A decade ago central Grozny looked like post-war Stalingrad; now it looks like somewhere in Belgium. Here, in the middle of the troubled North Caucasus region, is a city lined with new, brightly coloured buildings, and freshly-paved, tree-lined walkways. At pedestrian crossings, a digital timer ticks down the seconds until it's safe to cross; locals sip espressos in cafes with names like Da Rizzi and Rafaello, while Jennifer Lopez gyrates on MTV in the background.
But this sense of prosperous provincial idyll is a facade. It's in one of these pleasant cafes that I meet two women with a horrifying story to tell, just one of many that I hear during my time in the region.
Svetlana Bazhayeva fiddles with her headscarf and talks quietly about the events of the past two months. The 51-year-old Bazhayeva raised her own twin sons, now 25, as well as her two nephews, the sons of her sister who came from a village where there were no schools. She was a teacher of Russian language and literature at a local school, loved so much by all her pupils that the school nominated her last year for the Putin Prize for Russia's best teachers. She won, and received a cash prize of 100,000 roubles (about £2,000).
But on 18 June, everything changed. One of her nephews, Adam, was walking down a central Grozny street, when police stopped him and asked to see his documents, a routine request. As the policemen were checking his passport, shots rang out. A policeman was killed instantly, and Adam was also shot in the arm. He was wounded and fled to a nearby house where a woman bandaged his arm and helped him into a cellar. But his escape was short-lived. Later, police and special forces found him, and killed him by throwing grenades into the cellar.
In most places in the world, this would be a tragedy that the family could mourn quietly, while police attempted to find the killer. But in Chechnya, it was the police that finished him off, and an opportunity for the authorities to claim they had liquidated another "terrorist". Despite the fact that there is clear evidence that the policeman was shot in the back, and it looked like a case of an intra-police feud, it was announced that Adam was an insurgent who had shot the policeman and was then shot himself.
This was only the start, however. The police, sensing an opportunity to boost their quota of "liquidated terrorists", decided to go after the rest of the family. Svetlana's husband was taken in for questioning that night and asked where his son and two nephews were. He was beaten up and sent home badly bruised, without saying anything. The family sent him and the other three boys into hiding, but the search was relentless.
Berlana Bazhayeva, Svetlana's sister and Adam's mother, was taken to the morgue two days later to see her son's dead body.
"Here's the dog who killed one of our officers," said the policeman accompanying her. "Why are you crying?" She was urged to renounce her son to a television camera, but she refused.
Now, armed police and militias regularly turn up to Svetlana's house, threatening the family and demanding to know where the remaining boys are. She has been told that they will find them and kill them, wherever they are. Svetlana is followed everywhere. When we meet, in a cafe in Grozny, two men sit down at the table next to us and watch us in silence, ordering nothing and continually sending text messages.
Last Friday, she was called once again into a police station. "They told me that if the children I raised myself are killers, I am not fit to teach others' children," she said. "In front of me they called my school and told them to fire me."
In the space of six weeks, she had lost her nephew, seen her husband beaten up, sent four relatives into hiding and lost her job.
Svetlana's story is extreme, but similar tactics are used on a regular basis in Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov, a 32-year-old former rebel, was given the reins of the republic in 2007 in what many saw as a Faustian pact. The Kremlin knew that Mr Kadyrov was not a pleasant man, but handed him control and vast financial reserves, in return for keeping Chechnya part of Russia and out of the headlines. He rebuilt Grozny and tamed the worst of the Islamic, separatist insurgency.
A ludicrous personality cult around Ramzan and his father, Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov, the former President of Chechnya who was assassinated in 2004, has been set up. Across the republic, portraits of the father and son adorn buildings, billboards and apartment blocks. "This is the year of agrarianism," a smiling Ramzan tells the population. "Ramzan, we are proud of you!" is another favourite.
For those who dissent from that imposed agreement, life in Chechnya is far from rosy. Violence is widespread and criticism is dangerous. Now, most of the bloodshed in Chechnya appears to come from government-backed forces, directed against alleged rebels and their families, or against rights workers. Last month, Natalya Estemirova, a key figure from Memorial, the region's best known rights organisation, was kidnapped from outside her house and executed. Earlier this week in Grozny Zarema Sadulayeva, the head of a children's charity, was abducted with her husband. Both were killed.
The murders of people like Ms Estemirova and Ms Sadulayeva, charity and rights workers with a relatively high profile, make it into the international press. But abductions and horrendous cases of torture occur on an almost weekly basis in Chechnya. The death of Ms Estemirova, Chechnya's best known rights activist, makes it even harder to know what is happening in the republic.
"No Natasha means no reliable information from Chechnya, it's as simple as that," says Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, an activist based in Moscow who travels to Chechnya frequently.
In villages across Chechnya, over cups of tea or slices of sweet watermelon offered with the traditional Chechen hospitality, relatives tell of family members abducted, usually in the night; from teenagers to middle-aged men. The details of these abduction and torture cases are often horrific and absurd in equal measure, but they cannot be published. In cases where people are returned alive, if traumatised, the families are understandably unwilling to go on record with the experiences. Often they have been warned of horrendous consequences should they talk.
From the village of Serzhen Yurt, two teenagers were kidnapped during the night last week. One of them was returned to the family, dead, and with evidence of torture on his body, two days later. The kidnappings and the murders keep happening; perhaps occasionally targeting those with militant sympathies but more often apparently random, and certainly with no due legal process.
Nobody knows exactly who the people behind individual kidnappings are, although it is obvious that, at the very least, they operate with impunity from the law. The men come in the night and pull people out of their beds at gun point, not identifying themselves and answering to no one. Part of the problem is the proliferation of armed forces in the region – federal Russian troops, special militias, secret services and local armed gangs.
Where Mr Kadyrov fits into the everyday violence is unclear. There have been credible allegations (which he denies) that he has personally participated in torture. At the very least he has created a climate where such killings can occur without fear of reprisal.
In the murder of Ms Estemirova, the killers were able to cross several armed checkpoints before dumping the body, meaning they must have had special passes to avoid searches. In the case of Ms Sadulayeva, the attackers returned to her office after kidnapping her and her husband to retrieve mobile phones and the couple's car, a sign they knew they were untouchable.
One tactic used by the authorities to pressure the relatives of alleged insurgents is punitive house burning. A recent Human Rights Watch report states that at least 25 cases of house burning attributable to the Chechen authorities have occurred in the past year. Security forces usually come at night, methodically stack up furniture and other flammable items into a makeshift indoor bonfire, douse it in petrol and set the house on fire. They keep the family at gunpoint and wait around for an hour to make sure that the flames cannot be doused before the house is completely destroyed. This is the price for failure to convince alleged insurgent family members to "come back from the forests".
In Argun, not far from Grozny, news had come in about two new cases of punitive house burnings. I travelled to Argun with a photographer to locate the houses and find out what had happened. Passers by asked for the location looked worried, muttered that they didn't know, and walked quickly on. It took subtle enquiries in the local market to find the location of one of the houses, which on arrival was locked and deserted. The shell of what had once been a handsome white house was charred, the only recognisable household objects were a few forlorn saucepans strewn across the driveway.
Three young men appeared from a house across the road, eyeing the intruding outsiders with suspicion. They all had the physiques of wrestlers, and looked like the fearless Chechen warriors of legend. But faced with the crime committed opposite their house, they went quiet. We asked what had happened, and they said they didn't know.
"Can you at least tell us the surname of the people who lived here, so we can find out where they are now?" asked my companion."You know," said one of them quietly, his eyes darting from side to side in alarm, "I don't want to talk about it."
It was hardly a surprising reaction. One of the most extraordinary and depressing aspects of Mr Kadyrov's Chechnya is the fear in which the population live. The Chechens have been renowned throughout history and immortalised in literature as a brave, noble mountain race; ruthless in revenge yet supremely loyal and honourable to friends and family. Yet after more than a decade of war, followed by the brutal, systematic yet often random violence of the past few years, Chechen society has become atomised and cowed.
Terrified of being associated with victims of purges, house burnings, or abductions, whether the victims are innocent or guilty, people simply turn a blind eye. When Ms Estemirova was abducted last month, neighbours saw her being bundled into a car by a group of men as she left her apartment early in the morning, and scream out "I'm being kidnapped". Yet nobody called the police (the assumption being that kidnappings happen with official complicity), or dared to tell anyone about what they had seen. It was only after lunch, when colleagues couldn't get hold of Ms Estemirova and went to her house to make enquiries, that they found out about the abduction.
Chechnya's human rights community is very small, and with every new attack, those who remain are increasingly wondering whether their jobs are worth their lives.
"I have stayed here through two wars, I've never been scared of trying to seek out the truth," one activist told me as we drank tea in her Grozny apartment last week. "I never thought I would consider leaving, but this is just too much. I'm beginning to think it's time to get out of here while I can."Reuse content