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Oyub Titiev: What was once practised in the Caucasus has come to Moscow. An interview with Zoya Svetova

posted 20 Oct 2019, 07:30 by Translation Service   [ updated 20 Oct 2019, 08:15 ]
27 September 2019

By Zoya Svetova, journalist [Photo:]

A few months ago, Oyub Titiev, head of Grozny Memorial, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s prize, sentenced to four years in a penal settlement for possessing narcotics, was released on parole and then moved to Moscow. In an interview with MBKh Media correspondent Zoya Svetova, he recalls the second Chechen war and explains why after the first war Chechens began to abduct Chechens and how the brutality and violence that flourish in the republic affected police conduct during the Moscow protests. 

Twenty years ago, on 23 September 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree “On measures to improve the effectiveness of counterterrorist operations in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation.” The decree envisaged the creation of a Combined Forces Group in the North Caucasus to carry out counterterrorist operations. On 23 September, Russian troops began a massive bombardment of Grozny and the surrounding areas. On 30 September, they invaded Chechnya. The second Chechen war began. How did this second war differ from the first Chechen war (1994-1996)? 

You know, the first war began without preparation on either side somehow. The military invaded and threw young boys straight into the very worst fighting. Most of these boys didn’t even know where they were going, they hadn’t even had it explained to them that they were going to take part in military operations. They were thrown into Grozny. In Grozny, every house, every street, every block in and of itself is a defence post from which military operations can be conducted under concealment, and this is a very good point. And when the armour and tanks went in, they started to come under virtually point-blank fire, and as a result there were huge losses on the Russian side.

In the second war, evidently, the military took all this into account and prepared better. As far as I know, no soldiers were thrown ahead; everything was done at a long distance. First came the artillery, then aviation, and they would work in a kind of tandem against a single specific quadrant, level everything, and then advance. Then the next quadrant. The second war was more destructive for the local population and there a great many casualties. Those who didn’t manage or think to get their families out of the republic, most of them suffered.

Where were you when the war began?

I was at home, in my village of Kurchala. During both the first and the second wars I stayed in my village the whole time until the end of military actions. Now, when I analyze all this, I realize this was wrong. Not for me but for my family. In moments like this you should always take out the children, women, and old people. Take them entirely out of the zone of military actions to a place of safety. After that, anyone who believes he should be in the zone of military actions can return and do what he has to do. But children should not be under bombs or shells.

How many children did you have at the time?

At the start of the second war I already had three children.

And were you still working in a school?

At the time, the school in our village was not operating well. I had left the school back in 1988. In the Soviet era, I had worked both in a furniture store and in the school [as a phys. ed. teacher—MBKh Media], because there was no way I wanted to part with the school. My working day at the store ended at two o’clock. I would go quickly to the village and give lessons there. And work until late in the gym. I also had a day off on Monday. The head teacher scheduled lessons for me that day. Sometimes I even worked a third job, in the district department of culture, where they needed a designer. They asked me to work there, and so I was working three jobs.

And what were you doing in September 1999?

At the time I wasn’t doing anything, just occasionally some small business, selling or buying things.

Why didn’t you take your family to Ingushetia, as many then did?

I could not have taken my family out alone. None of my family wanted to leave, and everyone stayed. There were seven of us in the family, and everyone had their own families.

What is your strongest memory of the second Chechen war?

The whole war made an impression. When the artillery was firing on the village, they would open artillery fire on the settlement from the soldiers’ side, from the сommandant’s office, and from the sub-unit at the edge of the village. You heard these shells flying. You heard the salvos and waited for where it was going to explode. You didn’t know where to put the children, how to protect them.

Did your village suffer badly from military actions?

The artillery didn’t operate against the village that often. The first two depth bombs were fired at our village on 30 October 1999. It was a plane that dropped them. At the time, I had a lot of people at my home, a lot of refugees. The nine rooms were packed with refugees. First we fed the children, then the men, and then the women. We ended up having to feed them in three shifts. First breakfast, then dinner immediately after, and then supper, all day long, until everyone had eaten. I don’t even know how many of us there were. People were sleeping in the kitchen, too.

We know that during the first Chechen war you took part in the militia but left. How did that come about?

The assault on Grozny began on 31 December 1994, and lasted until the end of February. That was when I joined the militia. On 3 January 1995, my cousin was killed. I had to return for the funeral. Then, on 18 January, I left once again to rejoin the militiamen. But then word was sent to me that my family wanted to see me at home. My mother, older brother, and sister. I arrived, and my mother told me she would not give me her blessing and forbade me from participating in military actions. Then my older brother forbade me, too. My older sister said that wherever I went, she would go, too. So at the request of my mother, older brother, and sister I had to stay home.

During the second war, were you already less than eager to fight?

During the second war as such there was no major militia movement. It was in the first war that everyone was eager to fight.

When did you start working to help people?

I lived right in the middle of the village, next to the district administration. Opposite, across the road, were the police. My former colleagues and fellow villagers I knew were working in the administration, and my former pupils were working in the police. I ended up right at the centre of events. Information would come in, and I began collecting it.

But why?

At the time, many in Chechnya were keeping diaries. Subsequently, when I was already working at Memorial, they collected information for the next generation, for history. I started collecting information on military violations, but I didn’t have the idea of working in human rights specifically until I met colleagues in 2001. And when I did, I believed I could be of some use in this area. 

To be continued.

Translation by Marian Schwartz