Russia announced last year that its war against Islamic insurgents in North Caucasus was over. This morning, terrorists reminded the Kremlin that the war goes on.
No one has claimed responsibility for the twin suicide bombings that killed as many as 40 commuters in the Moscow subway this morning, but Russian law enforcement officials believe that Chechen rebels are behind the violence. Last month, Doku Umarov, the Chechen rebel leader who calls himself the “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate,” pledged to attack Russian cities beyond Russia’s southern region.
Insurgencies never end because someone says so; they flicker out when there is no more fuel. During a visit to Chechnya last month, I found plenty of reasons for the Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus to keep going.
Since pulling most of its troops out of Chechnya after a fifteen-year war that has killed as many as 300,000 civilians, Russia left its republic in the hands of Ramzan Kadyrov, an ethnic Chechen who runs the region as his personal fiefdom. The 33-year-old Kadyrov appears incapable to quash the separatists, who launch weekly attacks on regional and federal security forces across Russia’s North Caucasus. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington shows that the number of suicide bombings in the North Caucasus in 2009 nearly quadrupled compared to the previous year. (Most of the attacks took place in Chechnya.) Ambushes, shootings, and roadside bombings are also on the increase across the region: last year, more than 900 people were killed there, almost double from the year before.
In order to demonstrate that he is fighting the insurgency, human rights advocates say, Kadyrov uses some 20,000 paramilitary troops under his command to terrorize, abduct, torture, and execute civilians these troops are supposed to protect—and then portray some of the victims as separatists killed in battle and tout their killings as examples of his military successes.
In Chechnya last month, I learned about some of the victims. An old man who was accused of giving bread to the rebels. A legally blind greenhouse worker whose brother may or may not have been an insurgent (we’ll never find out for sure: before abducting the greenhouse worker, Kadyrov’s men killed his brother). A young man whose crime appeared to have been that his cellphone ring tone was the howl of a wolf—a symbol of Chechen resistance. The abduction and killing last summer of Natalia Estemirova, the Chechen activist, was one of 86 abductions documented in one-third of Chechnya in the first nine months of last year by the Russian human rights group Memorial.
The Kremlin not only turns a blind eye to Kadyrov’s departures from Russian law and ignores the many reports of atrocities and brutality: It conferred upon him the Hero of Russia medal, the country’s highest honor, and continues to lavish Chechnya with cash to rebuild the war-wracked region.
This campaign of intimidation, torture and summary executions that the Chechen government wages with impunity against its own people does not justify the killings of civilians, in Chechnya or outside its boundaries.
But it explains them.
Anna Badkhen has written extensively about the war in Chechnya. Her book about war and food will be published in October 2010. Anna’s trip to Chechnya this year was made possible by a grant from the Dick Goldensohn Fund at the Center for Investigative Reporting. Watch a FRONTLINE/World interview with Anna and read her reporting journal.