You know it won’t be pleasant when ‘death squads’ is in the headline.

Because they took place within the Russian Federation, the 1994-2009 Russian-Chechen wars (technically 1994-1996 and 1999-2009) haven’t been as extensively analysed, written about, and dramatized on film as the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Even though about as many people died in Chechnya as in Bosnia, there was no ‘Welcome to Grozny.’  (Ok, there were a few pro-war Russian films. If anyone knows of any anti-war or even-handed ones, please correct me in the comments.)

The suffering of civilians and combatants on all sides during the Russian-Chechen wars took place mostly off camera, and seemed somehow much farther away, much more obscure  than the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, which, while badly misunderstood at times, were still framed as wars in Europe, and thus the moral burden of Europe and its allies.

Not so with Chechnya. That was a very Russian mess, best left for historians and scholars of the Caucasus to argue about at university functions and in scholarly journals. It rarely made international headlines until Chechen militants began killing Russian (and other) civilians in much larger numbers using terrorist tactics like suicide bombings.

The gruesome Beslan school siege, which left more than three hundred children dead, was the first event of the conflict that made its way into the 24 hour news cycle as Big International Event. But that was a decade into the conflict, after Grozny had not only been leveled but had already been partially rebuilt. By then, what happened in the North Caucasus was considered part of the post 9/11 ‘Global War on Terror,’ so the complicated context  of the long-running conflict was shoved aside in favour of a more general  backdrop of Islamist terrorism.

During this decade, families of victims of human rights violations during the conflict have waged a quiet and slow battle of their own in the European Court of Human Rights, winning several landmark cases against the Russian Government for everything from torture to extrajudicial killings to enforced disappearances. These cases, combined, have functioned as a kind of truth commission (the only kind Chechens and Russians will likely ever get) by giving victims a forum and by forcing the Russian Government to answer questions about the conduct of its military and pay compensation. So important did the ECtHR become to Chechens seeking justice that the embarrassed Russian Government began obstructing the Court’s badly-needed reform process.

Under the control of former warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya is now at peace. Russia ended its military operations –declaring the war against Chechen separatists won– this year. But Chechnya’s peace is tenuous, maintained by economic development and reconstruction (which may slow significantly as the global recession leaves the Russian state with less funds with which to buy peace) and the authoritarian rule of  a man best known outside of Russia for his fondness for pet tigers and decided lack of fondness for investigative journalists.

Moreover, humanitarian needs have not disappeared in this tiny republic, which saw fully half its population displaced during the conflict. As the IRC reports:

Although there have been many positive gains in reducing violence and instability in recent years, including the revitalization of Grozny, the rebuilding of one of the largest mosques in Europe and an overall improvement in security, there are still many communities with dire humanitarian needs, without access to basic water, sanitation and housing. “As our staff see and experience every day, there is still a very strong need in the area for assistance, development, and investment,” said Thomas Hill, IRC’s Caucasus director.

A former colleague of mine worked in Chechnya for a while. She said that foreign NGOs were watched very closely and not allowed to address systemic problems. To point out glaring gaps in the services provided by the Kadyrov government  was to “politicize” relief, and could easily result in one’s expulsion, she told me.

Still, with major violence over, Chechnya does seem like less of a taboo topic now, and I’ve noticed more and more articles exploring the conflict and its legacy.

The Times of London just published a rather graphic article on Russian death squads during the Russian-Chechen wars that is, to put it bluntly, fucking disgusting –an important but really, really brutal read.

Here’s one account of Russian special forces searching for –and then killing– women thought to be training as suicide bombers.

When the order came to storm the single-storey property, dozens of heavily armed men in masks and camouflage uniforms – unmarked to conceal their identity – had no difficulty in overwhelming the three women inside. Their captives were driven to a military base.

The soldiers were responding to a tip-off that the eldest of the three, who was in her forties, had been indoctrinating women to sacrifice themselves in Chechnya’s ferocious war between Islamic militants and the Russians. The others captured with her were her latest recruits. One was barely 15.

“At first the older one denied everything,” said a senior special forces officer last week. “Then we roughed her up and gave her electric shocks. She provided us with good information. Once we were done with her we shot her in the head.

And just when I thought I couldn’t be shocked at body-disposal methods (uh, especially after hearing many Afghan civil war stories), Russian ex-commandos had to prove me wrong.

“We disposed of her body in a field. We placed an artillery shell between her legs and one over her chest, added several 200-gram TNT blocks and blew her to smithereens. The trick is to make sure absolutely nothing is left. No body, no proof, no problem.” The technique was known as pulverisation.

The young recruits were taken away by another unit for further interrogation before they, too, were executed.

Ugh. Absolutely awful.

After the gory anecdote above, the Times piece goes on to explain:

The account is one of a series given to The Sunday Times by two special forces officers who fought the militants in Chechnya over a period of 10 years. Their testimony, the first of its kind to a foreign journalist, provides startling insights into the operation of secret Russian death squads during one of the most brutal conflicts since the second world war.

The men, decorated veterans of more than 40 tours of duty in Chechnya, said not only suspected rebels but also people close to them were systematically tracked, abducted, tortured and killed.

The rest is here. Strong stomach required, and I mean that.

A couple of years ago, Witness and leading Russian human rights organization Memorial produced a short film on military “mop-up” raids and enforced disappearances in Chechnya.

Witness’ description:

Chechnya has been deeply scarred by years of fighting between separatists and Russian federal forces. In the Chechen Mountains the conflict has forced families from their homes and is gradually destroying the unique culture of these communities. Thousands of people across Chechnya have disappeared, been imprisoned or tortured. Crying Sun is the story of Zumsoy, a village torn apart by war. It gives a voice to the people who are struggling to preserve their identity amidst such violence and suffering. The film calls on local and federal authorities to investigate human rights abuses and help villagers return to their ancestral homes and rebuild their lives.

Crying Sun can be viewed in its entirety here. The end is pretty upsetting.


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