A War Shrouded in Silence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two large military trucks pulled up outside Marita Batsiyeva's house at dawn. Russian soldiers swarmed through the door. "Any men here?" they asked.

There were three: Batsiyeva's father, brother and 25-year-old son, Muslim. The soldiers asked for identity documents but didn't read them. Instead, they forced the two younger men into the trucks.

"The soldiers said they would be back by lunchtime," Batsiyeva recalled.

About 150 men were rounded up that day--March 12--in Argun, a onetime industrial town just east of the Chechen capital, Grozny. At least 11 of them, including Batsiyeva's son, have not been seen alive since.

Muslim vanished during a zachistka, a document "sweep" operation that is Russia's main weapon against Chechen rebels who hide among the civilian population.

Secrecy surrounds what human rights activists describe as a "dirty war" in the separatist Russian republic, and many families never learn what happens to those who disappear. But Muslim's case turned out to be an exception, offering a disturbing glimpse behind the veil of silence maintained by Russian authorities.

In recent weeks, zachistka operations have increased in scale and frequency, prompting a new wave of reports of abuses, including torture and disappearances. Russian officials deny that large-scale abuses have taken place. And they insist that if individual servicemen commit crimes, investigations will determine their guilt or innocence.

But Muslim's case helps explain why such investigations rarely find a culprit. And it shows why the tactic that Russian forces prefer in their fight against Chechen guerrillas--the zachistka--could be the tactic that loses their war for Chechen hearts and minds.

"All I know now is that I can't trust a single Russian soldier," Muslim's mother said. "I can't trust even one."

There had been corpses before, dozens of them. But these four were different.

They arrived in the village of Prigorodnoye on a truck from the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, dropped off at the village mosque as prayer services were ending March 16. Ministry workers unloaded the body bags and left without explanation.

The men of Prigorodnoye set out for the village cemetery to bury the bodies before nightfall, in accordance with Muslim tradition. Next to a large trench, they opened the bags.

The men weren't prepared for what they saw inside. Unlike earlier corpses, these were fresh. Naked, healthy men. And each had been sliced open from neck to groin and sewn up again with large black stitches.

The gravediggers found a video camera to document what they saw. "We've buried about 60 bodies here," a skull-capped man says on the tape, his back turned to the lens to conceal his identity. "But these are the first we have seen with these kinds of marks."

Before placing the bodies in the trench and filling it with dirt, the men also took photographs to help relatives identify the dead men.

Within days, the photographs--and rumors--began to circulate around Chechnya, and the dead men became a vortex of speculation. Who had cut them open? And why?

Terror, Intimidation Characterize Fighting

The war in Chechnya started as a military campaign. Nearly two years ago, Moscow sent large numbers of troops and artillery to eradicate Chechen rebels accused of a wave of kidnappings and terrorist bomb attacks.

But since Russian troops drove the rebels into hiding last year, the conflict has deteriorated, with both sides now fighting mostly with terror and intimidation. Chechen rebels use remote-controlled mines and sniper attacks to kill and demoralize Russian troops. Chechens accused of "collaborating" with Russian forces are killed in their beds.

The Russians respond with zachistki. Suspected rebels detained during such roundups are supposed to go through a legal process to determine guilt or innocence. But very few do. More often, they or their families buy their way out of custody. Other times, human rights activists say, they simply disappear--dispatched with a shot to the back of the head and dumped where their families won't find them.

"Arbitrary detention, torture of detainees and disappearances are the main elements of a dirty war," said Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. "A dirty war, with its arbitrariness, has terror as its goal."

Even Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's personal human rights representative, Vladimir A. Kalamanov, who tends to emphasize abuses attributed to Chechen rebels, acknowledges the "disappearance" problem. His office is trying to track down hundreds of missing people and has forced authorities to open investigations into at least 110 such cases.

But according to Human Rights Watch, 79 of those cases have been suspended because investigators say they "cannot identify a suspect."

In part to increase accountability and reduce reports of misconduct by Russian troops, Putin transferred operational control of the Chechen campaign from the military to the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB, on Jan. 22. Rules were imposed stating that a member of the general prosecutor's office must be present during all zachistki to make sure that detainees are legally accounted for.

But according to Chechens, under the FSB things have gotten worse, not better. They say they rarely, if ever, see a prosecutor during a zachistka. In at least two cases this month, civilian administrators were reportedly locked in their offices to prevent them from keeping an eye on the soldiers.

In more candid moments, Russian officials acknowledge that their tactics tend to backfire: The civilian population grows more distrustful, and Chechen guerrillas grow bolder.

And the lists of dead and missing grow longer.

Mother Made Inquiries at Commandant's Office

For 11 days, Marita Batsiyeva made a pest of herself at the local military commandant's office in Argun, buttonholing anyone who went in or out, asking if Muslim was inside. Her ex-husband, Muslim's father, traveled to Grozny and other cities, filing missing person reports with the military, the civilian prosecutor's office, human rights agencies and the Russian-backed civilian government.

According to Russian law, families are supposed to be told where detainees are being held and on what charges. But neither parent could learn where or why Muslim was being held.

Four days after Muslim was detained, Argun's deputy mayor made a list of the 11 men still missing after the zachistka--one of five large roundups in Argun this year alone--and passed it on to the military commandant and civilian investigators.

Eleven days after Muslim disappeared, Batsiyeva heard that fresh bodies had turned up in Prigorodnoye. A family on the next street whose son was also among the missing had recognized him in the gravediggers' photos.

Batsiyeva drove the next day to Prigorodnoye to look at the photos. As soon as she saw them, she began to cry.

"People tried to comfort me, to tell me it wasn't my son," she said. "But I knew it was him. I cried and cried."

Muslim Batsiyev was the last of the four corpses to be identified. By the time his mother made it to Prigorodnoye, families had already picked out the other three from the photos: Ayub Gairbekov, 22, son of a prominent doctor at the hospital in Argun; Gairbekov's uncle, 38-year-old Abdul-Malik Tovzarkhanov; and Islam Khutiyev, 18, who lived one street away from Muslim Batsiyev's mother.

Muslim's father exhumed the body the next day. As the other families had done, he brought Muslim to the family grave site and reburied his son's corpse before nightfall.

Batsiyeva says it was hard to look at her son's body.

"He had a hole in the right temple," Batsiyeva said. "His head was cut open at the back and sewn up. His ring finger was broken, and he was wearing a hospital bracelet."

He also had a tag on his foot with strange notations: "1 X N (civilian)."

A second family found a similar tag. Bibolt Gairbekov, a 51-year-old doctor at the hospital in Argun, says his son's corpse had a tag on the toe reading, "3 X N (civilian)."

Both Batsiyeva and Gairbekov thought their sons' bodies looked "too small." They feared that the men had been robbed of their internal organs, but neither removed the stitches to look inside.

"I couldn't bring myself to open my son's body," Gairbekov said. "I just couldn't."

But Khutiyev's family did. "When we brought him home, he had a huge cut from the neck to the very bottom and he was sewn up with fishing line," said Zhezan Khutiyeva, his 76-year-old grandmother. "We opened him up, and there was nothing inside."

Vladimir Shcherbakov, director of the military laboratory in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don that handles Chechen war casualties, says the notations on the tags are standard Russian morgue shorthand--the number distinguishes several bodies in a group, and the "N" stands for neizvestny, which means "unknown." The tags suggested that the men were autopsied in a Russian morgue. And while it is standard practice to replace organs after examining them during an autopsy, he says, some examiners may discard them.

But such prosaic explanations make little headway in Chechnya, and rumors that the men were used for organ transplants spread like wildfire. The rumors were fueled by a traditional Chechen disapproval of autopsies, which are considered a defilement of the dead. But they were also fanned by the poisonous atmosphere of suspicion among Chechens, by the belief that Russians are capable of unimaginable horrors.

A Surprise Phone Call Provides Some Answers

Alexander Cherkasov works for the Russian human rights group Memorial and has helped document hundreds of human rights violations allegedly committed by Russian troops in Chechnya. Time and again, his group has demanded that military prosecutors investigate alleged offenses, only to be met with stony silence.

One of those cases was that of the mysterious bodies from Prigorodnoye. The photos of the four corpses eventually made it to the Memorial office on the Chechen border in Ingushetia and were posted on the group's Web site, along with the victims' names and ages.

Cherkasov was startled when an investigator from the military prosecutor's office called him at his Moscow office in late May asking for help: The investigator said he was looking into the killing of four unidentified men and that he had read a newspaper article suggesting that Memorial might know their identities.

Cherkasov was shocked. With so much information circulating in Chechnya and on the Web, how could the military prosecutor's office still be in the dark?

On condition that he not reveal his identity, Cherkasov said, the investigator told him the following story. On March 13, a group of servicemen was patrolling the security perimeter around Russian military headquarters in Khankala, a few miles east of Grozny, when they noticed some disturbed earth. Fearing mines, they called for explosives experts. But when the servicemen scraped off the first layer of soil, a human hand popped up.

So they called in the investigator. As he watched, four bodies were pulled from a shallow grave.

He ordered autopsies, which were conducted in the morgue on the base. The medical examiner said all four of the dead men had gunshot wounds to the rear of the head and to the back, which was the cause of death.

The investigator took photos of the corpses and sent them to commandants' offices throughout Chechnya, asking if anyone could identify them. He never heard back. And there the matter rested for two months. Until by chance the investigator happened upon the newspaper article.

After months of organ transplant speculation, Cherkasov was glad to get confirmation that the men had been properly autopsied. But he was disturbed by nearly everything else the investigator said.

"The system doesn't work," Cherkasov said. "[Law enforcement] agencies that are supposed to work together don't work together."

The fact that the men were discovered March 13 meant that it took just 36 hours for them to be arrested, transported to Khankala, killed and buried inside the heavily guarded security perimeter at the base, Cherkasov noted. The fact that a military prosecutor was investigating the case was a tacit acknowledgment that the suspected killers were Russian servicemen. In Russia, military prosecutors investigate only crimes in which servicemen are suspects. Civilian prosecutors handle all other cases.

Cherkasov says the military investigator appeared sincere in his efforts to probe the killings. Ironically, the boldest step he took to solve the case--ordering the autopsies--inflamed it the most.

Investigators face a tough job in Chechnya. According to records obtained by human rights groups, some cases languish because Russian servicemen refuse to cooperate. And fearing for their safety, military prosecutors avoid contact with the civilian population.

"A real campaign of terror is being waged against us," Chechnya's civilian general prosecutor told the Kommersant newspaper last month. "The rebels' goal is to terrify Chechnya's law enforcement structures."

Instead of traveling around the republic to interview witnesses, prosecutors tend to mail out summonses, asking people to appear at the base. Such summonses are usually ignored by distrustful Chechens, who fear Russian authorities too much to voluntarily show up for questioning, especially on a military base.

Their fear fuels a vicious cycle: Because so few cases are solved, Chechens distrust the authorities. Because Chechens distrust the authorities, more cases go unsolved.

After deliberating, Muslim's mother took the unusual step last month of responding to a summons seeking her testimony. But she says the investigator appeared more interested in learning who had told her about the bodies than in finding who had killed her son.

"I remember how happy I was when the Russian troops came," she said. "I thought they came back to restore law and order for good so that people would have jobs and our children could go to school. But I was wrong.

"Now I see that they came here not to stop atrocities and destroy the bandits. They came here to destroy all of us, the entire Chechen people.

"I have only one fear," she added early last month. "I fear for my second son. He's so upset about his brother, I fear he will do something foolish. I fear he may go to the rebels."

Of the 11 men who disappeared from Argun that day, only the four corpses have surfaced. The fates of the other seven remain unknown.

On June 20, as he walked home from a wedding, Muslim's 20-year-old brother, Ruslan, was shot and killed along a road guarded by Russian soldiers.

"You know, I feel more at peace now because at least I know they cannot be taken away from me again," Batsiyeva said last week. "I have them right here with me, if only in their graves."

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Disappearances of Civilians in Chechnya

Human Rights Watch has documented more than 130 disappearances. Russian military and civilian prosecutors have opened 110 criminal cases concerning disappearances.

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Under Investigation: 23

Transferred: 6

Suspended: 79

Unclear: 2

Convictions: 0

Source: Human Rights Watch

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Special correspondent Mayerbek Nunayev contributed to this report from Chechnya.

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