day in the fear that he would be killed or maimed by his kidnappers.

"I saw the bandits cut off people's heads, ears or fingers," says Perchenko. "They'd kill someone not because he'd done something wrong but simply because he was ill or old or too weak to work."

Perchenko was fortunate: he managed to escape his captors in February of this year, as Russian troops advanced on the village where he was being held. Last week, he was one of a group of former hostages who arrived in Geneva to highlight the notorious trade in human chattels which became a boom industry in Chechnya between the wars.

The phenomenon was thrust forcibly into the international spotlight back in1997 when two British charity workers, Jon James and Camilla Carr, were abducted from a Grozny suburb. The hostages were released 14 months later, with both Russia and Britain denying that any ransom had been paid.

In the same year, the Russian NTV station paid an undisclosed sum to free its reporter, Yelena Masyuk, and her two-man camera team who were held in a mountain cave for 102 days. In July this year, French photographer Brice Fleutiaux, 32, was rescued by Russian special forces after nine months in captivity.

However, the ordeals suffered by an estimated 3,300 Russian nationals at the hands of Chechen kidnappers have received little publicity in the West - hence last week's delegation to Geneva.

As well as Perchenko's testimony, journalists and officials heard accounts from Aslambek Khasbulatov, former rector of the Chechen State University, and Grozny regional head Shaid Dzhamaldaev. The talks were followed by the screening of a film, "The Slave Trade", which focuses on the horrendous tactics adopted by professional kidnappers in the breakaway republic.

The members of the delegation claimed that kidnap victims - some of them infant children -- were bought and sold in a "slave market" in the town of Urus-Martan, then imprisoned in caves or cramped underground cells.

Ransom demands were often accompanied by video-tapes in which hostage were forced to plead for their liberty and even subjected to vicious beatings. Four Russian builders kidnapped by Chechens in 1998 told how a colleague was beheaded by their captors. The execution was filmed and tapes were sent to their relatives.

Hostages waiting for a ransom to be paid could expect to be used as slave labour. One Russian kidnap victim, Vadim Tsiputan, from the Nizhegorodskaya oblast, spent five years in captivity, being sold from one armed gang to another. He was released earlier this month from a village in Dagestan.

An Indian student, Mishra Raghunatkh, was held by the notorious Chechen warlord, Arbi Baraev, for more than a year after first his parents, then the Indian embassy in Moscow, refused to pay a $1 million ransom. During this time, he was kept as a slave in the Urus-Martan district.

Earlier this year, the Moscow daily newspaper Kommersant reported that army officers in southern Russia had been hiring out their troops as slave labour and even selling them directly to Chechen kidnappers.

In April, the paper said, a sergeant rented out two soldiers to a local resident in exchange for a small amount of heroin. Both recruits were subsequently sold on to a Chechen crime lord.

Aslan Maskhadov's rebel government has always been quick to distance itself from the kidnapping gangs, claiming that these are criminal organisations operating outside the republic's shariat laws.

However, hostages freed from captivity in Chechnya report that the rebel propaganda chief, Movladi Udugov, held dozens of hostages captive in a private cellar complex.

The meeting in Geneva coincided with a federal military report which claims that Chechen leaders are urging the civilian population to kidnap Russian servicemen stationed in the breakaway republic and use them to barter with the authorities.

The report released by army headquarters in Khankala last week said that the new hostage-taking campaign was aimed at freeing thousands of suspected fighters languishing in Russian detention camps.

The announcement was followed by a spate of attempted abductions across southern Russia as well as a sensational raid by armed gunmen on a Sochi hotel.

Early last week, the Chechen rebels claimed to have abducted three senior officers in the Chernorechie district, south of Grozny. Days later, two Chechen men were shot dead near Grozny's bus station during a failed attempt to kidnap two Russian soldiers, one of whom was seriously wounded.

A similar incident in the Vedeno region claimed the life of a Russian police sergeant who was killed in a struggle with four would-be abductors.

Then, on the morning of September 21, three masked gunmen burst into a private hotel in the Lazarevsky region of Sochi and took five people hostage. Claiming to be Chechen sympathisers, the men demanded a ransom of $30 million and a face-to-face meeting with President Vladimir Putin as well as the release of all Chechen prisoners currently in Russian hands.

The demands were later reduced to a cash payment of $3 million, one hostage escaped and two more were released. The gunmen -- North Ossetians from Vladikavkaz - were persuaded to give themselves up to police in the early hours of September 22.

Dmitri Nepomnyaschy is a journalist for the Severny Kavkaz newspaper