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Zoya Svetova interviews Oyub Titiev (Part III): “Chechnya is a testing ground for torture”

posted 30 Oct 2019, 14:22 by Translation Service   [ updated 30 Oct 2019, 14:43 ]
27 September 2019

By Zoya Svetova, journalist [Photo:]

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original: Ekho Moskvy]

How can you explain that as a result of the second war a man like Kadyrov came to power?

He didn’t come to power. It was all created by the hands of the Russian president. He created this system.

At the time there were other Chechens also laying claims to power. Many left, some were killed. There’s the sense that no one remained.

There were claimants, some of whom are alive to this day. But for some reason the Kremlin chose Kadyrov.

Did everything that happened in Chechnya happen thanks to the Kremlin?

Naturally. Chechnya is a testing ground for torture. We saw how much cruelty there was on the part of police officers during the protest actions in Moscow in August and September. What was once practised in the Caucasus has come to Moscow. And all this will spread throughout Russia. It’s impossible to stop. They’re conducting experiments and seeing how the people react to it. They understand how to hold the people in their fist. There are people who believe that the state can hold on only by these brutal measures.

Anna Politkovskaya wrote a lot about that. She believed that a model was being worked out in Chechnya for what would later come to Moscow. But why was such a thing possible among you?

The two wars. A great many people suffered. Chechnya didn’t arrive at this immediately either, at this kind of submissiveness. The start of the second war, if you take the first year, the second year.

Whenever people were detained in a settlement, seized and taken to the military HQ, right away the entire settlement would gather around the office and everyone would demand they be released. They’d stand there for a day, two days, until they were released. That’s how it was in our village. There was one case when an APC was blown up at the edge of the village, and not far from the spot of the explosion there was a tech station where they repaired cars. Immediately after that explosion, soldiers swooped down on that tech station, there were five or six people there, they were seized and taken to the military HQ. When people found out the men had been detained, the whole village went to the military HQ. I stood there, too. I think this was 2001. First the women, these boys’ relatives, started banging at the gates. Soldiers rushed out, beat those women, and immediately retreated behind the gates. No one came to the gates anymore. Later, when people started to make noise and shout, they started shooting in the air from the territory of the military HQ. And across the road there was a temporary police station. They started shooting from the roof of that station, too. They had machine-guns. A little four-year-old girl got scared and ran off home, she ran along the fence that went from the military HQ to the settlement. Everyone saw the machine-gun fire follow that little girl.

Did they kill her?

Two bullets went right through her. Women snatched her up and started shouting, and only after that did the soldiers stop shooting. They took the girl to the hospital right away and she survived. This was how they showed us they could kill old people, children, anyone.

After that, the shooting stopped, but they started firing at the crowd. Not at people but at the ground. Bullets were flying right next to people. At first people were standing to one side of the military HQ and the temporary police station. Then they moved to the other side. Then the soldiers started throwing stones across the whole building at people, at the crowd. Someone was hit in the shoulder, someone in the head. Some people left. Later, when people were detained the next time, very few people went to the military HQ. Only relatives, only close friends. That’s how they gradually broke our resistance.

Aren’t there ever protest rallies in Chechnya?

Not anymore. Because anyone who even looks sideways at the state might disappear. This all happened gradually, step by step. And then the two wars, and nearly every family suffered. People think they need to wait it out, that this will all change one day. But no one thinks that he himself should change it.

What do people like Anna Politkovskaya, like Natasha Estemirova, like you mean for Chechens? What do people think of them?

In any case, no matter what the state, no matter what the dictatorship, there has to be a place where a person can come for help. I tried to maintain that place in Chechnya as much as I could. What do they think of Natasha? When Natasha’s body was brought from Ingushetia, it was carried on a stretcher down the entire central street. The street was filled with people, and everyone walked behind it.

Grozny’s central street?

Yes, from our Grozny office straight to the centre of the city. People walked behind her, and all those streets were filled.

At the time, in 2009, people weren’t afraid?

Not then.

This was 10 years ago.

They knew Politkovskaya, too. Every chance she got, she travelled to Chechnya. When she saw articles on our site, she always flew to Chechnya, collected information, and wrote about it. At the time she was helped by a great many law enforcement officials. When I met her, it was in 2003, she flew in, and she was escorted the entire day from morning ‘til night by an MVD [Interior Ministry] officer. We spent the entire day with him. There were a great many people who helped her. Of course, people speak very well of her, think well of her. But the fact that Memorial and its work were needed one can understand by the way people came to see me at home when I was released. All those days I was home, there were people.

They weren’t afraid?

Those who were afraid came to see me at night, but there were a lot of people during the day, too.

Did you feel it had not all been for nothing?

The fact that people came who needed to vent, that’s understandable. The fact that we worked so many years, and if we helped at least one person, were able to save one person, that is the result of our work over 18 years, that means it was not in vain. There were lots of those instances. There were instances when a person could not be found for several months, and after our intervention he showed up.

These were the first days of my acquaintance with Memorial. When Natasha and Oleg Petrovich Orlov came to Kurchala, at that time eight people had been abducted after that mopping-up operation. I handed this material over to Memorial in full. Memorial began working on this properly. And in at most two weeks the seven people were released.

This was the first time?

Yes, the first time I encountered Memorial. And I realized I needed to work with Memorial. They released seven men, threw them out at various ends of the republic. The eighth was a current FSB [Federal Security Service] officer. He’d been picked up at his house and he hasn’t been found to this day. We worked on his case, submitted a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, and the court deemed it an abduction and the family was paid compensation. But that is small consolation.

How do you assess the role of President Maskhadov in Chechnya’s history?

First of all, Maskhadov is the sole president elected by the people. When we elected a president in 1997, the people were going to the election polls from morning to evening. The turnout was very high.

Did you vote for him?

I didn’t get to vote. That day I was driving cars out of the republic. And I was held up en route. When I got back, the first point of settlement from the border I arrived at was Azamat-yurt. I drove to the polling place in that village and began demanding they let me vote. My friend was there, and he said the urns were already closed. I asked him to open an urn. He asked, “Are you for Maskhadov? He’s already won.” That’s how I wanted to vote for the first time in elections and didn’t manage to. And the turnout was very high, such as there never was before or has been since in Chechnya.

Maskhadov, as far as I know, was against Basaev going into Dagestan in 1999. This was the unequivocal opinion of everyone living then.

As far as I know, Maskhadov agreed with the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council, and they were supposed to meet at the border. The State Council chairman was supposed to come with a TV crew, and Maskhadov planned to apologize to the people of Dagestan for the fact that Chechen fighters led by Basaev had invaded their territory. But en route, as far as I know, the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council was stopped. Russian special services, FSB officers, wouldn’t let him go there. There was no secret to it whatsoever. They didn’t want Maskhadov to meet with the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council. Right away, the federal media began writing about how Maskhadov had not condemned the invasion.

What did people in Chechnya think about Maskhadov’s murder? (according to the official version, he was killed on 8 March 2005 by a Russian antiterrorist unit in the village of Tolsty-Yurt)

Everyone mourned him, the majority. Although there was no open mourning.

They never did give the family back the body?

I don’t think so.

How is Maskhadov perceived in Chechnya? As a hero?

Even the present-day leadership does not treat him that negatively. Everyone respects him. He chose his road and followed it to the end.

And Basaev’s role in Chechnya’s history and as an individual are not so unequivocal?

You might say that. I’m not about to judge.

Has Chechnya’s genuine history been written yet?

Of course not. No one would allow it. There are doubtless people writing, perhaps in secret. There is the “Chronicle of Violence” (published by the Memorial press center), ours. We’ve already put out five books.

It’s a kind of alternative history of Chechnya.

It’s about violence.

Essentially, it’s Chechnya’s history for the past 20 years.

We’ve collected many volumes’ worth of material. But right now this work has come to a halt. It needs to be continued.

Why has it come to a halt?

I don’t know. It all still needs to be processed and some information verified. Of course, we verified it locally. Now this is more complicated.

Your office in Grozny is now closed?

Yes, we closed it. There is no guarantee of safety. 

Earlier parts of this interview can be read here: Part I and Part II

Translated by Marian Schwartz