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Ethnic Chechens face revenge attacks in Moscow

Venturing into the street is perilous for the Chechen minority here after a recent terror wave.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 2004


Watching the carnage of the Beslan tragedy unfold on television, Arsen Zolaev - along with countless other Russians - wept for the child victims.

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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!"

Fallout from terror wave

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."