Atrocities in Chechnya Breed Despair, Anger
For no particular crime, Russian soldiers beat Uvayes Batalov every day for nearly a month. They starved him, jolted him with electricity and locked him for days with other prisoners in a specially overheated railroad car with little water.
“The guards came to the door and said, ‘Do you want some fresh air?’ ” recalled Batalov, a 26-year-old Chechen construction worker who was unarmed at the time of his arrest. “We said, ‘We do, yes!’ So they came in and beat us with clubs. Later they came back. They said, ‘How about some fresh air?’ We said, ‘No, no!’ But they came in and beat us anyway.”
Since the Russian army invaded their breakaway republic two months ago, scores of unarmed civilians in Chechnya have been picked up and reportedly tortured.
Others, exhausted by war and at first hopeful that the arrival of Russian troops would end their ordeal, have fallen prey to looters, rapists and murderers in Russian uniform.
These atrocities, reported by victims, Russian officers and human rights monitors in interviews last week, are far less deadly than the Russian bombing that has killed thousands, but they have given people here a new sense of helplessness and despair.
There is evidence that some lootings and beatings are blessed by high-ranking Russian officers.
“I was so happy when my own Russian soldiers liberated Grozny. But now I’m bitter,” said Galina Lyubovskaya, 62, an ethnic Russian retiree in Grozny, the Chechen capital. “The same Russian soldiers whose arrival I so anticipated continue to destroy the city.”
Teen-age army conscripts pile onto tanks in groups of 10 or more and race through Grozny’s streets, shouting drunken obscenities at passersby and shooting wildly.
“The city is swimming in alcohol,” said Boris Polovinkin, a Moscow police captain brought to Grozny to help restore order.
“They’re all looting,” he added. “They ship the goods out on military transport. Their bosses know and cooperate. But how can you fight it? The soldiers protect each other.”
Tamara Kholukhayeva, a 51-year-old war refugee, returned last week to her Grozny apartment to find a lieutenant colonel and his men loading her possessions onto an armored personnel carrier. She shamed them into returning her things.
Inside, she found her furniture broken and her china smashed. Kholukhayeva’s husband, 30 years older than she, served in World War II. She said the soldiers had thrown his bemedaled military jacket on the floor and urinated on it.
Seven Russian soldiers confessed to killing a young Russian civilian, then raping his Russian girlfriend, Polovinkin said. The police captain also has evidence that soldiers murdered an elderly Russian couple outside their home Jan. 24.
Ethnic Chechen civilians are even more vulnerable.
Ramzan Kurakayev, a spokesman for Chechnya’s Provisional Council, said Russian soldiers shot and killed Chechnya’s minister for emergency situations and three other Chechen men Feb. 10.
The Provisional Council opposes Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev’s resistance fighters and cooperates with the Russian military. But its members are not safe from Russian soldiers, Kurakayev said.
When the council asked to observe a house-to-house weapons search by Russian Interior Ministry troops Jan. 28, officers agreed. But when the Chechen observers arrived, they were met by soldiers in masks.
“They pushed two of our young men into the basement of a ruined house and shot one of them,” Kurakayev said. “They tortured the other with a knife and then shot him too.”
That same day, other soldiers backed an armored personnel carrier up to Kurakayev’s home, shot his two dogs and loaded up most of his belongings.
Dudayev has accused the Russian government of encouraging looting and other atrocities.
“There’s nothing to feed the troops with,” he said in an interview. “So the government riles them and turns them loose, (saying,) ‘Go, take what you want.’ ”
More disturbing are tales like that of Batalov, the construction worker, who along with his father was subjected to weeks of systematic torture--apparently approved, if not ordered, by high-ranking officers.
Batalov was separated from his wife when the Russians’ New Year’s Eve assault on Grozny drove him and his father into a basement. The next day, Russian soldiers forced all 33 men from the shelter and locked them in a warehouse.
On Jan. 2, soldiers herded them into the back of a dump truck along with 30 men picked up elsewhere. The prisoners--all civilians, Batalov said--were stacked like firewood, seven bodies deep. Once they were loaded, soldiers shot two of the men dead, Batalov said, and six others died of suffocation during the 50-mile ride to the Russian military headquarters in Mozdok. For the next 24 days, Batalov and his father were moved from jail to jail in Mozdok and nearby Russian cities.
Russian officials say they have imprisoned dozens of Chechens suspected of fighting in the resistance.
Human rights monitors say many prisoners are routinely tortured in an effort to extract confessions, while others are not questioned at all but apparently beaten out of vengeance.
“The Russian army has not captured a single Chechen fighter. They’ve only captured civilians,” said Anatoly Y. Shabad, a member of the Russian Parliament who spent a week in Chechnya documenting cases like Batalov’s.
Shabad and other officials said the Russian army uses civilian prisoners to bargain for the freedom of its own POWs.
Batalov and his father were freed Jan. 26 in a prisoner exchange--48 Chechen civilians for 47 Russian paratroopers.
“When those paratroopers walked past us and saw the shape we were in, there were tears in their eyes,” Batalov said.
Even now, after three weeks of rest in his home village of Avtori, 30 miles southeast of Grozny, Batalov is a grief-inspiring sight. His clothes hang loosely on frail limbs. Angry red lumps on his head show through his prison crew cut.
He has not seen his wife since the New Year’s assault.
“I don’t know whether she’s dead or alive,” he said, pulling his 3-year-old daughter, Tamila, closer for comfort.
In Mozdok, Batalov said, he and other prisoners were packed into railway cars heated to intolerable levels. Daily they were given a sip of water and a single sukharik --a hard-baked, silver-dollar-size doughnut.
Batalov said he was once taken out and tied to a chair, with his feet placed in a washbasin of water, and given shocks with a hand-cranked generator. Soldiers drove nails through the heels of his father’s boots, forcing him to walk on tiptoe.
Arriving at a maximum-security prison in Pyatigorsk, they were ordered to hold their hands behind their heads and walk a 40-yard corridor lined with masked Interior Ministry soldiers. The soldiers beat them in the presence of an Interior Ministry general, Batalov said.
Batalov’s father, a 50-year-old carpenter who had sat quietly throughout his son’s account, stirred to show what he called his “present from Pyatigorsk”--a six-tooth gap in his upper jaw.
From Pyatigorsk, the Batalovs and 73 other Chechens were taken to a prison in Stavropol and beaten for half an hour the first day.
“They didn’t even interrogate us,” Batalov said. “We said, ‘We’re peaceful citizens, peaceful!’ And they would say, ‘Then why did they bring you here?’ ”
Throughout the ordeal, Batalov said, his jailers derided the Chechen prisoners as moujahedeen, the term for the Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas whom Russian soldiers fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Brooding about his missing wife and the 50 or so Chechen civilians still imprisoned in Stavropol when he left, Batalov said he has decided to join Dudayev’s fighters.
“Before, I was a peaceful citizen,” he said. “But now I’m going to become a moujahedeen. As long as that’s what they called me, let it come true.”
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