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Russia: Eyewitnesses Give Accounts Of Terror In Chechnya

Two recent accounts of life in Chechnya today demonstrate that terror is still a part of everyday existence for Chechens forced to live side by side with Russian troops. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 8 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Two eyewitness reports of life in present-day Chechnya clearly indicate that terror remains a part of everyday existence for Chechens who continue to live close to Russian troops. One comes from Ruslan Musayev, an Associated Press Chechen stringer, who was arrested this week while buying food at a market in the capital Grozny. The other report is by Salambek Maigov, a Chechen living in Moscow who recently visited his family in the breakaway republic.

Musayev was detained overnight in Grozny Tuesday (Sept 5) when a Russian patrol on a so-called "cleansing operation" arrested him because his passport showed that he wasn't a resident of the Chechen capital. According to the AP, Musayev was not carrying documents identifying him as a reporter. He and seven other Chechens were handcuffed and taken away in trucks to the Khankala military base near Grozny.

Musayev told RFE/RL what happened afterwards:

"They threw us into pits apparently dug with an excavator, about four to five meters deep. There were five other people with me. At night, [our pit] was closed from the top with wooden planks. In the morning, they started asking: Who? Why? Where from? They asked if we had money or anything else of value. I said that I had money that I managed to hide during the search -- about $600 and 3,000 rubles, what I had with me when I was taken. I gave them the $600. I was given back my passport, they put me on a truck and took me away from Grozny."

Musayev was lucky to get away, and lucky to have carried what is considered a large sum of money with him.

Salambek Maigov, who is the head of a Moscow-based political organization called Chechen Solidarity, visited his family in Chechnya from August 24 to September 3. He says that Russian forces were continuing their arbitrary detentions of Chechens, torturing them, and then freeing them in return for money or weapons.

Maigov told RFE/RL about a recent incident during a "cleansing operation" in the village of Petropavlovsk, where two young men -- 18 and 26 years old -- were taken away by Russian special forces troops. The next day the troops offered their families the opportunity to see their corpses -- in exchange for a crate of vodka and a sheep:

"The bodies were simply lying in the forest, they had been tortured during the night. You could see that an armored vehicle had driven over one of them. The other one was all blue, every part of his body had been beaten, and the families had nothing left to do but silently bury their children."

Maigov points out that it is even worse when family members simply disappear and there is no way to confirm their arrests and learn their whereabouts. According to him, even prominent Chechens can simply disappear without a trace. In May, Maigov says, the inhabitants of Shali said that Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev, the head of a Chechen official body elected before the war, was arrested and taken away by Russian forces. Since then, Russian officials have consistently denied any knowledge of his whereabouts, despite recent rumors that Alikhadzhiyev had died under torture in a Moscow prison.

This week a news report (by the AP) quoted a Russian Federal Security Service officer, who finally confirmed Alikhadzhiyev's arrest four months ago. But the officer could not say whether Alikhadzhiyev was still being held.

Maigov says that the arrests during cleansing operations are also used to obtain weapons and to make a public show of what are called "successful weapon-confiscation operations" that are broadcast on television almost daily. But, he says, the confiscations are actually fake. According to Maigov, what happens is this: some of those taken away during cleansing operations are later sold back to their villages for weapons -- according to the principle, "one Chechen for one automatic rifle." The guns are then laid out, photographed and filmed, journalists are invited as witnesses, and Russian officers tell their tales of the weapon confiscation operations.

Maigov concludes that, one year after the beginning of Chechnya's second war, it is the behavior of Russian troops that is prolonging the war. In Chechnya today, he says, "it's safer to be a fighter than an ordinary citizen." That's because a fighter, he explains, "can hide, is armed and knows the little paths [that can avoid capture]." In contrast, Maigov says, ordinary citizens -- mostly men and boys -- are always in danger of the routine Russian cleansing operations that are both an instrument of terror and a source of revenue.