About Tanya Lokshina
Tanya Lokshina is Senior Russia Researcher, Human Rights Watch
Articles by Tanya Lokshina
A heavy, stifling heat envelops the Caucasus in midsummer. During the day the sun fries your brain, your throat itches from the hot dust, and the night brings no relief, only hordes of maddened mosquitoes.
It happened on a Friday. Armed men in camouflage uniforms drove up to Nazir's house in a small village in Chechnya's mountainous Vedeno district. They turned Nazir's home upside down. Nazir had some wooden boards he was going to use to repair the floor, and when the armed men started setting up the boards for a bonfire, he understood what was about to happen. Nazir was scared - not for himself, but for his neighbors. He singled out the person in charge of the large group, approached him, and tried to explain: "I know that you want to burn my house. I don't understand why I am being punished. Why do I have to pay for the crimes of my relatives over whom I have no influence? But if this has been decided, I can't do anything about it. However, please listen to me. My roof touches my neighbor's roof. If you start burning my house, the fire will spread over to my neighbor's house."
Nazir's nephews have been allegedly involved in Chechnya's still smoldering insurgency for almost a decade, and Nazir knew that he was now going to pay the price for failing to convince them to surrender.
To be fair, the serviceman Nazir thought to be in charge understood the situation, but said that the decision had been made at the top, that he had orders from higher up. The house was to be burned. But Nazir proposed a compromise. He said to the commander, "An excavator operator lives nearby. He could separate the roofs. And then perhaps nothing bad would happen... Could you please send your soldiers to fetch him?" Twenty minutes later the excavator operator and his machine were brought to the house, and the excavator driver, following the elderly man's directions, separated the roofs and broke a part of the wall that was less than one meter from his neighbor's house. Then Nazir's house was set on fire. Everyone, including Nazir, stood by and watched the flames rise.
Nazir and his family are now homeless. At least two dozen other families in different districts of Chechnya have had their houses torched in 2008 and 2009 by local Chechen law enforcement personnel to punish them because their relatives are allegedly insurgents, and to coerce the insurgents to surrender. This report documents these episodes of collective punishment.
Today, the armed conflict in Chechnya has subsided and the capital, Grozny, has been largely rebuilt. However, abuses such as torture, illegal detention, and extrajudicial executions persist (albeit on a smaller scale), and impunity for past and ongoing abuses is rampant. The perpetrators of ongoing violations are mainly law enforcement and security personnel under the de facto control of the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Although insurgent attacks in Chechnya are now distinctly less frequent than in the neighboring North Caucasus republics of Ingushetia or Dagestan, they continue to occur sporadically. The insurgency has a loose agenda to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state in the Caucasus. Working toward those objectives, insurgents have been using a variety of violent tactics, including killings and house-burnings, against members and supporters of the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities: policemen, security personnel, administration officials, and their family members.
The perpetrators of these and other crimes must be held accountable under the law and in accordance with international fair trial standards. However, unlawful tactics used by insurgents can in no way justify the use of similar tactics by government forces fighting against the insurgency, particularly burning of houses and other types of persecution against families of alleged rebel fighters.
Human Rights Watch is aware of 25 cases of punitive house burning that can be attributed to Chechen law enforcement personnel between June 2008 and March 2009 in seven districts of Chechnya: ten in Kurchaloi, six in Shali, four in Vedeno, two in Naur, and one each in Shatoi, Achkhoi-Martan, and Grozny districts. Also, just several days prior to the release of this report Human Rights Watch learned of yet another, most recent case of house-burning. On June 18, around 5 a.m., unidentified law enforcement servicemen reportedly burned two homes belonging to elderly parents of an alleged insurgent in the village of Engel-Yurt, in the Gudermes district.
All the affected families, whose homes were burned, have among their close relatives alleged insurgents, usually sons or nephews. In most cases, prior to the house-burning, law enforcement and local administration officials strongly pressured the families to bring their relatives home "from the woods" and threatened them with severe repercussions for failure to do so. Some burnings occurred very soon after a rebel attack in the vicinity and therefore appeared to have been motivated by retribution.
Notably, in 2008 high-level Chechen officials, including President Kadyrov, made public statements explicitly stating that the insurgents' families should expect to be punished unless they convince their relatives to surrender. While such statements may not constitute direct instructions for law enforcement agents to destroy houses of insurgents' families, they encourage such actions by police and security personnel by sending a strong message that lawless, punitive actions will be tolerated or condoned.
Thirteen episodes of punitive house-burning are documented in detail in this report. These cases follow a strikingly similar pattern. They were generally perpetrated at night, with law enforcement personnel-often masked-arriving in several cars, breaking into the yard, and forcing the residents out of their house. The perpetrators would prevent residents from approaching their home, treating them roughly and in some cases holding them at gunpoint.
The assailants torched the houses methodically and unhurriedly. They looked around the inside of the house, piled furniture together, put easily flammable objects on top, doused gasoline around the house, and set it on fire. They would stay for up to an hour watching the fire spread, to make sure the residents or their neighbors did not attempt to put it out before the house was well ablaze.
The victims were generally told in clear terms that complaining about the house-burning would lead to further repercussions. Consequently, only in three cases known to Human Rights Watch did victims file complaints with the authorities. In another three cases the victims agreed to have Memorial, a leading Russian human rights NGO working in the North Caucasus, raise their cases with competent authorities. At least two of the families were then threatened by the district law enforcement authorities and forced to sign a statement that the fire had been caused by their own carelessness. At this writing not a single criminal case into the allegations of house-burning in Chechnya has been opened by the law enforcement authorities.
The Russian government has overwhelmingly failed to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations during a decade of war and counterinsurgency in Chechnya. Indeed, in more than 100 judgments to date, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found Russia responsible for serious violations in Chechnya. One Chechen government official told Human Rights Watch that this failure has helped to create in Chechnya an acceptance of impunity as the norm. This situation cannot be tolerated, and calls for prompt and effective measures.
Russian federal and Chechen authorities should immediately put a stop to collective punishment practices, including house-burnings, against families of alleged insurgents, and ensure meaningful accountability for perpetrators of these and other human rights violations. Accountability includes ensuring effective implementation of ECtHR rulings on Chechnya cases. Other governments, in particular European Union states and the United States, should use multilateral forums and bilateral dialogues to call on Russia to stop collective punishment practices, and put an end to impunity for human rights abuses in Chechnya.
This report is based primarily on field research conducted in close cooperation with Memorial Human Rights Center, a leading Russian human rights organization, in March and April 2009 during two Human Rights Watch missions to Chechnya. In the course of these missions, a Human Rights Watch researcher visited and photographed house-burning sites and interviewed 37 individuals, including owners and former residents of homes destroyed by house-burning, and witnesses of the house-burnings. We also interviewed 14 human rights activists, lawyers, government officials, and law enforcement personnel. Field research was conducted in the Achkhoi-Martan, Kurchaloi, Naur, Shatoi, Shali, and Vedeno districts of Chechnya, where the burnings had taken place, as well as in Grozny, where some victims, witnesses, activists, and officials were interviewed. Several interviews were done in Moscow or by phone from Moscow. Sites of house-burnings were identified based on information received from Chechnya-based human rights activists as well as from some victims of house-burnings who happened to be aware of other similar cases. All interviews were conducted in Russian by a Human Rights Watch researcher who is a native speaker of Russian.
Also, Human Rights Watch examined official documents, prosecutor's office decrees, public statements by Chechen officials, analytical reports published by Russian human rights groups, and media accounts. Transcripts of televised statements by President Kadyrov and several other high-level Chechen officials were translated by a native speaker of Chechen.
The present report documents only those house-burning cases for which we were able to interview victims and witnesses to the burnings and make our own site visits.
The vast majority of those interviewed for this report were deeply concerned about possible repercussions for their families and asked Human Rights Watch researchers not to use their real names. Consequently, we chose to assign pseudonyms to victims and witnesses quoted in the report who gave us their names (the pseudonyms were chosen randomly from a comprehensive list of Chechen names at a specialized website http://www.n-a-m-e-s.info/dat_imya/chechenu.htm).
Few people really understand what is happening there. It is hard to get an objective picture of events in such a complex place, home to more than 30 different ethnic groups speaking many different languages. In fact, it is all but impossible, even more so when the media propagate myths that are often completely absurd.
Gudben - the myth
Gudben, a village in the Karabudakhkent District, has something of a reputation. People outside and inside Dagestan say that it is a ‘wahhabi' village. They'll tell you all sorts of stories about what goes on there. You get the idea that the village has been completely taken over by Islamic radicals, that they've more or less imposed sharia law there, as they did in the villages of Karamakhi and Chabanmakhi before the outbreak of the second Chechen war. They say that the women are all hidden behind veils and girls do not go to school, while the boys study in the Koranic school, where they are turned into future martyrs for Islam. At any rate, they're supposedly ready to take to the forests. Indeed, they say that Islamic fundamentalism has got such a foothold in Gudben that the doors of people's houses have two handles - one for men and one for women. It's not for nothing that a counterterrorist operation has been underway there since March.
Islam does indeed play an important part in the life of Gudben. It is as an old village with deep-rooted religious traditions. Even during the Soviet years, local people stubbornly defended their right to believe and pray openly. The Dagestani authorities complained to Moscow that, "in the village of Gudben, in 1956, a group of religious fanatics, acting without permission, opened a mosque", and that "it is very hard to stamp out the relics of the past in people's minds and lives: the religious authorities forbid the young people from joining the komsomol and constantly undermine the communist ideology". (http://www.chernovik.net/news/245/MONOTHEOS/2007/10/12/3444)
People from Gudben were among the first Russian Muslims to make the hajj in the early 1990s. Salafist preachers were active in the village, and it certainly had its share of aggressive fundamentalists, though there can't have been too many of them, because when Shamil Basayev invaded Dagestan, they were swiftly dealt with by their own fellow villagers. The villagers gave them a beating, kicked them out of the madresa and made them promise that they would not under any circumstances help Basayev and his friends. In other words, the radicals were not the dominant force in the village.
So how is it that 10 years later there is no secular education and even door handles are segregated according to sex? Or is this just hearsay?
Gudben - the reality
It's hard to say who thought up the story about the door handles. The doors in Gudben are extremely ordinary, with just one handle. As for the women, they are not hidden behind burqas, but wear long dresses and cover their hair with a scarf thrown over the shoulder. You don't see anyone smoking in the streets, and you certainly don't see anyone drunk. People here are serious about their religion, they stick to the rules, and pray five times a day.
There are over 12,000 people living in the village, and the locals say that four villagers have gone to join the insurgents in the forest. Just four, not hundreds or even dozens. When the ‘counterterrorist' operation began in March, the security forces, worried by the news that Gudben had been taken over by wahhabi fundamentalists, began picking out families who were not sending their children to school. They came up with a total of around 30 children who were not receiving any secular education. This is not a good thing of course. But to put it in perspective, Gudben is a big village, the families all have many children, and 30 children is a drop in the ocean.
As for the question of education, the real problem is not that there are children who don't go to school, but that even those who do go to school have no chance of getting a decent education. The teachers are recent graduates of the very same local school with precious little experience. They speak to the children in Dargin, but the textbooks are in Russian. The children learn to read out the syllables, but they don't actually understand what they're reading. They learn basic arithmetic, and that is about as far it goes.
The better-off families try and send their boys, especially their older sons, to boarding school or to relatives in the towns of Makhachkala, Buinak and Kaspiisk. If the boys have certificates proving that they've had nine years of schooling, schools in the towns usually reluctantly accept them into the sixth year and try to help them catch up, though they are probably more like third year students. Village families don't send their daughters away to study. There is not enough money to go around, and they need helping hands at home. While this is certainly sad, the same is true of many villages in the North Caucasus.
Gudben is an ordinary village, old, with narrow winding streets that not every car can manage. But the streets here were not designed for cars. It has picturesque stone houses and a huge cemetery on the hill, from where you get an excellent view of the mosque, the same mosque that Gudben's fearless rebels built against Soviet atheism in the late 1950s. The village women and girls look exotic to urban-dwelling outsiders with their colourful headscarves and traditional clothes. It is a picturesque Dargin village high up in the mountains, a place with its own customs. The local life is full of interest. It would be good to make a documentary about it, to be able to show the daily lives of these people who want only to be left in peace to follow their traditions without the upset caused by endless ‘special operations'.
Beard = wahhabi
"Young men with beards can't show their faces here", said a strongly-built man of around 40, shaking his head. "The security people, if they see a beard, that's it - they're taken into custody straight away. They don't touch the old people, but the young ones... best not to go out. People here prayed during the Soviet years. They prayed in secret, but they kept the religion alive. After the old regime collapsed, we started travelling all around Dagestan, preaching Islam, teaching Muslims who'd lost their knowledge. We had up to 400 people during the holy Ramadan month. We found mosques that had been turned into storehouses, cleaned them, and people began coming to them again...
"Later, at the end of the 1990s, this talk of ‘wahhabis' began, some sort of enemy. People became afraid of receiving us. Now life's become impossible. I get called a wahhabi, but I've not held a gun since I was in the Soviet army. I simply want to follow my beliefs. Yes, I practise pure Islam. Muslims need nothing except what the Prophet God sent and what's written in the books. But here we have fundamentalists like me, and traditionalists who follow the sheikhs. We all pray together, all go to the same mosque. It's shameful to say, but I don't wear a beard, though I should. I should be setting an example. But the security people would only cause me grief. Look what happened to Saihadji Saihadjiev. He's the same age as me, not even a young man, and now he's left seven children behind. Who is going to bring them up? Two others were killed along with him. And me, I want to raise my children..."
On October 21, 2008, just 10 kilometres away from Gudben, there was a clash between the insurgents and security forces. Five police officers, including a local policeman from Gudben, were wounded. The security forces surrounded the village and over the next four days detained about 40 local people. They were then sent to police stations in Kaspiisk and Makhachkala. There, they were questioned about the insurgents. Many were beaten, threatened, but they were released fairly quickly.
The villagers thought the incident was over. But on October 27, three Gudben residents, Saihadji Saihadjiev, Nustap Aburakhmanov, and Akhmed Hadjimagomedov, ‘disappeared'. Forty-four year-old Saihadjiev went that evening to pray at the mosque and never came home. Hadjimagomedov collected his daughter from school, then went to the mosque, and disappeared too. Abdurakhmanov was in Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, at the time. He was abducted there. In all three cases relatives soon found eyewitnesses to confirm that the three men were taken away by law enforcement officials. On October 28, the families were told that the three men were killed during a ‘special operation' in Dagestan's Sergokalinsk district, while putting up resistance to law enforcement officers. The families' requests for the bodies to be handed back to them were rejected at first. Under Russian law, terrorists' bodies are not handed over to relatives. But Saihadjiev's father turned out to have connections in high places and after two difficult days, he and the other two families were able to get back their sons' bodies. They could see that they had been subjected to torture.
Magomed Saihadjiev is 76. Taking his guests up to the second storey of his house he sits down, upright, his silver-white beard neatly combed. His wife Kistoman sits on the stairs, watching attentively, not saying a word, only shedding silent tears from time to time, shyly covering her eyes with the edge of her white headscarf.
"My son left the house and drove to the mosque", Magomed says. "He entered the mosque. There was a white car waiting beside the mosque. When he came out again, the law enforcement people took him away. There were witnesses. We didn't have a clue about what was going on. There was just this report on the news, this special operation, three insurgents killed, and Saihadji among them. If it hadn't been for my connections we'd never have got his body back. He would've been buried somewhere and we'd never have known what happened. But they ended up having to hand over his body. When I saw what they'd done to my son... One of my relatives, Abdula Rasudlov, is a doctor. We called him, got him to examine the body and explain what he saw, and we filmed it all on video. I'll put it on for you to watch now..."
Magomed put on the recording. The screen showed a horribly tortured body accompanied by the doctor's calm and even voice. Broken bones, burns, bruising...
"We went to the prosecutors. We have a lawyer too... But there's no hope here. Our lawyer says that if we take the case to the European Court of Human Rights we would definitely win, because we have all the proof. But I heard this would take a long time... Do you know how long we'd have to wait, a year, two years? What, five whole years? Isn't there any way to speed things up? Please try to do something. You saw yourselves what they did to him? And for what? Saihadji spent his whole life doing nothing but good for others. He never caused anyone any harm. And then there was this shootout with the police, our local policeman got caught in it too. Then they came and took him and the two others away by way of punishment... Innocent people! He's left four sons behind. How are they going to manage now?"
Saihadji's youngest son is two years and eight months old. His relatives say that the boy spends whole days sitting on the windowsill, waiting for his father, asking when papa will come home.
On the village outskirts, the big cemetery on the hill offers a wonderful view of the mosque, that same mosque which the villagers opened without permission more than fifty years ago. Saihadji is buried near the cemetery fence. His mother often visits the grave with her little grandson. While his grandmother prays, the little boy runs around, hiding behind the white stone gravestones.
He doesn't yet understand the meaning of death.