The soldiers pointed at the burning houses and said "We will destroy all of Chechnya this way. You see your city? We'll flatten Chechnya."
On February 8, in the afternoon, they came to my house at 116 Voronezhskaia Street. They looted everything - I saw it with my own eyes . . . .They took the TV, my tape player, and my wife's kitchen appliances, vases-anything they liked. They took my brother's things as well.
On February 5, Russian contract soldiers deliberately torched many homes that belonged to Chechen civilians in Aldi. Witness after witness told Human Rights Watch in interviews, conducted separately and in private, that they either had seen Russian soldiers deliberately set fire to their homes or property or returned home to find their homes on fire or burned to the ground. Some of the acts of arson seem to be primitive attempts to destroy evidence of summary executions and other civilian killings. Soldiers also torched the homes of the people found without proper documents, in what seems to be revenge on those they believed might have harbored rebel fighters. In one incident, the arson itself appears to have been a murder attempt.
While soldiers engaged in some pillage on February 5, pillage on a massive scale took place during the next week. Witnesses stated that on the days following the massacre they heard Russian military trucks driving into Aldi at night to load looted goods. Others stated that soldiers returned in large numbers on February 10 in broad daylight and brazenly stripped their homes of valuables. The looting that took place in Aldi was not an isolated incident of such misconduct by Russian forces in Chechnya: since the beginning of the Chechen conflict, Russian troops have been systematically looting villages and towns under their control, and there is no evidence that the Russian command has taken any steps to prevent it.90
Three witnesses described in detail to Human Rights Watch how Russian soldiers carried canisters of inflammable liquid that they used to burn down civilian homes and property. Asiat Chaadaeva saw soldiers burn down two homes on Fourth Almazny Lane, which belonged to the Kuzhaev and Akhmadov family. She described to Human Rights Watch how soldiers questioned her and her family, threatening to mark their foreheads with a green antibiotic to "make it easier to shoot them," before she watched the soldiers burn down two houses on Fourth Almazny Lane. She told Human Rights Watch:
The soldiers had small white canisters, made of thick plastic. They poured liquid from it on houses, on Kuzhaev's house, at 4 Fourth Almazny Lane and on Akhmadov's house, number 6 on the same street. The soldiers said they would burn all the empty houses that were locked.91
Chaadaeva said that her elder brother, Timur, was ordered to stand behind the commander as he walked down the street, to cover him from sniper fire. Chaadaeva and her father went with the soldiers, fearful of what might happen to Timur and worried that the soldiers would burn down more houses. She told Human Rights Watch that she and her father followed soldiers to 13 Fourth Almazny Lane and saw a soldier trying to get permission from his commanding officer to burn down the house. The house belonged to a wealthy family and contained a large amount of canned food. She stated that:
My father was worried that the soldiers would burn the house down. He said that the food was humanitarian aid. The soldier who wanted to mark our foreheads asked the commander to let him burn down the house, and took off the cap of the container. The commander kicked him away.92
Sultan S. told Human Rights Watch that he saw Russian soldiers burn five homes during the day on February 5 on Tsimliansky Lane and Tsimlianskaia Street. He believed the soldiers chose to burn the most prosperous, unoccupied homes.
I personally saw five houses being burnt this way. We managed to put out the fire twice. The soldiers usually waited until the fire was too big to be put out before leaving. They did it deliberately, especially if it was difficult to get in somewhere.
From Tsimlianskaia Street, the soldiers went to Third Tsimliansky Lane. I saw the house on the corner, the Labazanovs', was burning. I ran there several times to make sure the fire wouldn't spread. Each time I saw soldiers waiting outside for the fire to catch.93
Around 10:00 a.m., Russian soldiers were burning homes on Kamskaia Street, including the home of Usam Akhmadov, and on Matasha-Mazaeva Street. Akhmed A. and "M." (name withheld), whom Human Rights Watch interviewed separately and in private, stated that they had been together when they witnessed these acts of arson. Akhmed A. described in detail to Human Rights Watch what he saw:
I heard a crackling sound and couldn't understand whether it was gunfire or roof slates crackling [in the fire]. It was Usam Akhmadov's house burning on Kamskaia Street. About thirty soldiers were on the corner of Matasha-Mazaeva Street in different positions. Some were lying down, others were standing. They were burning the house-they had red bottles in their hands and sprayed liquid from the bottles onto the house which seemed to spontaneously ignite.
The same soldiers torched Akhmed A.'s house, while he and M. were in it. According to Akhmed A., the soldiers had noticed him watching from about fifty meters away as the soldiers torched the homes on Matasha-Mazaeva Street. He and M. ran back to Akhmed A.'s house on Matasha-Mazaeva Street and hid in a secret hiding place they had prepared in the foundations of the house. Akhmed A. told Human Rights Watch that ten minutes later he heard about ten soldiers come into his house. He could hear them talking overhead and heard one of them tell the other to burn his car.
A few minutes later, he heard a spraying sound and described what he smelled:
[It was ] a strong chemical smell like gasoline, perhaps. The soldiers left the house and ten of them were in the yard. They opened the gates and set the house alight with their guns, ready to shoot anyone who came out. We crawled under the floor into the bedroom and broke through the floor. I had three blankets which we wrapped around ourselves and jumped out the window-the bedroom was on fire. We stayed under the awning watching the house and garage burn. We saw the soldiers outside-we stayed until the roof fell in and then left. The whole incident took twenty minutes.94
Akhmed A. claims that Russian soldiers burned around one hundred homes in Aldi, principally on Matasha-Mazaeva Street. Akhmed A. said that after dark on February 5, once the soldiers had left, he and others went through the streets of Aldi putting out fires and picking up dead bodies.
Following the February 5 massacre, Russian soldiers returned to Aldi on numerous occasions to loot homes. Human Rights Watch interviewed multiple witnesses to the looting. Forty-one-year-old Zapiat Z. (not the woman's true name) stated that she saw two separate groups of soldiers looting homes in Aldi on February 9 when she was returning home from helping to wash and prepare a body for burial. She told Human Rights Watch:
When I was coming back from washing Zina's body, I saw soldiers loading looted things on to a truck on Voronezhskaia Street on February 9. My daughter accompanied me when we went to wash the bodies. When we came back it was 3:30 p.m. I saw two APCs and the soldiers taking out things and loading them. When the soldiers noticed us two women, they shot in the air. My daughter and I ran away quickly because the soldiers always killed witnesses.
After this incident, I was scared to go out again and I refused to go to wash other bodies, even when I was asked. When we were running down Voronezhskaia Street and reached the crossing with Khoperskaia Street, we saw two APCs on one side and two APCs on the other side, also loading things. Fortunately, the soldiers didn't notice us.95
Aina Mezhidova told Human Rights Watch that she witnessed soldiers looting goods from homes on Brianskaia and Khoperskaia Streets:
I saw soldiers taking things from [the] Albostuv and Khatuev [homes] on Brianskaia Street. On February 6 or 7, they came on Ural96 military trucks and loaded things and left. They sometimes came during the day, like on the seventh of February when they came to Khavazhi Torzaev's house on Khoperskaia Street. They took two televisions, a video recorder, and furniture. The five brothers who lived in their compound were wealthy and their homes were looted.97
V. (name withheld) himself saw soldiers looting openly on February 10 for more than two hours. V. was one of the first of sixteen men to be detained that day (see above) when soldiers returned for document checks. He was detained in a truck that was used to haul away looted items:
The soldiers made me and fifteen other men get into a Ural truck. While we sat there, there were already several carpets in it. We were guarded by soldiers. The soldiers went slowly with us in the truck along the street. If the gates of a house were locked, they broke it open with a pick-axe or kicked it open. They did it openly. Women were walking and relatives of the men went along crying asking the soldiers to release us. It happened around 12 noon. While we went along the street, they detained men as well as stole goods. When I was detained there were three others. There were three Urals, several UAZ [minibuses], and an APC.98 They looted in front of women and old men. In Rasaev's two-story house, they took ten microwave ovens, several carpets, kitchen utensils, dishes. The looting went on for two hours.99
Raisa Soltakhanov also witnessed the looting on February 10. She stated that the soldiers returned that day and "went through houses on Matasha-Mazaeva Street, taking whatever they liked. I saw soldiers removing things and loading them onto a truck."100
Yusup Musaev told Human Rights Watch that on the afternoon of February 8, soldiers returned and looted goods from his home at 116 Voronezhskaia Street. He told Human Rights Watch:
They looted everything, I saw it with my own eyes. That was after lunch, before sunset. They took the TV, my tape player, and my wife's kitchen appliances, vases, anything they liked. They took my brother's things as well.10190 See Human Rights Watch release, "Looting Underway in Russian-controlled Areas of Chechnya: Russian Soldiers Stripping Homes Bare," November 24, 1999. Pillage is banned by international humanitarian law. Article 4 of Protocol II additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, protects, among other things, civilian immunity in internal armed conflicts. Article4(2) forbids pillage.
91 Human Rights Watch interview, Kantyshevo, Ingushetia, March 23, 2000.
93 Human Rights Watch interview, Kantyshevo, Ingushetia, March 17, 2000.
95 Human Rights Watch interview, Karabulak, Ingushetia, February 22, 2000.
96 Ural, a large truck commonly used by the Russian military.
97 Human Rights Watch interview, Sleptsovsk, Ingushetia, March 18, 2000.
98 UAZ, a small minibus, used by the military and police.
99 Human Rights Watch interview, Karabulak, Ingushetia, March 27, 2000.
100 Human Rights Watch interview, Nazran, Ingushetia, March 17, 2000.
101 Human Rights Watch interview, Nazran, Ingushetia, May 12, 2000.