helicopters circled the village all night and, behind the brick walls of their
family compounds, people listened in terror in their beds. By morning scores of
armored personnel carriers had surrounded Sernovodsk and groups of Russian
soldiers were going from house to house, arresting and beating virtually every
male teenager and adult.
hundred were herded into a field not far from the mosque, ordered to pull their
shirts over their heads to act as makeshift blindfolds, and told to lie face
down on the ground. Others were crammed into the filthy basement of an
unfinished farm building nearby.
by one men were picked out and taken into an army lorry. Wires were fixed to
their wrists or genitals and, cranking the handle of a primitive generator like
a field telephone, a Russian soldier gave them electric shocks.
massive security sweep, known as a zachistka, in a placid lowland village in
western Chechnya which has had almost no guerrilla activity, has prompted the
biggest political crisis in the region since the Russians launched their second
war against the rebel republic in September 1999.
has also shown that Moscow still has no coherent strategy to win Chechen hearts
and minds, no policy of transferring power to the republic's political elite, no
readiness for dialogue with its opponents, and no exit strategy short of a
misplaced faith in military victory.
Sernovodsk atrocity prompted Akhmad Kadyrov, the top Moscow-appointed Chechen
official, to demand an inquiry and publicly protest to President Vladimir Putin
for the first time.
senior prosecutor, Viktor Dakhnov, conceded on Monday that the "initial
results show individual violations of the rules of special operations have been
committed during the security sweeps".
violations were not of a mass character and the operation was not an orgy,"
he claimed justifying crimes.
interviews by the Guardian in Sernovodsk, one of three villages affected by the
zachistka in early July, suggest that close to 700 people were detained. In
nearby Assinovskaya around 800 were taken. More than 350 Chechens have made
was the worst day of our lives. We will remember it forever," Raisa Amagova
said as she recounted how troops burst in and ordered her 28-year-old son,
Salambek, to dress.
went outside with them, then realised he had forgotten his identity document. He
asked to go back and fetch it, but they just knocked him down with a rifle butt.
They beat him again on the ground. He managed to get up and they took him away."
Amagova and Salambek's wife, Alisa, joined hundreds of other village women in
running towards the field where the men were taken, but they were held back by a
cordon of Omon (special police).
Russian woman doctor expressed dismay when troops of the Omon later brought the
unconscious Salambek, but the special police denied responsibility.
was on the ground, yellow liquid was coming out of his mouth," Raisa said.
was taken to hospital in Achkoy-Martan, the nearest town but died last Thursday.
His kidney had swollen to 14cm more than its normal size. His liver had been
crushed by the beating.
Dakhnov, admitted that at least 10 Chechen civilians were injured. Even the
senior commander in Chechnya, General Vladimir Moltenskoi, conceded that
soldiers had committed "large-scale crimes and lawless acts", though
he later he was backpedaling saying there had merely been "violations of
the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, where around 180,000 Chechen refugees
are living, still too afraid to go home, President Ruslan Aushev told the
Guardian: " “counter-terrorist” operations have been conducted in
Chechnya only against civilians for over a year. Only they are suffering, and we
just see abuses of human rights."
zachistka in Sernovodsk also confirmed how groups within the Russian security
forces operated as marauding bands, subject to no central discipline or control.
of the worst troops are kontraktniki, who volunteer to come to Chechnya to loot
and kidnap. "It's an uncontrolled criminal mass," says Lipkhan
Bazayeva, the head of the Ingushetian office of Memorial, a Russian human rights
watchdog. "They sell people for up to $4,000 [£2,800], and even demand
money from relatives to return the bodies of the dead."
Sernovodsk, around four dozen of the roughly 700 men who were taken on July 2
were driven away in buses and armoured personnel carriers when the rest were
allowed to go.
were released over the next few days but by this weekend Selimkhan Umkhanov, 28,
and Apdi Isigov, 22, had still not returned. Selimkhan's wife, Tasa Musayeva,
described his arrest in dignified understatement. "Ten soldiers came into
the compound. They spoke in an uncivilised way. They used unmentionable phrases.
They swore. They put him on an armoured personnel carrier and drove him away."
and Apdi Isigov's mother tried to find their missing loved ones. "We went
to almost all the military bases, and asked for them but got no information. We
even went to Grozny to ask. At the roadblocks Russian soldiers told us: 'The
kontraktniki are barbarians. They could do the same to us. There is no
cooperation. They work in small groups'," she said.
survivors revealed a widespread pattern of abuse. "I was taken with my
brother and three other guys," said Ruslan Alimov. "They took away our
belts and forced us to pull our shirts over our heads. From the basement by the
field we heard shouts and screams from an army lorry. I saw three men who said
they had been given electric shocks on their hands. The soldiers were asking
them who the fighters or the “Wahhabis” [as they label them] were."
men paid troops with cash to be allowed out of the line of hundreds being taken
to the field, they reported.
Assinovskaya troops took around 800 men to a field. Soldiers broke the doors of
the school, threw grenades into empty classrooms and blew open three safes. They
stole 60,000 roubles - about £1,500 - for teachers' wages, as well video
equipment and a prayer room carpet. At the village hospital, soldiers looted
drugs from the storeroom.
massive sweep was apparently prompted by a mine explosion which the Russians say
left five Russian policemen dead. "It's a form of collective punishment of
ordinary people," says Lipkhan Bazayeva of Memorial.
zachistkas are going on all over Chechnya. The latest ones have been publicised
only because they're on our border," Ingushetia's President Aushev said.
"There are some elements in Russia who are against the war, but others want
it to go on. The war is useful to people on the political as well as the