What She Saw: A Memoir of Slain Activist Estemirova

I was born in the Urals and came to Chechnya when I was 19 years old, because my father was a Chechen. My mother was Russian. The relations among ethnic groups in the republic were not always smooth. I can definitely say that the Russian population had a disdainful attitude toward Chechens.

The problem today comes from the fact that many Chechens then were compelled to repress their ethnic characteristics in order to preserve good relations. Eventually this produced an explosion. I have two nationalities, and a number of times I had to criticize Russians who would tell me, "Natasha, we don't consider you a Chechen." I would say, "No, I am a Chechen." At the same time, I used to have to cut off Chechens who would say bad things about Russians.

I agree with what [Ruslan] Khasbulatov [former speaker of the Russian Parliament under Boris Yeltsin and an ethnic Chechen] said: Russia has lost its moral right to Chechnya. But our independence was, in effect, torpedoed in 1991. My assessment of [Dzhokhar] Dudayev [the Chechen president who launched the republic's separatist movement in the early 1990s] hasn't changed. I could see that this man would bring disaster to the republic. And that's what happened. I realized that independence is not won through war, it is built. To describe that period in brief, it was a mess. People were disoriented, and they became angrier and more apathetic.

The intelligentsia absolutely did not support what was occurring in the republic, but at the same time many of my relatives supported Dudayev. We argued a lot, but never got to the point of an open quarrel; our family relationships were not cut off over some political disagreements. Disillusionment prevailed.

Legality per se collapsed, and compliance with the law by the state and protection of citizens practically disappeared. But then the power of customs grew stronger, and they helped to support society and prevented criminals from running amok.

There was reason, of course, to fear for your life. I would, for example, hear at the time in Chechnya, "Get out of here and go back to your Russia!" And in Russia, when I would visit my mother, I'd hear, "Get out of here and go back to your Chechnya!"

I left Chechnya in October 1993. I wanted my baby to be born [in normal conditions]. I came back two years later. Of course, I was absolutely outraged: how could troops have been sent in? I took this as a personal tragedy.

The most important thing then was to get through that time, to somehow survive there, to preserve the school [where I was teaching] and the children who were still left and to retain the ability to teach. It was hard. We lived in a one-room apartment on the first floor, which had no bars, nothing. And the father [of my daughter] said, "Maybe I should give you a grenade in case somebody sneaks in at night, so you can protect yourself." I said that I couldn't bring myself to set off a grenade, so it would be better not to. It was probably through some divine mercy that we were kept safe and remained alive.

There is no justification for the federal authorities' actions. Already, the victim was my homeland. And I'm sure that the resistance of the first war was completely justified. The population supported the [separatist] fighters during the hostilities—that is, until 1995. But then everybody wanted peace already.

The war ended, and this was probably the best time. People had lived through this peril, had survived, and there was such a surge of enthusiasm that everybody fell in love with each other. But disappointment came very quickly. Everything began to change, and all the riffraff began to come out. There were no pensions, no wages, and no serious work was being done to manage all this.

I was still working in school, and there was no income. I made money by giving private lessons and making pleated skirts. There were moments of despair. I had everything calculated: my little girl could eat one egg, a carrot, and porridge every day. Of course, I was afraid of starving. I was afraid somebody would break in, because there was a huge increase in crime. I was scared all the time.

In public life, total gloom set in, democracy was increasingly curtailed, crime was on the rise, laws were no longer operative—first secular ones, then folk customs. And then a kind of crime appeared that Chechnya had not [really] seen before: kidnappings. Under Dudayev, this type of crime hadn't existed—it was adopted from the federals [the Russian authorities], who traded in both living and dead people. They are the ones who opened up this valve and showed that it could be done; they removed the taboo from this type of crime. I began to work on the problems of people who had gone through detention camps. This clearly reminded me of the situation involving people who returned from the fascist camps [of World War II].

During that period, of course, [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov no longer influenced the state of affairs in Chechnya. [Separatist leaders Shamil] Basayev, [Salman] Raduyev, and [Movsar] Barayev exerted very strong influences. That was when [the Islamic edicts of] Sharia, the Shura, etc., were introduced. And it was clear that, strictly speaking, they didn't give a damn about the religious aspect of this effort. What was important to them was using this to establish their rule. Between 1996 and 1999, the Chechen republic was not part of Russia, and it wasn't a separate state. Chechnya was a hole.

I realized that I didn't want to come under bombing attacks for a second time and that I needed to flee with my child. But I didn't have any money. And suddenly my neighbor Satsita said, "Natasha, here's 500 rubles." I never hoped that I would ever be able to repay it. So I used this money to leave. My daughter was 5 years old, and for the first time I taught her to lie, because you had to buy a ticket for children 5 years or older. I asked her to say that she wasn't 5 yet.

It's a shame that I was never able to freely love my daughter, because I was always afraid for her. The fact that I became a human-rights advocate is also, it seems to me, a maternal instinct; I just felt so sorry for those people who had gone through the detention camps. I was so outraged by what was going on.

I remember entering [Novye] Aldy on March 20, 2000, and it was an absolutely dead village. We counted 47 victims, but of course there were more. Contract soldiers had gone around killing everybody, one after another. Even a month and a half afterward, people were in shock; they only spoke to me in whispers. The most horrible impressions from Aldy were the bloody rags that a woman was hanging up—they were left from her murdered husband.

A reburial took place while I was there … A man was digging up his brother's body. His whole face was drenched, and he kept digging and digging. Then he climbed out and squatted, grasping his head. Then they carried the bodies, which were already badly decomposed, to a house. I had never approached a corpse before, but now they were in such terrible condition, and I had to photograph them for documentation. I was in some kind of stupor.

I can probably say that I became angrier, more intransigent. I had to ask myself: had I become in some way like the paparazzi, who had to get their sensational shot? I thought that the most important thing was that nothing be left unnoticed, that nothing be forgotten.

When they said that [Akhmad] Kadyrov [father of Ramzan, the former rebel leader who became Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president in 2007 and who is threatening to sue over allegations that he is behind Estemirova's murder] had decided to become [president in 2003], it seemed like a good thing. After all, he was a Chechen, he would take care of things. We realized very shortly that there was no care on his part at all. My assessment hasn't changed now; only the problem has become deeper. His son, who is now putting the republic into the deepest hole, is a continuation of the disaster that he brought.

The bombing raids stopped and mass cleanup operations began. Then came targeted cleanup operations, disappearances, kidnappings, and torture problems. This had started in 2000, but later there was more. I wanted all of this to end so we could live quietly. All that's changed in the past five years is that my daughter is growing. I loved my job as a teacher, but now I feel that [my new job as a human-rights activist] is simply necessary here. I have lived through this period, the past 17 to 20 years of my life, with great difficulty, but I think I have helped some people survive. And that's the most important thing to me.

The republic right now has an authoritarian, criminal, and very corrupt regime. People do not see the swiftest possible resolution of their issues in a normal process, which should be the case when you need a place to live and submit normal requests [in society]. All of these issues must be [addressed] to Ramzan. Ramzan will decide, no matter what. It's a criminal regime because people right now can't find protection against crimes.

The psychology and morality have changed drastically. There is now a lot of hypocrisy, sanctimony, and cowardice. The way it turned out, the people who had the best traits have perished—they're gone. Only those who strove to survive have done so.

If the Chechen republic is to be able to develop harmoniously in the political, legal, and economic context of Russia, the leadership of Russia must change radically. I know that we are in for a brutal crisis. All the preconditions exist right now for a resumption of hostilities. Too many weapons and too many brains are being applied to it.