March 31, 2009

At the entrance to Grozny, a monument-sized globe stands in splendor with giant red letters running around it: "GROZNY - THE CENTER OF THE WORLD." This Grozny has nothing in common with its pre-war incarnation or with the horrifying ruins that strangely became so familiar during the long years of war. The new Grozny is bright and flashy: at least its center dazzles with a mishmash of tacky signs and billboards. There are new apartment buildings, fresh paint everywhere, renamed streets, well-swept boulevards, and a pizzeria on every corner. The city's main attraction is a giant new mosque, built by a Turkish firm, modeled on the old mosques of Istanbul. Its tall minarets pierce the sky, and bright light from street lamps is everywhere. Where on earth could I be?

Ramzan Kadyrov himself attends the mosque on Fridays. Crowds of supplicants try to approach him, but their efforts are in vain with a security team such as his, still people are hopeful and continue to come. What if you manage to talk to the Boss and tell him about your troubles on Friday, a holy day for Muslims? The Boss will certainly not refuse and would be merciful in accordance with Allah's wishes. There's nothing the Boss can't do. Nowadays absolutely everything is in his power.

There's a catchy signboard on top of a restaurant called Taganka that says: "2009 - year of Ramzan Kadyrov." As far as I can recall, though, the first year of Ramzan Kadyrov was 2007. The signboard appeared on New Year's Eve and I took some journalists there to take photos of it. They found it hilarious. A year passed and the 7 in 2007 was painted over with 8. We are currently living in the third year of the new era - the era of Ramzan Kadyrov.

Huge arches displaying portraits of Ramzan and his father, Akhmad, loom over the roads, telling the public that Akhmad Kadyrov "always took pride in his people," and now the people must live according to his "precepts" and be "worthy" of his "memory." And Ramzan Kadyrov guides the people on the "right path," the "only right path." He builds, creates, raises the city from the ruins, restores traditions, defends morals, guides the young generation. The reality of the Kadyrov era is a mixture of Soviet stereotypes, Islamic values, and a warping of local customs.

Alcohol is now sold only from 8 to 10 a.m. ("if you had a drink in the morning-you're free for the rest of the day!" Grozny residents comment on Kadyrov's high-moral-ground policy, speaking in lowered voices-at least those who haven't forgotten how to laugh yet). A woman cannot enter any government building without her head covered. Even little girls are required to wear headscarves in elementary school, not to mention their teachers. Several months ago, I was not able to go into the university building in Grozny's because I forgot that I had taken off my headscarf while visiting a friend. Two armed guys stopped me at the entrance and told me in no uncertain terms that no one was allowed into the temple of science dressed inappropriately. My efforts to point out that we lived in a secular state, that I was not a Chechen, not a Muslim-and even the little cross I wear around my neck-left these guardians of public morals utterly unimpressed.

There's no doubt that Chechen tradition says that women should wear headscarves.    But in Chechen tradition it's a woman's husband, her father, or her brother-not the government-who can tell her what and what not to do. In fact Chechen tradition doesn't allow for any government authorities to meddle with family or clan issues. However, it seems that Ramzan Kadyrov thinks otherwise and assumes that he and his men are entitled to dictate what is moral.

They also seem to assume they are entitled to use Chechen customs to justify retribution. For example, take the retribution on families of insurgents.

In August 2008 Kadyrov reported at an emergency session of the Chechen parliament that the number of young men "running off to to the forest" to join the insurgency was on the rise again. He did not discuss with his ministers why some youths are choosing to go underground and live in unbearable conditions. 

He did, however, give them a precise command for action: the insurgents' relatives must be punished. In the evening the president's speech was broadcast on the television channel "Grozny": "We need to use Chechen customs. In the past, such people were damned and exiled. And this is normal because they pass information on to their relatives in the forest... They bring them food, they help them. Insurgents kill our policemen and burn our homes. There isn't one family that doesn't have any connections to their relatives in the forest. I spent time in the forest myself and was in contact with 7,000 people who surrendered and left the forest. So those families that have relatives in the forest are accomplices in crime; they are terrorists, extremists, Wahabbis, and devils." In conclusion the president gave orders to district administrations and police stations to carry out "campaigns" against the insurgents' families and do some thorough work "in this "direction."

A week after the president's speech, the mayor of Grozny, Muslim Khuchiev, and the deputy minister of internal affairs of the Chechen Republic, Ali Tagirov, met with some insurgents' families. This meeting was televised. Without beating around the bush, Khuchiev explained that those who have relatives fighting for the insurgency must bring them home, and if they cannot do that, then they have only themselves to blame: "We are not talking to you according to the laws of this state, we will act in accordance with Chechen customs. Your relatives in the forest raid villages, kill people and burn homes. You brought up and took care of these people since they were children.  I think you love your children. And I think that you know perfectly well where they are and what they do. They kill someone else's sons who are loved no less than you love your sons. We can't let these killings go unpunished. This cannot continue - in the future you must find your relatives and return them home. If they commit evil, you, your dear ones and even your descendants will pay the price... The evil done by your relatives in the forest will come back to you and your homes. Every one of you will feel this on your own back. Everyone with relatives in the forest will be responsible, everyone, everyone!" 

The deputy minister of internal affairs expressed his support. The head of the criminal police unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Chechen Republic, Nikolai Simakov (sent to Grozny from Krasnodar province), also attended the "event" and voiced no objections, perhaps implying that federal law enforcement was not going to defend federal laws and had nothing against the practice of collective punishment. Khuchiev assured the insurgents' families that they had "a chance to save their children and protect themselves from revenge," and as a first step advised them to go on camera and ask their relatives to come back from underground. The program showed sobbing women yelling into a television camera: "Come back!  Why are you killing me?" "Come back, we can't take this any longer!" "We have nowhere else to go!  Come back!"

Similar events were organized in Argun, Shali, Shatoi, Vedeno, and other regional centers in Chechnya. The families of insurgents were told: either you bring your relatives back from the forest, or be prepared for the worst. Homes were raided. Some family members were taken to the police station, threatened, even beaten on occasion. They were ordered to present "reports about accomplished work." Homes of some of the relatives were burned, and in this way  the authorities let people know that an entire family pays for their relatives involved in insurgency, and the same thing could happen to you. 

Since the summer of 2008 the Memorial Human Rights Center, which miraculously is still able to maintain an office in Chechnya, counted 26 cases of insurgents' families' homes burned down, presumably by Chechen law enforcement personnel, in Samashki, Shali, Mesker-yurta, Kurchaloi, Alleroi, Tsenteroi, in Naur, Shatoi, and Vedeno districts.  I saw 11 of these houses myself and talked with their owners. The majority of them, those who still had something to lose, were not eager to talk. Every single one of them pleaded with me not to reveal their names and-God forbid-not to do anything: It will only get worse, they told me. 

Only three affected families risked filing a complaint with the prosecutor's office. But two of these families changed their minds within several weeks, when the police summoned them for a "talk" and explained matters. The explanations were so clear that the applicants immediately signed a statement saying that they themselves had set the fires.A big man, standing in the yard of a burned, but fortunately not yet collapsed, house, looked aside and waved, saying: "You'd better go. Please.  Other people from a human rights organization were here before you. They said they would help.  So they went to the press and sent a complaint to the prosecutor's office. And what is the result?  My sons were dragged to the police station at night.... Fortunately, they let them go alive. I signed a paper - no arson, a candle fell down at night.... We don't need any problems. You understand? We don't need any problems!" The police have jurisdiction to investigate arson.The situation is clear and no one indeed needs additional problems. 

They burn houses calmly, matter-of-factly. They seem to have worked out a system for it: At night, very often from Thursday onto Friday, several cars approach a house. Unidentified armed men in camouflage, some of them in masks, get out of their cars. They break into the home and either force everyone into the yard, or-if there are multiple houses in the family compound-drag people into the yard next door and lock people there. They then enter the house and unhurriedly move furniture, tear down carpets from the walls, spray everything with petroleum brought in canisters, light a match....  Later, they stand for half an hour to an hour calmly smoking, waiting for the fire to flare up and to prevent anyone from putting it out. Houses often are built very close to each other and neighbors-not so much in sympathy, but out of fear for their house-might try to intervene before the work is done. Finally the masked men leave. Victims and their neighbors run to the site at once, but it is usually too late. Some risk calling firefighters, but the latter are passive: someone probably "explained matters" to them too.

One case was especially striking. It was also atypical, because it took place in broad daylight. The house that was burned, in Vedeno district, belonged to a 70-year-old man whose nephews are well-known insurgents. (I am not naming the town in the interest of the man's security.) The man's nephews have been with the insurgency since the beginning of the second Chechen war; they call such people "irreconcilables." 

For several years the man-I'll call him "Musa," has been asked to make his nephews surrender.  He might ask them, but would they listen to him? In 2002 he was able to find and talk to them.  Musa  said to them "Leave. Or at least don't operate near the village, because we have to live here."  They only laughed. He insisted. They beat him, and did not even care that he was an old man. So how can he bring them back now? No chance of that. Naturally, Musa hasn't seen his nephews since then, but it's pointless to try to explain this to the police. In the last couple of years the security forces raided his home several times. Musa and his wife were dragged out of their house many times for interrogations. He was beaten several times. And then, at the beginning of October they burned Musa's house. 

It happened on Friday. Musa had just returned from the mosque and was immediately approached by cars driving a lot of armed men in camouflage uniforms. Their cars took up the entire street. The armed men turned the house upside down. Musa had some wood boards he was going to use to repair the floor, and when the armed men started setting up the boards for a bonfire, he understood what was about to happen. 

Musa understood and got scared - not for himself, but for his neighbors. He singled out the person in charge, approached him and tried to explain: "I know that you want to burn my house. I don't understand why I am being punished. Why do I have to pay for the crimes of my relatives over whom I have no influence? But if this has been decided, I can't do anything about it. I have to put up with it. However, please listen to me. My roof touches my neighbor's roof. And there's less than a meter distance between our houses. Look for yourself. If you start burning my house, the fire will spread over to my neighbor's house. What does he have to do with this? It's windy and the houses stand very close to each other. You will burn down the entire street, the entire village like this...  Should the entire village suffer? I will not be able to live with this. You'd be better off killing me!"

To be fair to the commander, he understood the situation, but said that the decision had been made at the top, that he had orders from his supervisors - presumably from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and higher. So there was nothing to discuss. The house was to be burned. 

Musa suddenly came up with an idea for a compromise. He said to the commander: "An excavator operator lives nearby. He has a modern, powerful excavator. He could separate the roofs. And then perhaps nothing bad would happen... Could you please send your soldiers to fetch him - I will explain how to find him. Tell them to bring him and his excavator. Only tell them to explain to the man that I am not against it, that it's me who is asking - otherwise he could refuse."

The commander listened to this voice of reason. Twenty minutes later the excavator operator and his machine were brought to the house, and the excavator driver, following the elderly man's directions, separated the roofs and broke a part of the wall where it almost touched the neighbor's house. Then the house was lit on fire. Everyone, including the house owner, stood and watched how the fire flared up.

I must add that this happened the day after insurgents burned down the house of the former head of a nearby village, Agishty. They killed the man, 72-year-old Khadja Saidullaev, his wife, and son. For this, the security forces took retribution on an elderly man who showed an exceptional concern for his neighbors -though the man was by no means their only scapegoat. They also destroyed three other houses in Vedeno district for the same reason - two in the village of Tavzini, and one in Khatuni.

The actions of the insurgents cannot be justified. But what are people supposed to think of their government when the same thing is done, on a larger scale, on its behalf?

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