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Ending Chechnya’s counterterrorism operation - or not

By Tanya Lokshina, published on open Democracy News Analysis ( on April 27, 2009

On April 16, the counterterrorism operation in Chechnya, known in Russian by the acronym KTO (for kontrterroristicheskaia operatsia), was declared "over." Ramzan Kadyrov had actively lobbied for this announcement and once again, as many experts have observed, the Kremlin caved to his demands. Judging by the last several years, Kadyrov gets whatever he wants from the federal government.

As recently as March 31, the National Antiterrorism Committee had decided that it would be premature to suspend the KTO. The committee met amid the scandal surrounding the killing of Sulim Yamadaev, a former rebel field commander who switched to the federal side. He became commander of the Chechen "Vostok" division under Kadyrov, and subsequently Kadyrov's main opponent. On March28 Yamadaev was murdered (or accidentally killed, or simply shot, the details are still unclear) by a bullet from a golden pistol (how typical for our parts!) in Dubai. There is already a sensationalist statement from the Dubai police that the man who ordered the hit is none other than a Duma representative who is Kadyrov's right-hand man, Adam Delimkhanov, and that the golden toy used to kill Yamadaev--or wound him, or, at least to shoot at him--belongs to Delimkhanov. 

At the end of March, while commenting on the National Antiterrorism Committee's reluctance to yield to the Chechen president's demands regarding the immediate suspension of the KTO, many experts and journalists suggested that Moscow had become concerned that the situation in Chechnya was out of control,  and that tensions grew after Moscow received yet another blow to its image with this killing; in other words, that the Kremlin, having finally realized that Kadyrov was too independent, had refused to strengthen his power even more. Yet in a matter of a few weeks, Kadyrov got what he wanted.

The decision will result in the withdrawal from the republic of 20,000 troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs' internal forces.  And--no less important--Grozny airport will now be able to accept international flights and have a customs post.

During the day on April 16, cars with Russian and Chechen flags sped around Grozny's center. A celebratory concert and public outings were organized on the main street, Victory Avenue--now Putin Avenue--filled with luxuriously built villas and colorful shops.  The Chechen evening news showed the Chechen president smiling radiantly, and standing next to him was Adam Delikhanov, who spoke into the camera, saying that the people were indebted to Ramzan for the long-awaited suspension of the KTO, as well as for all other successes in the republic, and that Ramzan's team would always stand behind him and carry out his orders. 

Gunshots soon rang out, not in Grozny, but in the mountains of the Shatoi district near the Dai settlement, and not from golden pistols, but from common, everyday assault rifles. Around 11 p.m. in the mountains, there was a gunfight between the security forces and a group of rebels. The latter apparently didn't know about the KTO being over. Or, they just didn't get it. Or perhaps, they wanted to ruin everyone's good time.  But the party went on.  And on the evening of April 17, as a final touch, the people were promised a fireworks display. 

That morning, I sat in the lobby of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Grozny, typing up my interviews with the families whose houses had been burned down because they were accused of having a family member among the rebels hiding in the mountains. The only conclusion you can make after looking at the striking pattern of burnings is that government forces were responsible for them. At first the families had been warned - please get your relatives out of the woods and bring them to us, or there will be trouble.  Serious trouble. You raised them, so you are responsible for them.  And if they don't come - it'll be your hide. 

The parents of the "woodland brothers" had desperately tried to explain that the "departed" did not keep in touch with them. Where does one look for them, and how?  But law enforcement authorities dismissed such arguments, especially since President Kadyrov himself said on television over the summer that "there is no family who does not communicate with its relatives in the woods," and "those families, whose relatives are in the woods, are accomplices- they're terrorists, extremists, mujahedeen, and devils." 

As a result, several families fell victim to preventive measures - armed men would arrive at night, drag the families outside, pour gasoline over the house, wait until the flames were well under way, and leave. And in those rare cases, when the victims had the nerve to complain, it was quickly explained that to them that complaining would create additional difficulties and that punishment should be received silently.

I was documenting a story about a middle-aged woman, who said she decided last September, after her house was burned down, to try to find and bring back her son, as the authorities had demanded. The police told her his general whereabouts.  Having taken some clothes--it would be wrong, she thought, to bring the guy back in dirty camouflage--and some food, she took off for the forest. She did not get far. She was intercepted by armed men, thrown into a car, and taken Tsentoroi, the village where Kadyrov lives. There, in a large house where they were living, young men in good physical shape spent several hours torturing her, a woman old enough to be their mother. They beat her legs with batons: "So, you were going to visit your son in the woods!  Now you won't be walking anywhere for a while!" They would put electric cables to her back and head, and turn the dial of the hellish apparatus. When the electrical shock was administered to her head, the woman lost consciousness. Then they would pour water on her, and when she came to, they would continue the torture. They didn't even ask her any questions. 

Eventually, she said, she lost consciousness for a long while.  One of the younger men apparently had concluded that she was dead. Because, when she opened her eyes,  one of the older guards was lecturing the younger ones, "I already told you - women, they're tough, resilient. See - she's still alive!" They dragged her into the basement.  There, on the floor, was a bloodied boy, no more than 14 or 15 years old. He was trying to bring his handcuffed hands to cover his face. That wasn't necessary though, because his face was an unrecognizable mess. The boy was trying to muffle his groans, and occasionally would ask the guard to loosen the handcuffs. The guard ignored him. The woman felt sorry for the boy. And very afraid for herself.  And embarrassed that she was capable of feeling such a visceral fear. 

In the morning, two police officers came to the house and took her away.  What happened to the boy, the woman does not know. She was placed in custody and her paperwork was properly processed. They even took her to the hospital, after seeing the seriousness of her condition, and warned her to say that she fell off a ladder. A very high and steep ladder. She did what she was told. Then, right before the New Year, she was convicted of aiding an illegally armed organization - the court's conclusion was that following her son's request, she had been trying to smuggle clothes and supplies to the rebels when she was caught. She was sentenced to a year in prison. All in all, she was happy to get off so easily, and believed that it was all her fault - that it was an extremely foolish decision to go searching for her son in the woods.

As I was typing away, my mood was beyond terrible. So, the KTO is over - in essence, the second Chechen war, which has dragged on since the fall of 1999 as a counterinsurgency operation, is officially and irreversibly over. It's really none of my business whether there is or isn't a counterterrorism operation, for my work remains the same - documenting horrific stories, looking people in the eyes as they describe how they were tortured, asking additional questions, and pushing for details. 

Other human rights defenders, my Memorial colleagues, were composing requests to the prosecutor's office, helping write statements, speaking with victims. A heavy-set woman of about 65 was dumping the contents of her worn purse onto the table, "Look, here is a certificate my son Aslan received in first grade. Here is his list of his honors from seventh grade. And here is his school transcript - all A's!  He is a golden, golden boy!  But they took him away in 2003, and he disappeared. Can you make a copy of these documents and include them in the case to the European Court?  And his photograph, too.  Let the judges see what a wonderful boy he was. He had just finished school when he was taken away."  

For this woman--who had spent a year dragging around the documents attesting to her son's studiousness and obedience, showing them to anyone who would listen--it does not matter whether the KTO is over. And the man sitting on the edge of his chair, unshaven and tormented, whose house was destroyed by war, and whose family struggles along without shelter--as the flat provided with great pomp by the authorities turned out to be occupied by other people--he also has no reason to celebrate. 

Around noon, a television crew from St. Petersburg suddenly appeared.  A journalist headed straight toward my good friend, who was sorting through a stack of papers at her desk and said, "Do you remember me?  I interviewed you last year. We are here now to report on the suspension of the KTO. Do you have a comment? Many say that this is a really good, positive decision."

The phones have been ringing off the hook for almost 24 hours with calls from journalists. And here, into the room walks Alaudi Sadykov, shy as always, with his childlike smile. In 2002, Russian police serving in Chechnya detained him for almost six months, horribly tortured him, cut off his left ear. For almost seven years now, Alaudi has been visiting Memorial practically every day, telling his story again and again, and wondering whether there is any news from the prosecutor's office, or how soon  a decision about his case will come from the European Court.

My friend and I looked at each other in amazement. "You know," she said to the correspondent, "Why ask me, just talk to that man over there." The cameraman set up the camera, and in response to the question about his opinion of the KTO's suspension, Alaudi shrugged his shoulders and launched into a long story about how exactly they tortured him, and how they tortured the people who shared the same fate. To add a little color to his story, he threw back a lock of his hair to expose the spot where his ear used to be. 

As the television crew was wrapping up, another familiar face appeared, belonging to Marina Chaklaeva. In 2000, her 14-year-old son was kidnapped in Shali. He has not been seen since. The cameraman aimed his camera at Marina, "Would you mind telling us your opinion about the decision to suspend the KTO?" The small, neatly-dressed woman fixed her shawl, threw up her hands: "This is a political decision. What do I care about it.  What can I say about it?  What has ended for me? What has changed? For me, the war will be over when I find out what happened to my son."

Post Script: For years, flights arriving in Moscow from Grozny were subjected to an additional inspection. After arriving in the Moscow airport, Vnukovo, passengers were forced again, as before takeoff, to go through luggage screening, pass through a metal detector, and submit their passports for electronic inspection. This measure, widely seen by Chechens as degrading, was explained as necessary because of the increased risk of terrorism. But with the suspension of the KTO, the additional inspection should no longer be necessary. On April 18, I arrived in Vnukovo. As I ran toward the exit with my bag over my shoulder, my path was blocked by a policeman. "Young lady, where are you heading in such a hurry? Let's see your passport and get your bag screened?" "What passport?  What permit? The counterterrorism operation is over. In case you didn't hear, there was a broadcast about this on television a few days ago!" The man laughed, "It's on the TV that the operation is over. Now let's see those documents!"

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