A War That is Gone But Not Forgotten
A rare visit to Chechnya shows the cruel aftermath
GROZNY, RUSSIAOne day last summer, Khamzat Tushayev joined the ranks of the disappeared. His wife, Satsita, trembles as she tells the story, which starts with a June 7 phone call from a man claiming to be with the prosecutor's bureau. The caller asked Tushayev, 47, a former separatist rebel, to come in for questioningwhich he did the next morning. "I stayed at the gate, and the guard let my husband inside," she recalls. "I waited and waited. He didn't come back. So I asked the guard to phone the prosecutor's office. But this was what they said: 'There was never any such person here.'"
Satsita, 43, has not seen her husband since. Her repeated inquiries, aided by Russia's leading human-rights group, Memorial, have come up empty. Such is the Kafkaesque world of Chechnya in what officials call peacetime.
This devastated corner of Russiawhere a 12-year separatist war cost the lives of some 50,000 to 100,000 civilians and some 10,000 Russian soldiershas dropped out of western view. Yet the Chechen conflict is key to understanding the new Russia. President Vladimir Putin sees his ruthless military campaign here as a cornerstone in his quest to bring order; critics say that it reflects Putin's wider authoritarianism that has crushed the free media and much political opposition throughout Russia.
An unapologetic Kremlin claims success in breaking the violent Chechen rebellion, which began as an independence movement before morphing into Islamist radical-ism. Guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev, instigator of the 2004 Beslan school-hostage massacre, died last summer in an explosion reportedly rigged by Russian agents, and little remains of his fighting force. "We are part of Russia. You can't argue with that," says Akhiyat Zaitov, 64, as he surveys the knee-high ruins of thousands of houses in his home village, Bamut, once a bastion of guerrilla resistance.
In the capital, Grozny, where years of Russian bombardments wreaked vast destruction, life is returning at a startling pace. Flashy, glass-fronted businesses stand where months earlier there were just skeletons of buildings. Fountains sparkle on the central square where hundreds died in some of the fiercest urban battles since World War II.
Hearts and mines. Yet there are signs of hollowness in the Kremlin's declared victory. On a rare trip by a foreign journalist to the strategic southeastern Vedeno valley, Russian troops could be seen on high alert as their armored columns trundled through semideserted villages. Hilltops are dotted with military positions, and locals say land mines make the forests too dangerous to enter.
Day-to-day security in swaths of Chechnya is left to locally recruited Kremlin-loyalist forces, who run things much as they please. This makes their de facto chief, Putin-appointed President Ramzan Kadyrov, perhaps the most important man in Chechnya. Kadyrov, 30, is the son of a prominent Islamic leader who in 1999 abandoned the rebels for the Russian side and served as Kremlin-installed local president before being assassinated in 2004.
In the Chechen villages and small towns, the young Kadyrov's power seems unlimited. His portraits are peppered across the ruins of Grozny, at the entrance of many villages, and on the windshields of his supporters' cars. Local television is filled with his pronouncements. Mysteriously wealthy, the burly, bearded Kadyrov boasts about his private zoo, which includes a lion and a wolf, in his home village of Tsenteroi. When he turned 30 in October, guests danced on a floor littered with money. Like some medieval potentate, he accepted a flood of gifts, reportedly including a Ferrari sports car, that would raise eyebrows anywhere, not only in poverty-stricken Chechnya.