22 years before Bucha. Human rights activist Oleg Orlov on how Memorial investigated civilian murders in Chechnya [Mediazona]

8 April 2022

By Dima Shvets

Source: Mediazona

During the two wars in Chechnya, soldiers in the Russian army were accused more than once of killing civilians during mop-up operations. The most notorious instances were Samashki in 1995 (103 murdered) and Novye Aldy in 2000 (56 murdered). Human rights activists from Memorial investigated the aftermath of these mop-up operations and Oleg Orlov spoke to Mediazona about this work. The Russian regime shut down the Memorial Human Rights Centre last year, and the decision went into effect two days ago. As yet, no one has been held responsible for the mass killings in Samashki and Novye Aldy.

During the two Chechen campaigns, Russian soldiers were accused more than once of serious crimes, the two most horrific instances being the mop-up operations in Samashki in 1995 and in Novye Aldy in 2000. Human rights activists from Memorial studied the aftermath of both. Despite resistance from the authorities and the military, Memorial activists put out reports in which, insofar as it was possible, they reconstructed what had happened — and concluded that federal forces there had killed civilians who presented no danger to them whatsoever.

The events in Samashki occurred on 8 April 1995. Before this, the settlement had been occupied by fighters and come under fire for several months. According to Memorial’s information, significant forces of separatists abandoned the village, leaving behind only a small detachment. After the battle, the Memorial report says, Russian soldiers in the already seized settlement killed 103 people.

The mop-up operation in Novye Aldy occurred on 5 February 2000. Memorial clarified that by that time there were no fighters in the settlement. Human rights activists questioned local inhabitants and learned that a day before the mass murders, representatives of federal forces came to the settlement and tried to warn the inhabitants of the threat of a mop-up operation. On 5 February, 46 people were killed in Novye Aldy and another 10 or so were killed the same day in nearby districts. In both instances, no one was held responsible for the murders.

– How did the human rights activists get there, and how did you learn about what had happened so quickly in general?

Oleg Orlov

– This happened in February 2000. We learned about this fairly quickly: fleeing refugees told us about it. Back in February, we had no office in Grozny, but we were already working in Nazran, questioning refugees, who were coming out of the scourge in a steady stream, so we learned about this fairly quickly. Our Chechen colleagues continued to work — unlike Samashki, which was earlier, where we ourselves did a lot of work. The first and second wars differed rather considerably, and the working conditions, of course, made it difficult for Muscovites to get to Novye Aldy. But our friends and colleagues, residents of Chechnya, could get through. Because in February we could have some of them go back there to check their apartments and so forth. Natasha Estemirova did a lot on Novye Aldy.

She was the first person able to question inhabitants of Novye Aldy, and after that our other colleagues, especially Chechens, Usam Baisaev, for example – I’m not going to give all their names, some live in Chechnya even now — were able to do a lot of work and collect information. Of great help was the fact that the inhabitants themselves had shot video, right there, directly, immediately after. It wasn’t published for a long time, it had to be verified — the what, the why, its authenticity. But then afterward Sasha Cherkasov, thanks to his efforts, the tape was published.

In general, working on site assumed… Later we were able to go there, and we used various working methods, it’s always changing. At that moment, in the spring, we had organized an office in Grozny. We were helped in this at the time by Vladimir Kalamanov, the president’s human rights representative in the Chechen Republic. I can’t say his office itself did much of anything, but at least he helped us formalize the work of the human rights organizations, and we were able to get through checkpoints thanks to this protection.

Our work was legal, we weren’t doing anything underground, we were researching the human rights situation on occupied and freed territories. What the work consisted of — naturally, forensic analysis such as there has to be in Bucha, as far as I understand, was impossible for us. The bodies had mostly been buried before we could get there. Following Muslim custom, they had been buried as quickly as possible. But at least when we got there we were still able to examine the locations where the shooting had been and record blood traces even, bullets, destroyed homes. We did major, extensive, and extended work documenting each instance. Documents, questioning of not one or two but more relatives, questioning of witnesses, all of this came together to create a map of where it happened, at what moment, and how — all this was put together into a report on Novye Aldy. After that the documentation continued for the European court, the most important thing was correspondence with our own official bodies, which recognized the fact of a death.

You can see how the rhetoric changes. Back then the authorities at least used the word “tragedy”. Today they’re saying it’s “fake”.

– Yes, well, today and back then, they’re chalk and cheese. Back then they were forced to make acknowledgements. We thought at the time that the law wasn’t functioning, that there was complete lawlessness. It turned out that that was not quite the case. Compared with what’s happening now, the law did function at least to some extent. The Prosecutor’s Office was obliged to respond to our requests. Our authorities were obliged to certify the fact that someone had died. Ultimately, criminal cases were opened. It’s another matter that no one was brought to justice but at least the units that carried out the mopping-up operations there were identified. 

Right, there was the Petersburg OMON riot police. Why do you think they named it? Now, it seems that if, for example, people are beaten up at a rally, the units are not even named. 

– There was something that still played a role at that point. As to why they were willing to name names. You see, when they set about, well, liberating there, local authority bodies were set up. Our federal authorities wanted to demonstrate at least somehow that the rule of law was coming [in Chechnya]. One way or another, therefore, the authorities didn’t want to look like a totally alien and occupying power. They were obliged to react somehow. Disclosure at this point is really important. Chalk and cheese: no one back then banned us from publishing, talking, going to print and the events in Novye Aldy acquired resonance and the authorities had to respond somehow. They had to explain. Was there a mopping-up operation? Yes, there was. Who carried it out? Such and such units. It’s another matter that at a certain point it began to be impossible to keep working when it came to specific people being held responsible. What always kicks in in these circumstances kicked in, as it does for example, with torture in any old cop shop: at the level of the investigating body everything came to a complete stop, was completely sabotaged, but the preliminary information had at least been conceded. 

– And when you were conducting this mass of interviews, didn’t you come across inconsistencies? I’m not suggesting you were being misled but under such circumstances people were in shock and, of course, they could get mixed up.

All over the place. That’s why there had to be cross-questioning of every witness, evidence from various witnesses, relatives, neighbours. Theoretically, of course, what we presented as evidence and published – we never claimed was the definitive truth in the last resort. But it was perfectly clear that someone had been killed on a particular date, he hadn’t travelled away from the locality, he was there, then he was killed. There’s his body on video. There’s his grave. There’s his house and this person existed. There are documents. It’s not fake. This person was alive until the mopping-up operation began, he has a history, a family etc. So it’s not just some body dumped who knows where, someone who came from who knows where and now they’ve gone and killed him and there are no traces. What also helped is that there are very extensive family ties in Chechnya at the end of the day. Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone knows their relatives, even distant ones, and through them you get to closer relatives. Through a cousin’s neighbour, you get to a brother who could be found. It’s work that takes a long time. It’s impossible to do it in a week or even a month. We published in the summer, I think.

– By that time, Samashki had already happened, and it was not the first time you had encountered something like this. At the end of all this documentation, did you have any understanding of who had organised what happened and why?

– It didn’t help much, because we saw that in neighbouring settlements, even in another part of Novye Aldy, things were very different. Nearby was the Staropromyslovsky district – there were also murders there, and of children too, but it’s a huge district, and to say that such horror was everywhere is just not the case, it was concentrated in specific localities. I can say that in another part of the Staropromyslovsky district adjacent to Katayama, where grenades were thrown and shots were fired into basements, there was a different story. This is a completely different case, there were people in a basement in the Staropromyslovsky district, it was the first place our troops entered after the battles in Katayama. Here it was understandable. There was fighting in Katayama, it’s a long district, part of Grozny, running in a long line northwest, the troops met resistance as they passed through it, then they ran into resistance again as they entered the Staropromyslovsky district.

There was a joke there – the Great Wall of Chechnya, several five-storey buildings standing perpendicular to each other, where Ichkerian fighters were quartered and repelled attacks by our troops for a very long time. Then they were driven out of there. When our soldiers went in there they suffered losses, of course, evidently not all of them were contract servicemen, some were conscripts, they were exhausted, tired, they had lost their fellow soldiers, and they went mad. What happened was they threw grenades into basements, although there were no fighters there, and so on. I can understand the psychology of this.

I can’t justify it, but psychologically I understand it. Samashki is also more understandable. What happened in Novye Aldy is psychologically incomprehensible to me. These would seem to have been an OMON unit of riot police, not conscripts and not contract servicemen, who came under fire for the first time. They should have been disciplined. Maybe they had taken heavy losses – I don’t know. This atrocity that occurred in Novye Aldy… it’s beyond my comprehension. They were shooting women and elderly people. It is clear there wasn’t a single fighter in the settlement, I can’t understand it even now.

– There was an incident there, the day before the horror. Other soldiers came and warned people – so they could have known what was going to happen?

– We can only judge from what people told us – perhaps they knew, perhaps it was army units who were ahead of those whose actions they had seen. The army units were being followed by those that were conducting the mopping up operation. That’s how it was, they were followed by other units, whether these were OMON riot police or interior ministry troops, we can only make guess, we can’t say anything for sure. I’m not ready to say that everything is clear to us. In any investigation of the kind there will be a whole host of things that haven’t been understood. And if someone tells you that everything is clear about this, that everything is absolutely and finally clear – they would be lying. A lot of things are very unclear. We, the people who conducted our investigation, we did not in fact have access to any documentation, we could not interview or interrogate representatives of the authorities, unlike the official investigation. What we did was an initial look at what was a mass crime. Next, following on from what we had done, there should have been an official investigation, which could have done a lot of things: exhume the bodies, accurately identify the unites involved, interrogate the commanders. All the questions that remained should have been answered by the official investigation. But the authorities did not do this and  they did not even try.

– Did anyone even once try to contact the human rights activists, anyone whose conscience might have been troubling them?

– Us, no. Arkady Babchenko and Dmitry Florin – journalists, that’s another matter, but not us. They were witnesses, although, thank God, they did not take part in war crimes themselves. But no one ever came to us and said they were sorry. Not even once.

 – As for Samashki – was the situation there more complicated?

– Yes, it required more work. It was in April 1995. We had only just finished our work at the end of summer. During the first Chechen war, you could enter Chechnya from Ingushetia bypassing checkpoints and reach villages that were partly blockaded but not really blockaded – you could go there. But we also got into villages during the second war. You drive into a village that you’d have thought had been cleared of fighters and there you find militant units. But that was more difficult. But in the first war it was much easier because Chechnya was not as blockaded, there were not so many checkpoints and did not form a continuous chain blocking all roads. And it was even possible to get into Samashki where a mopping up operation had been carried out with all its consequences.

Parliamentary deputy Anatoly Shabad went as a representative of Memorial, dressed in women’s clothes and brought out some evidence of a grenade launcher being used, which our military command had denied: “Grenade launchers during a mopping up operation in a village, are you kidding?” Well yes, those single-use grenade launchers were lying around there there. And most important, the Shmel [a portable disposable rocket-assisted flamethrower – trans.], a weapon that generates an enormous temperature when fired and everything in a house burns up completely. This was absolutely denied by our commanding officers and Shabad brought the spent pipe from the Shmel out of there, he managed to get out through the checkpoints. You could call it negligence by our soldiers, or you could say they had a better attitude to the local people, I don’t know. Local people could walk through, they took people through, dressed as locals. It was possible to travel on the roads by car, bypassing the checkpoints. And everything was investigated on the spot – how someone was killed, where something was burned, and then you could drive back. Everything was very different from how things were during the second war.

It was difficult work to do because there had been many things going on. It wasn’t just a matter of a mopping up operation whereby units would go into a village where there weren’t any fighters and cause as much destruction as they could. They went in there, they made a mess of it, but initially there really had been a large group of fighters in the village, and it took a very long time to reconstruct what had actually happened. The large armed group had left, but a group of local fighters stayed on. Then there was a small battle with these local militia – that did take place – and then when those fighters also left, the mopping-up operation began during which crimes were committed.

We were able to show all this in our report, for which we are still proud to this day. I think the report was very good and and we had a big discussion face to face with the State Duma and the deputy, Mr. [Stanislav] Govorukhin who chaired the hearings in the Duma where he had wanted to proved there had been no mopping up operations, no killing of civilians. There [in his opinion] were very serious firefights, in Samashki. Govorukhin said it was like a Stalingrad for the Chechens, they defended every house there, and as a result the houses were destroyed. Well, yes, some civilians were killed. But what Shmels? That is just a joke. We had to work long and hard for several months, examining every house, every street, identifying streets where there had been fighting and where we found traces of gunfire … But there are no great difficulties in distinguishing between a firefight and the destruction of a house where there had been no resistance.

— So, what methods did you use?

We searched for traces of shelling, signs of fragmentation, marks of bullets on walls. You see, if there was a battle, and a house was destroyed, there’s no way there won’t be marks of bullets on the nearby houses, or traces of explosions of shells or mines, or cartridge cases lying somewhere close by.  This all needs to be looked for.  Here is a house that has been destroyed.  This means we must walk all around this house, attentively take photographs, examine all the land and the nearby houses.  If we find traces of the evidence that I mentioned, then there is reason to doubt that the house was destroyed as part of a punitive action – rather, it seems very probable, there was fighting here.  This is even more likely if we find a pile of cartridge cases.

But if we find a house that has burned down, while the second and third and other nearby houses are all intact and there are none of the traces that I’ve mentioned on any of these houses, then we reach a different conclusion.  We saw places where this was the case, and where, following some small, not very heavy fighting – a major Chechen detachment having moved on – there had been punitive operations, with soldiers moving around methodically and carrying out punitive actions.  And we had to establish whether Shmels were used in homes that were empty of people.  It creates a colossally high temperature, and where there has been such a high temperature you will find corpses – as in photographs of charred corpses found in bunkers or tanks – with their fists clenched, like a boxer or an embryo.  We established that in one of these houses such a temperature had been reached.  There had clearly been no fighting, and we deduced that the temperature had been high simply by the fact that the ceramics had melted.  Our report went to Govorukhin whose reaction was, as I recall, “Well, yes, these are serious enemies, and they seriously prove it.”  Govorukhin was a good film director and, as such, he immediately created a film – he did not do any research, he used the information he had received and created a beautiful film, and, as a director, he complemented this film and completed it.  It took him a few days to make it, whereas we had to work for months to refute it.

— There were also reports from the Russian authorities that militants had shot elderly people – how was this disproved?

First of all, by a survey of local residents.  It was a perfect example of a fake story.  The story was that the old people were shot.  Imagine, in a large village, where the elders are well-known, that it would have been possible to hide the fact that militants had shot these old people.  It could not have been hidden from the Chechen family members of these elderly people, and it would have led to a perpetually ongoing blood feud.  When we were looking for evidence, we interviewed people openly and in great detail about this shooting, and we were met with complete amazement by the inhabitants of Samashki: “Which elderly people were shot?  What are you on about?”  Records were also a helpful source of information; while one could not say they were definitive. There was a diary that had clearly been kept for a long time, as different sorts of ink were used.  This helped us to conduct our surveys, and to understand where to go next.

— Were the authorities then more willing to meet you halfway?

No, we faced the same complete reluctance to investigate anything.  Prosecutor General [Yury] Skuratov, who was caught on camera with prostitutes, was supposedly an absolute democrat who suffered from Yeltsin’s lawlessness.  I remember how we – a group of human rights defenders – met Skuratov at the offices of Novaya gazeta.  We tried for a long time to get him on our side: “You are such a fighter for the truth,” we said…  We ran up against a complete wall.  Skuratov was ready to talk about corruption issues, but he was completely unwilling to discuss our concerns.

I just want to say that, even so, some elements of the law still existed.  The prosecutor’s office was obliged to respond to inquiries, regardless of whether or not it wanted to. There was the office of the Ombudsman.  Well, formally that still exists, but only formally.  During the first Chechen war, it was headed by none other than Sergei Adamovich Kovalev – someone with whom we were entirely of one mind, and whose questions at least the authorities had no right not to answer.  During the second war, the Ombudsman was Vladimir Petrovich Lukin.  It was all getting harder, it was all getting worse, but there was still an institution through which you could make inquiries, find out the fate of a person.  It’s impossible to bring people to justice, of course, but one can at least find out the fate of people who have been detained and taken away or killed…  We did get some answers and, when we received replies, even the most stupid ones, from various government departments, we could compare them among ourselves and continue our work.  But when you run up against complete reluctance even to respond, this, of course, is worse and harder.

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Melanie Moore, Simon Cosgrove and Elizabeth Teague

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