A Chechen family's search for a missing father

The roosters were just stirring when the troops arrived at Alkhan-kala, a farming village in southern Chechnya.

Fifteen Russian soldiers, dark gray shadows in the predawn light, barged into Saikhan Askhabov's home, barking: "Where is that human rights guy?"

Makka, his teenage daughter, pleaded with the intruders: "Why do you take him? He is our father."

The soldiers replied by spewing expletives, says Makka, as the memory brings tears to her eyes.

Makka's mother clung to her husband, until one soldier struck her with the butt of his assault rifle.

Mr. Askhabov was not a guerrilla fighter, his family says, though Russian officials suggest otherwise. He was a tractor driver, and a dreamer, they say, who was organizing local antiwar protests.

Makka proudly shares a worn snapshot of her bearded father holding a blue flag at a street rally.

Before he disappeared Aug. 14, he was planning something even bigger: a peace march to The Hague.

The saga of the family's attempts to barter for Askhabov's freedom is a window on the environment of fear that engulfs many Chechens. It illustrates, too, how little the Russian campaign - ostensibly aimed at restoring order in the Caucasus republic - is winning hearts and minds, as the tide of shattered lives swells.

It is just one of many cases of what the UN Human Rights Commission last month called the "continued use of disproportionate and indiscriminate force ... as well as serious violations of human rights, such as forced disappearances, extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary killings, [and] torture."

In January, Russia's human rights envoy to Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, said 462 people had been reported missing, but that 46 had been found. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has documented 113 cases of disappearances during the current conflict, while the Russian group Memorial counts 150 cases. Both organizations believe the true figures to be much higher, in a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Chechen rebels continue to exact an almost daily death toll on Russian forces with ambushes and bombs. In that sense, little has changed since the first Chechen war from 1994 to 1996, after which defeated Russian troops withdrew.

But since returning in October 1999, Russian soldiers have gained the upper hand. They largely control the capital, Grozny, and have pushed most guerrillas into the southern mountains. They have declared victory, time and again, for more than a year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin - whose ascent to power a year ago came largely on the back of the tough and domestically popular Chechnya campaign - promised to destroy Chechen "terrorism." On a rare visit to Chechnya just days before the UN censure, he praised Russian troops for "doing a good job."

But there is nothing neat or tidy about this war. And on that August morning, by all accounts, another dishonorable page was written.

Askhabov's case is real. But family members - recalling the late summer zachistka, or "cleansing," as surprise house-to-house searches are known - asked that pseudonyms be used.

"Don't touch the children! I'll go myself," they say Askhabov bellowed at the soldiers. He then climbed onto the Russian armored vehicle, where a dog barked ferociously. "We ran after them for a kilometer, shouting: 'Father, father, come down!'" Makka says.

Bargaining for freedom

Immediately after Askhabov's arrest, family members went to the local Russian military camp, where they were told the price of his freedom: three grenades and two Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Such ransoms are typical in Chechnya, and few places are as well-armed, so the weapons were easily collected. But when they came back 30 minutes later, it was too late. A helicopter was just taking off, transferring Askhabov to Russia's main military base at Khankala, east of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

The next day, at the gates of Khankala, the family was given a new price: three grenades, two assault rifles, and $1,000.

"We came with that, and said: 'OK, where is our brother?' " says Sara, Askhabov's sister. "But they brought out another Chechen prisoner."

"No, he's not ours," Sara says she told the guards. "But that man started weeping, begging us: 'Don't send me back there!' " Pitying the man, they swapped the weapons and cash for his freedom.

The family returned, day after day. Each time, they were told to come back another time for "their" man.

Then the Chechen prisoner they had freed shared disturbing news: He had seen and spoken with Askhabov, who had been tortured so badly he could not sit down. The released prisoner said Askhabov didn't think he would survive another day of interrogation.

The Kremlin says force is the only way to deal with what it terms "bandits" and "terrorists."

It's an attitude Chechens say hasn't changed since the early 19th century, when the czar's commander of the Caucasus, Gen. Alexei Yermolov, sought to pacify the region with a clenched fist. A statue erected in his honor in downtown Grozny bore his quote: "There is no people under the sun more vile and deceitful than this one." It was repeatedly blown up, and finally moved to a museum.

And few here forget that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the entire population to Central Asia in 1944, claiming Chechens had collaborated with Nazi Germany. Tens of thousands died before Chechens were allowed to return in 1957.

That brutal history plays itself out today: "If you're a [Chechen] woman, they call you a sniper; if you're a man, you are a fighter," says Sara. "Then it's all over."

"He is a Chechen; that is the reason for his arrest," intones another relative, who says he and a friend were detained briefly a couple of weeks ago.

Still, the family kept coming back to the Russian base, trying to secure Askhabov's release. The price jumped again - all the weapons, plus $3,000.

"How could we gather so much money? We couldn't collect it," Sara says. In the end, with the help of local rebel contacts, they gathered eight sacks of ammunition, two shoulder-held grenade launchers, and three Kalashnikovs.

Through a Chechen intermediary, they paid, with no result.

"He's on the red list"

After months of silence, earlier this year, someone with access to Khankala recognized Askhabov's name. "He's dead already. He's on the red list," the informer told the family. He didn't know which of several mass graves might contain the remains. In late February, the family was quick to respond when news leaked out that a mass grave of some 50 people had been discovered near Khankala.

A relative says Askhabov's dismembered body was the ninth to be exhumed, and bore evidence of torture. Askhabov's hands were strung behind his back with wire; he wore a hood made of material from a Russian uniform; his gold-capped teeth were gone. "I was so shocked. I never saw anything like that," the relative says.

Russian officials in Moscow, given a week to respond, were unable to provide an official statement on Askhabov's arrest, or to explain how his corpse ended up at Khankala. Unofficially, one suggested that he was suspected of involvement in a suicide truck bombing on a Russian police compound in Argun, east of Grozny. The July 2, 2000 attack killed some 25 Russians.

Askhabov's grave appears to refute that view. Unlike many others at the same cemetery, the site is not marked with the telltale Islamic crescent moon-and-star-capped pole that Chechens use to honor fallen fighters.

"It's hard to explain, to even describe, such brutality to another human being," says Askhabov's relative. He hasn't settled yet on despair or revenge. "That is my problem," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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