In Chechnya, when a son, brother or husband disappears, it means frantic trips from one police station to another, to prosecutors' offices, administration offices and military bases to try to locate the prisoner quickly. As days pass, it soon becomes a search for the dead.
After Ramzan Kagermanov, a collective farm boss, was stopped and taken away by masked Russian servicemen on Dec. 23, his brother, Zamzan, 49, searched for him everywhere.
"I knew very well that the chances of finding him dwindled with every day," he said.
In early January, seven bodies were found at a deserted pig farm, none of which matched Ramzan Kagermanov's description. On Jan. 13, 10 more bodies were found there, and his brother went to investigate.
"I recognized my brother by his pants and socks and also his shoes. At first I thought the top of his body was buried in soil. But then I saw the lower part of his body was all that was left of him. The rest was missing. There was no doubt that the bodies had been blown up after they were taken there," Zamzan Kagermanov said.
As Chechens prepare for a referendum on their future today, the disappearances and assassinations continue. There have also been a growing number of reports that missing men have been blown up -- whether while dead or alive is unclear.
International and Russian human rights organizations and liberal parliamentary deputies have urged that the referendum, on a Moscow-backed constitution granting limited autonomy to Chechnya within Russia, be abandoned.
Critics argue that the continuing violence and warfare prevent the vote from being fair. There are also fears that fraud will taint the referendum, as it did the 1995 Chechen vote, overseen by Russian authorities, and won by pro-Moscow candidate Doku Zavgayev.
In Grozny, the streets have been decked with posters and signs urging "Everyone to the referendum" and "The Constitution means stability and peace." But other signs keep appearing, only to be hastily painted over: "The referendum is a big hoax" and "Maskhadov is our president," a reference to Aslan Maskhadov, the separatist leader elected during the republic's period of de facto independence from 1996 to 1999, when Russian forces withdrew.
The battle of the sign painters indicates deep divisions in Chechnya and suggests the referendum is the wrong tool to restore peace.
A better tool, argue human rights groups and liberal politicians in Russia, is peace talks with Maskhadov's separatist movement, a step the Kremlin will not countenance. Some argue that the referendum may complicate the peace process because one of its objectives is to delegitimize Maskhadov as the last elected Chechen president.
Underscoring how important the referendum is to the Kremlin, Moscow has launched a concerted campaign to attract voters, dangling such incentives as promises of compensation for houses destroyed by bombing, payments to women who give birth on referendum day and promises of amnesty for fighters. The most potent promise, though, is peace.
Alkhan Akayev, 54, a driver living at the Bart refugee camp in Ingushetia, said he would not take part in the vote because he did not trust the Russian authorities. He is living in the camp because he fears that his sons, ages 13 and 16, could be arrested like many other Chechen men, taken away and killed in "mop-up operations," the Russian euphemism for the feared military blockades and searches of Chechen villages.
"To make the referendum really objective, you have to stop the war first. People need jobs and security. They want to know their children will be safe. Instead, our people are preoccupied with one single problem: how to survive and not get killed.... How can one hold a democratic referendum in such conditions?" he asked.
The servicemen who sweep through villages and take away Chechen men wear camouflage and black masks. The household was asleep when they came at 4 a.m. for Khampash Bukhayev, 21, and his uncle, Said-Ali Bukhayev, 50, in Aldy town, outside Grozny, in late January.
The two were taken away on an armed personnel carrier, but the uncle was released.
"What happened to Khampash is mystery," the uncle said. "We have not been able to find him anywhere."
The continuing violence by both sides leaves some Chechens so bitterly distrustful of Russian authorities that they plan to boycott the referendum, which includes votes on two laws for the election of a president and Chechen administration.
But the relentless war has ground down others. Some believe that accepting the Kremlin's limited autonomy plan is the only hope to end the war.
Ruslan Idiyev, 22, a student at the oil institute in Grozny, was part of a group who polled Grozny residents about the referendum on behalf of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration. The broader results have not been released, but he said of the 50 people he interviewed, only six had seen copies of the draft constitution and laws.
"It's clear that the majority of Chechens have not read the draft constitution, but many of these people plan to take part anyway. For these people, the most important thing is peace in return for their votes.
"And when you ask them, 'Who promised you peace?' the answer is almost always the same. 'All the people who speak about the referendum on TV promise that after the referendum will be held, there will peace in Chechnya.' "
Zura Khaladova, 46, of Grozny, typifies the sense of despair that many feel: "I haven't read the text of the draft constitution, but I will vote for it anyway. Things will pick up and eventually get better if we support the constitution and the laws."
But other Chechens doubt the authorities' promises that things will get better if they only vote for the Kremlin plan.
The widespread opposition to the referendum and its lack of choices suggest that even if the Kremlin plan is endorsed, it won't close the question of independence or acquire the sheen of legitimacy in the eyes of many ordinary Chechens. "The people who suggest that we go and vote today are the same people who bear responsibility for our miserable existence today. We suffered more from Russian bombs than from Chechen terrorists and bandits," complained Kamila Osmayeva, 46, living in the Satsita refugee camp near Chechnya.
"The bombs destroyed my house. Soldiers killed many of my relatives, and this war has turned my children into cripples. And that's why I refuse to go and vote," she said angrily. "I am not playing these games anymore. I hate this war, and I hate what Russians are doing to us.
"If any referendum is needed, there should only be one question: to stop the war. The next move should be to sit down at the negotiating table with the rebels."
Movlad Shamsayev, 43, an unemployed agronomist, said Russian authorities had been bombarding the population with tempting promises, but he questioned why they did not act earlier to stop the war, create jobs and compensate people for houses destroyed in the bombing.
Shamsayev believes that Chechnya should be part of Russia, but argues that the referendum offers so few choices that its results will have no effect.
"It is hardly likely the referendum will be able to stop the war until negotiations with Maskhadov and [Shamil] Basayev and the other rebel field commanders. If there are no negotiations, the war and the mop-up operations will go on," he said, referring to the two top rebel leaders.
People, he said, would vote in fear, unwilling to express their real views.
"A referendum held at gunpoint is meaningless," he said.
Nunayev reported from Grozny and Dixon from Moscow.