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Europe Thursday, 9 August, 2001, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Russia's "dirty war"
A Chechen refugee with photographs of her son, who was murdered by Russian troops
As the conflict between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya continues, Tim Whewell travels to Moscow to hear the story of one man's fight for justice for the Chechen victims of war, and finds out how the Chechen community - so reviled throughout Russian history - maintains its identity and culture.

The man I've been brought to meet in the dark kitchen of a bare flat in a small north Caucasian town won't give his name, and never looks me in the face.

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He talks almost expressionlessly, as though afraid that if he gives way to emotion he won't be able to complete his story.

I can tell by his speech that he's a highly educated man. And he tells me that if I want to get back in contact, I should do so by e-mail.

The are 150 thousand refugees in camps in Ingushetia
But on July 2nd this year, he was treated no differently from all the other men of the Chechen village of Sernovodsk.


"The Russian forces came for us at about 8.30 in the morning," he says. "They beat up my son, who's 12, and when my daughter started to cry they kicked her in the stomach.

"They took me to a truck, put handcuffs on me and started to beat me up. After they hit me in the diaphragm, I lost consciousness. When I came round I was lying in the foundations of a half-finished building."

They beat up my son, who's 12, and when my daughter started to cry they kicked her in the stomach.

A refugee, who cannot give his name


My informant was describing the beginning of what the Russian army calls a zachistka, literally a "cleaning up operation", supposedly intended to "flush out" guerrilla fighters hiding among the civilian population. Hundreds of zachistki have been carried out throughout Chechnya since the latest war with Russia began nearly two years ago.

Morning prayers at a camp
Most go unreported, because movement within Chechnya is highly restricted and journalists and human rights workers are banned from working independently there. But the operations last month in Sernovodsk and the neighbouring village of Assinovskaya took place right on the border of the rebel republic, from where it's comparatively easy to escape across the border into the neighbouring Russian region of Ingushetia.

Horror in Sernovodsk

That's where I learnt, from the man I met in the kitchen, of the full horror of what happened in Sernovodsk.

More than 700 people were detained for about 15 hours in the open air on the edge of the village, most of them forced to squat with their shirts pulled up over their heads as blindfolds.

"They brought a small barrel of water and told us we could have three gulps each. A soldier put his finger on each person's throat as they drank, and anyone who swallowed more than three times was beaten over the head with a baton."

Many Chechens, like this man, have been injured by landmines
According to my informant, those who complained they were ill and needed medicine, and those unable to understand the soldiers' commands because of mental difficulties were singled out for special beatings. Some who protested had dogs set on them.


One woman was raped, another who resisted was dragged off to an army truck where she was tortured with electric current. "Then some of the soldiers said to us: 'You're supposed to be brave men, you Caucasians - why don't you get up and defend your women?'

Those who tried were taken away and we found out later they'd been tied to an armed personnel carrier and raped too. Then they brought up an oil tanker and took out some hoses. They told us we'd be doused in petrol and set alight if we resisted.

An unidentified informant

Difficult to prove

The shame of rape is so great that such allegations are very difficult to corroborate. But most of the other details of the zachistki in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, including many instances of torture by electric shock, were confirmed to me by other villagers who've taken refuge in Ingushetia.

Allegations of atrocities by Russian servicemen against the civilian population of Chechnya have been common throughout the war. In the refugee camps of Ingushetia, which house about 180,000 people, almost everyone has a story to tell of a family member who's disappeared, or been tortured or killed. But now the abuses seem to be intensifying just as the Kremlin claims the conflict is largely over and operations are being scaled down.

Presenter Tim Whewell with Andrei Mironov
Officially, control of Chechnya has been transferred from the army to the FSB security police, the successor to the KGB. Victims of zachistki are often unable to say what force has been behind the operation in their village - their tormentors are usually masked and have all names and insignia removed from their uniforms. But the picture that's building up is that both soldiers and security police have become largely undisciplined forces, using the "cleaning-up operations" as a deliberate means of terrorising the population of Chechnya.

Army corruption

Individual contract soldiers serving in Chechnya also use zachistki as a means of personal enrichment. The operations commonly involve looting of villagers' homes, and there are also numerous reports of Russian servicemen demanding money from Chechen villagers for the release of detained family members - or even for the return of their dead bodies. Andrei Mironov of the Moscow-based human rights organisation Memorial says: "Servicemen used to volunteer for Chechnya because they were promised they'd be paid better - they were offered $1,000 a month, which is high by Russian standards.

"But now, contract soldiers think about how much they can get from the local population. Chechens are being systematically kidnapped and sold back to their families, and the money servicemen get for that is much more than their salaries."

"They (Russia's political leaders) don't even try to control the army. They believe it's OK if it runs wild," says Andrei Mironov. And that's an impression that's been confirmed in recent weeks. At a rare news conference last month, President Putin lost his cool when asked about reports of human rights violations in Chechnya, saying that the zachistki "essentially boil down to passport checks and measures to identify people who are on the federal wanted list."

He added that anyone guilty of crimes against civilians should be punished, but referred specifically only to Chechen "fighters who kill people, including their own compatriots."

Investigation The presidential representative responsible for the north Caucasus region, Viktor Kazantsev, initially apologised for the military's actions in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, and, unusually, an investigation was ordered.

Lana, a Chechen refugee in Sputnik camp
But refugees I spoke to said many victims had too intimidated to seek justice. "Federal forces with guns and dogs visited the houses where people made statements," one young man told me. "They asked: 'Are you sure you don't want to withdraw your complaint?" The implicit threat was clear.

Human rights

Vladimir Kalamanov, President Putin's commissioner for human rights in Chechnya, says that in the course of the present conflict 82 criminal cases have been opened against servicemen for crimes committed against civilians in Chechnya. But only 25 of them have come to court and there have been only 11 sentences. Mr Kalamanov was unable to tell me what the sentences were for. And he was also unable to say if any of the cases involved allegations of torture.

When I talked to him in his office overlooking the Kremlin in central Moscow, Mr Kalamanov told me proudly that he had received a medal for his work from President Putin. He said he was ready to meet any Chechen civilian who might have complaints against the Russian authorities. But he suggested that most Chechens were more concerned with economic problems, such as the price of bread, than they were with the behaviour of the military in their republic.

That's certainly not the impression I got from the many Chechens I talked to in Ingushetia. Mr Kalamanov is regarded by most people there as a Kremlin stooge.

One man I met, a former schoolteacher, claimed he was tortured over a period of several months in a Russian detention centre, in the course of which his ear was cut off.

Did he get any help from the President's human commissioner? He looked at me in amazement before replying: "Absolutely none."

Describes the behaviour of the Russian army
Talks about how he tries to protect ordinary people from injustices
Ziker ancient ritual from the Sufi tradition of Islam
Prayer ceremony
Women grieve for dead relatives
See also:

31 Jul 01 | Europe
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
23 Apr 01 | Europe
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