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'The Worst Is Not Knowing': In Chechnya, An Endless, Agonizing Wait For The Missing

"Only the thought that we will be together after I die brings me solace," says Zura Batayeva, gazing at a picture of her son.

GROZNY, Russia -- Zura Batayeva carefully holds the small picture between her fingers.

It's a black-and-white photograph, creased and faded, showing an earnest-looking man with curly black hair.

The picture is all that remains of her son Visit, who disappeared without a trace shortly after Russian tanks rolled into his native Chechnya more than 20 years ago, launching the first of two devastating wars against separatist rebels in the North Caucasus republic.

"The worst is not knowing what happened to him," she says, nervously tugging at the tip of her head scarf. "Only the thought that we will be together after I die brings me solace."

Zura Batayeva speaks slowly, her eyes staring into the distance. It's not easy for her to evoke memories of her son.

Since his disappearance, life has stood still for her and her husband, Abuyezid, both pensioners from Grozny.

Their other son, a police officer, is also gone. He was found dead with multiple stab wounds in 1998, one year before the start of the second Chechen war, in a tragedy his parents are still at a loss to explain.

They know that Visit is most likely dead, too, and they suspect he was killed by federal forces that indiscriminately rounded up Chechen men during the two wars to check for links to rebels.

Many were later found dead, their bodies often bearing signs of torture.

A creased and faded photograph of Visit is all that remains.
A creased and faded photograph of Visit is all that remains.

​Visit was 27 years old when he disappeared, along with his neighbor Musa, on December 31, 1994 -- the day federal forces launched a big, bloody attack on the capital, Grozny.

Witnesses say the two men were seized by Russian soldiers as they hid from shelling in the basement of a Grozny hospital.

They were never seen alive again.

Musa's body eventually surfaced in a morgue in Moscow, although the circumstances of his death remain shrouded in mystery. His parents were able to bring back his body and give him a proper funeral in Chechnya.

Visit's continued absence, however, has prevented his parents from coming to terms with their loss. "Sometimes I close my eyes and I see my son. It's as if he had returned," Zura says. "I see him speaking to me. I see us having lunch together under the summer canopy of our house. I see him in my dreams, too. "

This agonizing uncertainty is shared by many Chechens.

Rights groups say an estimated 5,000 people are still missing from the two wars -- the first of which began on December 11, 1994, when federal forces entered Chechnya to crush an independence drive.

Like the Batayevs, many families still searching for their relatives accuse authorities of turning a blind eye to their plight.

Abuyezid Batayev has combed through mass graves with his bare hands in search of the remains of his missing son.
Abuyezid Batayev has combed through mass graves with his bare hands in search of the remains of his missing son.

​Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's Kremlin-appointed strongman leader, has overseen a massive campaign to rebuild Grozny with the help of cash injections from Moscow.

But as glistening skyscrapers go up in Grozny, the grim task of laying the war's dead to rest has fallen chiefly to human rights activists.

"No one needs us. The government has left us one-on-one with our problem," sighs Visit's father. "We have received a lot of help from ordinary people, but they have their own problems. Many have missing relatives, too."

Rights groups say there are still unopened graves in fields, courtyards, and basements throughout Chechnya.

The authorities, however, have been slow to exhume the bodies.

Zainap Mezhidova, a rights campaigner whose own son is missing, knows of at least three mass graves that she says contain the remains of hundreds of people.

No one needs us. The government has left us one-on-one with our problem."
-- Abuyezid Batayev

​"These bodies need to be identified. We know where they are located," she says. "The authorities should be looking for our children."

Despite Kadyrov's repeated promises, Chechnya still has no forensic lab of its own. Remains exhumed from mass graves are sent either to Moscow or Rostov-on-Don for identification before being returned for burial in Chechnya.

Abuyezid Batayev himself has combed through numerous mass graves in search of his son, sifting through human remains with his bare hands.

He was once tipped off that the body of a man matching Visit's physical description had been found in a mass grave close to Grozny's cannery. Documents on the body gave Visit as his first name.​

Zura Batayeva
Zura Batayeva

​Abuyezid and Zura immediately rushed to the site. "There were about 250 bodies there," Zura recalls. "Some of them had their legs tied up with barbed wire."

The body, however, did not belong to their son. "That day I collapsed and I hit my knee very hard," she says. "It still hurts today."

Desperate to find Visit, his father even traveled to the forensic lab in distant Rostov-on-Don. He says he saw many bodies there, but his son was nowhere to be found.

Shortly after that trip, Abuyezid lost his eyesight, an infirmity he blames on his overwhelming grief.

Today, he and his wife no longer have the strength to search for Visit's body.

But Zura, despite the odds, still refuses to give up hope of finding him alive. "When I hear a child calling for his mother in the street, I turn around," she says. "I still have some hope of being reunited with my son one day."

Written by Claire Bigg in Prague based on reporting by Akhmed Sultanov in Grozny
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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.