Conflict at a Glance
Chechyna: One of the most dangerous places in the world
Heavily oppressed during Soviet rule, the people of Chechnya seized upon the Soviet Union’s dissolution to declare their independence in 1991. Rich in oil and other natural resources, Chechnya has struggled with Russia over its sovereignty ever since. The first war with Russia began in 1994 and killed 100,000 people over two years, setting off a second war in 1999.
Throughout the conflict, Chechen rebels have been accused of terrorism, the Russian government of brutal tactics of repression, and Chechnya’s leader of crimes against his own people. While full-fledged warfare has subsided, an official peace is marred by torture, extrajudicial killings, stifled press freedoms, and a culture of fear.
Truth & Consequences in the Caucasus
In July of 2009, without telling anyone about my trip, I traveled to Chechnya to investigate reports of extrajudicial killings with my friend, human rights activist Natasha Estemirova. I will never forget my last conversation with her. It was the evening of July 13, just hours before I boarded a plane to return to Moscow. Deep into the night we discussed the situation in Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus.
At the end of the conversation, I told Natasha that the situation in Chechnya had become extraordinarily dangerous. “You need to leave,” I told her. “You have to stop for a while and take care of your 15-year-old daughter.” I recall that one of us even joked that it would be a shame if she were killed before she had the chance to write a book about Chechnya.
I departed for Moscow on July 14, while Natasha stayed behind. On July 15 Natasha was abducted and killed.
It has been nine months since Natasha’s murder. There is no doubt she was killed for exposing
abuses by law enforcement and security agencies in Chechnya. We know who shot her, and who issued the order. The investigating officers know, too. But her killers are under the protection of the Kremlin and are untouchable. It is the same with Anna Politkovskaya’s case. After more than three years, no one has been punished.
People often ask me if it frightens me to do what I do, after so many of my friends and colleagues have been killed. Yes, I am afraid, but not for my own life. I intend to continue my work in Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus region. I’m more afraid of the consequences of not exposing the truth than I am of dying.
I remember how the world reacted to Anna’s murder. International leaders demanded that Russian authorities find and punish the guilty. International organizations declared the murder of a journalist an unacceptable abuse. People around the world took to the streets in memory of the fearless woman who was brutally murdered for doing her job.
And yet, what has changed? If anything, things are worse.
After Anna’s death, a new time of killing began in my country. Human rights activists and journalists are murdered in Russia with such frequency that news of the next victim no longer excites the world. In the last year alone six activists, political dissidents, and journalists were murdered. All of them worked toward a common goal: to hold Russian security forces accountable for the unlawful murder of civilians in the Northern Caucasus. I knew all six victims. Three of them were my friends. I know that none of these murders will be investigated.
This does not trouble or shame the Russian authorities. On the contrary, they encourage assassins by giving them government jobs and granting them legal immunity.
It remains that journalists and human rights activists who still dare to speak the truth are a headache for the Russian authorities. They look to the strongest medicine available to escape accepting responsibility: assassination. A medicine like that is addictive. The Russian authorities are hooked on it.
But still the world is silent. And the silence scares me more than anything else.
—Translated by Maria Jett