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

Red Tape Thwarts Chechnya Villagers' Claim

A group of Dagestani villagers in Chechnya want compensation for the destruction of their village in a Russian air raid - but no one is heeding their claims.
By Dmitry Balburov

Toidyk Yantuganova, a widow with no children, is 77 and all alone in the world. She has lost everything. But when this small, tired woman from the village of Kogi in Chechnya tells her life story she speaks more with sadness than with rancour.


"I was born and raised in the village of Kogi," she said. "My husband was a shepherd at the collective livestock farm. I was a bullock-cart driver…. Allah did not grant us any children, but my husband and I were very fond companions in life."


Toidyk's home was destroyed at the beginning of the second Chechen campaign in September 1999. Not an unusual case for this war, but what is unique about her story is that her village is inhabited not by Chechens but by Nogais, a small ethnic group living over the border in Dagestan.


By an accident of history, the village has been left with indeterminate status, and this is hampering the villagers' search for compensation to rebuild their lives from both Chechnya and Dagestan.


In the Nogai language Kogi, situated in the dry plains of northern Chechnya, translates as "Heavenly Home". The village was incorporated into the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic only in 1957, when the territorial map was redrawn as the Chechens returned from exile in Central Asia.


People in Kogi retained links with their Nogai ethnic kin a few kilometres away in Dagestan. In the 1990s, they found themselves caught up in the Chechens' struggle for independence, and a war that was not theirs.


In September 1999, the 109 inhabitants of Kogi were in the path of Russian forces moving back into Chechnya. On September 12 that year an air raid by two Russian fighter-bombers left three women and two children dead and dozens wounded. The other villagers fled their homes and found temporary shelter with relations and friends in nearby villages in Dagestan's Nogai District.


Surviving Kogi villagers told IWPR there was nothing to warrant the attack, as there were no armed guerrillas in their district. Elmurza Saitov, now deputy governor of Nogai District, supports this claim. At the time she was head of the local office of the Russian intelligence services, the FSB, and as she explained, "We were watching Chechnya's Shelkovskoi District very closely at the time. We would have been the first to know if any guerrillas had tried to build up a presence there….


"However, we never spotted any fighters in Kogi or any other small villages scattered along the Dagestani border."


Nonetheless, the Russian strike was both intense and ruthless. The planes attacked Kogi twice, firing missiles and dropping bombs. Villagers later found 70 bomb craters the villagers found later. All 30 houses were destroyed together with barns and sheds.


Fortunately, most villagers were out working the fields and looking after the animals at the time, or the casualty list would have been much longer. The bombers killed Barambike Esmukhambetova and her two sons, Eldar, three, and Elmurat, nine, as well as Lidia Asbdurakhmanova, 58, and Bota Kartakaeva, 80.


"Mum saved my little son Ziyavdin's life," recalled Bota's son Mautali Kartakayev. "She picked him up and headed out of the village. A bomb went off behind her. Shrapnel hit her in the head, but Ziyavdin survived.


"We found him sitting there crying next to his grandma's dead body about an hour after the raid. We couldn't come earlier because we were afraid there would be more air strikes."


For a while, some of the refugees from the bombed-out village found shelter in a former children's summer camp on the outskirts of Terekli-Mekteb, the administrative centre of Nogai District. Others stayed with their relatives.


They were eventually asked to leave the camp. Some moved in with friends or to cheap rented accommodation. Toidyk now lives in a damp dilapidated bungalow in Terekli-Mekteb, for which she pays 300 roubles (less than 10 US dollars) a month.


"I like this house; it's quite habitable," she said. "After the air strike, a friend let me stay in her summer kitchen for a year, and gave me some clothes and bed sheets. Living there was hard, though: too cold in winter and too hot in summer.


"The first 18 months or two years we received humanitarian aid from the government and the international donors - the Danish Refugee Council and the Red Cross. The flour, butter, sugar and cereals they gave us were enough to stave off hunger.


"I did not bring any of my property from Kogi. I've never been back to see those ruins. It's too painful."


Just two families have returned to Kogi, and only because they had nowhere else to go. Yakov Sobolev is one of the returnees. He has built himself a simple hut and is hoping to get a job at a nearby farm. For the moment he is just scraping a living.


"I had 28 sheep," he recalled. "Some were stolen, others went missing in August and September 1999 when the Russians began amassing troops in the neighbouring Kumli District of Dagestan, the rest got killed in the air strike."


Many of the villagers took the precaution of acquiring formal residence status in Dagestan during Chechnya's period of self-proclaimed independence in the early 1990s.


Their strange status as residents of Chechnya now obstructs their quest for proper compensation for the housing and property they lost. Although both regions are parts of the Russian Federation and the Nogais are Russian citizens, wherever they live they are caught between two sets of bureaucracy operating independently of one another.


In order to apply for government compensation, Kogi villagers have to obtain numerous papers from officials in the capitals of both Dagestan and Chechnya - Makhachkala and Grozny - as well as the collective farm and district authorities in Chechnya and Dagestan.


Few of these rural, uneducated people are up to this ordeal. Not many were ever formally registered as displaced people. And a ticket to Makhachkala - 100 roubles one way - is beyond the pockets of most of them.


"I've been to Shelkovskaya and Kizlyar twice to talk to the migration service," said Asinat Amitova, a Nogai woman. "It seems that the more papers you bring, the more they need. Now I need three certificates from Chechnya and three from Dagestan. My income comes to 154 roubles in child allowances, and I'm not going anywhere anymore.


"Sometimes I think the government owes us for all the damage, but I don't really know how to claim the money. I wish we Nogai were as tenacious as the mountain folk."


Dmitry Balburov is a correspondent with Moscow News newspaper.