Estemirova's Murder Leaves Chechnya Bereft

In a tiny courtyard in the Chechen village of Koshkeldy, dozens of women in black headscarves are walking in a tight circle, crying loudly and hugging each other. A pale, lost-looking teenage girl with big, clever, dry eyes is standing in the middle of the circle but doesn't want to participate in this traditional funeral. "I do not want to see my mother's dead body," Natalya Estemirova's 15-year-old orphaned daughter, Lana, says in a firm voice very much like her mother's. "In my memory, she will always stay the strongest and the most alive person in the world. My mother was killed for confronting a war against peaceful people." 

We are all orphans now. Natalya, or Natasha, as we called her, was the heart (and the lead investigator) of the human-rights group Memorial in the North Caucasus, and the leading tracker of abductions and murders here. Human-rights workers and journalists depended on Natasha to tell the story of Chechnya. 

Always rushing around with her laptop and a Dictaphone, she worked constantly. She and her colleagues documented and publicized 76 cases of abduction in Chechnya so far this year, a jump from the 35 cases they found in all of last year. "This is an abduction epidemic," she told me on the phone a few months ago. "Come and see for yourself. The bandits are shooting us Chechens like rabbits."

I came too late; I arrived in Grozny only days after her murder. The "bandits" had gotten to her. On July 15, at 8:30 a.m., Natasha was reportedly hurrying out of her apartment building on the outskirts of Grozny with her computer and notebooks in a plastic bag. Four men in civilian clothes grabbed her and dragged her into a white Lada. "They are kidnapping me!" she yelled, according to Memorial investigators, who spoke with witnesses. Two women who knew her saw the scene from a balcony, but were too scared to call police immediately. Roughly an hour later, according to estimates, kidnappers shot Natasha dead and threw her body to the side of a road, her face beaten and hands tied. Two bullets destroyed half of Natasha's scalp; the others hit her chest.

Natasha knew the powers she was up against. On reporting trips to Chechnya, I stayed in her run-down apartment, which had no running water and a huge shrapnel hole in the wall of her daughter's bedroom. She never had time to fix it, she said. We once stayed up all night in her kitchen, talking about how the Kremlin ignored violence in Chechnya. That night, I had just returned from two days of reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov, then Chechnya's prime minister and now its president. Kadyrov and his bearded militiamen, former guerrillas, have terrified the republic to the point that people are afraid even to speak to human-rights activists.

Natasha was interested in my interview with Kadyrov, especially the part concerning torture and abductions. Kadyrov had sworn to me on his father's name that he had never in his life hurt or threatened anybody. Natasha just shook her head. "The Kremlin gave a green light to the special service and local militia to do as they please here, on the condition that they provide Chechnya's absolute loyalty to Russia," she said.

The reports Estemirova published day after day on Memorial's Web site were the testimony of victims and their relatives about torture and kidnappings. Natasha lost her own husband when her daughter was a baby. Since then, in everything she did, she has tried to heal wounds similar to her own. Natasha was only 50 when she was killed, but she had helped hundreds of people in their search for justice. In her last week alone, she investigated the abduction of a young man from a Grozny hospital, three murders in Chechen villages, the suspected arson of three houses, and a public execution: Memorial reported that a man in the village of Akhinchu Borzoi was made to kneel and was shot in the head in front of his family.

On the night before her murder, Natasha stayed in her office working. "Go home, it's getting late! Do I have to be your mother to tell you that?" Natasha scolded her close partner at Memorial, Milana Bakhayeva. "She was on the front lines alone," Bakhayeva says, "never telling us the whole truth of who was behind the evil she was confronting." Memorial's Moscow managers say they feel guilty they did not make public the threats Natasha believed she received from Ramzan Kadyrov a year ago. 

Her funeral last Thursday became a gathering of women she had helped—seemingly every other woman at the funeral had an abducted or kidnapped relative. During the first Chechen war, Tomara Makhmudova and Natasha worked as middle-school teachers: "She saved my son once, when the FSB took him, back in the war time. Three years ago he was taken away again. She was looking for him until the very last day," Makhmudova said, her face covered with tears.

Deshi Inderbiyeva wept like a child. In 2000, Inderbiyeva's three sisters were burned alive by the Russian Army. At the time, she was six months pregnant, and she walked miles with the remains of her sisters in a bag, carrying them to their burial. The stress induced early labor, and Inderbiyeva's son was born premature and sick. He is 9 years old now and goes to school in a wheelchair. "Just a few days ago, Natasha came to visit us," she cried. "Knowing how poor we are, she bought a school bag and books for my son. She gave me the clothes I am wearing now. We lost a merciful angel!"