Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Saturday, 7 August 2010 12:02 UK

Stolen brides and life in exile from Chechnya

By Lucy Ash
BBC News, Kazakhstan

Over the years, large numbers of Chechens have fled Chechnya and are making lives elsewhere. Many have chosen to leave, but others have been given no choice.

Zulikhan at her wedding
Zulikhan was kidnapped one week, and married the next

As Zulikhan stepped on board, one of the guests thrust a bouquet of flowers into her arms. "For our new bride," he winked.

It was Zulikhan's first outing as a married woman. A month ago, on her way home from college in the Chechen capital Grozny, she was snatched off the street and bundled into a car by a man she barely knew.

A week later, she was Bogdan Khazhiev's wife.

Straight after the wedding he took her to Pavlodar in northern Kazakhstan and installed her in a couple of sparsely furnished rooms above his parents' flat.

And now here she was, nearly 3,100 miles (5,000km) from home, sailing down a river in Kazakhstan.

But it was an idyllic summer's day and as the boat cut through the sun-flecked water, Zulikhan seemed resigned to her fate. She sat demurely on the top deck with a group of mothers and babies.

Meanwhile Bogdan, an aspiring businessman in mirror shades, was having lunch below deck with his cousin, Sultan.

Bogdan
Zulikhan's husband Bogdan is reluctant to return to Chechnya

The cousin gallantly peeled an orange for me and explained that he too had kidnapped his wife.

"It's the law of our grandfathers," he said. "We have to respect our Chechen traditions."

In a separate cabin, the grandfathers were sitting at a banquet table covered with plates of wild garlic and grilled meat. But the food went untouched as the oldest man began to speak.

He wanted to talk about what happened 66 years ago when Stalin deported the entire Chechen people from the Caucasus to Central Asia.

The old man was just 11 at the time, but tells me the date of 23 February, 1944 is forever etched in his memory.

White desert

It was Red Army Day and men from each village were invited to take part.

"But when my father reached the main square there was no parade," he said.

"Instead he was surrounded by soldiers with machine guns."

Then the soldiers went from house to house to round up women, children and the elderly.

"We had very little time to collect our things," he told me. "My mother was numb with shock but she managed to grab a chicken and some bread. I remember how she cried when we had to leave our cows behind."

The deportation left deep scars which helped fuel Chechen separatism a generation later

At the station the deportees were herded into cattle wagons. Many perished over the next three weeks as they rumbled eastwards into exile.

"It was dark in there and the smell was terrible. When people died soldiers just threw the corpses out of the train.

"When we finally arrived it was like a cold white desert. Nothing but snow and steppe all around. There was nothing to eat and our shelter was a barn."

The old man's eyes were red rimmed and watery. He told me his younger siblings caught typhus and he had to watch them die.

At least a third of the deportees died on the journey or soon after their forced resettlement, succumbing to hunger, cold and disease.

Scars of war

Although survivors were allowed to return to the Caucasus after Stalin's death, the deportation left deep scars which helped fuel Chechen separatism a generation later.

A Chechen woman fleeing the bombing in Grozny in 1999
Thousands of refugees fled Chechnya during the second Chechen war

Like many former exiles, the old man went back to Kazakhstan when the first Chechen war broke out.

Even more people fled during the second Chechen war in 1999 launched by Russia's soon-to-be President, Vladimir Putin.

But now that war is over and Chechnya has been rebuilt, would not he like to go home again?

"No," he tells me.

"We talk on the phone and it makes us worried.

"One of my relatives was killed and no-one knows why or who did it. They just dumped his body in the cemetery.

"That was last week. Things like that happen a lot there."

I am about to ask who might be responsible when he cuts me off.

"If someone goes and tries to investigate they'll be killed too. That's the kind of regime they've got there. You know what I mean."

I did know what he meant.

A year ago in Grozny, Natalia Estemirova, a leading human rights activist I had got to know, was abducted by masked men on her way to work. The same day her bullet-riddled body was found in a ditch.

So far nobody has been brought to justice. Most Chechens believe the crime will never be properly investigated.

Another man in a sheepskin hat shifted uncomfortably. "Let's not talk about politics," he pleaded. "Let's talk about our Kazakh friends, let's toast the newlyweds. This is a party after all."

I wondered how Bogdan - the groom - felt about moving to Chechnya. His father told me of plans to get his son a quiet government posting in Grozny. But Bogdan did not seem keen.

Going there to find - and steal - a wife was one thing. Living there full time quite another.

"Everything is in the hands of God of course," he told me. "But perhaps I'll wait a bit."

Lucy Ash's report on Stolen Brides can be seen on This World: Stolen Brides on Wednesday 11 August, 2010 at 1900 BST on BBC Two. Or catch-up afterwards on BBC iPlayer

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

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SEE ALSO
Regions and territories: Chechnya
22 Nov 11 |  Country profiles
Chechnya's dissenting voice silenced
18 Jul 09 |  From Our Own Correspondent

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