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As the Russian government continues its offensive in Chechnya — under the guise of a "domestic war on terror" — Sian Glaessner reflects on the realities of life on the ground and asks us to listen to the people who are brave enough to take action.

Through war and terror

“The two stacks of hay there had been burnt; the apricot and cherry trees he had planted and reared were broken and scorched; and, worse still, all the beehives and bees were burnt. The wailing of the women, and of the little children who cried with their mothers, mingled with the lowing of the hungry cattle, for whom there was no food. The bigger children did not play, but followed their elders with frightened eyes. The fountain was polluted, evidently on purpose, so that the water could not be used. No one spoke of hatred of the Russians. The feeling experienced by all the Chechens, from the youngest to the oldest, was stronger than hate.”

Leo Tolstoy: Hadji Murat, 1904
“Who will remember the Jews, after all... who today remembers the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler

As reports of Chechenrebel commander Aslan Maskhadov's death flooded the Russian media in early March 2005,an equally sensational announcement by Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov passed unnoticed.
He was increasing the Russian Federal Troop presence in Chechnya by 5,000 men, bringing it to a total of 80,000. This stands in direct contradiction to the Russian Government's “withdrawal” rhetoric.

Over the past three years, Putin and his ministers have repeatedly emphasised the degree to which they have withdrawn from the conflict,leaving it in the capable hands of the “independent” Chechen Government.

They make it sound like the Chechen Government is in control and war is but a distant memory. In fact, little has changed since the second wave of offensives was launched by the Russian government against Chechnya in October 1999.

Numbers game

According to Russian statistics, the Russian Federation lost1000 personnel in Chechnya in 2001, and 250 in 2004. Ministers parade these figures before the press in an attempt to dis -tract attention from the continuing war. Fewer people are dying,they say, so you can see it is becoming more peaceful—and as for Chechen casualties--we are even paying compensation. The Regional Operational Headquarters for the Counter -terrorist operation in the North Caucasus likewise issues statements about the rebuilding of residential areas, compensation paid, guerilla troops killed. But talk to Oleg Khotin, commander of the provisional united federal police forces in Chechnya, and he'll tell you that 532 of his men have been killed or wounded in the first quarter of 2004. He doesn't talk of success, peace or “normality”.

The Chechen Government is totally dependent on the presence of Russian Federal Forces who take increasingly punitive measures against the population of a country that has been dragged through war and terror by two successive Russian regimes, in a pattern of events strangely reminiscent of the Russian Empire's first attempt at “pacifying” the region.

The disappeared

If, as Putin continually reassures us, there is no longer a war in Chechnya, what are these troops there for? Not”reconstruction” as the Regional Operative HQ website proudly declares; Russian Forces are actively engaged in a campaign of “state terrorism” against the civilian population of Chechnya. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has detailed this in a recent report (http://hrw .org/ b a c k g r o u n d e r / e c a /chechnya0305/3.htm#_Toc987 59252), as have the UN and the EU. HRW has detailed the cases of 43 people “disappeared” in 2004, and quotes the government figure for similar cases since 1999 of 3,000- 5,000, but the real total is likely to be much higher.

Whether the attacking forces speak Russian (as was the case in most disappearances that took place in 2001-2002), or Chechen (as is increasingly being reported), the actual attack runs to a fairly standard pattern as in this example taken from the HR W report: “[...]on the night of 3 July 2004, a large group of soldiers in two APCs arrived at the village of Assinovskaia in western Chechnya. The soldiers, who witnesses said were drunk, searched the house of the Ilaev family and took away all the males who had been staying in the house that night --Adlan Ilaev (b1987) Inver Ilaev (b1982), Rustam Ilaev (b1974), and Kazbek Bataev (b1983). The soldiers also took money , jewellery, a spare tyre, and a car battery that they found in the house. Relatives learned through unofficial sources that the servicemen who carried out the operation were members of `military intelligence unit no12,' and that the four missing men had been seen in August 2004 by other detainees at the Khankala military base, located just outside Grozny. Although the local prosecutor's office opened a criminal case into the abduction, so far the family has received no official information of the detainees' fate or whereabouts.”There is no redress for victims, few court cases are brought, and many thousands of families are unable to find out whether their disappeared relatives, usually men between18 and 60, are alive or dead. On the ground in Chechnya local human rights groups--Russian or international--have their work obstructed daily by Russian Forces' threats and intimidation, and the Russian Government accuses them of being in the pay of international terrorist organisations.

You can't hide

International governmental or NGO censure seems to carry little weight with a President surrounded by a KGB coterie who accuse him of being too liberal. He feels he has little to fear from the W est as US/UK criticism has been rendered meaningless by the attack on and occupation of Iraq. Europe depends on Russia for much of its oil and gas supply , and so Putin can be confident that “They bought it from Brezhnev--they'll buy it from me.”

The Russian government would like us to forget what life is like in Chechnya. They do not want us to know that martial law is the norm and everyone lives in fear of the next round of disappearances, that murder, torture and rape are carried out by government officials with as much ease and regularity as team lunches in Whitehall.

Resistance grows

But all across the Russian Federation, and in other former Soviet republics in the CIS, people are refusing to tow the line. They refused to be brain washed by the anti-Chechen propaganda that fills the schedule--news and drama--of state-run TV. Too many conscripts have come home to Mother Russia mentally scarred, physically mutilated, or in coffins. Too many have disappeared “missing in action” in the oil-drenched field of battle.

From St Petersburg to Vladivostock there are regular anti war protests. Russia' s youth,inspired by the Ukraine' s “orange revolution”, and scared of government plans to remove student exemptions from conscription, are mobilising on an unprecedented scale.

Students were integral to facilitating the pensioners' protests that caused weeks of disruption throughout the Russian Federation in January ,creating websites that enabled local groups to see where else groups were taking action and undermining the Governments attempts to dismiss the actions as a few stroppy old folk.

In 2008 Putin must stand down, or break the constitution. There are rumours he will rewrite it to allow him to stand again, or create a unified state with Belarus. It is likely that after the G8 meet in Moscow in 2006 he will re-form the Russian constitution in an even more authoritarian mould.

It is imperative that we now recognise the excellent work being done throughout Russia to oppose this, and that we listen to the people who are brave enough to take action against the genocide in the Caucasus.

Sian Glaessner is an independent journalist and regular PN contributor.