Chechens ready to rise against a brutal oppressor

Torture of civilians by Russian troops pushes the population towards open revolt after seven years of almost continuous conflict
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Bislan Kantiev, a gaunt-looking Chechen recently released from a Russian prison camp, opens his mouth to show the shiny row of gold front teeth that replaced those destroyed by his interrogators.

Bislan Kantiev, a gaunt-looking Chechen recently released from a Russian prison camp, opens his mouth to show the shiny row of gold front teeth that replaced those destroyed by his interrogators.

"They sliced away my teeth using the kind of file you normally use to cut through metal," he said. Mr Kantiev, from Achkhoi-Martan, a village west of the Chechen capital, Grozny, fought in the first Chechen conflict in the mid-1990s, but not in the present war. Now he wishes he had.

"At least I would have avoided seven months in Russian prisons," he says bitterly. "They tortured us with electricity every day by turning the handle on a field telephone with its own generator."

He will not say why he was freed, but other Chechens claim that nobody is released from Russian custody without paying a substantial bribe, sometimes as much as £2,000. Families often sell their last possessions as they try desperately to get their relatives out of prison.

Mr Kantiev believes there will soon be a general uprising in Chechnya because the Russian occupation does not distinguish between friend and enemy. All Chechens are treated as if they are rebels.

He said: "In Chernokozovo [one of the notorious 'filtration camps' where Chechens are held and interrogated] we were told that the day a Chechen was born he committed a crime."

In a trip through the villages of western Chechnya, an area held by Russian troops for almost 18 months, everybody I interviewed believed the present desultory guerrilla war would inevitably grow.

This wholly contradicts the official line espoused by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, that the war is won and all that needs to be done is to mop up isolated rebel bands.

One well-informed Chechen, who did not want his name published, said: "In every village and town in Chechnya there are between 50 and 200 [people] preparing their weapons and uniforms in order to fight."

He said many Chechens opposed armed resistance to the Russians because the three years of de facto Chechen independence, between 1996 and 1999, had been disastrous, with crime and kidnapping rife.

"The real watershed for Chechens was in August and September last year," he believes. "They found that the occupation was very cruel and the Russians did not care if you were pro-Russian or wanted to stay neutral."

Some Russian experts agree. Konstantin Kosachev, the deputy leader of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, after a recent visit to the North Caucasus, wrote caustically: "Glowing reports about the military and its triumphant march across Chechnya are just wishful thinking." He saidthe Russian position could collapse as suddenly as it did in 1996, when the Chechens retook Grozny in a surprise counter-offensive.

Mr Kosachev believes Russia will succeed in Chechnya only if it ends human rights abuses and Chechens see that "new schools and hospitals are built in place of destroyed ones". None of this is happening. Every village is divided from the next by a Russian checkpoint. These terrify Chechens, since it is here that Chechen males between the ages of 10 and 65 are often detained and disappear into filtration camps. Chechens also say the checkpoints act as unofficial tollbooths, where Russian soldiers demand bribes.

The village of Achkhoi-Martan, a settlement of 3,000 people, is a good example of how the brutality of the Russian occupation has alienated the population. The villagers in the past have been famously pro-Russian. But, in the past year, their attitude has been changed by a series of incidents.

One happened a month ago when Murad Almurzaev, 27, was sitting in the forecourt of his house. Suddenly, men in black masks from the FSB security service burst in. He tried to run away and was shot in the lower back. He was then thrown into the back of a truck and beaten with rifle butts. Luisa, a relative, said the autopsy showed Murad died from the beating and not a bullet wound. She said: "Later, an FSB officer told us in an off-hand way, 'Sorry, we had the wrong address.'"

Fear for the safety of their children is a prime motive for Chechen families to support the guerrillas. Natalya Estimorovo, working for the Russian human rights group Memorial, describes how, on 20 April, Russian troops surrounded a school at Alkhan-Yurt, near Achkhoi-Martan. She says: "They took 16 boys, all teenagers, and told them to lie in layers, one on top of another, in a truck and then stood on them. The boys were taken to a large cell with several inches of water on the floor and continually beaten."

The soldiers asked them where landmines were and if they knew any guerrillas. When one boy said: "How should I know? I'm only a schoolboy," a soldier replied: "You're not a schoolboy. You're a Chechen."

Everybody I spoke to in Chechnya believed the war was going to spread dramatically. Russian troops, scattered across the country at checkpoints and in small garrisons, are vulnerable. Nobody knows when the Chechen counter-offensive will begin. Guerrilla leaders may wait until popular anger becomes stronger, but the next round of the war may be far bloodier than anything previously experienced in Chechnya.

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