Natasha Estemirova was killed on Wednesday. At eight-thirty in the morning, a few meters from her home, she was shoved into a white “model 7” (Zhiguli). Natasha’s colleagues from the Groznyy Memorial office questioned witnesses and found two women who saw everything. The women obviously did not want to say anything. They were already boarding a van and threw out a few sentences literally while they were moving: “You’re looking for Natasha? She was abducted. We saw it out the window of our building. We don’t remember the license plates. But a woman was walking behind Natasha, a local. She might be able to tell you more.”
On Friday operatives put together a composite sketch of this woman, who in the initial news reports was for some reason said to have fingered (Estemirova). They went to every apartment in the building. Some would not open the door. Some did not want to talk. Then all the building’s residents were taken outside, lined up parade-ground style, and were compared with the composite sketch. That is how they found the witness. Natasha was abducted right in front of this woman, literally a few meters away. But she remembered neither the abductors nor the car’s license plates. She did not call the police.
This fact speaks volumes. People would not behave this way if they did not know precisely which structures in the republic were involved in the abductions.
Investigators are certain that at first they had planned to take Natasha away, kill her, and hide the body so that she would never be found. But on Wednesday morning, in Ingushetia, there was an attack on a bailiff, and the Capture plan was announced. Investigators assume the abductors had a portable radio transmitter. That is how they learned about the reinforcement of Ingush siloviki. Therefore Natasha was taken somewhere not that far from the Chechen border, shot, and tossed on the side of the road. She was found by an old man mowing the grass around there.
We know that the video cameras installed at the Kavkaz KPP (checkpoint) recorded the three white model 7s that crossed the administrative border between Chechnya and Ingushetia that morning. It is not hard to identify license plates and track them down, in general. However, Russian operatives from Khankala, who evidently had been joined by the investigations group supervisor, seized the videotape from investigators. The Khankalyata, as they have been nicknamed in Chechnya, have already questioned Memorial associates. Almost all their questions have been about Kadyrov.
Shali. Dadilovs’ burned home. This is who Natasha was defending.
This is when they killed Natasha. Why? To answer this question, you have to know not only what Natasha was doing but what is in fact going on in Chechnya. Stability in the republic is not only a Groznyy rebuilt from ruins. It is also a strict information blockade. It is virtually impossible to learn the real statistics on terrorist acts and security structure personnel killed, which is essentially a state secret.
According to the meager information leaked from the FSB (Federal Security Service), in June alone there were 18 terrorist acts in Chechnya. For July so far, 14. A fresh video is making the rounds of all those same FSBers: three hundred insurgents armed to the teeth on the march. It should be said that the insurgents’ operations have a truly Chechen sweep. A few days ago, a Ural (off-road truck) carrying soldiers was fired on by a grenade launcher. Agents from nearly every security structure in the republic rolled up to the scene of the crime. In a pile of trash not far away, a remotely activated explosive device the equivalent of 1600 (!) kg of TNT was found. Miraculously, it did not explode. Next to it there were jammers suppressing the radio signal.
The Russian president has set Chechnya as an example for other Caucasian regions. The Chechen president regularly reports that there are seventy or eighty ‘satans’ left in the republic. Chechnya’s deputy prime minister, who is wanted internationally on suspicion of murdering Sulim Yamadayev, headed up the long-playing special operation and for a couple of months has not shown his face outside Ingushetia’s Sunzhenskiy Rayon. Groznyy TV has been showing Adam Delimkhanov spectacularly firing a Kalashnikov toward a forest. Recently in Chechnya there was stormy discussion of a news item: Delimkhanov’s brother was made a Hero of Russia. For either murdering or mortally wounding Doku Umarov. The latter was quite indignant and gave an interview to journalist Andrey Babitskiy in which he said outright that he is a live and well and ready for terrorist activity. The underground has no shortage of human resources, Umarov said. If necessary, thousands will rise up under the Wahhabites’ banners.
Umarov’s words are not empty boasting. The methods the local leadership has been using to bring stability to the republic are quietly turning the population toward the underground, in which the population, paralyzed by fear, is beginning to see an alternative to “little Stalin.” That is what they call Ramzan (Kadyrov) in the republic.
For the last few months, news items about abductions and murders of people in Chechnya have been coming out with frightening regularity. This is not even news so much as it is rumors. A slew of rumors. Natasha was verifying them and turning them into facts. That is, she was finding out where, whom, and when. She tried to get people to talk. She offered them legal assistance. She explained that they needed to act instantly. She had a sacred belief in the unwritten law that people who have been abducted can be saved only in the first 24 hours if relatives are persuaded to submit a statement to the prosecutor’s office and do so in time. Then people are brought back. With an invariable condition: withdraw your statement from the prosecutor’s office.
Shali, Trudovaya Street: The Dadilovs’ House
We had a hard time finding this house, which was set on fire in late June. We were met by three women with fear in their eyes and small children crying loudly at the sight of strangers. Three families live on this courtyard. Close relatives. Each family has four children each, 12 children in all. The oldest is 14; the youngest, seven months.
On the evening of 28 June, policemen came here and took away 39-year-old Magomed Dadilov. He did not resist, although the Kadyrov men did not present a single official document giving them the right to arrest him. The next day, about 20 men in camouflage burst into the courtyard, drove all the residents and children into one of the neighboring houses, and set fire to Magomed Dadilov’s house. They did not wait for it to burn all the way down. The Dadilovs were able to put out the fire, and the walls and roof were left intact. When you go into the house, the first thing that strikes you is the charred wooden cradle.
For the first three days Magomed Dadilov’s relatives knew nothing about him. Then it was learned that he was being held illegally in a prison on the base of the 8th company of PPSM (patrol-post police service) No. 2 (the Akhmat Kadyrov regiment). There he was tortured and he admitted to abetting the insurgents. Actually, all of his abetting consisted of him once giving a ride in his car to Abubakar Musliyev, who left for the forest last summer. The Musliyevs’ house was burned as well.
Argun, the Yunusovs’ House
On 2 July, Kadyrov men conducted a special operation in the area of Staraya Sunzha. They surrounded a private house, killed Said-Selim Abdulkadyrov, who was there, and wounded 20-year-old Madina Yunusova, who had married Abdulkadyrov a week before. According to official reports, the two were al-Qa’ida emissaries and were planning to assassinate Ramzan Kadyrov. Reports of the averted assassination appeared a few days after the attack on Ingushetian President Yevkurov. Which is strange. Genuine attempts to assassinate Kadyrov are truly rare but ordinarily are painstakingly concealed. Including because these attempts are organized by men in the fairly close circle around the Chechen president. Local people learn about more attempts to block off the road from Alleroy to Khosi-Yurt (Kadyrov’s residence). Usually they close the highway for a few days while they deal with all the madmen, until things calm down. They deal with them, as a rule, in the harshest way.
This time it was all different. The high-profile assassination attempt was announced in equally high-profile fashion, over all the federal media. In these reports, Madina was presented as a suicide bomber who fired a submachine gun. However, there is every reason to suspect that no al-Qa’ida in the person of Madina Yusupova was preparing an assassination attempt. The young woman was wounded in cross-fire and taken to the hospital by the Kadyrov men themselves. There she was operated on, she regained consciousness, and she asked them to let her mother see her.
The next day Madina’s parents were brought to the Argun ROVD (rayon internal affairs department), they were questioned for a few hours about their daughter’s participation in the underground, and then they were released. On 4 July, men in camouflage burst into the Yunusovs’ house, locked Madina’s parents into the boiler room, and set fire to the house. After the arson, the young woman’s parents went to stay with relatives. Early on the morning of 5 July, men in camouflage knocked at the door of the Yunusovs’ neighbors and pulled Madina’s shroud-wrapped body out of their trunk. According to medical personnel’s testimony, an hour before this Kadyrov men had taken Madina from the hospital. She had been alive.
Lately, several public executions have beset Chechnya in connection with insurgents’ activity. It was thanks to Natasha Estemirova that we learned of the tragedy in the village of Akhkinchu-Barzoy. On 6 July, agents from the Kurchaloyevskiy ROVD abducted Rizvan Albekov and his son Aziz, who had just graduated from high school. The father and son had gone to Kurchaloy to collect the documents Aziz needed to enter an institute (of higher education). Rizvan Albekov is an Afghan veteran who lived in Stavropol for 26 years but had to return to Chechnya in summer 2008 when his brother died and he needed to look after his ailing mother. Rizvan settled on the outskirts of Akhkinchu-Barzoy. This is no ordinary village. Buried in the village cemetery is Shamil Basayev’s father, and last year two houses of insurgents’ relatives were set on fire. Akhkinchu-Barzoy has found itself between two evils. Insurgents come into the village fairly often and demand tribute from the villagers. In turn, the Chechen siloviki, who have not been able to deal with the forest brothers, vent their frustration harshly on the locals, punishing them “for abetting.”
The Albekovs landed in this slaughterhouse. On their way back from Kurchaloy, the road was blocked and they were dragged out of their car and taken in an unknown direction. That same evening two cars showed up in Akhkinchu-Barzoy and started driving around the village. They stopped near a cluster of young people hanging out. A door opened and out of it fell a terribly beaten Rizvan Albekov, and the Kurchaloyevskiy ROVD agents got out. Without their masks. They kicked the man and asked him whether he had fed the insurgents. Rizvan could barely utter the word “no.” Then, in the presence of the four young men, residents of Akhkinchu-Barzoy, Rizvan was executed. “This is what’s going to happen to every one of the insurgents’ accomplices,” the policemen said, and they left.
For a very long time Akhkinchu-Barzoy’s residents were reluctant to bury Rizvan Albekov. To this day, nothing is known of the fate of eleventh-grader Aziz. The Albekovs’ relatives worked all their connections and got the prosecutor to come to the village. Afterward, though, Kurchaloyevskiy ROVD chief Khamzat Edilgiriyev came to see them. People had it explained to them in no uncertain terms what would happen to them and their entire Gardalinskiy clan, including the women and children. After that, Akhkinchu-Barzoy’s residents clammed up. Nor did the prosecutor’s office make a big deal of (the incident). Natasha Estemirova broke through the information blockade. On Thursday, 9 July, an item appeared on the Internet citing Natasha on the public execution in Akhkinchu-Barzoy. On Friday, Chechen Human Rights Representative Nurdi Nukhazhiyev received an order to sort matters out. Nukhazhiyev called in the Memorial people and gave them an ominous lecture about how they were blackening the republic’s name with their actions. Nukhazhiyev said, “You have to write objectively, that is, about the good.” Nukhazhiyev did not ask a single question about the situation in Akhkinchu-Barzoy. Four days later, Natasha was abducted. In the morning, not hiding behind masks, in the presence of silent neighbor-witnesses.
It was a public-show reprisal.
Most of her life, Natasha had been a history teacher. Only in the last 10 years had she been a journalist and human rights activist. She was known in Chechnya’s most remote mountain villages. The following sentence was heard many times every day in the Groznyy Memorial office: “Where is Natasha Estemirova? We’ve come to see her. . . .”
Barely a hundred people came to say goodbye to Natasha. But for today’s Groznyy, that is a lot. What it cost these people to battle the fear with which they wake up and fall asleep is something we, in Russia, cannot understand. Yet.
The gates to the home of Natasha Estemirova’s relatives in the village of Koshkeldy have been open for several days. But the people have been negligibly few. Only relatives and colleagues. People are afraid to come and express their condolences. They whisper to Natasha’s 16-year-old daughter Lanka, “Don’t say anything about Ramzan, and don’t talk about politics at all!”
Natasha did not consider Ramzan Kadyrov a personal enemy. She did not have enemies in general. She had principles. Ever since they renamed Victory Prospect, Groznyy’s central street, Putin Prospect, Natasha never once (!) walked down that street. It may have been inconvenient, silly even. But Natasha was extremely scrupulous in these matters. She did not walk on Putin Prospect and categorically refused to cover her head with a scarf, as the new Chechen state required. A year and a half ago, Natasha wrote a harshly formulated article for Novaya Gazeta about the complexes of Chechen men, who have never properly appreciated the heroism of Chechen women. The women have worked, fed, given birth, and rescued. While the men made war. Or were broken by the war, abandoning their families and children. The construction of peace in Chechnya began with the hoisting of the scarf on women’s heads. This was how they were shown their place. You cannot go into a single state institution in Chechnya now without a scarf.
…In February, Groznyy Mayor Muslim Khuchiyev called Natasha in to see him. Natasha had written an article about a relative of Khuchiyev who had turned out to be a serial rapist. His highly placed relation saved the criminal from punishment until he raped two little girls. Even then, although the rapist was caught virtually red-handed, the trial dragged on for nearly a year. He was given 14 years. When the sentence was delivered, the criminal threatened the attorney within everyone’s hearing: “When I get out, I’ll kill you!”
Natasha hired the attorney personally. She was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Prize, becoming its first laureate. Natasha did a great deal to make sure that trial took place. I could not write this before, but people should know this now. Natasha heard about the rape from acquaintances. She sought out the girls’ mother. She talked her into filing a complaint. She found the attorney and psychologists.
That February evening, an SMS text came from Natasha: “Going to see Khuchiyev.” They did not let her into city hall. “I will not put on a scarf,” Natasha said.
Khuchiyev, the author of the “scarf law,” was forced to come out to see Natasha himself. At the meeting he made it quite clear to Estemirova that the state was very displeased with her. But Natasha did not like ultimatums and did not accept the threat. In March of last year, after a meeting with Kadyrov, Natasha told me, “I talk to them all like a teacher.”
“And with Ramzan?” I asked.
“Like a poor student from Khosi-Yurt!” Natasha laughed. And she added, “I might have taught them. If it hadn’t been for the war…”
Novaya Gazeta, 20 July 2009
* Reporting by Yelena Milashina in Grozny and Moscow.
Caption: Valentina Basargina, in her house, burned last month by Kadyrov’s arsonists. The police suspected her nephew of joining the insurgency. Estemirova tried to defend the victims of Kadyrov’s mediaeval brutal rule. Within 24 hours of her murder, three other houses were burned down by militia following Kadyrov’s orders. Kadyrov, the local thug that he is, may continue his activities, as he has the support of Medvedev; the blame should thus be placed on Medvedev. He could stop this madness within a minute by dismissing Kadyrov, this notorious Hero of Russia (i.e. member of The Hall of Shame).
To Smother Rebels, Arson Campaign in Chechnya
The New York Times, 29 September 2008