The search that lasted a lifetime

Fifteen years ago, Zarema Gaysanova was abducted and then disappeared.

Two circumstances make this case significant: firstly, she was an employee of an international organization, and secondly, high-ranking officials from the leadership of Chechnya were involved. Even law enforcement officers from other regions of Russia would hesitate to abduct a woman and make her disappear, but here, the enforced disappearance was committed by the local authorities. They also did it quite conspicuously, adding an extra layer of unusualness to the incident.

According to official reports, on October 31, 2009, officers from one of the Republican police units carried out operational search activities in Grozny. Between 15:00 and 15:30 in a house on Darwin Alley, they allegedly found and cornered a member of a Chechen armed group. During the confrontation, he was killed, and the house burned down. 

The burned house belonged to 39-year-old Zarema Gaysanova. She worked for the Danish Refugee Council and spent most of her time in neighboring Ingushetia, where the organization’s North Caucasus headquarters was located. Her mother lived there with her. On weekends she came to Grozny and stayed in the city overnight. On the afternoon of October 31, hired construction workers were in her yard. 

The account given by the construction workers significantly differed from the version of events officially reported in the mass media. According to them, there were no outsiders in the house. Zarema Gaysanova had taken a taxi to the market for shopping around noon. She returned an hour later. Afterward, she and the people she had hired had tea in the house’s annex. She went to her room around 15:10. According to one of the workers, about ten minutes later, seven armed policemen, without masks, stormed into the yard. They asked in Chechen: “Where did he go?” Soon after, something exploded inside the house, and a firefight began. 

The worker heard shouts in Chechen, such as “Throw grenades, cover our people,” “Shoot.” The house was under heavy fire, and he tried to warn the officers that a woman was inside, but no one listened. After the shooting subsided, the worker managed to get outside and saw a large group of armed individuals. He was ordered to leave. When he went away, he called Zarema Gaysanova on her mobile phone, but there was no response. 

When the shooting had completely stopped, and the house had burned down, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the republic, arrived at the scene, accompanied by his interior minister. He gave an interview to a local television journalist, emphasizing (even boasting) that he had personally directed the operation and that during it, “a member of an illegal armed group” had been killed. 

About three hours later, Zarema Gaysanova’s mother in Ingushetia received a call from a neighbor. He recounted the events and added that he saw from his window several men armed with machine guns pushing her daughter into a truck and driving away. According to the caller, she was wearing a pink, worn-out robe. The mother immediately traveled to Grozny and went to the local police station. The chief there stated that the abducted woman was the wife of the man killed in their house but did not disclose where she was being held. 

Trying to find out more about Zarema Gaysanova’s fate, her mother reached out to law enforcement agencies, civil authorities, and individual officials. She soon realized, however, that her daughter’s case was difficult to investigate due to the involvement of high-ranking officials in the republic. The prosecutor’s office, for example, opened a criminal case a full two weeks after the incident, and even then, only – as it later turned out – for formal reasons. Around the same time, the city investigator told her that her daughter was alive, but “not accessible” for the time being. 

Considering that law enforcement agencies were not interested in conducting an objective investigation into the abduction of Zarema Gaysanova, her mother filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights on November 25, 2009. Thanks to this, the Russian authorities were compelled to provide copies of the materials related to the criminal case. From these documents, it was clear that the burnt house was under the complete control of law enforcement personnel at least from 15:00 to 18:45 on October 31. A forensic investigator examined the site from 16:00 to 18:45, and at 17:30, the homeowner was taken from the yard. The exact location to which she was taken was not mentioned in the documents provided by the Russian authorities. 

As part of the formal execution of their duties, in November-December of the same year, investigators sent requests and instructions to district departments of internal affairs, interdistrict investigative departments, medical facilities and other institutions in the Chechen Republic. The main questions were: what happened to Zarema Gaysanova and where is she being held? But these instructions have not yet been fulfilled, and the requests have remained unanswered. 

From December 2010 to February 2011, as part of the criminal case, statements were taken from several witnesses, including the builders who were working in the yard of the missing woman. However, investigators did not interrogate Ramzan Kadyrov, who commanded, by his own admission, the “special operation”, citing his supposed busy schedule. The case materials do not provide evidence that the abducted woman could have fallen victim to the actions of third parties. She was not officially charged with any crime. The investigation did not establish how a member of a Chechen armed group ended up in her house. Nor did it verify other versions of the incident, meaning that the now deceased intruder must have entered the house, either against Zarema Gaysanova’s will or without her knowledge. 

The investigation was suspended and resumed multiple times. Ultimately, on May 12, 2016, the European Court of Human Rights issued its ruling. It emphasized that Zarema Gaysanova most likely died after her detention, and that the authorities were responsible. The Court found the Russian Federation guilty of violating several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and awarded her mother monetary compensation for the material and moral harm she suffered. 

However, the judicial recognition of Zarema Gaysanova as deceased does not mean that her relatives have ceased their search for answers. They continue to knock on the doors of investigative committees and prosecutors at various levels, both in Chechnya and in Russia. They no longer have any hope that the abducted woman is still alive. They simply want to know when and where she died and at whose hands. Her relatives seek the truth and are unlikely to end their search for as long as they themselves are alive… 

This article was based on materials from human rights organizations, collected and organized in the electronic database of the Natalia Estemirova Documentation Center (NEDC).

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