Unforgotten crimes of an almost forgotten war

While the full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine continues to demand attention, the situation in Chechen Republic in Russia remains tense and violent.

The fundamental rights of local residents in Chechen Republic are continuously violated. Recently, information about the abduction of the twin brothers Ibragim and Islam Mazhiev was spread in Chechen social media channels. Reportedly, the brothers (who were 27 years old) were detained some days ago by employees of an unidentified government security unit near a school in Grozny.

The reasons for the detention or their current location are unknown. Unfortunately, there is a possibility that their names will be added to the list of the thousands of people who have been forcibly disappeared in this region.

The abduction of Ibragim and Islam Mazhiev is just a small flash of an almost forgotten war against the people in Chechnya that never really ended – it is a war waged by Vladimir Putin. The second Russian-Chechen war officially started in early October 1999, when armoured columns and internal troops of the Russian army crossed the republic’s borders from four different directions. During the subsequent eight months of heavy fighting, the federal forces took control of the entire inhabited territory of Chechnya. Chechen armed formations were pushed into the mountains and woods, but responded with guerrilla warfare. The protracted low-level intensity conflict resulted in terror and severe international crimes against the civilian population – with kidnappings and enforced disappearances as one of the most widespread among them.

Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s Natalia Estemirova Documentation Center (NEDC) contains materials about tens of thousands of such crimes. Some of the abducted were released alive only after ransom demands were paid. And this was done almost officially: Russian officers, through intermediaries or directly, stated amounts which relatives had to pay for the release of the detained person.

Others were killed after torture and severe beatings. The remains of their bodies were later found in large or small burials, or their bodies were blown up in remote places far from settlements. In a number of cases, bodies were dumped on the outskirts of cities and villages. The exact number of people who were killed after kidnapping is unknown.

Relatives, afraid of endangering themselves or the rest of their families, tried not to talk about it. Human rights activists have recorded many examples of cases where people, who nevertheless dared to complain about the crimes of the Russian security forces, were eventually subjected to reprisals by the authorities.

The situation is different for those who went missing after kidnapping. According to Chechen traditions, even if a person disappeared under violent circumstances, the person is considered alive despite the elapsed time. So the relatives continue to look for their loved ones, sometimes without a hope.

The NEDC Database contains information about numerous cases of enforced disappearances. The information was collected by various human rights and non-governmental organizations and the process of verification of the circumstances continues. The current verified number of people who disappeared without a trace has already reached 5 105.  A majority of the disappeared are young men, however, women, children and elderly people are also among them.  For a population of a million people, this is an unrepairable loss.

Specific examples of enforced disappearances with photographs of victims and stories of witnesses can be accessed at: https://www.nedc-nhc.org/en/webidoc-search/

Hopefully, Ibragim and Islam Mazhiev will not be added to the statistics of enforced disappearances in the Natalia Estemirova Documentation Center Database. And they will return alive to their families and mother who raised them alone. According to the Chechen sources, she was crying and holding her grandson in her arms, refusing to leave the alleged site of the abduction until the late night.

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