Chechnya – Putin’s Hidden War

Chechnya – Putin’s Hidden War

REPORTER: Kim Traill

It was a celebration of Russia’s greatest victory, the defeat of Nazi Germany, but as Chechnya marked the anniversary with parades, those opposing Russia gave a reminder that this war has not been won.


The explosion killed more than 30 people and shattered Russia’s plan to scale back its forces in Chechnya. Among the victims was the man Moscow had installed to run Chechnya for it.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (Translation): Akhmad Haji Kadyrov passed away on 9th May, on the day of our national holiday, the day of victory. And he left victorious as well.

But to many Chechens, Akhmad Kadyrov was a traitor who led a security force even more brutal than the Russian occupation he served.

ALINA, (Translation): Kidnappings and murders haven’t stopped, quite the opposite. Kadyrov recently went on TV and said openly that he was going to kill anyone and everyone who ever dared oppose him.

The assassination of Kadyrov has brought the world’s attention to Russia’s hidden war in Chechnya. These are pictures the world is not supposed to see. Journalists have not been able to report freely on the conflict since the second Chechen war began five years ago. All media are banned from Chechnya, except on highly restricted tours with Russian military minders. To get a glimpse of what was really happening, Dateline gave a camera to a Chechen woman, who we’ll call Mariam. Mariam dares not reveal her identity, for fear of reprisal.

MARIAM, (Translation): People who film or carry out human rights work always have to take measures to make sure they aren’t “disappeared” or just found dead somewhere.

Mariam’s first stop was the refugee camps in Ingushetia, the neighbouring republic to Chechnya, also off limits to media. Even here most people were scared to talk. But some agreed to speak inside the tents they have lived in for four years.

MUSA, (Translation): People keep disappearing and murders happen daily. Funerals. You go to any village and you’re bound to see one. Here’s one man killed, there’s another.

Musa and his six children fled here at the start of the second Chechen war, to escape the fighting. Authorities have told them it’s now safe to go home.

MUSA, (Translation): Why do I stay? Because there’s no guarantee of security. My son has just got out. He’s only 17. I’m here because of him. They’ll take him. My pension is small – just 1,300 roubles. If they take him, they’ll kill him. And I’ll have to buy back his body…

Musa is one of about 70,000 Chechen refugees still living in these bleak tent cities. They hear constant reports of Russian atrocities back in Chechnya. The Russian army often raids the refugees’ camps to arrest suspected rebels. Mariam arrived at this camp a few hours after the latest raid.

MARIAM, (Translation): Today, on the 6th of March, Russian soldiers came in their APCs and took five young men away.

A month earlier a bomb blast in a Moscow metro station killed over 40 people. President Putin immediately blamed Chechens for the carnage. Soldiers who took away the young men told camp residents it was payback time.

OLD WOMAN, (Translation): “In revenge for our metro, we’d have levelled two or three villages.

MARIAM, (Translation): Why do you think they arrested?

MUSA, (Translation): There’s no reason. The only reason is they were Chechens. It’s not our fault we were born Chechens, and of course I’m not sorry. I’m proud of being Chechen. In my opinion they just want to destroy our nation. Why do I think so? If our young men disappear, we lose our next generation…

From the camps in Ingushetia, Mariam drove back to her war-ravaged homeland to film secretly. She had to pass through 12 Russian military checkpoints on the 70km road between the Ingush-Chechen border and Grozny. Soldiers demanded money to pass each roadblock. Grozny, meaning ‘terrible’ in Russian, has been almost completely destroyed.

MARIAM, (Translation): I climbed to the 12th floor. It was the top floor of a gutted house that stood in the centre of Grozny. Even to film from that bombed-out flat was dangerous because I was afraid some sniper would spot me. Because it often happens in Grozny, that snipers shoot people just for the fun of it. It was a dangerous activity. When I first agreed to work with the camera, I never thought, being a Chechen, that I might need protection. But only after I’d had personal experience with the real thing on the ground, did I realise what a mistake I’d made.

Mariam found that most civilians were too frightened to speak out. But some, like 60-year-old Razit, felt they had nothing else to lose. She told Mariam about the day Russian forces came to her home in Grozny.

RAZIT, (Translation): They came at 3:00am and took away my children. He was married with three children. And he had five children.

Like thousands of others, her sons have disappeared without trace. She has no idea if they are imprisoned or dead and is now left to care for eight grandchildren on her own, including 8-year-old Akhmed.

MARIAM, (Translation): Where’s your Dad?

AKHMED, (Translation): In prison.

Back in Moscow, Russian authorities deny military actions against civilians. They insist all that’s happening is a mopping-up operation to wipe out terrorists. Victor Ilyukhin is deputy head of the parliament’s security committee.

VICTOR HYUKKIN, PARLIAMENT SECURITY COMMITTEE, (Translation): There’s no widespread fighting in Chechnya today. We conduct no major military operations. Our special services are at work finding and destroying terrorists.

President Putin has staked his reputation on this claim. Four years ago he flew into Grozny in a MIG fighter jet to declare the war was all but over.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, (Translation): The part of the serious task involving the liquidation… of major rebel groups has been completed.

There has been a tight media clampdown ever since. Chechens smuggled out this powerful testimony of a Russian so-called ‘cleansing operation’ in 2000.

MAN, (Translation): We brought them inside to protect them from feral dogs and cats…

WOMAN, (Translation): That’s my uncle Akhmed Abdulkhanov lying there. That’s my aunt Zina and my Uncle Hassan. They took the gold and the money we had and said they’d spare us. When he gave them the last penny he had, they shot him as well, him, an old man. We don’t even know how we survived. They left us in the fire. Everything around us they set alight. And here’s the result. On the 5th of February in the village of Novye Aldy they killed about 100 people. And today is the 9th of February. For five days we’ve been unable to bury them as we’re afraid to go out.

According to human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Moscow Helsinki Group, operations against civilians are still going on. Former Soviet wrestling champion, Ruslan Badalov, head of the Chechen Committee for National Salvation, claims it’s genocide.

RUSLAN BADALOV, CHECHEN COMMITTEE FOR NATIONAL SALVATION, (Translation): In every sense, it’s genocide. It’s genocide and it’s conducted openly. What else could you call it? It fits the definition. Tens of thousands of innocent people have been killed.

Dateline found a Russian veteran willing to talk about his time in Chechnya. 23-year-old Ivan volunteered to fight in the second Chechen war. He, too, is afraid to reveal his identity. Ivan remains deeply troubled by what he and his comrades did.

IVAN, RUSSIAN VETERAN, (Translation): I remember a little girl coming out of the house or perhaps it was a boy. I remember it was a child, perhaps four or five years old. I had my helmet on, my armour, a knife, grenades, ammo, a machine gun. I was scowling. This was no joke. I remember that a woman ran out and asked me what had happened. But what I remember clearly were the eyes of that child. Those eyes were full of terror. I thought that when that kid grew up, he’d remember me and he’d been angry with Russia, because I’d messed his life up when he was little.

Most Russian atrocities go unnoticed and unpunished. So far, only one Russian officer has been tried for war crimes. Colonel Yuri Budanov was accused of raping and strangling an 18-year-old Chechen girl. Despite his conviction, he became a hero in Russia, where he was widely seen as a victim.

RUSLAN BADALOV, (Translation): The only case was Budanov’s. They had to make an example out of him and his crime because they needed a show before the Council of Europe to stop them putting pressure on Russia. So they caught one poor colonel but there are hundreds like him out there.

Ivan said his under-equipped unit had little choice but to rob civilians.

IVAN, (Translation): They gave them no money or food. So of course they turned to looting. They started to rob local civilians if there were any. They killed cows, robbed people’s houses. They had to feed themselves, that’s apart from fighting. Of course it would happen. They just threw them in, no food or clothes. Of course they’d kill.

Razit knows that only too well.

RAZIT, (Translation): They took everything – money, TV, video, our rugs. Whatever they grabbed they took away. They left us nothing. They smashed everything, they did wherever they wanted.

Ivan admits that drunkenness and drug abuse are rampant amongst the troops. This video was shot by a friend of Ivan’s, as a momento of their time in Chechnya.

SOLDIER, (Translation): Here’s the NCO’s bunk. They’re tough and always drunk. Here’s Gena, the guy on top. He’s also the top drunk. And Yurok here has a hangover. We got drunk together yesterday.

IVAN, (Translation): Lots of them drink vodka because their nerves couldn’t handle it. Quite often men would drink so much… One walked off the roof and died on the spot. Two boys shot each other point-blank and also died. In yet another case, men went at each other with knives. So it was quite normal to lay on your bunk at night if there was no night duty and here a shout, “I’m going to shoot you all!” You paid no attention and just kept watching TV. That passes for normal in our army. That’s the Russian army.

Russia’s state-controlled television has given a very different image of the war.

RUSSIAN MILITARY, (Translation): We’ll keep killing them till we win, however long it takes – a day, a month, a year.

Reports show competent troops working bravely and humanely to restore order in the name of the President.

IVAN, (Translation): When we were in the mountains, we used to watch ORT on TV. When we watched that channel, when we watched the reports about Chechnya, we found it plain ridiculous. It was all lies. To tell the truth, it was painful to watch.

Moscow has learned the lesson of the first Chechen war, which Russian and foreign media covered in graphic detail, from Russia’s invasion of the separatist republic in 1994. It ended two years later in humiliating defeat for the Russian military – Europe’s largest army driven out by poorly armed rebels.

When Russia invaded again in 1999, it closed down outside access. The moderate rebel commander Aslan Maskhadov, who Chechens had elected president, was outlawed as a terrorist. In his place, Russia installed a former rebel-turned Moscow loyalist. Akhmed Kadyrov won the presidency almost unopposed last October in elections international observers condemned as a farce. Every credible candidate was forced to withdraw. Rebels were unable to vote.

AKHMED KADYROV, CHECHEN PRESIDENT (Translation): I expect from these elections the unification of our nation, and peace. Yes. There’ll be no second round.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, (Translation): I don’t think we need any commentary on what’s happening in Chechnya now. I’m not even speaking of the results, which of course, are acceptable to us. But the fact that the turnout was so high tells us that people have hope.

Kadyrov’s clan was given control of Chechnya’s security services. The new militia, led by his son Ramzan, is widely seen to be even more brutal than the Russian army. But it takes its orders from Moscow.

VICTOR ILYUKHIN (Translation): The desire of that clan to rule the Chechen republic indeed exists. We have to admit that. But what we see in Kadyrov is a man who really can prevent Chechnya from sliding over the brink into a new war, into a new set of military developments. Yes, he must be harsh. One has to be. But it must never turn into cruelty or tyranny. Kadyrov is controlled by our security services and by our federal administration.

RUSLAN BADALOV (Translation): There’s no improvement because no real attempt has been made to reach a true, sincere political settlement. Kadyrov and his administration, they’re really appointees, Their appointment was legalised through those so-called elections and referendums. This military administration is propped up by bayonets, It’s never been elected.

Unlike the first war, in Russia there is little public debate or opposition to the ongoing campaign. This is one of the few recent anti-war protests in Moscow. It was held on the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s wartime deportation of the entire Chechen people to Kazakhstan. Riot police outnumbered demonstrators.

DEMONSTRATOR, (Translation): We intended to hold a demonstration here. But the Moscow authorities forbade us to hold it. So we just made some calls, told people the demonstration was prohibited and asked them just to bring some flowers here.

Despite the subdued nature of the protest, police soon moved in to arrest the organisers.

POLICE, (Translation): There’s a presidential decree. And it empowers us to keep order. You’re holding an illegal meeting.

DEMONSTRATOR, (Translation): Are you arresting us?

POLICE, (Translation): Yes, I’m arresting you.

Police detained 10 people. There’s little sympathy in Russia for anti-war groups. A series of deadly terrorist attacks, blamed on Chechen rebels, has convinced most people that Putin is right to keep troops in the republic.

VICTOR ILYUKHIN (Translation): The federal troops in Chechnya are on home territory. It’s our territory, Russian territory and we’re bringing order there. We’re re-establishing federal law and our constitution there.

There’s no doubt that Maskhadov’s government failed to keep order during the brief period of de facto independence between the wars. Criminal gangs and kidnappings flourished and renegade commanders staged attacks inside Russia, but Mariam’s video shows how Russia’s campaign to impose order is only helping create the terrorism it’s vowed to crush. 60-year-old Sowdat has seen two of her eight children killed. Another two have disappeared without trace. Her eldest son, Beslan, was killed by Russian troops as the family fled their village of Bamut in 1995.

SOWDAT, (Translation): There was a blanket over him. I took it off his face. His face was turned to the right. He looked like he was sleeping. He had beautiful, curly hair. There was dirt in his beautiful hair. I patted the dirt out of his hair.

Her second son, Issa, was beaten and arrested by Russian forces in the spring of 2002. That time he was released after three days, only to be abducted again several months later. Sowdat has heard no news of him since.

SOWDAT, (Translation): I didn’t let him sleep at home as I was afraid they’d take him away again. He slept on the street or at neighbours’ houses.

Her eldest daughter Malizha then fell into a deep depression.

SOWDAT, (Translation): When they took Issa, it was such a blow. She was distraught, in pain over it all. Malizha said she’d never forget how the masked soldiers held her brother against a wall and kicked him in his back.

After a few months brooding in her room, Malizha left home, saying she was going to visit her aunt.

SOWDAT, (Translation): She kissed my cheek and said “Mama, forgive me”. I said, “Why are you talking as if you’re going to die?” She replied, “Anything can happen on the road.” She said that to me and left. A week went by, two weeks, and she didn’t return.

On October 23, 2002, a group of men and women in camouflage, with rifles, stormed a Moscow theatre where the performance of a popular musical, Nord Ost, was under way. They fired several shots into the air and announced they had taken all those in the hall as hostages.

SOWDAT, (Translation): I went myself to watch at the neighbours who live opposite in a ruined house. While I was watching it, I recognised her. I knew it was her, though only her eyes were visible. Even so, I knew it was her.

Malizha was killed, along with some 20 other so-called ‘black widows’ on the third day of the siege. All had explosives strapped to their bodies. They were shot at point-blank range after being overcome by gas. But the Nord Ost siege occurred at an important moment for the Russian government. The Chechens were beginning to arouse sympathy for their cause in Europe, with their allegations of Russian war crimes. Putin immediately claimed the Chechen leader Maskhadov himself was behind the theatre siege.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, (Translation): Russia will never make any agreements with terrorists.

It was a popular stance. Unbroken state media coverage of the siege had diminished what little sympathy was left for the Chechens.

RUSLAN BADALOV, (Translation): Now they’re totally hysterical. They call the whole people terrorists. Every day they show films that slander us. According to them, every Chechen is a terrorist from birth.

Another woman Mariam interviewed reveals just how far apart the two sides have been driven. This 22-year-old, who we’ll call Alina, was a close friend of one of the other ‘black widows’ in Nord Ost.

ALINA, (Translation): To me, those people weren’t terrorists. I think they were innocent victims. I think they were heroes. They gave their lives for their people. And I…I don’t doubt for a second that they’re in heaven.

Alina says she, too, is ready to become a martyr like her friend in Nord Ost.

ALINA, (Translation): Maybe there would be civilian deaths but civilians are dying anyway, we are dying. What keeps driving me to do it? It’s really…it’s quite obvious. I think that if I sacrifice myself, someone might come to his senses and say, “We can’t go on like this. We must stop this war”. Can’t you see that even their girls are ready to die for their people?

The Russian soldier Ivan says he can understand why some Chechens become suicide bombers.

IVAN, (Translation): They were mostly conscripts, Boys with nowhere to go. Yes, it was mostly conscripts who fought in that war. They’d come into the house and kill five people… let’s say, one would survive… a man, a child, a woman. Of course, blood for blood. Revenge for revenge. She has nothing to live for. Their Muslim faith adds to it. What does she do? We can see on TV. She straps on explosives, goes to the Tushino airfield and then it all happens.

That bloody revenge struck again last Sunday with the powerful bomb at the Dynamo Stadium in Central Grozny. The death of Kadyrov is a devastating blow to Russia’s current strategy in Chechnya. It had planned to pull back its forces, gradually franchising power to a puppet administration. It must now find a successor to run Chechnya on its behalf. There is speculation Putin may turn to Kadyrov’s son, the unpopular Ramzan, to take over.

Additional Russian reserves are now on standby to enter Chechnya, but Moscow’s continuing deployment of troops to reinforce Kadyrov’s militia is likely to spark still more resistance from the Chechens.

MUSA, (Translation): The more federal Russian troops carry out punitive cleansings, the more our young men take up arms and go to the mountains. Their numbers are growing daily. There are thousands of them. The two enemies must sit down and talk without any puppets involved. Kadyrov is Moscow’s man. He’s their man, he’s pro-Russian. How can he stop this war?

Every person Mariam spoke with wanted Chechnya to be independent of Russia and the Kadyrovs.

ALINA, (Translation): I don’t know how much longer this can go on. It’s already been seven years of genocide and the destruction of our people. It seems to me this can’t just keep going on.

SOWDAT, (Translation): Give us our land so we can live freely on our own land. That’s what I think.

MARIAM, (Translation): Should we live separately from the Russians?

SOWDAT, (Translation): Why do we need these Russians? Let them live in their own home. Let them leave us to live freely and peacefully in our motherland.

After seven years of brutal war, 70,000 Russian troops are still in Chechnya. There is no sign that the Chechens will submit to Russia or its proxies. Putin’s hidden war has no end in sight.