Ethnic Chechens face revenge attacks in Moscow
Venturing into the street is perilous for the Chechen minority here after a recent terror wave.
MOSCOW — Watching the carnage of the Beslan tragedy unfold on television, Arsen Zolaev - along with countless other Russians - wept for the child victims.
But the ethnic Chechen, for years a resident of Moscow, also knew to expect an ugly backlash against his community, aimed at any dark-skinned person from the Caucasus. For some families living on edge, those fears have already been realized with violence.
"Look at my face - you will see what has changed," says Mr. Zolaev, pointing gingerly toward his broken nose, after an apparent revenge attack at the hands of an off-duty policeman outside a nightclub, which left him unconscious and hospitalized for three days.
When a friend ran to help, he says, the officer taunted him and shouted: "I have always been against you [Chechens], and always will be!"
The 100,000 or so ethnic Chechens in the Russian capital are used to hunkering down after any high-profile attack - whether or not committed by Chechen separatists fighting Russian federal forces for independence - knowing that latent xenophobia in such periods lurks especially close to the surface. Tensions now are especially high, and yielding for Chechens here a far more virulent version of the suspicion faced by Muslims in America, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Moscow mayor Yuri Luzkhov now wants a new city ordinance to ban all Chechen visitors and people from places where "counter-terrorism" operations are under way. City police rounded up 11,000 people - many of them Caucasians and Central Asians - in two days of raids two weeks ago, on suspicion of not registering with authorities.
A gang of up to 50 young people on the Moscow subway assaulted four people from the Caucasian Republic of Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, pummeling them and slashing with knives as they screamed: "This is what you get for terrorist attacks!"
The Beslan tragedy marked the culmination of a two-week terror wave that included a Moscow suicide bomb and two downed airliners, causing a total death toll of about 450. Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev has claimed responsibility.
"When such things happen, it's dangerous even to go out in the street; you don't know what you will be charged with," says Arslan Zolaev, Arsen's brother, who runs a Moscow trade company. "Every [Chechen] feels the change - there is no sense of personal security."
"This hatred is artificially imposed on simple people," says Arslan. "Educated Russians understand that nationalism means nothing. But youth and others see TV, and conclude that everything bad that's happening is blamed on a certain nationality. For 10 years, Chechens have been blamed for everything."
Arsen, a freelance photographer, says that Russian neighbors who know the family are "quite sympathetic," make visits, and have taken his pregnant wife to the hospital in their car. Some police, too, who have worked in Chechnya have been kind - or at least not hostile.
But every Chechen family in Moscow can tell stories of harassment, which seem as common as tales of brutality meted out by federal forces in Chechnya during two wars in the past decade.
Casualty counts vary. For the first war alone, from 1994 to 1996, expert counts range from 20,000 to 80,000. The total death toll among Russian forces, in both wars, is "close to" 20,000, according to an estimate published last week by defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.
Chechens and other minority Muslim groups of the Caucasus - targeted for centuries in their troubled southern border regions by Imperial Czarist, Soviet, and now Russian armies bent on imposing central control - have never been far from the crosshairs.
But the Chechen conflict has been widely felt in Moscow only in the last few years. A group of 41 heavily armed Chechens seized control of Moscow's Dubrovka Theater and 800 hostages in October 2002.
A string of Chechen women suicide bombers - known as "black widows," because their menfolk have died in the war or disappeared, whom security services commonly refer to by the Muslim name "Fatima" - have also struck the capital.
After bombs tore apart a Moscow subway train last February, killing 39, Arsen's sister Marina was hassled by a policeman on the street. "He shouted: 'Is your name Fatima? Where is your shahid's [Islamic martyr's explosive] belt?' " Marina recalls, drawing her hand through the long black curly hair that she says tipped the officer off to her Chechen roots. "I said: 'I'm not Fatima,' but he replied: 'You're all Fatimas!"
Marina, who was studying law at the time, says the policeman swore at her when he spoke, to test her reaction, and told her that police had orders "to take every Chechen to the station."
"Women face more difficulties than men today. When I go out, it seems everyone is looking at me," Marina says. "They always suspect me of something bad. I do everything not to go out with a bag. It is so humiliating, because if there is any problem, my word will be worth nothing."
"We really feel unprotected," Marina adds. "We want the terror attacks to stop. We also go on the subway and the streets, like normal Muscovites. But we also fear the steps of authorities that will follow."
Once, police tore up Arsen's difficult-to-acquire Moscow residency documents. And social prominence is no guarantee. Magomed Tolboyev, a winner of the "Hero of Russia" nationalism award and native of Dagestan who is a retired Air Force colonel and cosmonaut, was roughed up during a "routine" passport check just days after Beslan.
Police officials at first ruled that officers had used force "within the limits permissible" while "dealing" with Mr. Tolboyev, and that they would not be disciplined. A week later, the Moscow police chief apologized.
Such incidents rarely end so tidily. Two years ago on the anniversary of Hitler's birthday, Arsen and his wife Kameta, a journalist, who was pregnant at the time, were attacked by a handful of skinheads as they walked home, carrying shopping bags.
They moved from the neighborhood almost immediately; Kameta attributes a miscarriage to the attack. Today the young family is proud of their first child, 13-month-old Magomed; another is on the way.
"He is condemned as a terrorist from the day he was born - because he is Chechen," Kameta says of her son. During the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s, she spent a month in the basement of her apartment building, as the capital, Grozny, was reduced to rubble from constant Russian shelling.
"We can't live in Chechnya, and it's very difficult to live here - we're in a blind alley," says Arsen. He says family that remain beg him not to return to Grozny, and tells of the harrowing fate of three cousins taken from their home and tortured one night, two years ago.
A man witnessed a Russian armored vehicle drop one cousin in a garbage dump. "He was in very bad condition. His ears were burned because they used electricity. They broke his fingers with a hammer," says Arsen. "He's alive, but mentally broken." The two others were found elsewhere, dead.
"It's just liquidation of a nation - we're being exterminated," says Arsen. "Russia, where we live, is making terrorists of us. Our children, our brothers, live in basements, illiterate and sick with tuberculosis. We are becoming a nation of invalids."
"This [case] is just a drop in the sea," says Kameta. "It happens everyday. What happened in Beslan in three days has been happening in Chechnya for 3650 days [10 years]."
"I'm sure that Beslan's children are worth all the sympathy and love," says Kameta. "But if one-tenth of that love had been shown toward us, all Chechens would burst into tears of rejoicing. We have been killed, our houses have been destroyed, and at the same time we are called terrorists."
"Most young people are doomed to become rebels," says Kameta, who holds two higher education degrees. "They have no other way out. They are never left alone. They might get killed in their own home."
Arsen cried during TV coverage of Beslan, and even considered giving blood for the victims. But he reconsidered when he realized it would raise questions.
Two months ago, the couple went back to Grozny for the first time in years, for the funeral of Kameta's father. Arsen still has pictures of pulverized Grozny on his mobile phone.
"When I saw it with my own eyes, it looked like a graveyard," Arsen says. "People have changed. They are not moved by anything anymore, not even their own grief. They look lifeless, cold, their eyes glazed over..."
"At the same time, there is an optimism as they try to rebuild," adds Arsen, before Kameta stops him short.
"That is not optimism!" she admonishes. "They barely survive. After the first war, there was some optimism. But after 10 years, nothing is left of this optimism. I've got a chance to live [in Moscow], you've got a chance to live. But people there?"
Arsen hands Kameta a diaper for Magomed, and they tell about a moment of pity they felt in Chechnya, where Russians are now part of a widely despised minority - as they themselves are in Moscow. An elderly Russian man sat alone in a market, outcast by local Chechens, trying to sell an unappetizing pile of apples.
"Everyone ignored him. He didn't feel comfortable - if he stayed [in Grozny], it meant he couldn't leave," says Arsen. "We didn't want them, but we bought all his apples. We understood him."