Over the past weekend, after Russia announced it had taken full control of Chechnya's capital Grozny, Russian television showed soldiers handing out cups of soup to grateful civilians. But RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini says that recent reports of murders, rapes, and looting committed by Russian soldiers present a more chilling side to the story of Moscow's treatment of civilians in Chechnya.
Moscow, 9 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Evidence is mounting that Russian soldiers have violated the human rights of civilians in Chechnya.
The respected Russian human-rights organization Memorial spoke with a woman who described how Russian soldiers killed five of her neighbors. The woman, Natalya Goncharuk, said she shared a cellar with the five in Grozny's Staropromyslovsky district. Memorial representatives interviewed Goncharuk in a hospital in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where she was admitted with grenade-fragment injuries last month (Jan. 22).
In her written testimony, Goncharuk said that, during a lull in the Russian bombardment of Staropromyslovsky, the cellar's six inhabitants -- her Russian and Chechen neighbors, Natalya, Lyuda, Khava, Khassun, and a (unnamed) young boy -- heard the voices of Russian soldiers outside. The group began shouting to attract attention, and the soldiers responded by firing at the cellar door. When the six said they were civilians, the soldiers sprayed tear-gas into the cellar. Finally, Goncharuk says, when they could barely breathe, two soldiers let them come out and demanded to see their identity papers.
According to Goncharuk's testimony to Memorial, the soldiers saw all six of them as enemies. She said the soldiers told them that anyone who stayed in Grozny was considered a Chechen fighter ("boyeviki"). She remembers the soldiers saying: "This is not 1995. This time we came to destroy everything that grows and moves. Your city won't be rebuilt. We'll level it to the ground -- and you along with it."
Goncharuk's account notes that the soldiers did not even look at the group's passports. She wrote: "They waited until we got out [of the cellar] and then shot Natalya, Lyuda and the boy point-blank. We went back into the far corner of the cellar and heard how one soldier asked another, 'What did you shoot them for?' The other one answered: 'Finish them off, we don't want witnesses.'"
Goncharuk says she survived the grenades the soldiers then threw into the cellar only thanks to a neighbor who shielded her. She told RFE/RL that despite such acts of violence, many inhabitants thought the cellars were safer than the military posts blocking exits out of Grozny. She recalled that two women (Marya and Meda Goygeva) were raped and killed while trying to leave Grozny to seek refuge in Ingushetia.
Memorial's Mikhail Zamyatin said his organization yesterday filed a demand to the Russian prosecutor-general's office asking it to investigate the case:
"I'm taking this [evidence] now to the prosecutor-general's office. We're asking him to [investigate] and open a criminal case. And we are asking the prosecutor-general's office to respond whether or not they've opened a criminal case."
In another case, Liza -- a Chechen who lives in Moscow -- reports that she survived what the Russians called a "cleansing" operation in her hometown of Katyr-Yurt last Saturday (Feb. 5). She said she was in Chechnya only a few days, to attend a relative's funeral. After she arrived a bombing campaign began. Liza telephoned RFE/RL's Moscow bureau to tell how the Russian soldiers behaved after the bombing.
"When we got to the edge of the village, we were told, 'Don't move, one step back and you'll all be shot dead.' Then soldiers came and shouted that we should lie down."
"There were screaming children, old men in wheelchairs, sick people. [After] about an hour, [the soldiers] said that not a single man would get out, only women and children. But we were in the first ranks and managed to slip through."
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based monitoring organization, released a report two days ago saying that in recent weeks Russian forces summarily executed at least 22 civilians, mainly women and old men, in Grozny's Staropromyslovsky district. In December, the organization reported on similar murders in Alkhan-Yurt, atrocities later acknowledged by the pro-Russian Chechen leader Malik Saydullayev. When the Alkhan-Yurt murders were made public, Moscow said it was opening an investigation. Last week, Russian authorities said the inquiry was still under way.
But the more recent reports seem to indicate an increase in violence by Russian troops during the first weeks of the year, when heavy city fighting started. Malcolm Hawkes, a Human Rights Watch representative in Moscow, told RFE/RL that -- after the heavy losses the soldiers sustained in the battle for Grozny -- there could be an element of revenge in their behavior.