*NOTE – Billions of euros are currently being invested in ski resorts throughout the North Caucasus, yet Moscow refuses to invest in a single forensic laboratory in Chechnya to dig up and identify war victims (despite Europe’s offer to cover the expenses and provide all expert needs). In 2008, two mass graves of 800, and 300 victims were found in Grozny, yet no significant measures have been taken regarding this issue*
Detainees under Russian guard in Chechnya in a photo by Adam Borowski that is part of a photo exhibition in Prague called “Chechnya: The Final Solution”
Aslan Chadayev was well-known in his village of Shalazhi, in central Chechnya, for being an avid reader.
He was immersed in a book when Russian soldiers stormed into his house, dragged him out, a shirt pulled over his head, and threw him into their vehicle.
The 19-year-old student was never seen again.
In the 9 years since Aslan’s disappearance, his mother Malika has lost all hope of finding him alive. But she is still desperately searching for his remains.
“As soon as a new mass grave or an unidentified body is discovered, she rushes there. She’s traveled to every corner of the republic,” says Malika’s sister-in-law, Aset. “She’s constantly rummaging in these graves in the hope of finding even just a piece of her son’s clothing. Missing people definitely must be searched for and identified; the truth must be admitted.”
THOUSANDS STILL MISSING
Aslan is one of thousands of Chechen civilians who disappeared without a trace after being picked up by armed fighters.
Rights groups say some 5,000 people are missing from Chechnya’s two wars, which began in 1994 when Russian soldiers marched into that small Caucasus republic to crush an independence drive.
The actual figure could be much higher. Still, there has been no government campaign to find and identify the dead.
Khozha Yakhyaev’s elder brother, Khasin, disappeared during the first war. After a 3 month search for his brother, Khozha learned that Russian soldiers had killed him and a group of civilians with flamethrowers.
He was able to identify Khasin by his teeth and bury him, together with the other, unidentified victims.
Khozha has since laid dozens of anonymous bodies to rest. He carefully numbers each grave, writes a description of the body, takes pictures, and stores the clothes of the deceased in plastic bags.
“If only there was an opportunity to identify the bodies of those whom we buried in our village,” he laments. “I think many ordinary Chechens would gladly give up their monthly salary to help build a laboratory. I know people who would give their entire savings for this. That’s how badly this lab is needed in Chechnya.”
Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s powerful Kremlin-backed leader, has himself vowed to help the families of those who have disappeared find out about their loved ones.
These hopes, however, were quashed this month when Russia’s Health and Social Development Ministry rejected Chechnya’s request for a forensic lab, dismissing the project as too expensive.
International rights groups and agencies such as the Council of Europe have repeatedly urged Russia to speed up work on identifying bodies exhumed in its war-battered republic, and have pledged support.
Systematic forensic work could also raise uncomfortable questions for the Kremlin about the Russian Army’s actions in Chechnya.
Unlike some other postwar countries, Russia has yet to prosecute war crimes in Chechnya.
GROZNY BUILT ON BONES
The problem of identifying the dead is becoming all the more pressing as workers regularly stumble upon graves amid an oil-fuelled construction boom in the Chechen capital, Grozny.
A soldier stands over a mass grave in Chechnya in a photo by Adam Borowski that is part of the “Chechnya: The Final Solution” exhibition
This summer alone, 2 huge mass graves were discovered containing a total of about 1,100 bodies.
Rights groups say there are dozens more known but unopened graves in fields, courtyards, and basements throughout Chechnya.
But Russia so far has focused its efforts on giving the capital a facelift that it can exhibit as a symbol of peace and stability. Grozny this year proudly inaugurated a brand new mosque, the country’s largest, with room for 10,000 worshipers.
To keep up with the frantic reconstruction pace, workers build around and often over graves, or quietly rebury bodies elsewhere.
Muhidin Tabakovic, from the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), says this practice seriously compromises the identification process.
“The bodies in graves may have personal belongings such as wallets, identification cards, family photographs that can help identification,” says Tabakovic, who has directly participated in the exhumation of mass graves in former Yugoslavia. “Digging up bodies and reburying them in other locations causes huge problems because construction workers are not familiar with the whole process of excavation of human remains. The bones get mixed up and it’s then impossible to determine which bones belong to which bodies.”
The organization’s DNA-assisted identification program, the world’s largest, has already helped identify more than 14,000 people who disappeared in the 1990s Balkan wars, regions struck by natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, the 2005 Katrina hurricane in the United States, or the mass executions in Chile under dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Tabakovic has no doubt the ICMP, which receives funding from almost 20 governments, would be ready to prove technical and financial support in identifying Chechnya’s dead.
“Exhuming bodies from mass graves makes it possible to reveal inhuman treatment. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is still active and everything we do is directly related to these people sitting in The Hague,” says Tabakovic. “This is why the Russian government is finding excuses, saying it’s too expensive, which is nonsense. It’s not about money. It’s about truth, about what really happened, and who is responsible for it.”
The Kremlin’s European “alibi”
source: Prague watchdog (read full article here)
Children killed on April 8, 2004 in Vedensky district of Chechnya
The discussion about the building of a forensic laboratory in Chechnya has been continuing for years now without any hint of an early conclusion.
The possibility of creating such a laboratory in Chechnya was first raised in the reports of human rights organizations in 2000. From there, the debate moved to the Council of Europe, where it became one of the key bargaining chips in talks with Russia.
We recently received a letter from some colleagues in a Spanish human rights organization. Expressing a desire to join in the creation of the laboratory, they were of the opinion that “you don’t need any special investigations to determine the cause of death.” The main task, in their view, is to establish the identity of each of the bodies that is found and to return the remains of the deceased to their relatives. “We’ll help to identify the bodies and bury them, but on the subject of who killed these people, how and why, we won’t breathe a word.”
The letter contains references to Alvaro Gil-Robles. As European Commissioner for Human Rights, he frequently visited Chechnya and Russia and conducted negotiations there. Under his chairmanship, the political problems, the problems of war and peace, and most importantly of all, the investigation of crimes and the prosecution of war criminals, vanished from the agenda of talks with the Russian government. In exchange, the Council of Europe obtained permission to conduct humanitarian operations in Chechnya and set up a laboratory there. The funding for this – 3 million euros – was allocated in 2005.
The laboratory has not been created. Not even the meetings of the newly appointed European Commissioner Thomas Hammerberg with Putin and Medvedev in late April last year were able to break the deadlock. After the routine “yeses” and “of courses” there was no response from Russia’s Ministry of Health on the advisability of building a “laboratory for the exhumation and identification of dead civilians”. The reason for the refusal was a lack of skilled manpower, and of financial and material resources.
If anyone believes that the problem is one of money, they are deeply mistaken. This is a purely political matter. Imagine that the remains of a man are found who upon forensic examination turns out to be an abducted resident of the republic, with a specific name, address and stolen life. At once the question arises: who abducted him?
According to the above letter, the post-mortem examinations should be achieved in a limited and truncated version. In other words, the lab should turn a blind eye to the causes of death and concern itself solely with the identification and return of the remains of deceased relatives. Unobtrusively, the Europeans are being invited to participate in the concealment of crimes.