Natalia Estemirova on Chechnya: War and peace through the bravest eyes
IT WAS the kind of scene she had described many times. On July 15th at 8.30am, as she left her flat in Grozny, Natalia Estemirova was forced into a white Lada. She shouted that she was being kidnapped, but those who heard were too scared to report it. By the time her colleagues had found out, she was dead, murdered by three bullets in her chest and a control shot in the head.
There was a mark from a man's hand on her shoulder, where she was grabbed, and a bruise on her face, where she had been hit. Her wrists bore the marks of bindings. Ramzan Kadyrov, the authoritarian Chechen president, considered her an enemy. And she died as one. She documented hundreds of similar cases in Chechnya, supplying witness statements and photographs, forcing prosecutors to investigate and the media to write about kidnappings, torture and killings, often conducted by people in official uniforms. Much of what the world knew about Chechnya came from her and her colleagues at Memorial, a heroic group which started by documenting Stalinist crimes but continued to trace their modern-day consequences, especially in the Caucasus.
Her murder made few headlines in Russia, which has long been deaf to her findings or deaths such as hers. Some 150 people turned up at her memorial service in Moscow. These days, in a city of 10m, that is quite a crowd. Five months earlier, to the day, she herself had attended a memorial rally for Stanislav Markelov, a human-rights lawyer who was gunned down in the centre of Moscow. A video camera captured her, a good-looking middle-aged woman in a black coat struggling with tears as she spoke about her friend: "It was so dangerous for him, a Muscovite, to come to ruined Grozny." It was much more dangerous for her; she lived there.
Mr Markelov and Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was murdered three years ago, often stayed in Ms Estemirova's flat in a shell-pocked building without running water, cheered by her hospitality and the photographic wallpaper displaying a tropical beach. Between them they managed to bring one case of abuse by the Russian army to justice. It remains almost the only one. All of them are now dead.
Straight-backed in her neat, feminine clothes, Ms Estemirova looked like the history teacher she once was and probably would have remained, had it not been for Chechnya's two wars. She would have preferred a normal life; but when war burst upon her, she responded with the compassion and resolve which were once the hallmarks of the Russian intelligentsia. In the words of Anna Akhmatova's "Requiem",
Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected-
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.
A year ago, Ms Estemirova gave an interview to a sociologist. She spoke for many hours about her life and fate in the small Caucasus republic that has shaped much of what has happened in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. This document is a reflection of the best and the worst sides of Russia.
She was born in 1959 into a working family in the Urals and came to Chechnya when she was 19. Her father was Chechen, her mother Russian. Two things stuck in her memory from the period before 1991: lies and empty shelves. In the hierarchy of the Soviet empire, Chechnya was a backwater. Despite being an oil-producing republic, it was extremely poor. People travelled to Russia proper for sausages and seasonal odd jobs. The truth was in equally short supply. Everyone in the republic had memories of Stalin's deportation of the entire Chechen people in 1944. The official silence over these events only inflamed feelings.
"The protest [against the deportation] was particularly acute in my generation: those who were young and did not experience it themselves, but felt extreme pain for our relatives who survived it and those who died." Chechens felt little obligation to the Soviet state. "[They] tried to live autonomously...It was bad to steal from one's neighbour, but it was considered normal to steal from the state."
Yet separatist and even nationalist feelings were weak. Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was a predominantly Russian city. The Chechen language and culture were suppressed. Ms Estemirova did not speak Chechen fluently. "My motherland was first and foremost the Soviet Union."
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought a revolution to Chechnya. Ms Estemirova had little sympathy with separatist self-rule and was quick to see through the nationalist rhetoric of General Jokhar Dudayev, who came to power in 1991. "I saw who supported Dudayev: people who earned money from seasonal work around the Soviet Union and lost out economically when the union collapsed... Many used the slogans of fighting for independence as a cover for personal gain."
She had few illusions about the Soviet regime, but she did not like the sight of a crowd vandalising a statue of Lenin in Grozny either. "When people started fighting with statues, I knew it would end in tears." Nationalism of any sort repelled her. Half-Russian and half-Chechen as she was, she was caught in the middle. "I often felt this attitude in Chechnya: ‘Go back to your Russia' and in Russia, when I visited my mother, ‘Get back to your Chechnya'."
Her attitude to independence, like that of most Chechens, changed in 1994 when the Kremlin decided to dislodge Mr Dudayev with tanks and bombs. "[These] actions had no justification and no sense...For me this was a personal tragedy. Now I felt the victim was my motherland."
For ordinary Chechens the first war was one of liberation, not separation. "Both the Chechens and the vast majority of the [ethnic] Russian population supported the rebel fighters." Among those fighters were Ramzan Kadyrov and Ms Estemirova's husband, who was later killed. When the war ended the next year, "it was a time of complete euphoria. Everyone was falling in love with each other." But joy was soon replaced by disappointment and desperation. Whatever money was earmarked for Chechnya by the Kremlin was stolen by Chechen and Russian officials before it got anywhere near the ordinary people.
Ms Estemirova and her two-year-old daughter lived in a half-ruined flat in Grozny. "I was afraid of starvation, terribly afraid. I had everything rationed: the girl had to have one egg, one carrot, perhaps some porridge, so she wouldn't starve." She continued to teach while also helping to expose Russia's "filtration" camps, which were supposed to separate civilians from rebels but, in fact, tortured them.
In her eyes, however, Russia's brutality did not absolve the Chechens' own government of plunging the country into lawlessness. "Chechnya was neither a part of Russia, nor a separate state. It was a hole ...A new type of crime flourished: kidnappings. The idea came from the federal forces who traded both in live and dead bodies. It was they who removed the taboo from these types of crimes."
She was in a bus when a Russian rocket exploded next to a maternity hospital. "I saw this huge cloud and I stood in a stupor." The second and third rockets hit a crowded market and a place near a mosque where people collected water. A man was lying next to her. "We tried to lift him and I couldn't understand why my arms were wet. It wasn't raining. I saw that my hands were covered in blood. He was a young man, nothing to do with rebels. I didn't know what to do, where to run...I got to my school and saw people laughing at me: I was swaying. Perhaps they thought I was drunk."
A few days later Ms Estemirova was in Moscow, publicly confronting military officials who claimed that the attack on the market was aimed only at rebels. It was October 1999 and Russia, under the premiership of Vladimir Putin, had begun a second, longer-lasting war against its own republic of Chechnya. The aerial attacks were soon followed by "mopping up" operations, often accompanied by killings, rape and the burning of houses.
Ms Estemirova joined Memorial and went back to Chechnya, which by then was closed to journalists and outsiders. "I remember going to the village of Aldi on March 20th 2000. It was dead. We counted 47 victims, but of course there were more ...A woman was hanging up bloodstained clothes left from her husband, who had been executed...People were in shock and would talk only in whispers...I remember walking over the bridge together with Aldi's villagers and a boy walking in front of us. And some sniper, bastard, started shooting."
In April 2004 she managed to get to the mountain hamlet of Rigakhoi, which had been hit by Russian bombs. "They bombed it knowing it was a family house, that children's nappies were drying on the line, that sheep were wandering about. Inside there was a woman with five children. When they started bombing, she gathered them all around, because that is how they were found-she must have tried to cover them with her arms."
When Ms Estemirova arrived the relatives dug up the children's bodies so she could photograph them as evidence, since prosecutors refused to see them. When Ms Estemirova's colleagues walked into her flat last week they saw this photograph: five small bodies lying in a row, from five years down to nine months.
When she photographed those bodies, her own daughter was ten years old. "It hurts that I could never love my daughter freely: I am always scared for her, even now. It is bad, because she has now grown. The fact that I became a human-rights defender was also the result of my maternal feeling: I just felt so sorry for these people who went through filtration camps. I was so outraged that this happened."
The outrage did not blind her judgment. She was equally angry with "those who speculated with these ideas of independence. They have used their people as a shield. In fact they betrayed the people." The real heroes of this war, she said, were the women who assumed the burden of saving the nation, who pulled their men out of dungeons and who gave milk and bread to the Russian soldiers who did not try to rape and kill them.
The end of the war did not reduce her workload. "The regime imposed in Chechnya is authoritarian, criminal and very corrupt." The republic, which had suffered so acutely under Stalin, had developed its own form of Stalinism under Mr Kadyrov, who was installed by Mr Putin. His cult of personality is sustained by fear and brute force. Before Ms Estemirova died, she was investigating abuses by Chechen security agencies under Mr Kadyrov's de facto control. He denies any part in her murder.
Grozny no longer looks like Stalingrad. It has been rebuilt and spruced up. But "the economic gains were in inverse proportion to the moral ones". The effects of war run deep both in Chechnya and in Russia. "There is more hypocrisy and cowardice. The people who carried the best qualities of their nation have been killed, they are no more." After her killing, Memorial suspended its operations in Chechnya.