Skip to main content

A heavy, stifling heat envelops the Caucasus in midsummer. During the day the sun fries your brain, your throat itches from the hot dust, and the night brings no relief, only hordes of maddened mosquitoes.

After hurtling along Chechen roads from dawn till dusk in a tiny, overheated car, rattling through villages, trudging around in the pounding heat looking for the right house, you long only to dive into cool water. You gaze wistfully at every creek and even at the ditches. When you see boys splashing in the muddy puddles you are filled with envy. If only you could do just that - take off your sticky clothes and dive in... But that's just not possible  - damn these modesty laws!

By the evening of one of those days, I'd returned to Natasha's place, completely exhausted. As usual, the lift wasn't working. The walk up to the tenth floor was just what I needed at that moment. And of course, buying that watermelon that gleamed alluringly from the stall by the house was out of the question - when you're climbing Everest you just can't manage an extra 14-kilos.

I got up the stairs, opened the door, took off that wretched headscarf and went to the kitchen, where it was very stuffy, despite the open windows. Natasha was sitting at the table, talking excitedly to her journalist friend sitting opposite. Where had he dropped from - he wasn't here yesterday.  It was hardly surprising to see him, though. Everyone went straight to Natasha, she always had guests... "Hi! I'm as filthy as a pig. Will just take a quick shower". "You should take a seat. There's no water yet anyway..." And indeed, for my sins, the tap was dry, and the bucket almost empty.

It was the seventh year I'd been staying with Natasha Estermirova when I was in Grozny. Lots of people did. Russians and foreigners. Correspondents, photographers, researchers, human rights advocates, all sorts... I guess the only thing that distinguished me from the others was that over the years it had come to feel like home for me. I had my own keys, I knew the neighbours, had my own sheets that were put away in a box between visits (there's no point in washing sheets that are a week old if I'd be back in a month or two!). I knew where to find everything, which shops had the best groceries, and where to take the rubbish. In fact, it was my second home: the only thing I didn't have was registration of residence.

Once, this apartment had just been a crude bombed out box, with bare concrete walls peppered with holes from shells. Then, slowly but surely, it got wallpaper, whitewash, and wooden flooring. The balcony became a sunroom. A pleasant ceiling light with a rotating fan was fitted in the kitchen, and attractive furniture began to appear. Natasha did the renovations herself, and they went on for years - she had neither time nor money. But she was touchingly proud that she'd mastered the art of putty and whitewash, and that her apartment had gradually begun to look like a well-maintained home - with blinds, paintings, flowers, framed photographs, delicate porcelain cups in a sideboard and exquisite crystal glasses proudly displayed for all to see.

By this July, these painstaking efforts at home-building were finally complete. Natasha beamed as she showed off her new fold-out sofa in the living room, and boasted of the  coloured beakers that she had bought cheaply from a street stall. "You probably think I'm bourgeois," she laughed. "But I'm not ashamed at all. I like comfort... And I even like lace napkins."

It was a pleasure to see how life was coming together for Natasha. To see that the terrible years of the war were becoming a thing of the past - and that she had survived them. That the buildings in Grozny were being rebuilt, that there was running water, if not all the time, and that in the evening you could sit in a pleasant café, watching the brightly-lit streets through the window. And now, you can also go and look at the enormous mosque in the centre of town too - the main monument to come out of President Kadyrov's rebuilding programme. I'd walked past it so many times, but had never been inside. Apparently, Natasha's daughter hadn't been there either. I thought I'd take her along with me. These days, one does not have to stay behind locked doors at night. Indeed, lots of people are out on the streets.

15-year-old Lana was getting herself ready with typical teenage care. I got busy typing up my notes from the day onto the computer in the hope that the Internet café in the centre of town would be open until late, and I'd be able to send the information today. While working I listened to Natasha talking to the correspondent, butted into the conversation, snatched thin pieces of salty suluguni cheese from a plate, sipped some tea and smoked cigarette after cigarette. A fluffy cat rubbed against my legs, begging for a piece of sausage. The two tiny kittens that were born just ten days earlier - white and striped - squeaked in the corner. The only thing that spoiled the idyll was the new, absolutely revolting stories that my fingers were typing on the keyboard almost automatically.

In 2007-2008, it seemed that the violence had died down. But since this spring, the armed underground had stepped up its activities. And in response, the punitive measures of the Chechen law-enforcement structures against the relatives of rebels, their possible supporters and sympathisers had taken increasingly savage forms. By July things had escalated out of proportion.

In the mountain village of Akkinchu-Borzoi, a bunch of law-enforcement officers shot a man in front of local teenagers for allegedly "feeding a sheep to rebels". They kicked the body, and explained to the horrified boys: this is what will happen to everyone who even gives the rebels a crust of bread.

This man had lived in Stavropol for 26 years, and returned to Chechnya less than a year ago to look after his seriously ill mother. His house was on the outskirts of the village, on the edge of the forest. Needless to say, there are insurgents in the forest. And if bearded militants in dirty camouflage knock on your door at night, waving their weapons and asking for food, are you going to turn them down? You could, of course, try explaining to them that their activities are unlawful, but it's hardly likely they're going to listen to your legal arguments...

The relatives who collected the man's body after his public execution complained to the prosecutor's office. But officers from the Kurchaloy district police department soon came to inform them that the man must have died from a stroke. All very sad, but what can you do - a "person is mortal, and death is sudden". The relatives had to agree  - they wanted to live a bit longer.

And in Shali, law enforcement officers arrested one man for allegedly picking someone up on the highway and giving him a lift. The passenger supposedly turned out to be a rebel. So, police officials rounded up the unfortunate driver, and burnt down his house for good measure. There were three closely related families living all together in the same yard, with 12 children between them, and the house was burnt down as the children watched... Maybe someone should raise the issue with the authorities? Or is this out of the question, considering that the burning was done by police officials? Will this just make things worse?

Natasha and I had counted 27 of these punitive house-burnings over the last year - this was the 28th. Since then another house in Argun had become the 29th case. A 19-year-old girl who'd allegedly married a rebel used to live there with her parents. Some say it was her choice to marry, others that she'd been kidnapped and forced into it. Who can tell now? In any case, at the end of June, the girl vanished from the house. She left in the morning and didn't return. In the evening, she rang her parents, told them not to look for her because she was now a married woman.

But one week later, her husband was killed in a special operation on the outskirts of Grozny - it seems he shot back at the officers, and according to official information, he was no less than a "representative of Al-Qaeda in the north Caucasus".  The officers brought the girl to the 9th Grozny hospital, wounded, needing an operation. For a couple of days she was kept there under guard. The nurses said that she was recovering, eating, asking to see her mother, just for a minute...

Then at dawn, officers in camouflage put her on a stretcher, carried her out of the hospital, put her in a car and took her away somewhere. Literally an hour later, the girl's body, carefully wrapped in a shroud, was thrown out of the car by the parents' house, which had been burnt down the night before. She was buried quickly and quietly, without anyone daring to do so much as peek in theshroud. The parents took their two other young daughters away with them, and haven't set foot in Argun since.

The sickening brutality that leaped from the pages of my notebook seemed particularly absurd there in Natasha's cozy kitchen as we prepared to take a walk through Grozny at night. But this all just happened, here and now. These are notes from yesterday and today. They describe what I was coming across on my trips around Chechnya. Things that Natasha encountered every day.

The summer nights in Chechnya are extremely dark, but the central street - Putin Avenue - literally blazes with light. It could be Broadway. The illuminated minarets of the enormous mosque -: "the largest mosque in Russia," the local authorities declare proudly - cut through the sky. Around it there's a promenade with coloured fountains - red, green and blue jets of water shoot up into the air, some higher, some lower. Lana (who just this year, not without regret, exchanged her "children's" jeans for an "adult" skirt) prances around happily. We enter the mosque, walk around, raising our heads, admiring the paintings, vaults, and crystal clusters of the enormous chandelier. And then we go out to look at the fountains again.

Lana had not seen this square in all its magnificence properly, because since Victory Avenue was renamed Putin Avenue, Natasha stopped walking on it as a sign of protest. She didn't make a big deal out of it. She simply kept away from Putin Avenue with remarkable stubbornness. She walked through courtyards, made detours, did everything she could to avoid setting foot on a street whose name she found insulting.

But with all due respect for Natasha's principles, the city centre is wonderful. It may be garish and tacky, but what does that matter, when until recently this place was a heap of ruins that seemed as if they would be there forever, frozen in time. And the mosque is a miracle in itself. One simply has to admit, Kadyrov has done it up beautifully. If you can only stop thinking about everything else, forget the gruesome findings of the day for a minute, and just splash the laughing girl with water from the fountain...

At around midnight Natasha starts nodding off. She's an early bird, and I'm a night-owl. She's about to go off to bed, while I'll sit at the computer until four. Soon after I go to bed for my well-deserved four hours' sleep, Natasha will be up and sitting at the same computer. I pause before going on with my writing and keep the conversation going : "Don't go to bed just yet. Listen to me for a moment. It's really time you left. Yes, if you walk around the city centre, it's all beautiful and it looks peaceful. But you understand the situation all too well. Your daughter's nearly grown up. She can't stay here with all this savagery, fear and lies. And you shouldn't either. You've done enough, over all these years... There's only so much a person can do." Natasha rubs her red eyes and mumbles that she can't stay forever, of course, but if she leaves, then who'll do this work, who will these people who need help be able to turn to? "The work on social rights issues, housing and so on, can be managed without you!" I insist. "As for the rest... These people are just too scared to talk. They're not coming to you, you're going to them. You're the one begging them to talk, to give you a chance to help them. But they're absolutely terrified. Of course I don't blame them. They're right to be scared, as we all know. But why should you be taking this risk for everyone?"

Natasha takes a last sip of tea: "Yes, it would be good to leave - for a year, say. I so want to write a book. But there is always so much to do and no time left for anything. But if I did go somewhere... Not now, of course, I just can't at the moment..." She gets up from the kitchen sofa, and staggering from tiredness, heads for the bedroom. "Come on, do it now!" I laugh as she leaves. "Just think how awful it'll be if you get bumped off, and haven't even written the book which your friends and colleagues can bring out with great fanfare after your death. You're not going to have a book, like proper people, just a pathetic posthumous collection of articles. The shame of it! Those posthumous collections of articles are the pits. If you've got a shred of conscience and self-respect left, you'll get out of here and not come back ‘til you've written the book!" I move the mouse to wake the sleeping computer, and hear Natasha chuckling sleepily as she pulls the blanket over herself.

She was killed two days later, on 15 July. She was pushed into a car while running to catch a shuttle taxi early in the morning. They took her from Chechnya into Ingushetia, and shot her by the forest. At the funeral Lana tagged at my sleeve: "You will publish a collection of Mum's articles now, won't you? Mum didn't write a book... You said that if a person is killed and hasn't written a book, then they publish a collection of articles..." We like to think that children sleep at night, but they listen to our midnight conversations with great attention. Natasha's articles have already been collected. There are so few of them that they are not enough for a collection. Just a slim booklet. She spent all her time helping other people, from a boy thrown in a pit to an old woman who'd become homeless, and didn't have time to do her own writing.

There will be no memorial meeting in Grozny to mark the 40 days since Natasha's death. People believe that coming out onto the street and standing quietly with a portrait of their deceased friend is an act of suicide. There were not many people at the funeral either. In Chechnya these days, it's a risky business mourning the "undesirable" deceased.

I flew to the Caucasus for the 40-day anniversary of Natasha's death. I found my seat on the plane and put my bag under the seat. The plane was already taxiing on to the runway when my mobile rang. In Makhachkala, the office of "Mothers of Dagestan," the only local organization that investigates kidnapping, killing and torture, had been set on fire. It was crucial to find out the details and talk to the press, but my plane had already taken off... As I frantically tried to think who could take on this urgent job, I scrolled through the contacts on my mobile, and automatically dialed a familiar number, before I suddenly realized I was dialing Natasha.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country