x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Casualties of the post-war era

The last word In spite of the republic's meteoric reconstruction, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings still ravage Chechnya.

In spite of the republic's meteoric reconstruction, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings still ravage Chechnya, writes Anna Badkhen At first glance, Chechnya appears to have risen from the ruins. In the ghastly cityscape of Grozny six years ago I was told to watch out for snipers and booby traps amid the bombed-out, mangled shells of scorched apartment blocks. Now sushi bars and pizza parlours beckon from the Chechen capital's orderly avenues of chintzy glass-and-neon storefronts and polished granite restaurant façades, which converge at the scalloped pink walls of an immense new mosque, a copy of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia. Audis and Mercedes zip along repaved highways between towns whose names were once synonymous with devastating battles; the Russian checkpoints were dismantled last year, when Moscow called an end to its 15-year-war against Chechen separatist rebels in this Muslim republic.

Ivanovskaya Street in Shali - a one-time separatist stronghold that Russian bombers and tanks had all but levelled during the war - has also been fixed up. Shrapnel scars and bullet holes are gone from the brick barriers. Iron gates sport a fresh, uniform coat of brown paint. In the grey slush behind one of these gates Denlibek Askhabov, a 70-year-old tomato farmer in mismatched socks, is waiting for me.

He wants to show me a slice of new, post-war Chechnya, one where the violence still rages on. First, he takes me to the spot where Chechen security forces dumped the body of his son Yusup. They gunned him down in a taxi cab in Shali's main street last May, brought his mutilated body to the Askhabov family compound, threw it in the mud - right there, Denilbek points, beneath that trellis choked by a knobbly vine - and announced that he had been a rebel leader. Then they kicked and beat Denilbek with rifle butts. The old man waves toward the snowy patch in the yard where he passed out.

Three months later, the security forces returned just before dawn. Here they entered the room of Yusup's younger brother, Abdulyazed, a legally blind greenhouse worker. Here they dragged Abdulyazed across the yard. Here is the window from which he, Denilbek, leant out, begging the men to leave his family alone when one of the officers stuck a pistol in the old man's mouth. (Here Denilbek becomes emotional, runs out of breath.) The old man points to the iron gate: that's where he last saw Abdulyazed, before they shoved him into a car. The Askhabovs have not heard from him since.

How old is Abdulyazed, I ask. The old man shuffles his feet - one in a grey sock, one in black - and hesitates. "He would have been twenty-seven in March," he says. He is certain that Abdulyazed is dead, too. The wages of Chechnya's meteoric recovery from the war - say human-rights workers in Russia and abroad, and Chechens like Denilbek Askhabov - are arbitrary abductions, evictions, torture, and extrajudicial killings by security forces loyal to Chechnya's pro-Kremlin president, Ramzan Kadyrov. The Russian advocacy group Memorial reports that at least 86 people were abducted in the first nine months of 2009 - more than twice as many as in all of 2008, and three times as many as the year before. Many of the disappeared eventually turn up dead.

The accounts of disappearances and murders in post-war Chechnya have a macabre familiarity: detentions and executions of Chechens by Russian troops, and hostage-takings by Chechen rebels were a hallmark of the war Russia waged here, on and off, from 1994 until 2009, killing between 130,000 and 300,000 people. Many of the dead are still unaccounted for. Thousands of detainees are missing. A sinister echo of that war reverberates across the new, refurbished Chechnya. The victims are typically suspected rebels or people accused of sympathising with the insurgency that continues to simmer in the region - despite the Kremlin's promise that the separatists have been crushed - just as it has throughout the nearly 300 years of Russia's rule. Sympathising is interpreted broadly. Ekaterina Sokirianskaya, a Memorial researcher, tells me of an old man who was executed without trial in the middle of his village for allegedly giving bread to the rebels. I met the mother of a young man who was killed because, as Chechen law-enforcement officials told her, his mobile phone ringtone was the howl of a wolf, a symbol of the Chechen resistance. Relatives of suspected insurgents, like Denilbek and Abdulyazed Askhabov, are common targets.

"There used to be trials," Sokirianskaya says. "Now they are simply shot." We are sitting in an internet cafe in St Petersburg, Russia, more than 1,600km away from Chechnya: Memorial has banned its Chechnya-based employees from talking to reporters after one of the group's outspoken local researchers, Natalia Estemirova, was abducted and murdered last summer; Memorial blames her killing on Kadyrov's forces.

At the same time, the rebel movement is resurgent. Mirroring the abductions, suicide bombings and attacks on government forces increased last year. The violence is no longer contained in Chechnya and is spreading across Russia's North Caucasus. Bombs go off in Ingushetia, Dagestan and North Ossetia. Last year, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, more than 900 people were killed in bombings, shootings, gun battles, and suicide attacks in the region, compared to 586 people the year before.

Kadyrov, who was hand-picked by the Kremlin to rule Chechnya, makes no secret of his approach to quashing insurgency. "I swear by Allah," the president said in remarks broadcast on Chechen television last year, "we are not even going to arrest them; we will shoot them on the spot." The continued bloodshed, long after the end of a supposedly successful counterinsurgency, may be a lesson worth noting - especially for the United States, which hopes to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by September. The circumstances that fuel the insurgency in Chechnya would be familiar to American troops and diplomats stationed in Iraq: ubiquitous poverty; the enduring appeal of Islamic fundamentalism and a weak, vindictive kleptocracy that perpetuates the cycle of revenge.

In Shali, Askhabov stands in the yard where he last saw his sons. A cow snorts in a half-built brick shed. The shed is another casualty of war: without his sons, Askhabov cannot finish it. "I've seen on TV: there are trials of former Nazis, they are 90 years old, and they are put on trial for something that happened in the 1940s," the farmer says. "And here, there are crimes against humanity happening right now, and no one does anything. Why?"

I don't have an answer to that. Askhabov purses his lips. We stand quietly. Across the spanking new streets of Shali we can hear the whisper of car tyres speeding along the repaved highway. Anna Badkhen has reported from Chechnya since 2001. Her book about war and food comes out in October. Her trip to Chechnya this year was made possible by a grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.