July 2, 2008

The border of Chechnya and Ingushetia used to mark the line between war and peace. Now the shootings, torture and disappearances have begun.

When did this all change? It happened gradually. The realities which only used to exist "across the border", in Chechnya, seeped slowly into Ingushetia. The kidnappings began in 2002, though it's true that at first the Ingush themselves were not affected - only the Chechen refugees. At the time, there were 150,000 of them in Ingushetia, equal to around half the population of this small republic. Militants from Chechnya began coming at night. They broke into the homes of refugees, grabbed their victims, put them into vehicles and drove them back to Chechnya. Those kidnapped usually disappeared without trace. Numbers increased and soon they started taking Ingush as well, who also "disappeared". And they were tortured too. But until June 2004 this was a rare occurrence...

That "black June" was the turning point - war came into Ingushetia.

On the stifling summer night of 21-22 June, Shamil Basaev appeared in Nazran with a force several hundred strong. For a few hours they held the republic. They killed dozens of policemen and left the local law-enforcement agencies without leadership. It was an easy operation for them. Basaev's men set up checkpoints on the roads. Drivers stopped their cars, when they saw armed soldiers in camouflage, thinking it was a special services operation. Law-enforcement employees showed their ID so they could pass unhindered. But by then it was too late. Men in uniform or with official IDs were shot on the spot. The militants captured a military warehouse, loaded a heap of weapons into their cars, and left Nazran and Karabulak late at night, without suffering any losses.

All night, people shook with fear. Children sobbed, terrified by the shooting. Mothers pushed them under the bed - what if people broke into the house, or started blowing everything up? Women bustled around rooms, putting together bundles of essential items: if the militants were here to stay, they would have to flee.

The next day the funerals of the murdered policemen began and Ingushetia was almost literally flooded with hatred. The population was prepared to approve any action by the authorities - as long as nothing like this ever happened again! They really did support the first special operations, believing them to be necessary But these operations were conducted "Chechen style"...
Law-enforcement officers broke into houses and seized young men. Many were taken to neighbouring North Ossetia. Some were put in pre-trial detention centres and tortured there. Others were even held in pits. They were forced to confess to taking part in the "attack on Nazran" and having connections with the militants. They were forced to name accomplices. If a young man said he didn't know any militants, he was tortured until he started naming neighbours and classmates. One man who was held at the detention centre in Vladikavkaz betrayed several dozen people, and then cried: "Go on, put me in prison! But why imprison them? They've got nothing to do with it!" The men named completely innocent people, anything to stop the torture and the beatings, or to have the wires removed from their fingers and toes. People who had been named were also rounded up and tortured. They too named names. Some of the people who were taken away by the officers disappeared. Their relatives looked for them everywhere, went through all the official channels, and paid huge sums of money for any information, but could not find them. Sometimes, the kidnapped men were released. They returned home, but could no longer live in peace, and kept looking over their shoulders, expecting to be "detained" a second time - they were, after all, now on the list of suspects. If the family had enough money, the man was sent away from Ingushetia to a safe place. If the family could not afford this, then life became hell. And eventually the men realized that they had nowhere else to go but into the mountains.

Villages were also "cleansed". This is how one of the residents of the village of Ali-yurt described the cleansing of last summer: "They were already in the yard, shouting ‘On the count of three we throw a grenade!' I rushed to the door and opened it, and one of the soldiers hit me in the left temple with his gun. I saw stars and fell off the porch. They kicked me and beat me with the butts of their guns in the stomach and head. One of them stood on my head, another two pulled my legs apart, twisting them terribly. The pain was awful, but I thought about what they could do to my wife. She was heavily pregnant, and in her condition anything could happen... They shouted: ‘Why did you kill that soldier? Why did you shoot?' I said that I hadn't shot anyone, and they just shouted at me: ‘Shut it, you bastard!' And then they beat me again... When at last they left, I went into the house, and saw [my wife]. She was lying on the floor... Her face was covered in blood, her lip was split and her neck was swollen. When I saw that I was even more scared then I was when I was being beaten."

Soon after the cleansing in Ali-yurt, the militants, evidently no fewer in number after three years of intensive anti-terrorist operations, but actually significantly more, moved on to new extremes and began making sorties literally every day. They caused explosions, shot at government buildings, clashed with soldiers or police, killed officials and even ambushed the cavalcade of the president of the republic. In response, the law-enforcement officers started conducting operations in villages near places where the enemy had appeared. People instantly forgot that they had recently been supportive of the anti-terrorist operations.

The editors of the opposition site Ingushetia.ru posted an explanation to the city and the world. "After the most recent... punitive operation at a village, the number of militants only increases... If you talk to these guys in the right way, and say to them, ‘look at how the federal troops treat you, take up arms and defend your honour', they just disappear into the forest". The main objective of the political opposition in Ingushetia is to replace the president of the republic, Murat Zyazikov. One of their main arguments is that Zyazikov does nothing to prevent the outrages perpetrated by the law-enforcers or the kidnappings, and is thus indirectly involved in the growth of the armed underground movement.

It is difficult to say how many young men really go into the mountains, but the violence and humiliation inflicted by the law-enforcement officers, combined with the ineffective reaction of the authorities to the mood of the young people, naturally have an effect. Support for the militants is constantly increasing. And so is hatred of the special services.

This was illustrated last year, when there was a wave of murders in Ingushetia (24 Russians were killed between July and November). Many people in the republic refused to believe that the militants were responsible. When they heard the apparently quite logical official explanation that these crimes were directed against the government programme to return Russian families to the region, that the militants, seeing the Russians as occupiers, were trying to force them out of the republic, people shook their heads: "No, it's not the militants! They get nothing from it!" When asked: "Why not?" people explained: "The militants won't do anything that's bad for the people, and these murders are simply terrible!" Or "The Russians who were killed were mainly respected people - teachers and doctors, who had lived in Ingushetia for a long time. The militants wouldn't have touched them!" "What about when the teacher Terekhina was murdered? Some bastards put a landmine in the Russian cemetery before her funeral. And there were a lot of Ingush there! Anyone could have been blown up, a Russian or an Ingush! No, only the special services are capable of this, no one else!" This suspicion felt towards the law-enforcement structures, even if it has no basis in reality, speaks for itself - the people have begun to regard them as a source of constant threat.

In their unsuccessful hunt for militants, the special services shoot young men in broad daylight. One of these men, 20-year-old Islam Belokiev, was selling spare parts for cars at a market in Nazran. Everyone saw him being hailed from a car parked by a fence. He turned towards the car, and the officers opened fire. Islam fell down, wounded, but still alive. People rushed towards him, but the law-enforcement officers surrounded the body, and did not let anyone get near him. Islam bled to death as people looked on. Someone even saw a pistol being put into his hand as he died, and a grenade placed next to him. No one could do anything. The law-enforcement officers did not allow doctors or people from the prosecutor's office into the market until Islam was already dead.

He is by no means the only person killed in Ingushetia who was shot on the spot and then charged as a "participant in illegal armed groups". These cases are closed as soon as they are opened, of course - the suspect is, after all, dead. But on one occasion during a special services operation, someone was killed who in no way fitted the scenario of "liquidating the militants".

Rakhim Amriev could not have been called a participant of illegal armed groups. And it was not possible to put a gun into his dead hand. Rakhim Amriev was six years old. He lived with his parents, brothers and sisters in the small village of Chemulga. Early one November morning, when it was still dark, he was woken by a noise outside. Suddenly there was a loud shout, probably from a megaphone: "Women and children - out!" His mother dashed around the room, as she tried to gather her things and dress her four children. There was shooting outside. It was terrifying. And then soldiers with guns broke into the house... there was a bang and then darkness. Rakhim was killed by one of the first shots.

The murder of the boy enraged the republic. People began to gather for a protest meeting. The authorities put pressure on the organizers, threatening them and demanding that they back down, but some people still took to the streets on 24 November. The protest was broken up. The television journalists and the human rights advocate who had come to Ingushetia to cover the events were kidnapped from the hotel in Nazran on the night before the protest by unknown law-enforcement officers. The officers put black plastic bags over the heads of their victims, forced them into a car, threatened to shoot them, and finally, after beating them severely, threw them out in an abandoned area, ordering them to leave Ingushetia for good. In the darkness, half-naked, they were barely able to walk through the snow to the nearest village.

The next protest against the abuses of the law-enforcement officers and corruption was held in Ingushetia on 26 January this year. The authorities declared an anti-terrorist operation in Nazran beforehand - an extremely effective method of prohibiting any public protest and suppressing the media! They just rounded up all the journalists who came to Nazran, took them to the police station, and sent them to North Ossetia. This process was called a "deportation" to ensure the "safety" of the journalists themselves. And the protest, incidentally, was not peaceful at all.

It was said that some protesters were armed with rocks, and some with Molotov cocktails; the building of the newspaper Serdalo was even set on fire, though it is unclear whether it was an accident or a deliberate act, but who will ever know? There was an attempt to charge journalists who were filming the burning building for professional purposes with causing the fire and if human rights organizations and the media had not raised a scandal, they probably would have been charged, but the police had to release them the next day... Several organizers of the protest were, nevertheless, taken to the detention centre in Nalchik for allegedly provoking mass disturbances in Nazran and were only released in early summer. Their term in custody was extended three times - the prosecutor's office needed time to find grounds for the charge. The prisoners in desperation even declared a hunger strike on 23 May. Fortunately, no one died of hunger. The case collapsed and on 7 June everyone was released.

I asked Murat Zyazikov, the President of Ingushetia, if rallies on the territory of the republic are really prohibited. Zyazikov insisted no one could prohibit rallies: if people want to gather and discuss important problems, and express their opinions, they are quite entitled to do so. However this case did not involve "rallies, but provocations", and provocations that played into the hands of the militants, directly aimed "at destabilizing the situation" in order to turn Ingushetia "into a new trouble spot". And the authorities of the republic cannot allow this! Judge for yourself, the participants of this provocation had Molotov cocktails, and they tried to get teenagers involved in the protest with promises of computers and mobile phones, then gave them the cocktails to throw! What sort of demonstration is this?

Who would argue? A Molotov cocktail is not the best means of protest and dragging teenagers into public protests where violence is unavoidable is also irresponsible and wrong. And to announce that there will be a free lottery with valuable prizes at the rally, as the organizers of the January rally did, is a rather unethical way of attracting additional participants.

But what can parents do if their sons have been kidnapped by law-enforcement officers? Appeal to the president, to the interior minister, ask for help, wait for the competent bodies to sort everything out? Many asked for help, then waited and waited, fruitlessly... Mukhmed Gazdiev, whose son Ibragim went missing in August 2007 - he disappeared just before his wedding - went to see Murat Zyazikov personally. He promised him that everything would be fine, that his son had been detained, but would soon be home again."

"When I worked as a teacher in Grozny," Gazdiev said,"Zyazikov was one of my pupils for two years. So he could not refuse to see me. I explained the situation to him and he summoned [republic prosecutor] Turygin. I said to the prosecutor: ‘Please, don't harm my son. We know about the methods that your people use. Do everything according to the law. If he deserves punishment, then let us punish him together. I will disown him [if he is guilty]'. And he [Turygin] said to me: ‘We don't intend to do anything illegal to him...' Then Zyazikov explained: ‘He has been detained by the organs of state security and is assisting them with their investigations.' "

The president's assurances put Gazdiev's mind at rest. He was sure that his son would return soon. But one month went by, then two months. Now it is summer again, and Ibragim has still not returned. What should people like Mukhmed Gazdiev do? There are many people like him. What should the father of a murdered six-year-old boy do, when for over six months the prosecutor's office has been unable to establish whose weapon fired the shot, and when punishing the leader of this FSB operation is not even under discussion? How can they express their protest, if the authorities make promises but do not keep them, and rallies are essentially prohibited? Write to the newspaper? But there is no independent press in Ingushetia. And visiting journalists are thrown out of the republic, and particularly curious journalists are even kidnapped, as was the case with the television journalists from REN-TV.

When asked about these journalists, however, President Zyazikov said that this kidnapping should also be seen as a "provocation" by forces interested in discrediting the authorities. And it is, in fact, strange that REN-TV sent three camera crews to the small republic of Ingushetia. "What for? To film a Molotov cocktail, and then portray it as a public protest?" In other words, in this situation, the journalists benefited from their own kidnapping, and their behaviour was quite suspect. "Mr. Zyazikov, do you mean to say that the REN-TV journalists kidnapped themselves - along with Mr Orlov, the head of the ‘Memorial' Human Rights Centre, who happened to be in the same hotel?" "No, I'm not saying anything of the kind, but you must agree, the situation is strange..." It certainly is strange. You can't argue with that.

What can protestors do if they can't hold demonstrations? If they can't speak? If they can't believe the promises of the authorities? If they are called provocateurs? If journalists who try to talk about them, people who try to help them, are also called provocateurs? What will happen to the opposition if it is forced out of the public sphere? Marginalisation... Radicalisation...

Armoured Personnel Carriers drive along the roads. Ingushetia is like a disturbed anthill. And it is difficult to believe now that, until relatively recently, this was a peaceful place.

More reporting on: