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Identifying Chechnya's Dead


Detainees under Russian guard in Chechnya in a photo by Adam Borowski that is part of a photo exhibition in Prague called "Chechnya: The Final Solution"

Detainees under Russian guard in Chechnya in a photo by Adam Borowski that is part of a photo exhibition in Prague called "Chechnya: The Final Solution"

Aslan Chadayev was well-known in his village of Shalazhi, in central Chechnya, for being an avid reader.

He was immersed in a book when Russian soldiers stormed into his house, dragged him out, a shirt pulled over his head, and threw him into their vehicle.

The 19-year-old student was never seen again.

In the nine years since Aslan's disappearance, his mother Malika has lost all hope of finding him alive. But she is still desperately searching for his remains.

"As soon as a new mass grave or an unidentified body is discovered, she rushes there. She's traveled to every corner of the republic," says Malika's sister-in-law, Aset. "She's constantly rummaging in these graves in the hope of finding even just a piece of her son's clothing. Missing people definitely must be searched for and identified; the truth must be admitted."

Thousands Still Missing

Aslan is one of thousands of Chechen civilians who disappeared without a trace after being picked up by armed fighters.

Rights groups say some 5,000 people are missing from Chechnya's two wars, which began in 1994 when Russian soldiers marched into that small Caucasus republic to crush an independence drive.

The actual figure could be much higher. Still, there has been no government campaign to find and identify the dead.

Khozha Yakhyaev's elder brother, Khasin, disappeared during the first war. After a three-month search for his brother, Khozha learned that Russian soldiers had killed him and a group of civilians with flamethrowers.

He was able to identify Khasin by his teeth and bury him, together with the other, unidentified victims.

Khozha has since laid dozens of anonymous bodies to rest. He carefully numbers each grave, writes a description of the body, takes pictures, and stores the clothes of the deceased in plastic bags.

He hopes that a forensic laboratory will eventually be set up in Chechnya to identify these bodies and return them to their families.

"If only there was an opportunity to identify the bodies of those whom we buried in our village," he laments. "I think many ordinary Chechens would gladly give up their monthly salary to help build a laboratory, to bring peace of mind to those who lost both relatives and the hope of finding their remains. I know people who would give their entire savings for this. That's how badly this lab is needed in Chechnya."

Like Khozha, relatives of the missing have pinned much hope on the regional government's efforts to build a forensic laboratory in the republic. Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's powerful Kremlin-backed leader, has himself vowed to help the families of those who have disappeared find out about their loved ones.

These hopes, however, were quashed this month when Russia's Health and Social Development Ministry rejected Chechnya's request for a forensic lab, dismissing the project as too expensive.

Chechen human rights ombudsman Nudri Nukhazhiyev wrote a letter of protest to the ministry, saying that "the problem of establishing the location of abducted and missing citizens is constantly raised not only by citizens of the republic, but also by international organizations that accuse Russia of a lack of will to resolve it."

International rights groups and agencies such as the Council of Europe have repeatedly urged Russia to speed up work on identifying bodies exhumed in its war-battered republic, and have pledged support.

Masud Chumakov, Chechnya's chief forensic expert, suspects the federal government's opposition is part of a battle for funds.

"They want to build the lab in Moscow, because a lot of money will be earmarked for it," he charges. "The West has been trying to make things progress; that's why Moscow says that we don't have specialists and that there is no need for a lab in Chechnya. There is no point in building a laboratory outside Chechnya because bones that have been buried for 15-16 years will be impossible to identify after being transported to Moscow."

Systematic forensic work could also raise uncomfortable questions for the Kremlin about the Russian Army's actions in Chechnya.

Unlike some other postwar countries, Russia has yet to prosecute war crimes in Chechnya.

Built On Bones

The problem of identifying the dead is becoming all the more pressing as workers regularly stumble upon graves amid an oil-fuelled construction boom in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

A soldier stands over a mass grave in Chechnya in a photo by Adam Borowski that is part of the "Chechnya: The Final Solution" exhibition.
This summer alone, two huge mass graves were discovered containing a total of about 1,100 bodies.

Rights groups say there are dozens more known but unopened graves in fields, courtyards, and basements throughout Chechnya.

But Russia so far has focused its efforts on giving the capital a facelift that it can exhibit as a symbol of peace and stability. Grozny this year proudly inaugurated a brand new mosque, the country's largest, with room for 10,000 worshipers.

To keep up with the frantic reconstruction pace, workers build around and often over graves, or quietly rebury bodies elsewhere.

Muhidin Tabakovic, from the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), says this practice seriously compromises the identification process.

"The bodies in graves may have personal belongings such as wallets, identification cards, family photographs that can help identification," says Tabakovic, who has directly participated in the exhumation of mass graves in former Yugoslavia. "Digging up bodies and reburying them in other locations causes huge problems because construction workers are not familiar with the whole process of excavation of human remains. The bones get mixed up and it's then impossible to determine which bones belong to which bodies."

The organization's DNA-assisted identification program, the world's largest, has already helped identify more than 14,000 people who disappeared in the 1990s Balkan wars.

Its forensic experts operate in many regions of the world struck by conflicts or natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, the 2005 Katrina hurricane in the United States, or the mass executions in Chile under dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Tabakovic has no doubt the ICMP, which receives funding from almost 20 governments, would be ready to prove technical and financial support in identifying Chechnya's dead.

But as long as Moscow shies away from its responsibility in atrocities committed during the Chechen wars, people like Malika Chadayeva are unlikely to get closure over the death of their loved ones.

"Exhuming bodies from mass graves makes it possible to reveal inhuman treatment. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is still active and everything we do is directly related to these people sitting in The Hague," says Tabakovic. "This is why the Russian government is finding excuses, saying it's too expensive, which is nonsense. It's not about money. It's about truth, about what really happened, and who is responsible for it."

RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


     

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