Federal and local authorities denied responsibility for the deaths of those found at the site and instead blamed the deaths on Chechen rebel forces and criminal gangs. However, the area where the mass dumping ground was found has been under Russian military control since December 1999, long before the vast majority of the bodies were deposited there.
The Russian government's investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of those found at the site has been wholly inadequate. Russian authorities failed to provide adequate time or information for identifying the bodies, so that the victims' relatives often did not know that they could view the bodies or learned about the identification process only through word of mouth. Russian authorities also conducted the investigation in a manner that did not preserve potentially crucial evidence that might have led to the identification of those responsible for the torture and execution-style killings of the more than fifty persons found at the site. The investigation provided further evidence of the Russian government's refusal to take meaningful steps to identify the perpetrators of serious human rights abuses by its forces and hold them accountable.
Dachny was not the first site of unmarked graves to be found in Chechnya, although it is the largest found to date. In March, Human Rights Watch issued a report, "The `Dirty War' in Chechnya: Forced Disappearances, Torture and Summary Executions," documenting eight mass graves and eight other makeshift burial sites where corpses of the "disappeared" and others had been found.1 Most of the people whose bodies were found in those graves were last seen in the custody of Russian federal forces, and most bore unmistakable signs of torture. Injuries commonly found on the bodies included broken limbs, flayed body parts, severed fingertips, and knife and gunshot wounds.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed
nineteen individuals who searched for "disappeared" relatives at Dachny
village or at the identification site. This report is based on those interviews,
on information from the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, and
on photographs and videos taken of the bodies.2
Russian troops established control over Dachny village and the area around it in December 1999 as they closed in on Grozny. On January 25, 2000, the Russian army established its main base at Khankala on the other side of the Grozny-Argun road, approximately one kilometer away from Dachny village.3 It continues to be the main Russian military base in Chechnya. Helicopters, tents, and towers are visible from the road. One witness told Human Rights Watch that the road has been used almost exclusively for military purposes.4 A relief worker who traveled along the road periodically in 2000 said that he saw very little civilian traffic along it and that most people preferred to drive around the base to avoid the difficult checkpoints.5 Checkpoint 105, just west of Dachny, apparently was particularly difficult to pass, as troops manning the checkpoint would turn back civilian travelers on it.6
Prior to the war, Grozny residents maintained their summer cottages, vegetable gardens, and small orchards in Dachny, and would spend their weekends and holidays there. But civilians have apparently not been living in the village, due to the significant damage it suffered during the war and to its inaccessibility. Those who went to the village to look for their relatives reported that many of the cottages were destroyed and plots of land abandoned. For example, "Vakha Rubaev" told Human Rights Watch said that when he looked for the body of his son there he saw mainly "destroyed cottages, wildly growing fruit bushes and trees . . . a sad place."7
The proximity of the military base and
the numerous checkpoints made access to the Grozny-Argun road and thus
Dachny village difficult for civilians. But tracks of armored personnel
carriers (APCs) and other military vehicles suggest that Russian troops
went regularly to the village of Dachny. "Vakha Rubaev," who searched Dachny
in February 2001 for his "disappeared" relative, told Human Rights Watch
that "there are signs of the treads of tires, either of trucks or APCs"
in the village. Indeed, such tracks are visible on a picture taken on February
24, 2001, showing Chechnya procurator Vsevolod Chernov on a road off the
Grozny-Argun road leading into Dachny village.8
The Discovery of
the Mass Dumping Ground
The first of the bodies to be found at Dachny, that of Adam Chimaev, was reportedly recovered from the village on February 15, 2001. According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, Chimaev had been detained at a Russian checkpoint between Shali and Germenchuk on December 3, 2000.9 In early February 2000, a military officer told Chimaev's relatives-who had been actively looking for him-that his body was in a cottage at Dachny village. The relatives subsequently paid the equivalent of U.S. $3,000 to be allowed to remove Chimaev's body from the village. Chimaev had been shot three times in the chest.
Russian officials responded to reports of the mass dumping ground only after another group of relatives found the bodies of their "disappeared" relatives-Magomed Magomadov, Odes Mitaev, and Said-Rakhman Musaev-on February 21 and formally reported the discovery to the authorities. Russian forces on APCs had detained the three men on December 10, 2000, in their home village of Raduzhnoe. The relatives told Human Rights Watch that they found out about the dumping site by word of mouth, from a woman who was searching for her own son at Dachny. "Vakha Rubaev," an uncle of Odes Mitaev, said: [My sister-in-law] was searching for him. She . . . met a woman . . . who was also looking for her sons. Well, she described the clothes of my nephew. You could say that they exchanged "information." And then February 20, 2001, an aunt of Odes came to us. . . The woman had told [his] aunt that "according to the description, your nephew Odes Mitaev is at Dachny village, not far from Khankala."10
The woman provided the aunt with directions to the site where she thought she saw Odes Mitaev's corpse. According to her instructions, one needed to enter Dachny from the Argun road at checkpoint 105, near a burned out bus. The next day, relatives of Mitaev, Magomadov, and Musaev went to Dachny. To ensure their protection, one of the relatives, who works in the federally-appointed administration of Chechnya, arranged for several OMON troops to accompany them.11 "Rubaev" said:
We found the reference point-the bombed out and burned bus, stopped near it and walked onto the territory of the Dachny village. . . . We went in-it was snowing and forty or fifty meters from the road we found two bodies. The OMON officers put a hook on them (they were thrown on top of each other) to see if they were mined or not. They stretched the rope and pulled them apart. When we established that they were not mined, . . . A relative recognized Said-Rakhman, and Magomadov [recognized] his brother, Magomed.12
"Rubaev" and another relative of Odes Mitaev continued their search further along the road, even after the OMON officers warned them that it could be mined. "Rubaev" said:
We walked further into the village along the road at our own risk, along the tracks of an APC. We walked in some five or six hundred meters. . . following some intuition we started walking along other tracks and found our nephew under the wall of a destroyed cottage. . .13
"Rubaev" said he saw several other dead
bodies along the road.
The relatives said that they subsequently
informed the authorities of their discovery. On February 24, 2001, the
discovery of the mass dumping site became generally known, both in Chechnya
and elsewhere. That day, Vsevolod Chernov, who at the time was the civilian
procurator (prosecutor) of Chechnya, visited the site and procuracy officials
confirmed that they had found numerous dead bodies in the village. 14
According to Interfax, Chernov also announced that "all the discovered
bodies were mined," something that could not be independently confirmed.15
According to media reports, the military sealed off the area to people
seeking missing relatives.
The Recovery and
The Chechen civilian procuracy, then headed by Chernov, led the operation. It is unclear what other law enforcement agencies and experts participated in the operation, where exactly the forty-eight bodies were found, and what leads on possible suspects in the killings had been found at the site. The bodies were put in body bags, which were numbered, and then taken to the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) base in Grozny,17 where they were laid in rows on the floor of a huge half-empty and half-destroyed building used as a temporary morgue. The bodies were transferred to the base in shifts, from February 24 through March 2. Notably, no cooling devices were available at the site.
By February 26 or 27, 2001, nine bodies had been brought to the base, and relatives of missing persons were allowed to view them. During the ten days that followed, fourteen persons were identified; the remaining thirty-four bodies were not unidentified.
The MChS base, which is located near the Grozny city procuracy, was fully accessible to the public. Relatives could simply walk in and look around. A procuracy official was present to deal with people who identified their relatives among the bodies.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed a total of nineteen people who inspected the bodies, looking for their relatives; many were unsuccessful. Several Human Rights Watch interviewees visited the base every few days to inspect newly arrived corpses. For example, forty-five-year-old Zura Ismailova, whose son went missing in September 2000, told Human Rights Watch on March 10, 2001 that she had been at the base for the ninth consecutive day to look for him. She did not find his body.18 Video footage shot by the Memorial Human Rights Center on February 28, 2001 shows about a dozen people walking among the bodies, looking at faces and clothes, examining shoes and other items that could lead to identification. Almost all these people are shown holding handkerchiefs to their mouths, apparently against the stench; one man can be seen wearing a gas mask.
People who identified their relatives told
Human Rights Watch they tried to bring the bodies home as quickly as possible
to bury them in accordance with Muslim tradition. As far as Human Rights
Watch is aware, in most cases these people were allowed to bring the bodies
home the same day or the next, after presenting the necessary identification
documents to the procuracy official present. Relatives of Islam Tazurkaev,
for example, told Human Rights Watch they found him among the corpses and
brought him home after bringing identity papers to the base the next day.
The Burial of
the Unidentified Bodies
3 "Russian military HQ moves to Grozny suburb," NTV independent television, January 25, 2000, as reported in BBC Monitoring.
4 Human Rights watch interview with "Vakha Rubaev" (not his real name), Nazran, March 16, 2001.
5 Human Rights Watch interview, December, 2000.
6 Checkpoint 105 was popularly known as the "Buryat checkpoint," apparently because it is manned by troops from the Buryat Republic.
7 Human Rights Watch interview with "Vakha Rubaev," Nazran, March 16, 2001.
8 Relatives of Odes Mitaev, Said-Rakhman Musaev, and Magomed Magomadov were present at Dachny village when Chechnya procurator Vsevolod Chernov inspected the sight on February 24, 2001. They took several pictures, copies of which were obtained by Human Rights Watch.
9 See Memorial press materials, "Bodies Near Khankala: Irrefutable Proof of War Crimes by Federal Forces," March 5, 2001, available on the Memorial website at www.memo.ru/hr/hotpoints/N-Caucas/hankala/app2.htm (accessed March 2001). Memorial is the source for all other information on the Chimaev case in this report.
10 Human Rights Watch interview with "Vakha Rubaev," Nazran, March 16, 2001.
11 OMON (Otriady Militsii Osobogo Naznachenia) are riot troops.
12 Human Rights Watch interview with "Vakha Rubaev," Nazran, March 16, 2001.
14 Robyn Dixon, "Chechen Bodies Found at Mass Dumping Site," Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2001.
15 Interfax news agency, February 25, 2001, as cited in BBC Worldwide.
16 Andrei Kuzminov, "On the Territory of the Gardening Collective `Zdorovye' Outside Grozny Forty-Eight Dead Bodies Were Found," Itar-Tass news agency, March 3, 2001.
17 Whereas it appeared that only a number (1 to 48) was written on the vast majority of the body bags, relatives of Islam Tazurkaev told Human Rights Watch that the body bag containing Tazurkaev's corpse was labelled as "28.02.01 401 '10'." It is clear that the first figures are the date of recovery of the body, but it is unclear what the other figures mean. Human Rights Watch interview with a relative of Islam Tazurkaev, Nazran, March 13, 2001.
18 Human Rights Watch interview with Zura Ismailova, Nazran, March 10, 2001.
19 Ana Uzelac, "One Woman's Story From the Grave," Moscow Times, March 14, 2001.