The year 2010 is already well under way. Spring is not far off, but the centre of Grozny is still bathed in the New Year illuminations. It's about 9 in the evening and a friend from "Memorial" and I, both here for work, are walking along the main street, which is today called Putin Prospect. Multi-coloured fairy lights twinkle and shop windows blaze.
We are faced with a very complicated problem: we need to buy a pair of tights. The shops are still open, but the purchase turns out to be an unreal quest. The place is awash in foreign cosmetics. Posh leather, bags, coats, boots - take your pick, though when you see the prices you have to pinch yourself to make sure you're not dreaming. But when you ask for a pair of tights, the young sales girls titter disdainfully, tapping their stiletto heels on the highly polished floor impatiently. Putin Prospect is clearly not meant for people with everyday needs.
We lose heart and go into a dark café, where we sit down on a comfortable red sofa and have a coffee. Pop music is playing, but not too loud, and bright images flash across the huge, modern flat screen TV. There's a choice of espresso, cappuccino, mocha, latte or Viennese coffee with whipped cream. As we sip the hot foam out of china cups, for a moment we lose any sense of where we are. The stored memories of years bear no relation to the Chechen capital today. Grozny is now a completely different city.
But, most important, Natasha isn't here. Coming to terms with this is proving completely impossible. For those of us who came to Grozny to work, Memorial's Natasha Estemirova was an integral part of both the work and the city. We stayed at her flat and spent whole nights sitting up in the kitchen talking. We helped her little daughter with homework, rushed all over Chechnya together, spent nights in villages and tried to heave out of the impassable mud our car that had got stuck there.
Now, as we wander about the city, we seem to see Natasha's perennial black coat just round the corner or hear her rapid, impatient talk. We have to wrench ourselves back to the present so as not to call out to her. How can Natasha be here if two hours ago we were standing in the Koshkeldi village cemetery and, following local tradition, putting our palms on the snowy mound so that up there in heaven the dead person would somehow feel our touch and know that she isn't forgotten?
She can't be here, because when we got back from the cemetery we suddenly realised that it was exactly 7 months ago that she was killed. We'll never see her, never hear her again or spend the night in the one bedroom on the tenth floor of that high-rise in Hippodrome Street. We can't bear to go back there. This was where Natasha was bundled into a car, right at the bus stop, and driven away to be shot.... On 28 February she would have been 52, but this birthday went uncelebrated.
We ought to go back to Grozny, ought to try and get used to working there without Natasha and stop looking for her silhouette. And it's not only Natasha who isn't there: several close friends and relatives had to be sent abroad quickly, because they themselves were under threat. For us the new Grozny without so many dear friends has become a ghost town, more terrible somehow than when it lay in ruins.
We come out of the café and go to meet another «guest» of Grozny, who by sheer coincidence is in the city at the same time. Lord Judd, all the way from Britain, is waiting for us in the recently completed new hotel Arena City.
Frank Judd is an iconic figure in these parts. From 1999 to 2003 he was rapporteur on the situation in Chechnya for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). During that period Lord Judd, with commendable enthusiasm, came to war-torn Grozny nine times. He had meetings with victims and civil activists, people from «Memorial» and, indeed, with Natasha.... Judd accused Russia of some of the worst human rights violations that were the hallmark of that war: kidnapping, murdering civilians and torture.
In 2003 the Kremlin carried out a referendum in Chechnya on the new constitution, which would confirm the country as a constituent republic of the Russian Federation. Judd declared that the vote had been rigged: of all the people he had seen «no one had even read the draft Constitution», people were herded into the polling stations by force, often simply putting their signature on the voting paper. At that point Lord Judd stood down as a sign of protest. Since then he has tried to come to Chechnya many times, but the Russian authorities have not seen fit to let him do so. Now, after 7 years, he has managed to get to Grozny as the head of a tiny delegation from the UK Parliament.
Lord Judd and his parliamentary colleagues have already been driven through the brightly lit city centre and are animatedly discussing their impressions. It's one thing to hear about the reconstruction of Chechnya, but quite another to see it for real. Still, the exalted guests are not interested in the miracles of reconstruction only, so for the next three hours we try to answer all their questions. Judd continued to follow events in the region even though he stopped coming here. Last year he said on Radio Liberty: «If there is some kind of stability there, it's the stability of tyranny: Chechnya is still awash with fear, anxiety and intimidation..». Now he wouldn't mind being disabused of some of these unflattering opinions, but we have no grounds for that.
We tell him about the paralysing fear, that people are afraid to say anything against the authorities and that on the whole relatives of people kidnapped by law enforcement and security agencies under President Kadyrov's de facto control no longer even complain because any attempt to seek justice by talking to journalists or appealing to the General Prosecutor can have irreversible consequences for the whole family. Members of alleged militants' families are persecuted. They are beaten up, their houses burnt down and their sons kidnapped. Collective punishment and extrajudicial executions are promoted on Chechen TV by the highest-ranking officials in the republic.
We talk of «Memorial» and how the organisation has been courageous enough to speak out about these crimes. Local authorities heap vicious criticism on it. The Human Rights Ombudsman for Chechnya is particularly vitriolic. We try to explain about the total legal vacuum and the situation where the only rules that work are the President's. The federal centre turns a blind eye to his oral instructions that contravene Russian legislation. Investigators from the prosecutor's office working on abduction cases tend to refuse to question rank-and-file servicemen of the Oil Regiment or the Patrol and Inspection Brigade, which are known as particularly close to the president. The reason given is that the servicemen wouldn't show up anyway and might even beat up the investigators for daring to summon them in the first place.
Last November «Memorial», which had suspended work in Chechnya after Natasha was murdered, was trying to decide whether it should reopen its office there. Russian human rights organisations started sending people to Grozny to work in a coordinated mobile group on a shift system. People came in on rotation from various regions of Russia. They undertook the most dangerous case, just like the ones that Natasha had been working on. The group's help enabled «Memorial» to open up again with some sort of support on the ground. It is dealing with six ongoing cases, all to do with people who disappeared in the second half of 2009. It carries out independent investigations and demands that essential investigative work be done by competent authorities. It goes to court to fight illegal refusals to appeals and tries to protect clients who have taken the risk of fighting a legal battle to find out what happened to their disappeared relatives.
We promise to bring some of these to people to meet the good Lord Judd and his colleagues the next day, so they can see for themselves and hear it from the horse's mouth, as it were. Most important, the British parliamentarians are meeting Ramzan Kadyrov tomorrow evening, so they will be able to ask him specific questions about these cases.
One of the cases involves the top brass of the infamous Oil Regiment and another the Shali District Department of Internal Affairs. Just about a week ago, the leadership of the Shali police detained three members of the coordinated mobile group and kept them hanging about all night with questions about what they were actually doing in Chechnya and why they were poking their noses into other people's business.
The third case concerns the disappearance of Anti Zeylanov, who was accidentally discovered by his relatives in Achkhoi-Maratan Hospital with gunshot wounds and hastily removed by unidentified law-enforcement officials to an unknown location. Natasha Estemirova was working on this case during the last week of her life. Another case is that of a local staff member of the Danish Refugee Council, Zarema Gaisanova, who was kidnapped and disappeared at the time of the special operation in Grozny which, according to official police reports, was personally supervised by the President.
The British parliamentarians' programme was changed at the last moment, most probably not by chance. They rang up and asked us to make the meetings with the relatives in the «Memorial» office several hours earlier. We somehow managed to get everyone there. The women were crying and asking for something to be done and for the issue to be raised in conversation with Kadyrov. Kidnap victims are sometimes released after several months, so their hope is that perhaps their children are still alive.
Seventy-year old Danilbek Askhabov was beaten up by the Shali police right in the village square. He was presented with the bloody corpse of his son, who had been shot for being a militant, and he refused to disown him. Two months later, in August 2009, members of the secret service took away his second son, Abdul-Ezit, who also disappeared. «He's partially sighted, almost blind. He couldn't possibly be involved in anything. What did they take him for?» asked the old man, with eyes only for Judd, a man the same age as himself. «If I'm completely honest, I think the West has a lot to do with it. Do you know why? Because the West turned a blind eye to all this from the beginning of the war. It continues to do so now and gives us no protection. After all, it's your responsibility too. Help us - or take us all away from here..»
Lord Judd made no promises to take anyone away, which would be outside his sphere of competence, but he did promise that he would discuss what he had heard with the President and that he would talk tough. But there was no talk. Ramzan Kadyrov suddenly cancelled his meeting with the British visitors. He was obviously too busy for unpleasant questions.