As awkwardly as a newborn foal struggling on spindly legs, Lena Meshcheryakova is learning how to curl her lips up at the corners to make a smile.
Drifting just beneath the surface of her 5-year-old world are the memories of a darker place: the cellar in Chechnya where she was held prisoner by kidnappers for nine months.
When she was freed at age 3, she had forgotten how to smile. She could barely even speak. But she knew how to pray like the devout Muslim Chechen men who had imprisoned her. The words she kept shouting out were “Allahu akbar!” (God is great!)
Lena, kidnapped from her Russian mother’s home in Grozny, the Chechen capital, was a victim of Chechnya’s most voracious industry, the trade in hostages and slaves. Thousands of people have been gobbled up by the Chechen kidnapping machine, which has ravaged Russia since 1994.
The stories of survivors are like the relics of some wild, half-forgotten era of warlords and lawless barbarism. Victims have been kept in earthen pits or small cells that are often scrawled with the initials of hundreds of earlier captives. They have been used as slaves to dig trenches or build large houses for relatives of the kidnappers.
The kidnappers have been known to mutilate their captives, even children, severing their ears or fingers. Gangs have sent videotaped recordings of mutilations and beheadings to relatives to terrify them into finding the ransom. Russian authorities have used the gruesome videos to feed anti-Chechen sentiment and boost public support for Moscow’s latest war in the separatist republic.
When the kidnapping industry reached its peak a few years ago, there was even a relatively open “slave market” in Grozny, near Minutka Square, where the names and details of human livestock circulated on lists for interested buyers. Gangs often traded hostages or stole them from one another.
In the years between Russia’s first war in Chechnya, from 1994 to 1996, and Moscow’s launch of a new war against Chechen rebels last fall, kidnapping was one of the biggest sources of enrichment for criminal gangs in an economy that had little else to offer but oil theft, arms trade, counterfeiting and drug smuggling.
The highly organized gangs hunted for victims among the wealthy clans from Chechnya and neighboring republics in southern Russia. Foreigners and Russian television journalists were in high demand.
There were even professional go-betweens who took a commission on ransom deals, visited victims in their cells and dictated the despairing letters that captives sent to relatives pleading for the ransom to be paid.
Nearly a thousand hostages are still being held or are dead, according to Russian Interior Ministry figures.
Most of the victims were kidnapped in Chechnya or nearby. But dozens of people were seized in Moscow and other cities and traveled under guard to Chechnya in trucks with hidden cells, buried under potatoes or furniture.
In at least one case, a hostage was doped and transported in a suitcase.
Piecing Together a Child’s Lost Months
In her new hometown of Prokhladny, near Nalchik in southern Russia, Lena Meshcheryakova is rediscovering a childhood world of smiling suns painted on kindergarten doors, posters with cotton ball sheep and lunchtime milk ladled from an enamel pail. Her mother, Tatyana, 44, is gradually putting together the jagged puzzle of what happened to Lena in the lost nine months of her captivity.
Back in her Grozny neighborhood, Tatyana Meshcheryakova, a kindergarten director, was resented as a Russian woman teaching the children of Chechens. She thinks that her family was a target for Chechen extremists because of it.
At 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1998, she awoke to the sounds of the neighborhood dogs barking. Then four armed men were in her room. They took away her child and a pair of inexpensive gold earrings.
The initial ransom, $15,000, might as well have been a million dollars for a woman who hadn’t been paid in four years. Nine months later, it had fallen to $1,000, and neighbors, colleagues and friends helped scrape together the money to buy her child’s life.
Before Meshcheryakova was reunited with Lena, doctors warned her to show no emotion and to get no closer than a handshake, in case of infection.
“But I decided to hug her, and when I did she was just skin and bone,” Meshcheryakova says. The child had lost all her hair. “She was a pitiful sight, all covered in scabies, her skin hanging loose. She had deep bedsores and could barely move. She weighed 9 kilograms [20 pounds] at 3 years of age.”
Lena couldn’t tell her mother the story. It finally emerged in painful scraps. She spoke of people named Ruslan and Shamil, who carried machine guns, and a bad-tempered woman called Larisa.
Lena’s ear was ripped, and she had a deep scar on her finger. “Larisa hit me with a knife for losing a slipper,” Lena explained to her mother.
She was terrified of people in camouflage and burst into tears whenever she saw a cellar. When her mother asked why she was always sitting with hands behind her back, Lena told her she was wearing handcuffs. She would greedily pounce on any crumbs that fell to the floor and lick the last tiny scrap from her plate.
Russian Soldiers See a Cause to Fight For
The kidnapping industry reached its crescendo in the lawless chaos after Russia was defeated in the first Chechen war. The kidnappings gave Russian soldiers a cause to fight for--which they lacked in the first war--and made it easy for them to hate all Chechens.
Despite the fact that Russia has captured most Chechen territory, there were still 73 kidnappings in southern Russia near Chechnya in the first half of this year.
According to the Interior Ministry’s organized-crime department, 1,807 people have been kidnapped since 1994. The figure excludes the thousands of Chechens abducted within the separatist republic and the many other people who didn’t go to the authorities for help.
“It’s not just a disorganized bunch of cutthroats. It’s a highly organized, well-oiled machine, and they’ve got contacts all over the North Caucasus,” says Mikhail Brenner, 45, a road construction engineer who was kidnapped in Ingushetia, a Russian republic neighboring Chechnya, in October 1998 along with four of his colleagues.
In the year of his captivity, dozens of people passed through his cell, with its filthy mattresses and bloodstained walls.
One of the five, Victor Zinchenko, 53, whose mother was a poverty-stricken widow, was beheaded in a green forest glade. The video of his death has been played countless times on Russian television, but the part never telecast shows his executioners kicking his severed head about like a football, says Brenner’s wife, Tatyana, who got the full version of the video in a parcel from the kidnappers.
Local Authorities Were Often Involved
After the withdrawal of the Russians from Chechnya in 1996, Moscow was impotent to stop the kidnappings or free the victims. The local Chechen government’s security service was no help, afraid of sparking clan vendettas.
In fact, the Chechen authorities were often involved in kidnappings. Aslanbek Kharikhanov, 31, of Mairtup village, left the Chechen police force in disgust because so many police cooperated with gangs or became kidnappers themselves. Chechnya’s customs service often kidnapped people while inspecting trains or buses.
Even ordinary Chechens played a role in the crimes.
Victims such as Brenner, who was guarded by old men with machine guns as he worked as a slave building houses, concluded that every Chechen supports the kidnapping industry. But ordinary Chechens are also terrified of the warlords and their armies.
Siryazhdin Idrisov, 37, a farmer from Mairtup, kept a man in his basement in the summer of 1997. The man, who looked about 45 and Russian, was brought to him by a warlord.
“What could I do? I couldn’t say no to a warlord,” Idrisov explains. “He said I would answer for the prisoner with my head or with the heads of my family members, and I knew he was serious. I suspect many other people in the village had the same problem, but we never shared it. We were just terrified, that is all.
“I was afraid the man would run away, so I kept the basement closed at all times. I fed him well; I gave him the same food my family had. I never spoke to him. But I felt sorry for him. He looked very sad and frightened at all times. I was quite relieved when the warlord came after 12 days and took him away.” The man’s fate is unknown.
Idrisov wouldn’t give the warlord’s name, saying, “I don’t want him to come and kill me.”
The heart of the industry was the town of Urus-Martan, about 15 miles southwest of Grozny, controlled by the notorious eight Akhmadov brothers, including Uvais Akhmadov, the town’s police chief.
Kirill Perchenko, 22, the son of a Moscow art dealer, was kidnapped in August 1999 from one of Moscow’s fashionable streets and trucked to Grozny. He was sold to Ramzan Akhmadov, one of the brothers, and saw hundreds of names, going back to 1992, scratched on the walls of the warlord’s cells.
The Akhmadovs had many rules for their prisoners. They had to keep their eyes down and weren’t allowed to meet a Chechen’s gaze. They worked at cobbling shoes, carrying water and other chores.
Several times, Perchenko was given 100 strokes with wooden sticks for using bad language. After the first month of frequent hard beatings, he says, he began to get used to the pain.
The beating that really sticks in his mind wasn’t the most painful one. A few Chechen boys, aged 5 or 6, were encouraged to hit him while a woman stood nearby, laughing.
He says that during his captivity he watched seven men being executed by his captors. One of his friends was bashed to death.
Once, a hostage, a Russian officer, attacked and wounded one of the guards with a knife. Punishment was immediate.
“They put him on the ground, and four hostages had to hold his arms and legs,” Perchenko remembers. “They took a two-handed saw and killed him. He was lying on his stomach screaming. They cut from the back. From the back you hit the spine first, and it’s very painful.”
“The next day they took us all out of our cell and cut off the head of an 82-year-old man they had taken in Grozny. They just took it off with a knife and said, ‘For Allah,’ before killing him. They put both [men’s] heads on poles. And they took out the heart of the old man and nailed it to a tree.”
Perchenko managed to escape after six months in captivity.
Only about 10% of hostages were freed by Russia’s organized-crime force, according to former Maj. Vyacheslav Izmailov, a crusading journalist from the Novaya Gazeta newspaper who has devoted himself to tracing and freeing hostages. Most were bought, a few escaped, and some were abandoned by gangs when Russia started bombing towns and villages after the second war began last fall.
With 950 unaccounted for in the Interior Ministry figures, it’s not clear how many died in Russia’s ferocious bombing campaign.
“Hostages say the most terrible thing they experienced was the Russian bombing,” says Izmailov, who believes the number of hostages is much higher than official figures suggest.
The least “lucrative” hostages are soldiers, says Mikhail Suntsov of the ministry’s organized-crime department.
Roman Tereshchenko, a 22-year-old soldier, was sold into slavery in Chechnya by another soldier, Vasily Pinigin, for a few hundred dollars in June 1998. Pinigin was convicted earlier this year and sentenced to eight years in prison. It was the only trial of its type, although there were several cases in which soldiers betrayed colleagues to kidnappers, either for money or to avoid being kidnapped themselves, Suntsov says.
The ransom for a soldier was usually $2,000 to $10,000, he says, and 10 times more for an officer.
Although kidnappings have been going on in Chechnya for centuries, the trade really took off in September 1996, when Russia ran out of captured Chechen rebels to exchange for Russian POWs.
The Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, passed an amnesty enabling convicted Chechens serving time for various crimes in Russian prisons to be swapped for captive Russian civilians and soldiers. A similar amnesty was passed late last year. Izmailov, who arranged many of the swaps, set a minimum of three Russians for every Chechen released.
The problem was that the rule implied that one Chechen life was worth three Russians. It was like pouring gasoline on the flames.
“Of course it helped create a market. But the people who split the atom did not know it would result in a nuclear bomb,” Izmailov says. “What other option did I have?”
Standing Blindfolded in a Self-Dug Grave
Telling their stories means reliving their captivity for men such as Maj. Vitaly Khapov, whose kidnappers clamped open his jaw and ground his teeth down with a metal file, or Brenner, who had to dig a grave and stand in it blindfolded while gunmen fired bullets past his ears.
Oscar Wilde wrote in his story “The Happy Prince” that there is no mystery so great as misery--but equally mysterious is the will to survive it.
All but one of Brenner’s teeth were knocked out in vicious beatings. The kidnappers’ aim was to break him.
“People like that can’t break your spirit,” Brenner says. “They could hardly even read or write properly. When a beast like that is beating you up, you try to watch in a detached way, thinking that this person being beaten up is much higher than the person beating him. He’s just a killing machine, beating you up.
“You feel hatred for them, of course, but all the time you have a feeling of derision. You try not to succumb to the pain.”
Brenner escaped last fall and walked for five days to neighboring Ingushetia, just in time to be asked to identify Zinchenko’s decomposing head, which had been found two weeks earlier under a bridge.
In November 1997, Vitaly Kozmenko, 73, was seized in Grozny by three men in camouflage and was held in several different cells and pits.
He spent two months in a grave-size pit under a house high in the southern Chechen mountains. His hands were painfully cuffed and his feet were chained, but he could walk a few paces.
The owner of the house was always masked. He was curt and cruel but brought a bucket for Kozmenko to relieve himself into and a few boards for him to sleep on. After three days in the pitch blackness, Kozmenko began having hallucinations and he explained the problem to his guard, who softened.
“I said, ‘What do I call you?’ He said, ‘Call me Sonny,’ and he called me Grandpa. I said, ‘Sonny, can you bring me a light?’ ”
With light he was able to write. Kozmenko still has a small scrap of worn cardboard, folded many times, that is covered in tiny illegible writing and hieroglyphics, his diary of two months in the pit.
Later, he was moved to a cellar in Mairtup village, where he was chained to a couch. Kozmenko’s limbs were so confined that he was almost sleepless, tormented by thoughts of being able to just rest one hand on his thigh. Somehow he persuaded his newest captor, Lechi, to unchain him for a night, despite the Chechen’s fear of reprisals if Kozmenko escaped.
After that, “I said: ‘Lechi, unchain me, open the door and leave the house. I’ll not run away.’ . . . He said, ‘To hell with them,’ and unchained me for good. And I started to learn to walk again.”
Lechi borrowed several books for his prisoner, facing embarrassment when a suspicious friend asked him why he had suddenly become so interested in reading.
“A man should not lose his spirit and should struggle to the end,” Kozmenko says. “I suffered a lot of excruciating pain, but I survived because I said to myself life is given to man just once. You should do all you can to stay alive.”
He was released after his wife, a lawyer, agreed to defend the case of a rich and powerful politician who was charged with inciting a coup in Dagestan, a republic neighboring Chechnya.
After 14 months in captivity, the first thing Kozmenko did when he got back to Moscow in January 1999 was to go to an ice hole in the frozen Moscow River and plunge in for an exhilarating dip.
‘Let There Always Be Blue Sky’
In Lena Meshcheryakova’s kindergarten, the words of a Russian nursery song decorate one wall: “Let there always be sunshine. Let there always be blue sky. Let there always be Mama. Let there always be me.” For all the other children, it’s just a pretty song, but for Lena the implied alternative is quite real.
Lena still has rings under her eyes, and her solemn little face rarely lights up. She still wakes up screaming about people coming to get her. She is often anxious and irritable, and whenever she sees Grozny mentioned on television, she begs for the promise that she will never have to go back there.
Lena and her mother, a widow, have been staying with a relative for months. Lately, there have been hints that it’s time to move on from the house in Prokhladny, but the mother can’t afford to buy her own place.
As Tatyana Meshcheryakova tells the story of her daughter’s survival, Lena plays nearby. She lets a ladybug run along her finger, then is chagrined by its apparent death due to her attention. She gently places the tiny insect on a matchbox.
Gradually, Lena is recovering. “Now she has even started to be naughty,” her mother says gratefully. “Thank God she was born. Thank God she’s here.”
“It’s moving! Look, Mama! It’s moving!” Lena shrieks excitedly as the ladybug picks itself up and begins to scurry away. And suddenly, Lena is smiling.
Sergei L. Loiko of The Times’ Moscow Bureau and special correspondent Mayerbek Nunayev contributed to this report. Dixon reported from Nalchik, Rostov-on-Don and Moscow. Nunayev reported from Mairtup.