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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

A War Shrouded in Silence

Increasingly, Chechen civilians are vanishing in 'sweeps' by Russian troops. Many are never found, but one family's tragedy offers a glimpse behind a veil of secrets.

July 16, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Russia — 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."

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