In an operation local residents say is typical in Russian-controlled areas, men in camouflage uniforms and black ski masks arrived in an unmarked armored vehicle on Mozdokskaya Street in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and whisked away 10 people.
Among the detainees were Haji Said-Alwi Gakayev's three daughters, who have not been heard from since the incident last June.
"I brought them up to be cosmonauts, but I don't know if they have gone to heaven yet or not," says the white-bearded Mr. Gakayev, tilting his traditional red-velvet hat forward in resignation.
A Muslim spiritual leader in Gudermes, the center of the Moscow-appointed Chechen administration in this breakaway southern republic, he now takes care of all eight of his grandchildren. "Every night I come home, and they ask, 'Where is Mama?' " Gakayev says. "And every night their grandfather starts weeping."
Continued efforts to find his daughters - including letters to Russian President Vladimir Putin - have so far failed.
War's 'new phase'
Russian commanders say their acts are aimed at quashing separatist Islamic rebels.
But as the 14-month Russian occupation of Chechnya grinds on, Russian forces have been using brutal methods against civilians - from summary executions to kidnapping, say rights groups, Chechens, and even some soldiers themselves.
"The war ... has entered a new phase," said the Nobel Peace prize-winning humanitarian group Medecins sans Frontieres, in a late November report. "The Russian forces have transformed Chechnya into a vast ghetto," the report says. "In this ghetto, terror reigns ... every civilian is a suspect, and freedom of movement is denied. Each and every checkpoint is a 'Russian roulette' which puts their lives at stake."
It is known as bespredel, a Russian slang term that means excessive abuse of power, and, in Chechnya especially, "unlimited violence."
"It's worse than I thought," says one young conscript at the main Russian base of Khankala, 10 miles east of Grozny, while eating a breakfast of tinned tuna and boiled buckwheat. "I thought this was a war, but it is bespredel."
"No, no - keep that to yourself," warns an officer, apparently aware that Russia's image has been tarnished by persistent reports of Russian abuses here.
Critics have launched a chorus of complaints about alleged Russian atrocities since federal troops reentered Chechnya in September 1999, with the stated purpose of restoring law and order in a region that had fallen into lawlessness under Chechen rule.
Russia's post-superpower prestige disintegrated at the hands of guerrillas in the first Chechen war of 1994-96. A sense of revenge, analysts say, has partly motivated Moscow's second campaign.
So winning Chechen hearts and minds has not been a priority. Grozny's central market was entirely destroyed by Russian armored vehicles on Nov. 27 - this year, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Rebel attacks are expected to increase at this time. Pro-Moscow Chechen authorities say that in November alone, 18 Russian soldiers were killed in or disappeared from the market.
But Muslims traditionally end daytime fasting during Ramadan with a feast, and the market was an important source of food and income for thousands.
Russian forces have largely pushed the separatist fighters out of Grozny and into the snow-covered mountains along the southern border with Georgia. Moscow is aiming to cut back troop strength to about 25,000, down from 90,000 at the beginning of the year.
The price of continued conflict has been high for civilians. Acts of violence are "designed to humiliate civilians: arbitrary executions and mopping-up operations, arrests and disappearances, extortion and racketeering of cadavers," last month's report by Medecins sans Frontieres notes.
Officially, more than 10,000 Chechens were arrested in the first five months of the year alone.
Detailing severe beatings and the impunity with which federal forces operate here, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch reported in October on the "cycle of torture and extortion faced by thousands of Chechens whom Russian forces have detained in Chechnya."
Caught in the middle
Testimony is not hard to find, even on a brief visit to Chechnya organized by Russian officials.
"People are being exterminated by federal forces - that is the truth," says a woman who works for the pro-Moscow administration in Gudermes. Two of her nephews have disappeared. But she is no supporter of the rebels, either, having been held hostage for eight months in 1998 by kidnappers linked to a Chechen warlord.
"Troops catch everybody, military or not - they just disappear," she says. "It's bespredel, like the extermination of the nation. If it keeps going on, all the people will either be exterminated, or they will rise up."
Some senior officers are not convinced. "We have declared an amnesty [for rebels deemed not to have been involved in crimes], so state officials do not want them exterminated," says Col. Igor Yegiazarov, commander of Russian forces in northern Chechnya. "As for the mass execution of the Chechen people, I have not ever seen that. It's better to talk to the Chechens themselves," Colonel Yegiazarov says. "I do know of officers and generals who tried to prevent local murders and looting [by soldiers]. If things like [bespredel] happen, then the guilty will have to be responsible before a criminal court, like any other army in the world."
Extreme measures from Moscow are not unknown to Chechnya. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin - accusing Chechens of supporting Nazi Germany in World War II - ordered the mass uprooting of the entire Chechen population to Siberia in 1944, an event still remembered annually on Deportation Day.
The pro-Moscow administration has warned Russian troops that abuses further undermine their tenuous credibility. "We have certain problems with federal troops, but we know the Army is against a very cunning enemy," says Abdullah Bugayev, a deputy administrator in Gudermes. The administration pursues some cases of wrongful detention. For instance, Gakayev says the mayor of Gudermes is helping to find his three daughters.
"I wouldn't dramatize it," Mr. Bugayev says, when asked about bespredel. He notes that several pro-Moscow officials have been killed, some brutally: "You can't just look at one side."
Conditions on the ground are tough for young soldiers, who often say they were lured by promises of high combat pay.
"This is a dirty war, people shoot you in the back," says one Russian soldier, leaning over a fire at dusk at the muddy Khankala camp. "There is no heroic fighting, like in a real, classic war. There is nothing romantic at all."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society