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Nightmare in Chechnya

A journey to the source of the Moscow bombings.

When it comes to war, it is a natural human tendency to identify good guys and bad guys—and sometimes, it is a sensible one. Around the world, there are, and always have been, conflicts in which the preponderance of evil clearly lies on one side: World War II, for example, or the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

And then, there are conflicts like the one unfolding in Chechnya, where a government, having killed hundreds of thousands of civilians since 1994, is now running an authoritarian police state of the most brutal kind—and the other side is responding by murdering children and commuters.

I had only recently returned from Chechnya when, last week, Chechen insurgents sent two suicide bombers to blow themselves up in the Moscow subway system during the Monday-morning rush hour, killing 39 people. The chilling footage of that carnage brought me back to 2005, when I made a pilgrimage to the site of the massacre at an elementary school in Beslan, Russia. In the aftermath of that tragedy—in which more than 330 people, most of them children, were killed in a storm of explosions—I saw pieces of dried-up human flesh hanging from the walls where a female suicide bomber had blown herself up; I saw notes that parents had written to their murdered children begging forgiveness; and I saw scores of little boys’ blazers, which had belonged to the victims, lying in a stack. Ten months after the bloodbath, one woman, whose apartment faced the school, told me she would never open her windows again. “If I opened them the wind would carry particles of burnt children into my apartment,” she said.

The man believed to have masterminded the Beslan massacre was Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov. The self-proclaimed “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate,” he is one of the few surviving Chechen chieftains who have fought against the Russians since 1994, when the Kremlin sent troops into the secessionist region, commencing the first of two brutal wars. Russia officially declared the second conflict over last year—but neither side has really stopped fighting. Umarov’s aim is to establish an Islamic caliphate that would be independent from Russia, would be governed by strict sharia law, and would span several republics of Russia’s restive and mostly Muslim North Caucasus. For months now, Umarov has been pledging to attack Russian cities. Days after the Moscow subway bombings, he surfaced to claim credit.

Umarov’s insurgency is not an isolated movement. For years, international jihadists have fought and died in Chechnya, and foreign fighters are believed to run Taliban-style training camps in southern Chechnya’s nearly unassailable mountains. Meanwhile, American troops in Afghanistan say they have faced off against Chechen fighters.

But, if Umarov and his followers are both depraved and dangerous, their nemeses are hardly better. Presiding over Chechnya is a Kremlin-appointed strongman named Ramzan Kadyrov; most Chechens, employing the strained familiarity that subjects often reserve for despots, call him simply Ramzan. I met Ramzan back in 2004, when his father was president of Chechnya. At the time, he was in charge of several thousand armed men responsible for his father’s security. Both Kadyrovs were former separatists who had switched sides in 1999; the Kremlin, which had been looking for a loyal leader to represent its interests in Chechnya, embraced them. (Both Ramzan and the rebels are Muslim.)

My interview with Ramzan was scheduled to take place in a gym. When I arrived, the future president was boxing. He boxed for an hour, throwing punches at some guy in the ring, while I and several other Western journalists stood waiting in the sweaty air. Several Chechens had told me that Ramzan and his forces were operating torture pits and secret prisons, like Liberia’s Charles “Chuckie” Taylor Jr., or Iraq’s Qusay Hussein. Specifically, I had been told that Kadyrov occasionally tortured his victims personally, sometimes using them as human punching bags. 

“If I had a private prison, I wouldn’t tell you,” Ramzan said, grinning, when he had finally finished sparring and graced us with the promised interview. Was it true that he executed detainees? “Naturally, if they resist, then ...”—he whistled and gave the air a quick double punch—“salaam aleikum!

A few months after our meeting, a bomb detonated beneath the grandstand from which Ramzan’s father was watching a military parade, killing him. At age 27, Ramzan more or less inherited Chechnya, first as deputy prime minister, then as prime minister. Vladimir Putin appointed Ramzan president when he turned 30, the minimum age required by the Chechen constitution to hold the post.

Now 33, Ramzan rules Chechnya like a warlord-in-chief. On a whim, he creates laws and introduces holidays aimed at bringing the region in line with the practices of an Islamic state. Ignoring Russian law, he has allowed polygamy in Chechnya and mandated that all female civil servants wear headscarves to work. At the same time, he viciously persecutes anyone he suspects of radical Islamism. Ramzan is committed neither to secularism nor to fundamentalist Islam; his prime commitment is to stamping his own authority on every aspect of life in Chechnya. “No one dares peep,” says Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a researcher at the Russian human rights group Memorial. “He controls everything: business, culture, what women wear.”

Over a brutal approach to governing, Ramzan has plastered a creepy façade of normalcy—which I saw when I returned to Chechnya this year, for the first time since 2004. The capital, Grozny, features sushi bars, pizza parlors, and Internet cafés. Ramzan cuts ribbons at new roads and movie theaters, all opened with funding that comes partially from the Kremlin and partially from a special fund he named after his father. The holdings and sources of the fund are kept secret. Several Chechen businessmen told me, on condition that their names not be published, that a lot of the fund’s money is extorted from local businessmen and wealthy members of Chechen families living outside the region.

I also saw the human cost of Ramzan’s iron fist. One of the people I visited was a woman named Khava, whose son, Alikhan Markuev, had disappeared last August. One night, two unmarked cars carrying armed men in black ski masks cut off the sedan in which Khava and Alikhan were heading home. Alikhan—a skinny young man with dark, wide-set eyes—was in the back; Khava was in the front passenger seat, and another son was driving. The men dragged Alikhan out of the car, shoved him into one of theirs, and sped off. Witnesses who watched from their homes later told the family that they saw the cars head into a police station just a few short blocks from the scene of the abduction.

Family members searched for Alikhan for more than three months, filing countless reports and petitions with the police and the prosecutor’s office, but no one would say where he was. Then, in late November, the police summoned Khava to identify her son’s body. He was wearing a camouflage jacket, the kind often worn by Chechen rebels. Like a rebel, too, he had a long beard. He had been shot in the shoulder; his face was bruised. His eyes were open.

Law enforcement officials told Khava that her son had been a separatist fighter and was killed during a raid. They said they had evidence that Alikhan was a rebel. The evidence was the ringtone on his cell phone: the howl of a wolf, a symbol of the Chechen insurgency.

Alikhan did have a brief history with the rebel movement. In 2007, when he was 19, he had joined the insurgents. But Khava insists that her son surrendered to the police a year after joining the rebels, and she has government amnesty papers to prove it. “Cleared of all responsibility,” declares the 2008 document she thrust into my hands. After that, say relatives and human rights workers familiar with his case, Alikhan had stayed away from the rebels.

It is impossible to verify the accusation put forth by Alikhan’s family and human rights activists—that Chechen government forces kidnapped him, made him grow a beard, dressed him up as a rebel fighter, and executed him so that they could use his death as an example of their success in wiping out the separatists—but their account is a plausible one. “There is a fight going on against terror,” says Kheda Saratova, a Chechen human rights worker who visited Khava with me. “Of course you have to show some results. These fake, created, and killed so-called fighters are the main proof.” But, whatever the particulars surrounding Alikhan’s death, there is little doubt in the mind of human rights activists that the government was to blame. “All the circumstances of this case leave no doubt that Alikhan Markuev was abducted and killed by officers of law enforcement agencies,” wrote Svetlana Gannushkina, one of the founders of Memorial, in a recent open letter to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. “The death of Alikhan Sultanovich Markuev is not an exceptional event in the North Caucasus, but a commonplace one.”

Alikhan’s story was not the only one I heard. An old man was executed in front of his neighbors last summer because he may have fed the rebels. Other victims have included relatives of suspected insurgents. I met one such man, Denilbek Askhabov, a 70-year-old tomato farmer from Shali. Last May, commandos gunned down one of his sons, who they said was a rebel leader, and kicked and beat the old man with rifle butts until he suffered a concussion and a heart attack. Three months later, the commandos returned to arrest Askhabov’s other son, a legally blind greenhouse worker. Askhabov has not heard any news of this son since and assumes that he, too, has been killed.

Memorial recorded the abductions of at least 86 people in one-third of Chechnya during the first nine months of 2009—more than twice as many as in all of 2008, and nearly three times as many as in the year before. Some of these disappeared eventually turn up dead. “There used to be trials,” Sokiryanskaya, the Memorial researcher, told me. “Now, they are simply shot.”

Who is the lesser evil in this fight: the fanatical separatists or the fanatical dictator? It is an impossible question to answer. Yet it is abundantly clear who the victims are. The Kremlin says the war is over. The victims—in Chechnya and Moscow—know otherwise.

Anna Badkhen’s book about war and food, Peace Meals, will be published in October. Her trip to Chechnya this year was made possible by a grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.