Heroes not of our time
By Usam Baysayev, Memorial Human Rights Centre, special to Prague Watchdog
Samashki, Chechen Republic
I remember these three women. They are all dead now, murdered ...
Malika Umazheva was the first to be killed. She was opposed to the separation of Chechnya from Russia. Her life experience and education were formed by another world, in its own way a happy one, where no one ever thought about demarcation or isolation. There, the peoples lived as one big happy family.
In Soviet times Malika had what was called an “active civic position”. First she was put to work for the Komsomol, and then for the Party. She was elected from the village of Alkhan-Kala to serve on the Grozny District Soviet of People's Deputies. Adamantly opposing Dudayev’s revolution, Malika never changed her attitude towards those who came to power in those difficult years. She called them irresponsible adventurers with the blood of thousands of people on their hands.
But then the second Chechen war began, and Malika Umazheva was almost the only person who found within herself the strength to rise to the defence of her village. First, however strange it may sound, she became chairman of an informal organization – the Council of Elders – all the other members of which were men. Then she was made head of the local administration. People desperate to gain protection from the arbitrary violence of the law enforcement agencies and the inaction of the former village chieftains chose her for this post at their assembly. Not only did she enter into negotiations with the Russian soldiers who arrived to conduct "mop-up" operations, but she openly demanded an end to the looting, put obstacles in the way of the illegal detentions, and tried to secure the release of people who had been abducted. When all else failed, she urged people to protest openly. She herself always led these demonstrations, as the ordering of others to face the armoured personnel carriers and the assault rifles while hiding behind their backs was something that was not in her nature.
She began to receive threats, not only from the “federals”, but also from Chechens. Because she did not differentiate between the Russian soldiers and the protégés of federal power. For all of them she had one name, and that was "tormentors."
Crude and primitive attempts were made to compromise Malika Umazheva. Anatoly Kvashnin, Chief of the Russian General Staff, did not seem to realize what he was saying when he told journalists that during the "mopping-up" operation in Alkhan-Kala they had found – what do you suppose? A bucket of gold and diamonds. Putin’s administration had no qualms about circulating this fantastical story. Perhaps people’s minds were less sophisticated than they are nowadays. At all events, most who heard the story dismissed it with contempt.
And then she was murdered. On the night of November 29 to 30 2002 unknown masked men broke into the house where she lived with her son and nieces, took her outside and shot her. Her killers came to the village in APCs, which in those days meant that they were federal troops. But the Chechen officials who served the occupation forces feel not the slightest pangs of conscience about Malika’s death. It was they who did the dirty work – wrote all the petty slander about her, blackened her name in public. They also did what they could to bring the hour of retribution closer. Two months before her death of the head of the local administration sacked her from office. But she defended her right to head the village, and was due to return to work. She never made it. On the day before her return, she was murdered.
Zura Bitiyeva of Kalinovskaya settlement, was by contrast, is a staunch supporter of independence. Even in the first Chechen war she attended anti-war rallies by night and by day. Early in the second war this got her arrested and sent to Chernokozovo. In those days Chernokozovo was not the “model corrective colony” it is now, but a concentration camp where torture and killings were carried out almost without restriction. Zura was kept there for more than a month without being charged. After her release, she received medical treatment, but then as soon as she had recovered went back to her “old ways” again, attending rallies which she herself organized and led, and filing a complaint (one of the first) against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights. She received threats, including some from Chechens who worked in the prosecutor’s office. But she ignored the threats and continued her work with redoubled energy, doing what she considered essential. The residents of Naursky district knew that it was from her, rather than the offices of government officials, that they would find a response and assistance. If their family members were abducted, or their corpses were discovered, it was to Zura that they turned.
Zura Bitiyeva’s last “crime” was her disclosure of information about the mass grave near the village of Kapustino in February 2003. The grave turned out to contain the bodies of people who had been detained by members of the Russian law enforcement agencies at various times. She was immediately given to understand that if she took one more step in that direction her family would suffer. Again, she ignored the threats, and the results were not long in coming. Drugs were planted on her son and brother, and they were taken to court. But that did not stop Zura: instead of quietly withdrawing, she accused the Chechen police officers at the Chervlennaya-Uzlovaya police station of forgery, and even tried to prove that the case had been brought on falsified evidence.
She was murdered at night, together with her husband, brother and son. The perpetrators left only her one-year-old grandson alive. The child was found lying on the floor in a pool of blood. His mouth was covered by adhesive tape, as if he were an adult, and his hands had been tied..
Natasha Estemirova took no interest in politics. For her the only things that mattered were the political means and instruments that made it possible to defend people’s rights. She had no wish to bind the future of Chechnya to a single political model. Since her mother was Russian and her father a Chechen, Natasha did not feel entitled to make a choice in favour of one ethnicity or the other. She simply wanted both peoples to find a way to live together and stop killing each other. Separation might be the way forward, but it must be done properly and in a humane manner, leaving mutual resentments behind. If that could not be achieved, then not to worry – the two peoples could live together. The main thing was that this state should be a democratic one, and that in it people had rights and freedoms that were real, and not just written on paper. She never changed these views, and always acted in the way she thought was right.
It is not widely known that Natasha Estemirova began her human rights activities during the Ossetian-Ingush conflict of 1989-1992. In the first Chechen war, the so-called “filtration points” – concentration camps for Chechens – became her personal nightmare. In the period between the two Chechen wars she made a series of programmes on this subject for Chechen television. Natasha was one of the first to join Memorial in 1999, and was more or less the principal organizer of its work in Chechnya, at a time when the conditions for such work were not yet in place. She attended “mopping-up” operations and witnessed mass graves, took photographs, wrote reports, gathered evidence, penetrating to the most remote corners of the country. On one occasion she was taken prisoner in the mountains and spent the night in an APC surrounded by drunken soldiers who showered her with threats and insults. We male employees of Memorial took advantage of the fact that it was easier for women to get past roadblocks, and exploited her without mercy. We sat in our offices and typed on our computers what she was risking her life in trying to achieve.
And then she was murdered ...
Being a patriot does not necessarily mean that one holds any particular political views. It is a state of mind, a state of moral health. One may well not be a supporter of any one political system or, conversely, one may have very definite views about society and the state. It is simply not important. The important thing is not to lose one’s love for human beings, to value human life, to live with a sense of intimate connection with one’s native land. It goes without saying that no one expects to die, nor does anyone want to, but even the threat of death cannot force human beings to betray their nature. After all, one can always sit tight, wait and endure, preserve one’s life and even, as many have done, turn other people’s grief and misfortunes into money.
It is unlikely that in our lifetime we will be granted the happiness of seeing our contemporaries perpetuate the memory of these women, or name their streets after them. Today we have other "heroes" – for the most part, those who now steer history by treading over corpses.
Will it always be like this?... There are times when it seems that it will only get worse ...
(Translation by DM)