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The BBC's Rob Parsons
"The popular hysteria feeds off a deep-seated hatred and distrust of the Chechens that goes back at least 200 years."
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Saturday, 12 August, 2000, 16:54 GMT 17:54 UK
Chechens fear Russian backlash
Russian police ID check
Police have tightened security fearful of further attacks
By Rob Parsons in Moscow

As a Chechen who has lived and worked in Moscow for the last three years, Fariza knew what Tuesday's underpass bomb would mean for the Chechen community.

A swirl of emotions churned through her mind - horror at the explosion, sympathy for the victims, but anxiety too, bordering on blind panic, as she thought of the humiliations that lay ahead.

With good reason. Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov led the way, stirring up a groundswell of anti-Chechen hysteria.

Within hours of the blast, he was on national television saying he had almost 100% proof that Chechens were responsible.

"What proof ?" he was asked - there was barely any.

Just eyewitness accounts of some of the victims who said they had seen two dark-skinned men leaving a bag on the ground before the explosion went off.

Svetlana Gannushkina of Civil Assistance, an organisation that provides aid to Russia's internal refugees, was outraged.

"He's using a human tragedy to evoke hatred for a people who are just as innocent as the rest of us," she said.

Suspects

The police were not far behind. It was almost certainly Chechens, they said.

Photo-fit impression of subway bomb suspect
Despite little hard evidence, police released this photo-fit
And, right on cue, they announced they had arrested two suspects - one a Chechen, the other from neighbouring Dagestan.

Both were dark-skinned, both Muslims. The Minister for Internal Affairs, Alexander Rushailo, saw his opportunity.

The two men were Islamic militants. What further proof could be needed?

Except that a few hours later, it was quietly admitting neither had anything to do with the explosion.

President Putin tried to redress the balance by warning against ethnic witch-hunts. "Terrorism," he advised, "had no nationality."

Fariza smiled wearily when she heard that one.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin: Vowed to destroy Chechen "vermin"
"When politicians speak well of us," she said, "it just makes us laugh. We know they're just exploiting the situation for political gain."

The Chechens have good grounds for distrust. After last September's bombs pulverised blocks of flats in Moscow, Mr Putin, then prime minister, led the way in whipping up xenophobia.

But last September, he needed a pretext for starting the Russian army's assault on Chechnya.

After boasting that he would trash the bombers in the toilet (using Russian prison slang to ram home the point), he warned that the Chechens responsible would be crushed like vermin.

Open season

One year on, not a shred of evidence has been produced to prove a Chechen connection.

It was Mr Putin too who launched Operation Whirlwind, a police operation that marked the start of an open season on ethnic minorities from the Caucasus - what the Russians call blacks.

Chechens, Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, it made no difference. They all looked the same to the Moscow police.

Gunfire in Chechnya
The Chechen war rumbles on
Chechens were forced to re-register with the police. Sapiyat Murtayeva remembers the humiliation well... and the fear.

She lives alone in one of Moscow's grim northern suburbs. The police called her in for questioning, forced her to give fingerprints and photographed her holding a card with a number on it.

Two weeks later they called her in to do it again.

Humiliating though that was, Sapiyat knows others have suffered far worse.

Schools expelled Chechen children if their parents didn't have Moscow registration - and that despite the fact that the Russian constitution states that Russian citizens can live wherever they like in the country.

Landlords evicted tenants for fear of police harassment, and thousands of Chechens lived in fear of being detained and beaten in police cells.

A recent report by the Moscow-based human rights body, Memorial, registered 51 cases in which Chechens and other Caucasians had had drugs or weapons planted on them during police searches.

Deep seated hatred

The popular hysteria, then and now, feeds off a deep-seated hatred and distrust of the Chechens that goes back at least 200 years.

Russian children are brought up on stories of Chechen cunning and deceit and mothers still sing their children to sleep with a lullaby written by the 19th century poet, Mikhail Lermontov.

In the song, a baby's brave father guards him against the terrors outside - like the "evil Chechen" crawling closer along the riverbank, dagger ready-drawn.

Yet the truth of the Chechen-Russian relationship is that it is the Chechens who have suffered - and repeatedly so - at Russian hands.

In the 19th century Chechen wars, the famous Russian General Yermolov razed villages and slaughtered civilians to cow the Chechens into submission.

A century later, Stalin deported the entire population to Central Asia, and within the six years, the Russian military has reduced the capital, Grozny, to dust and rubble.

Indeed, it is one of the ironies of the present predicament of the Moscow Chechens, that many of them fled to Moscow to escape the bombs - Russian bombs - raining on their own homes.

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See also:

12 Aug 00 | Europe
Death toll rises as Russia mourns
10 Aug 00 | Media reports
Press draw lessons from Moscow blast
09 Aug 00 | Europe
Moscow police draw blank
16 Mar 00 | Europe
Russia charges bombing suspects
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