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Russian Rights Activist Battles On In Chechnya

Kheda Saratova is one of a handful of human rights activists left who continue to risk their lives in Chechnya.
Kheda Saratova is one of a handful of human rights activists left who continue to risk their lives in Chechnya.
Nothing about Kheda Saratova's demeanor indicated the nature of her work when I first met her in Grozny five years ago.

She was escorting a group of rights activists to her native district of Shatoi, a lush stretch in the Caucasus Mountains in which some of the most protracted fighting in Chechnya had taken place.

Sunny and smiling, her elegant features crowned by dark bangs under a head scarf set back on her head, Saratova betrayed none of the hell she'd lived through. Not only had she survived both Chechen wars, but she took a job investigating the grim violence that characterized those conflicts: disappearances, torture, and murder that would otherwise have remained unknown.

Grozny was just beginning to be rebuilt and piles of rubble that were once buildings had been cleared from the city center. But violence was continuing and Saratova was taking us to a tiny village in the mountains where residents had been attacked by unknown men in armored personnel carriers.

Some of Saratova's relatives had been appointed officials in Shatoi, where family connections are most important, and she had arranged for local police commandos to accompany us. It was typical of the way she operates: using friends and acquaintances among the local authorities to help Chechnya's countless victims.

Saratova believes Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is being betrayed by underlings.
Today, Saratova is still doing similarly grim work, heading a human rights organization she recently founded called Objectiv.

Kidnapping, Ransom, And Murder

When I spoke to her recently, she'd spent three days negotiating the ransom for a kidnap victim, a 24-year-old man she says was abducted two months ago by soldiers because his businesswoman mother earns a relatively good income. She says they're demanding $30,000 for his release.

"They're former rebels, not the kind who fought for an idea [of independence], but those who easily switch from fighting for one side to the other," she says. "Today, they occupy official positions and spend their time kidnapping, demanding ransoms, and murder."

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has overseen the astoundingly fast reconstruction of his region, thanks to vast amounts of money from Moscow. He's built Europe's biggest mosque, Western-looking cafes line Grozny's main street, Putin Avenue, and residential skyscrapers are going up.

But Chechnya's apparent calm hides a frightening reality. Rights groups say the security forces are carrying out a brutal campaign against the families of the few remaining insurgents, abducting relatives and burning their houses. Locals say many are beaten and some killed. They say weapons are often planted next to their bodies, enabling the security forces to claim they've killed more militants.

Saratova says such actions are driving young men into the militants' ranks. "When they see evil, of course they'll want to join the rebels."

She says she doesn't think Kadyrov knows the extent to which his forces are involved in violent crime. "However much we criticize him," Saratova says, "he's done a lot to improve life, at least on the surface."

Saratova adds that "the people around" Kadyrov "are undermining him, not ordinary Chechens," most of whom want peace. "We who know the price of war, who buried our friends and loved ones with our own hands, are ready to do anything to hold onto peace," she says.

'No One Needs My Truth'

Life for the very few Chechens brave enough to document abuses in their region was always risky. But the kidnapping and killing of Natalya Estemirova in Chechnya last year sent shock waves though the human rights community. Memorial, the preeminent rights group for which she worked, shut its Grozny office for six months.

Today, Saratova is one of the very few people in Chechnya not afraid to speak as freely as she does. She says many Chechens say they agree with her, but implore her to keep quiet. "No one needs my truth," she says.

"Every night I go to sleep telling myself I'll leave Chechnya the following morning. But every morning I get more calls from victims, relatives of kidnapped people, and I just can't leave," she continues. "I'll either end up going crazy, or something will happen to me."

She adds matter-of-factly: "People are killed for telling the truth. If they kill me, they kill me. But I love my homeland, why do I have to flee?"

Burying The Dead In Grozny

Saratova was married to a policeman and raising their 1-year-old son when the first war began in 1994.

On a visit to Moscow when the conflict broke out, she made her way back to Chechnya's neighboring region of Ingushetia before walking three days back to Grozny against a stream of refugees fleeing the city.

Finding her apartment empty, she believed her family members had been killed. When she later found them where they were taking shelter in a village outside the city, "I couldn't stop sobbing," she says.

Grozny in February 2000
Saratova buried friends and acquaintances before the first Chechen war ceased in 1996; none of her family was hurt. Soon after war began again -- when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched an invasion in 1999 -- Saratova's husband left her.

At this time, Saratova began taking in elderly women, mostly Russian, who lived in her apartment block and had nowhere to flee the fierce shelling of the city by Russian forces.

"I never in my life would have thought I'd know what real hunger is in this day and age, but I did," she recalls. "Once for three days I ate absolutely nothing."

During the lulls, Saratova helped her neighbors bury the dead.

Risking Everything

When a television journalist asked Saratova to smuggle videotapes across the border into Ingushetia, she jumped at the chance to help the outside world understand what was happening in her homeland. "I naively thought there would be someone who could press a button and end the war if he only knew what was going on," she says.

Sneaking out of the city on foot, she hitched rides for several days before giving the tape to a researcher from Amnesty International. Hoping to continue helping her war-ravaged region, Saratova soon joined Memorial, which opened an Ingushetia office to document the violence across the border in Chechnya.

Saratova began traveling across Chechnya to document abuses, mainly casualties from the military's so-called clean-up operations. She often worked with Estemirova, with whom she shared a room. "Day in and day out," she says, "we'd cross into Chechnya under fire to visit villages under siege, where people were fleeing."

To pass numerous military checkpoints, the women invented stories about rescuing relatives. Sometimes they brought along their small children, hiding videotapes in their backpacks. "It was horrible," Saratova says. "Sometimes now I can't believe that was me doing that."

Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, has worked with Saratova in Chechnya for a decade. She says Saratova was heavily pregnant with her second son in 2003 but insisted on taking her to document torture cases and disappearances. "She took me on some totally crazy travels in the mountains," Lokshina says, "when all I could do was think she was going to pop."

Finding Hope

Saratova says Objectiv, her current organization, serves as a "24-hour emergency service" assisting anyone who has "been injured, abducted, tortured, found, anything -- and needs our help."

Saratova says Natalya Estemirova's death was very difficult for her.
But she says Estemirova's death last year was "very difficult for me to bear because back then we miraculously didn't die, when it was really dangerous."

Memorial has curtailed its activities in the region, placing more burden and risk on the very few people like Saratova who still report on abuses by the local authorities.

Among the alarming recent developments is the rise of abuses against women. Kadyrov promotes polygamy and in 2007 he violated Russian law by issuing a decree banning women and girls who were not wearing head scarves from entering schools, universities, and other public buildings.

Men have begun harassing women on the streets deemed not to be covered enough. And women are increasingly being abducted and forced into marriage.

Unlike Saratova, Lokshina believes Kadyrov does control his local security forces. "I'm Moscow-based and I can afford to say much more [than Saratova]," she says.

Despite the shared gloom over Chechnya's past and present, Saratova says the fact she can reach some government officials today is already an improvement.

"I hope very much there will be more of that," she says. "There are very few of us Chechens. We have to find a way to live together peacefully."

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