It was the kind of story that people in Chechnya know only too well. In the deep of night, Russian troops clad in camouflage uniforms and masks surrounded the village of Krasnostepnovskoye. After a brutal search for presumed rebels, they detained six men, 32 to 44 years old, blindfolded them and loaded them into an armored personnel carrier. The missing men turned up four months later--in a mass grave on the border with neighboring Ingushetia, uncovered in early September. The tip-off came from the soldiers who had done the killing. They charged the villagers a hefty fee for telling them where to find the corpses.
The episode, documented by the Russian human-rights organization Memorial, testifies to the savagery and cynicism of the Chechen war. The West may studiously wish it away, as would President Vladimir Putin, who long ago declared the three-year conflict to be over. But it's not. If anything, the ham-handed tactics of the Russian Army--especially the so-called "mopping-up" operations of the sort witnessed in Krasnostepnovskoye--have stiffened Chechen resistance. The most recent rebel offensive, launched in late summer, proved that the guerrillas are far from beaten. More ominously, the war now appears to be spilling over the borders of Chechnya and threatens to ignite a larger regional conflagration.
Russian forces in recent weeks have bombed alleged guerrilla positions in neighboring Georgia. Rebels have attacked Russian troops from Ingushetia--a potentially dangerous departure from their earlier policy of sparing the Ingush, a people closely related to the Chechens, from the fighting that has been so devastating elsewhere. Now, NEWSWEEK has learned from high-level intelligence sources, Moscow may soon airlift troops across the Georgian border in an effort to dislodge rebels sheltering in the famously inaccessible Pankisi Gorge. The offensive could come as early as mid-October.
If so, Washington and its European allies will face some hard choices. Between Afghanistan, the war on terror and Iraq, the last thing they want is a crisis in Caucasia. The Bush administration has bluntly told Putin that it would not grant Russia a free hand in Georgia in exchange for its support for a war against Baghdad. But it has also signaled that it won't give Putin a hard ride for his treatment of the Chechens--some of whom, indeed, have nurtured ties with Al Qaeda and other radical Islamists. An attack on Georgia could overturn this delicate diplomatic demarche and create an ominous precedent for Russian military intervention in other former Soviet republics--sending a ripple of instability throughout the region.
Meanwhile, the death toll in the brutal conflict continues to rise. Russia stations an estimated 100,000 soldiers in Chechnya and its environs; officially, it has lost 4,500 men in the fighting, but the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, which compiles its numbers from information provided by the families of troops, say the real figure is closer to 11,000 killed. In August the guerrillas shot down a heavily laden Russian helicopter with a shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile--recording the attack on video--and killed 118 soldiers. The chopper was overloaded because most of those onboard were too frightened to drive inside the embattled republic. Russian military convoys regularly fall victim to radio-controlled mines or ambushes. Aleksandr Petrov of Human Rights Watch guesses that 10 people die in Chechnya every day--three or four Russian soldiers versus seven or eight Chechens, both civilians and guerrillas.
No one knows how many Chechens have died during the Chechen war. Estimates range as high as 80,000 to 100,000 in the first conflict, lasting from 1994 to 1996. Since fighting resumed three years ago, an additional 20,000 to 40,000 have been killed, mostly in indiscriminate bombing and artillery attacks. But more than anything, it's the security sweeps, like that in Krasnostepnovskoye, that have earned Moscow the unremitting hatred of ordinary Chechens. The Russians call these operations zachistki. Literally meaning "cleansing" or "cleaning up," the word is one of the more cynical euphemisms devised by a government to cover up violence committed against real and imagined enemies. Far from choking off support for the rebels among the population, the zachistki--often accompanied by various forms of extortion, plundering, beatings and rape--are actually having the opposite effect. According to human-rights organizations, the sweeps have resulted in the disappearance (and sometimes extrajudicial execution) of 2,000 or more Chechen men, hundreds of them in the last year alone.
Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, a Polish reporter, recently visited Chechnya to assess the impact of the Russian strategy. She filed this dispatch for NEWSWEEK's Polish-language edition:
At 5 a.m. on April 14, 2002, an armored vehicle moved slowly down Soviet Street. A young, brown-haired man, covered in blood, his hands and feet bound, stood onboard. The vehicle stopped and the man was pushed off and brought over to a nearby chain-link fence. The car took off and there was a loud bang. The sheer force of the explosion, caused either by a grenade or dynamite, sent the man's head flying into the neighboring street, called Lenin's Commandments.
"It was difficult to photograph the moment, even though I have grown somewhat accustomed to this," says a petite graying Chechen woman, who's spent years documenting what Russia calls its "antiterrorism campaign." (For obvious reasons she prefers not to be named.) Blowing people up, alive or dead, she reports, is the latest tactic introduced by the federal Army into the conflict. It was utilized perhaps most effectively on July 3 in the village of Meskyer Yurt, where 21 men, women and children were bound together and blown up, their remains thrown into a ditch.
From the perspective of the perpetrators, this method of killing is highly practical; it prevents the number of bodies from being counted, or possibly from ever being found. It has not always succeeded in this respect, however. Since the spring, dogs have been digging up body parts in various corners of Chechnya, sometimes almost daily.
Meanwhile, the more-traditional methods endure. On Sept. 9 the bodies of the six men from Krasnostepnovskoye were found, naked, with plastic bags wrapped around their heads. In June, a ditch containing 50 mutilated bodies was discovered near the Russian Army post in Chankala. The corpses were missing eyes, ears, limbs and genitals. Since February, mass graves have been found near Grozny, Chechen Yurt, Alkhan-Kala and Argun.
For nearly 10 years, since the beginning of the first war in December 1994, the gray-haired woman has been patrolling with her camera. She shows the gruesome images strewn on her table as if they were relics, or photographs from a family album. She runs her hand over the contours of an actual cracked skull, one of about a dozen found in February between Meskyer Yurt and Chechen Yurt. "The remains were unearthed not long after they died," she says. "The tissue was still in good shape. The torn pieces of flesh suggest that the victims were attacked by dogs. It's difficult to fully know. People don't want to talk. They are scared that they will be next."
The Society for Russian-Chechen Relations, in collaboration with Human Rights Watch, reports that in the span of a month between July 15 and Aug. 15 this year, 59 civilians were shot dead, 64 were abducted, 168 were seriously wounded and 298 were tortured. Many men simply disappeared after being detained by Russian soldiers or security police; others were shot outright. During an operation in Chechen Aul between May 21 and June 11, 22 men were killed. The majority were between the age of 20 and 26; two were 15.
Since Chechen Aul is considered hostile territory, it has undergone 20 such "mopping-up operations" this year. Usually the raids are conducted by federal armed forces (particularly OMON, the police special forces, and Spetsnaz, its Army equivalent) and occur at any time of day or night. Typically a village will be encircled by tanks, armored vehicles and Army trucks, one of which, known as the purification car, is designated for torture. According to Human Rights Watch in New York, torture is a preferred method of gathering intelligence. Cut off and isolated, the Russian troops' best hope of discovering guerrilla activity is by grabbing citizens, almost randomly, and coercing from them whatever information they might have.
In its most benign form, such raids are limited to theft of various personal property items--from cars, refrigerators and television sets to jewelry, undergarments, clothes, pots and pans, and, of course, money. But they frequently turn uglier. "They arrived on Aug. 23 at 5 a.m.," says Zuhra from Enikaloi. "There were about 100 Army vehicles, all packed with soldiers. We ran out to meet them with our documents. God forbid you encounter an impatient 'federal.' If you do, then in the best-case scenario you may be tortured or shot dead on the spot. In the worst case, they take you away. About 20 of them, armed to the teeth and wearing masks, climbed into the yard and the house. As always, they were dirty, unshaven and reeking of vodka. They cursed horribly. They shot at our feet. They took my identification papers and started to shred them. I had bought them for 500 rubles. They cost me everything I had. They went to our neighbors' house, the Magomedova family. We heard shots and the screams of 15-year-old Aminat, the sister of Ahmed and Aslanbek. 'Let her be!' screamed one of the brothers. 'Kill us instead!' Then we heard more shots. Through the window we saw a half-dressed OMON commander lying on top of Aminat. She was covered in blood from the bullet wounds. Another soldier shouted, 'Hurry up, Kolya, while she's still warm'."
Sometimes those who survive wish they were dead, as in Zernovodsk this summer, when townspeople say they were chased onto a field and made to watch women being raped. When their men tried to defend them, 68 of them were handcuffed to an armored truck and raped, too. After this episode, 45 of them joined the guerrillas in the mountains. One older man, Nurdi Dayeyev, who was nearly blind, had nails driven through his hands and feet because it was suspected that he was in contact with the fighters. When relatives later retrieved his remains, he was missing a hand. The relatives of another villager, Aldan Manayev, picked up a torso but no head. The families were forced to sign declarations that Dayeyev and Manayev had blown themselves up.
Usually groups of people simply disappear. Shortly thereafter their families begin feverish searches and inquiries in all the Army headquarters and watch posts. If they can track down a missing family member, they might be able to buy him or her back. The going rate for a live person is in the thousands of dollars. For a dead body, the price is not much lower. If they cannot find the person, family members mail letters to Putin and file petitions with social organizations and rights groups. They post photographs with the caption missing. And they wait. Most of the abductees never return and the trail grows cold. Those who do return are often crippled, with bruised kidneys and lungs, damaged hearing or eyesight and broken bones. It is almost certain that they will never have children.
The Russians do not deny that these things happen. Indeed; an official Order 80 has been issued banning such civilian abuses--observed mainly in the breach. What most journalistic accounts from the region overlook, as well, is the savagery committed by the other side. Anyone considered a "collaborator" by the guerrillas is subject to abduction for ransom or summary execution. This summer a remote-controlled mine, presumably intended for a Russian military convoy, exploded at a bus stop in the Chechen capital of Grozny, killing 11 civilians, including two children. Analysts say that guerrilla leader Aslan Maskhadov, once regarded as comparatively secular, has recently succeeded in consolidating his often fractious forces by welcoming back into his command several rebel commanders regarded as especially radical Islamists. New rebel videotapes play down nationalist imagery in favor of Islamist symbols. It all suggests that the brutality of the Russians has resulted in a growing radicalization of their opponents as well.
Is there any way out? A recent opinion poll finds that 61 percent of Russians now favor "peace negotiations" as a way of ending the war, compared with 22 percent in early 2000. Prominent Russian politicians--most notably former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov--have begun to call for talks as well. Last November a senior Putin aide met a representative from Maskhadov in a Moscow airport, though apparently without result. More recently, several leading Moscow politicians met with guerrilla leaders in Liechtenstein to discuss possible peace plans. At follow-up talks in Zurich this August, former Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin, who helped to negotiate the end of the first Chechen war in 1996, worked out a draft plan with Maskhadov aide Akhmed Zakaev that would keep Chechnya "within the Russian Federation" (a key demand for Moscow, which doesn't want to set a precedent for secession) while granting it broad powers of autonomy.
Trouble is, the plan looks suspiciously like the arrangement that ended the first war--and that failed to prevent the republic's subsequent slide into anarchy and Russia's intervention three years ago. The proposal has met with deafening silence from the Kremlin. "I don't see any opportunities for a ceasefire or enduring peace agreement," says Ivan Safranchuk of the Center for Defense Information in Moscow. Judging by the present level of savagery in Chechnya, that's putting it mildly.