Fire, bullets, and tears – from Alkhan-Yurt to Bucha

24 years ago, hundreds of civilians were killed in Grozny and its surroundings. No one was punished for these crimes, and there was no proper investigation conducted.

The Second Russian-Chechen War was just beginning, and the truth about these atrocities was silenced by the roar of the war that stretched on for many years, the cries of women and mothers of abducted men, funeral prayers at endless burials across the entire territory of the republic. 

People lived in a terrifying present, but hoping for a better future, they suppressed the memories of the past for a while. The horrors of that winter of 1999-2000 were reconstructed by human rights activists from Human Rights Watch and Memorial. They did this in several stages. First, they interviewed witnesses to the known cases of killings and published reports. Then they identified the relatives of the victims and helped some of those who expressed a desire to do so to appeal to the investigative authorities. When it became clear that the Russian prosecutor’s office would not detain or punish the criminals, the organisations filed complaints on the behalf of the victims to the European Court of Human Rights. 

The evidence, published in the reports of human rights organisations, materials from unfinished criminal cases, and correspondence between the European Court and the Russian government during the consideration of complaints from victims, is clear. One can assert that Russian forces in the early stages of the Chechen conflict, committed unmotivated killings of civilians on a massive scale. The murders did not only lack any military justification, but they were also extremely brutal in nature. 

In the early days of December 1999, Russian troops took control of the village of Alkhan-Yurt, located southwest of the capital of the Chechen Republic. There, more than forty residents were killed. The circumstances of the deaths of 17 of them are carefully documented. Most were killed as unwanted witnesses during looting, and Russian soldiers targeted them almost immediately after occupying the village. For example, they shot 100-year-old Nabisat Kornukayeva and her elderly son Arbi, before they removed household appliances, furniture, carpets, and dishes from their home. When 57-year-old Hamid Khazuev attempted to defend his property, which Russian soldiers were loading onto armored personnel carriers, he was shot and killed. 65-year-old Akhanpashi Dudaev was thrown into a basement and later shot. His body was burned, and the house looted. 

Yet the most horrifying death, as it would later be revealed, was reserved for Ayndi Altemirov, who became the last of the residents of Alkhan-Yurt to be killed. Thinking that after two weeks of bloody rampage, the Russian military had left the village, he went to search for his cow that had wandered off to the watering hole in the morning. But he himself disappeared. His decapitated body was found in a marshy ravine on December 18, 1999. Villagers brought a camera to the crime scene and meticulously recorded everything there. It turned out that Ayndi Altemirov was executed according to almost medieval standards: with the help of a scaffold, the base of which was the foundation of a power line destroyed during combat, and an axe. The only difference was that in those ancient times, a formal (even if only nominal) sentence was required for the execution of a person. But here, he was simply seized, tortured, and then beheaded. 

Ayndi Altemirov was married and had children: a three-year-old boy and a girl who was just over three months old at the time of her father’s death. 

In the settlements and neighborhoods of the Staropromyslovsky district, stretching in a narrow strip along two or three streets for 30 kilometers from the center of Grozny along the northwest and immediately falling into a valley as flat and smooth as glass, the killings continued for two months. Chechen fighters had left it already in December 1999, and until the beginning of February of the following year, Russian military forces were the undisputed masters there. This included the mastery over human lives. 

The exact number of people they killed is unknown. Reports from human rights defenders speak of many dozens, but it is still not possible to count accurately. The established authorities in Chechnya obstruct investigations. It is only known that they killed indiscriminately, just like that. While drunk or while sober, out of a desire to rob without leaving witnesses, or for the sheer thrill of it. As a memento or keepsake for the future. Young and old, women and children – it didn’t matter. Entire families would be targeted. 

Such was it, that in the presence of their ultimately beraved mother, Russian soldiers threw the sisters Shema and Shayman Inderbiev into a cellar and set them on fire. After gathering their charred remains in two ordinary pillowcases, their third sister attempted to transport them to their ancestral village cemetery through Ingushetia in early February. But she was detained at a Russian checkpoint when re-entering Chechnya. Human rights defenders witnessed her quietly crying as she pleaded with the police officers standing there, saying: “Be human, let me bury my sisters.” 

On January 21, 2000, Russian soldiers executed the family of Said and Zeynab Zubaev: themselves, their two daughters and son, daughter-in-law, nephew, and an eight-year-old granddaughter. The second granddaughter, 14-year-old Rumisa, disappeared. The killers took her with them, and the girl’s traces were lost. She still remains listed as missing in the database, but there is no hope that she will ever return home. Many years later, one of the activists of the Chechen human rights movement met a Russian soldier on a train to Moscow who had served in Chechnya. He told him about the rape and murder of a teenage girl from the Staropromyslovsky district on the territory of his unit. There is no doubt that this was the story about the death of Rumisa Zubaeva, who had managed to experience hell during her short lifetime. 

In the aforementioned and similar crimes in Grozny and surrounding villages, soldiers from many Russian combat units participated. Some of them are now fighting in Ukraine. The 205th Motorized Rifle Brigade, which distinguished itself with atrocities in the Staropromyslovsky district, is currently stationed in the Zaporizhzhia region. And the 15th Guards Motorized Rifle Regiment, which killed residents of Alkhan-Yurt between the instances of looting, is in the Kharkiv region. Over the past two decades, the personnel of these and other units have been completely renewed. Junior officers have long since become senior, and the senior officers are either already generals, or peacefully enjoying their comfortable retirement. But the core of a military unit is not defined as much by its people as by its traditions. This includes the shameful ones established in Chechnya. Therefore, Ukrainians should not be particularly surprised. Neither by the cruelty of the Russian army in Bucha and Mariupol, nor by its retreat from Lyman, leaving vital military equipment behind. 

This article is based on material from human rights organisations, collected and systematized in the electronic database of the Natalia Estemirova Documentation Centre.

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Lene Wetteland

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