Kidnapped In Chechnya

The shooting started near the Chechen village of Starye Atagi last Tuesday. Unknown assailants fired on a humanitarian aid convoy delivering medical supplies to local hospitals, wounding Richard Littell, an American working for the organization Action Against Hunger. Littell and his colleagues managed to flee. But another American-Doctors Without Borders worker Kenneth Gluck-was less fortunate. ”[He] was forced out of his car into the attackers’ car, which then disappeared,” Doctors Without Borders said in a statement issued after the incident.

The fate of Gluck, 38—the first American kidnapping victim in the 18-month-old Chechnya conflict—is still unknown. But the incident serves as an ominous reminder of a bloody war that has left thousands dead and turned hundreds of thousands into refugees. While the continuing conflict has lately been largely ignored by the outside world, Russians are becoming increasingly pessimistic about its outcome.

Within hours of Gluck’s disappearance, the Russian authorities were pinning the abduction on guerrilla leaders who turned kidnapping into a million-dollar industry during Chechnya’s three-year period of de facto independence from 1996 to 1999. During that period, kidnap victims ranged from Chechens to Russians, Poles and Britons. These cases were frequently cited by Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a moral justification for prosecuting the war against the separatist government of Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader who was unable or unwilling to counter the abductions. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Russians applauded Putin when he sent thousands of Russian troops back into the defiant republic in October 1999. It was that prowar mood, and general anti-Chechen hysteria, that ultimately helped propel Putin into the country’s highest office.

Such unqualified support, however, is long gone. Every day brings new reports of Russian troops killed by mines or Chechen suicide bombers. Since the war began, the official death toll of Russian soldiers in the republic has climbed to 2,600; experts say that the actual number of casualties could be two to three times higher. Just a few months ago, the hawks still clearly outnumbered the doves among ordinary Russians. Now, even though Putin’s personal opinion rating remains high, polls show significant shifts in attitudes toward Chechnya. One survey, for example, found that the number of Russians who were in favor of harsh measures to win the war has gradually decreased to the point where it is almost the same as those who favor peace talks with the rebels. In another poll, the number of Russians who described their government’s prosecution of the war as “successful” dropped from 66 percent in November 1999 to 39 percent in July 2000.

Amid this atmosphere of diminished moral certainty, some Moscow commentators are publicly skeptical about the official version of the Gluck abduction. One case in point: the military commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, Lt. Gen. Ivan Babichev, accused Gluck and his colleagues of traveling in the republic without authorization and declared that “part of the blame for this tragedy lies with the international organization [Doctors Without Borders] itself.”

The Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, however, disputed the commander’s claim that the aid workers were traveling without authorization and pointed out that the convoy was in an area “in direct view of federal checkpoints.” Chechen sources, for their part, directly accused the Russian secret services of being behind the kidnapping. The Russian government has resisted attempts to allow international observers into the war zone, and some Russia-watchers argue that the Russians have an interest in keeping foreigners out of Chechnya at any cost. The kidnapping “is the worst thing that could happen to the Chechen cause,” says Ariel Cohen of the Washington-based Heritage Fund, “because everybody’s going to blame it on those ‘Muslim fanatics’.” Tellingly, at least one Russian newspaper seized on the Gluck abduction to launch a furious attack on Doctors Without Borders, a relief organization that won the Nobel peace prize in 1999. The paper accused the group of partiality to the rebel side.

The mystery surrounding Gluck’s abduction has its ominous precedents in the earlier war. Starye Atagi was already known to some Americans as the place where veteran U.S. relief worker Fred Cuny disappeared during still-unexplained circumstances in the first Chechen war of 1994-96.

Later, the mysterious 1996 murder of four Red Cross aid workers in Chechnya led many aid organizations to shut down their operations in the republic.

Many of them, including Doctors Without Borders, are doing the same again in the wake of Gluck’s kidnapping. “Kenny is loved and missed,” says Therese Zink, a doctor working for the group in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. “People are very sad, and we are doing everything we can to find him.” The big question now is whether those efforts will be enough to help Gluck—or the army of refugees in such desperate need of the services provided by his organization.