Â Tales of Chechnya’s tortured land
Mark Franchetti/The Australian
*Â Â We are officers engaged in a war against brutal terrorists who will stop at nothing, not even at killing children. They are animals and the only way to deal with them is to destroy them. There is no room for legal niceties in a war like this. Only those who were there can truly understand. I have no regrets. My conscience is clear.”
THE hunt for a nest of female suicide bombers in Chechnya led an elite group of Russian special forces commandos to a small village deep in the countryside. There they surrounded a modest house just before dawn to be sure of catching their quarry unawares.
When the order came to storm the single-storey property, dozens of heavily armed men in masks and camouflage uniforms – unmarked to conceal their identity – had no difficulty in overwhelming the three women inside. Their captives were then driven to a military base.
The soldiers were responding to a tip-off that the eldest of the three, who was in her 40s, had been indoctrinating women to sacrifice themselves in Chechnya’s ferocious war between Islamic militants and the Russians. The others captured with her were her latest recruits. One was barely 15.
“At first the older one denied everything,” said a senior special forces officer last week. “Then we roughed her up and gave her electric shocks. She provided us with good information. Once we were done with her we shot her in the head.
“We disposed of her body in a field. We placed an artillery shell between her legs and one over her chest, added several 200g TNT blocks and blew her to smithereens. The trick is to make sure absolutely nothing is left. No body, no proof, no problem.” The technique was known as pulverisation.
The young recruits were taken away by another unit for further interrogation before they, too, were executed.
The account is one of a series given toÂ The Sunday TimesÂ by two special forces officers who fought the militants in Chechnya over a period of 10 years. Their testimony, the first of its kind to a foreign journalist, provides startling insights into the operation of secret Russian death squads during one of the most brutal conflicts since World War II.
The men, decorated veterans of more than 40 tours of duty in Chechnya, said not only suspected rebels but also people close to them were systematically tracked, abducted, tortured and killed. Intelligence was often extracted by breaking their limbs with a hammer, administering electric shocks and forcing men to perform sexual acts on each other. The bodies were either buried in unmarked pits or pulverised.
Far from being the work of a few ruthless mavericks, such methods were widely used among special forces, the men said. They were backed by their superiors on the understanding that operations were to be carried out covertly and that any officers who were caught risked prosecution: the Russian Government publicly condemns torture and extra-judicial killings, and denies that its army committed war crimes in Chechnya.
In practice, said Andrei and Vladimir, the second officer, the Kremlin turned a blind eye. “Anyone in power who took the slightest interest in the war knows this was going on,” Andrei said. “Our only aim was to wipe out the terrorists.”
The two officers expressed pride in their contribution to the special forces’ “success” in containing the terrorist threat. But they spoke on condition they would not be named.
Andrei said he took part in the killing of at least 10 female alleged would-be suicide bombers. In a separate incident he had a wounded female sniper tied up and ordered a tank to drive over her.
He also participated in one of the most brutal revenge sprees by Russian forces. Following the 2002 killings of two agents from the FSB security service and two soldiers from Russia’s equivalent of the SAS, the troops hunted down 200 Chechens said to be linked to the attacks.
In another operation, Andrei’s unit stumbled across dozens of wounded fighters in a cellar being used as a field hospital. Some were being tended by female relatives.
“The fighters who were well enough to be interrogated were taken away. We executed the others, together with some of the women,” he recalled. “That’s the only way to deal with terrorists.”
Following an inconclusive war in Chechnya from 1994-96, Vladimir Putin launched a second war in 1999 and set the tone by vowing “to wipe out militants wherever they are, even in the outhouse”. More than 100,000 Chechens are thought to have died by the time the Kremlin declared earlier this month that it was over. Grozny, the capital, was all but flattened. Putin’s toughness earned him great popularity at home.
Acts of bloodcurdling brutality were committed by both sides as the rebels tried to turn Chechnya into an Islamic state, often decapitating Russian prisoners. One Russian victim was filmed being mutilated with a chainsaw.
As the war raged, Chechen terrorists launched suicide attacks against civilians in the Moscow metro and at a rock festival. In 2002 a gang including 18 female suicide bombers seized more than 800 hostages in a Moscow theatre, 129 of whom died when the Russians pumped poisonous gas into the building on day three of the siege.
In their most savage act, the rebels took hundreds of schoolchildren and their relatives hostage in Beslan. The three-day siege in 2004 ended with the deaths of 334 hostages, more than half of them children.
It was in this highly charged climate that the death squads were operating. Andrei recalled that his men had detained a suspect who had several videos of militants torturing Russian hostages. One showed him laughing as his comrades raped a 12-year-old girl and then shot off three of her fingers.
“We all went berserk after watching this,” said Andrei, who had begun to beat the suspect. “He fell to the ground. I ordered him to get up but he couldn’t because of his handcuffs. I ordered the cuffs off but something was wrong with the lock. I became angrier and ordered one of my sergeants to get them off no matter what.
“So he took an axe and chopped his arms off. The prisoner screamed in agony. Clearly it would have been impossible to interrogate him further so I shot him in the head.”
Andrei said he thought of his opponents not as human beings but as cockroaches to be squashed. Yet he did not condone excessive boasting among his men.
“I had a problem with one of my guys, who liked to collect ears which had been chopped off prisoners. He’d made a necklace and was very serious about taking this home. I did not like that kind of behaviour.”
The brutality continued after Moscow began to cede more control to Chechen special forces made up of former rebels who switched sides. Militias commanded by Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin President, are also accused of abducting, torturing and executing suspects.
Vladimir said he had established a death squad that hunted down, tortured and executed more than 16 alleged militants in 2005. The squad’s commander would log a bogus mission in a faraway location in his unit’s official register to provide an alibi. “We’d break in, take the suspect and vanish. We’d duct-tape and handcuff them. If there was resistance we’d gun down the suspect. If, in the firefight, someone else got killed then we’d plant a gun on the dead person.”
Vladimir and his men referred to their prey asÂ zaichik, a term of endearment used by lovers that means “little hare”.
“Only a very small circle of my men took part in this work. Some of those we abducted were tougher than others but eventually everyone talks when you give them the right treatment.
“We used several methods. We’d beat them to a pulp with our bare hands and with sticks. One very effective method is ‘the grand piano’, when one by one by we’d smash the captive’s fingers with a hammer. It’s dirty and difficult work. You would not be human if you enjoyed it but it was the only way to get this filth to talk.”
A hammer would also be used to smash a captive’s kneecaps and militants would be forced to perform sexual acts. The scenes of torture would occasionally be filmed and circulated among enemy combatants.
“You have to be a certain kind of person to do this job, very strong,” Vladimir said. “Those who carried it out always volunteered. It would not be right to order one of your men to torture someone. It can be morally and psychologically very tough.”
Andrei added: “What mattered most was to carry out this work professionally, not to leave evidence … Our bosses knew about such methods but there was a clear understanding that we should cover our tracks. We knew we’d be hung out to dry if we got caught.
“We are not murderers. We are officers engaged in a war against brutal terrorists who will stop at nothing, not even at killing children. They are animals and the only way to deal with them is to destroy them. There is no room for legal niceties in a war like this. Only those who were there can truly understand. I have no regrets. My conscience is clear.”
The Sunday Times