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Zoya Svetova interviews Oyub Titiev (Part II): On Natasha Estemirova and the brutalities of two wars

posted 24 Oct 2019, 12:58 by Translation Service   [ updated 24 Oct 2019, 12:59 ]
27 September 2019

By Zoya Svetova, journalist [Photo:]

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original: Ekho Moskvy]

How did you meet Natasha Estemirova?

At the time there had been a very brutal mopping-up operation in the village. The village was blockaded for five days, and the operation lasted all those five days. Many young men were detained.

In 20 years, a new generation of young people has grown up who don’t know what a “mopping-up operation” is. Can you explain for them what it is?

I don’t think I need to explain what terrorist acts are. In Beslan and Kizlyar, the terrorist act at the Nord-Ost music hall, when they took large groups of hostages, that’s understandable. But when an entire settlement of nearly 25,000 inhabitants is taken hostage, that’s called a “mopping-up operation.” Soldiers set up a solid armoured perimeter. No one goes out, no one comes in. Everyone’s in this cauldron. Then soldiers pass through each quadrant, down each street. They check every house and turn everything upside down. Everything valuable is confiscated. Some military subdivisions have specific lists. On these lists you can find just one name, for instance, Makhmud. The list might indicate the street, it might not. If there is a street, than on that street there are approximately 100-200 houses. All the Makhmuds living in them will be detained. They’ll be taken to a filtration point at the edge of the settlement. Someone who was detained before this, who was tortured, he broke and named some participant in the resistance living on that street. But he only knows his first name. So they pick up everyone with that name. They’re put through a torture grinder, they try to get confessions out of them. Anyone who can’t take it — he disappears.

They tortured people in order to get confessions out of them that they were members of armed bands?

Yes, that they were participants in the resistance.

Were you never detained?

Not then. They detained people regardless of their age, they detained 65-year-olds, 80-year-olds. People disappeared after the mopping-up operations. Why detain them?

Sometimes they checked their shoulders for callouses from weapons. Maybe they don’t like his beard. It depended on who went into your house. If it was contract soldiers, they detained people indiscriminately. I don’t even remember how many times they came to my house. For instance, in Tsotsin-Yurt, according to some reports, there were 39 mopping-up operations in three years; according to others, 43. The military was taking revenge on the settlement’s inhabitants because in the first war they didn’t let federal troops go through the village. The entire village closed off the roads, and the military had to skirt that village.

We started talking about Natasha Estemirova. How did you and she meet?

At the time, during the 2001 mopping-up operation, a great many young men were detained and tortured. Some ended up in the hospital, and five people were blown up.

At the filtration point?

They were blown up at the edge of the village. There was this little house between our village and a neighbouring village. So the soldiers blew up that little house and five people. At first they could only establish the identity of one of the people blown up because half his face survived. Two others were identified, one by his features, a third was identified from a scrap of paper found in his pocket with a telephone number written on it. That number was given to him by his cousin. He, by the way, was a current employee of the police. The identities of the two other dead men have still not been established. After this, our fellow villagers began gathering signatures for a protest letter. I wrote a major article for the newspaper. At the time the republic’s head came to see us. He did not spend long in the village, he went to the administration, a few people spoke with him, and he left. Right after him, Deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov came. And we gave him a letter which told about what had happened to us in the village. Then an article appeared in his newspaper, three lines, simply stating the fact of the mopping-up operation and the killing of five people. I had described everything in detail, who had been detained, by surname. No one ever worked on this case again. After this my future colleagues arrived: Natasha Estemirova and Oleg Petrovich Orlov. He came from Moscow after hearing what had happened to us. This incident was unprecedented at the time. People had never been blown up before.

The district administration advised them to talk to me. We drove around the village the entire day. They interviewed victims, went to the hospital, and then spoke with relatives of those missing as well. They collected material, but it was already getting dark and they needed to get out of the republic. There was a curfew then in the republic. They also had to reach the border in time. Natasha stayed in the village and asked me to meet with her in the evening. She and I spoke until late in the night. She wrote everything down. Then she proposed I continue my collaboration with Memorial. She told me to send all my materials to the Grozny office. I started sending the results of all my observations. Everything that happened: abductions, murders, mopping-up operations. This lasted from July 2001 to 1 March 2002. Natasha would come see me when there were mopping-up operations in the mountain villages of our district. She would come, change into an old woman’s clothes, and leave everything else with me.

So they couldn’t recognize her?

Yes, so they would take her for an old woman.

She put on a wig or a scarf?

Just a scarf.

Alone, or did you accompany her?

Alone. I would see her as far as the bus. She travelled to the mountain villages of our district, and we had volunteers there. Natasha would stay with them and collect material for a few days. Then she would return, change clothes at my place, and go back. I would accompany her as far as the checkpoints. Usually at that time there was a so-called “stop wheels” command. They wouldn’t let cars without passes out of the settlement. You could drive as far as the checkpoint, cross the checkpoint on foot, and after that there were taxis and you could go on. That was how we operated.

We remember that during the first war Russian soldiers abducted people. Soon after, Chechens began abducting people for ransom, too. During the second war there were also abductions by both soldiers and Chechens. When the war ended, Chechnya became Kadyrov’s and Kadyrovites started paying people visits. How did it happen that Chechens started abducting Chechens?

The first time, the person was abducted for the sake of a ransom, during the first war. It was done by federal structures. I heard about this instance back in 1995. It was the director of a major factory, he was abducted, and he had to pay a large sum of money. After that, ours started abducting people, too. It’s all been “off and running” since the first war. It’s all been regularized like a conveyor belt, and it even continued between the wars. Federal structures would give information to local ones about how one of the Chechens had collaborated with the federals during the war. He would be abducted and released only for ransom. Which was shared with the people who had given them the information. That’s how this practice got started, but after that it flowed smoothly. The federals would abduct people during active military operations during the second war, then under torture they would get information about other people and pass that on to local structures. Local law enforcement agencies continued this work. But today they even abduct those who have nothing whatsoever to do with resistance. The MVD [Interior Ministry] operatives’ report has a blank, “analogous period last year.” So today is September 2019, and if the operative solved 10 crimes but last September solved 11, that means this year he solved one crime less. That means his rating is “fallen.” He could get a demotion for that.

But in order to solve a crime, he has to detain someone and force someone to confess to a crime. This practice is in effect to this day. And this forces law enforcement agents and operatives to commit these kinds of crimes. These are crimes, there’s no other word for them. Catching someone on the street and forcing him to admit to committing a crime. This is a Russia-wide problem.

This can be any crime?

Any. Once, in a SIZO [pre-trial detention center], in a small room where we were waiting for a convoy, I was talking with one of these suspects. An 18-year-old boy. He asked whether I’d confessed to committing a crime. I said no. He said, confess, because if a person refuses and doesn’t confess what they’re incriminating him for, the sentence is always harsher. He advised me to confess so that my sentence would be less.

Had he himself already confessed?

Evidently he had confessed and was hoping for leniency.

This is the disciplinary system throughout Russia, and it’s scarcely connected with the Chechen wars. What changed in the Chechens themselves after the war?

Something in their psychology changed.

Can you cite something specific? If we take the first war, everything got worse in the second.

A lot worse. If in the first war it was considered outrageous if a local law enforcement officer raised their hand against someone 40-50 years old, I’m not talking about 60 or more. Today it doesn’t matter what your age is, what your gender. If you fall into law enforcement’s hands, they will beat and torture you.

Respect for one’s elders, respect for the woman, has all that vanished?


What lay at the foundation of the mountain peoples way of life has vanished.

Yes. It was a disgrace for the entire clan overall. And today it’s considered normal to beat an old man, a woman. Even to beat a child.

Aren’t they afraid of vendettas?

Evidently not. They think it has always been this way and will continue this way. If today someone joins law enforcement, he is prepared to work in this mode.

He knows in advance what he’s agreeing to?

Naturally. Everyone knows how law enforcement works.

How does this mesh with religion, with faith?

This has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. Whatsoever. Islam forbids violence in general, to say nothing of murders.

There is something else. When someone commits a crime, it is all registered, and he has to be judged and punished for it. But this must be done by a court.

And when you were arrested and later held in a SIZO and a penal colony, were there people in law enforcement who sympathized with you?

Naturally. There are always people like that. But by expressing their sympathy, they basically doom themselves to major problems.

The first part of this interview is available here

Translated by Marian Schwartz