Chechnya: Russian death squads murder journalists as a means of damage control

To say it’s hard to sift through the blizzard of disaster blanketing the Muslim world is a radical understatement. In the rapid news cycles of global media, we often lose track of a region until the necessary level of catastrophe thrusts it back into our attention. Our hamster wheel approach to news consumption is perhaps the most damaging to a deeper knowledge of context; we miss the local struggles catalyzing to the point at which tyrannical power is threatened and brutally slams down its iron fist. In paying shocked attention to only the debris, we deprive ourselves of potent stories of hope in the local struggle to speak –” or show –” truth to power. While current events have brought Gaza, Iran and Pakistan foremost in our minds, that is why we must also revisit questions of power, tyranny and resistance through one of the seemingly dormant sites of Islamic struggle: Chechnya. Specifically, we should look to Russian journalists –” a non-Muslim demographic of truth-speakers –” struggling to present conditions on the ground after the Kremlin signed on Chechan “President” Ramzan Kadyrov as its official puppet to scorch and destroy Chechen liberty.

Since the Russian government declared war on Chechnya in 1994 in an effort to weld it to the Russian Federation, the gruesome figures of death and destruction in that mountain-bound nation of the Caucasus have become all too familiar. According to some, civilian deaths over the two Chechen Wars number 160,000, not counting the numerous others that have been maimed, orphaned, widowed, and displaced. While leaders of the resistance movement are violently terminated, Russian officials gather with American and European diplomats at international conferences to publicly congratulate each other in stamping out “Islamic terrorism.” Muslims around the globe pray for Chechnya in Ramadan and lift their hands to the heavens when a fresh trail of blood from that region spurts across newsprint, but we think of them as essentially powerless –” at hopeless odds against Putin’s mechanized power, with its maws sharpened through the decades of communist totalitarianism.

In recent years, another statistic has splashed across international news; a number of high-profile Russian journalists, who courageously risked all to report Russia’s atrocities in Chechnya, are being systematically killed. Western media records the deaths of the few celebrity journalists, but the problem is far more widespread. The Committee to Protect Journalists declares Russia to be the third deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, behind only Iraq and Algeria. Remarkably, their deaths –” that is, the struggle to bear witness to massive injustice committed by their own government –” continue, despite the well-recorded odds faced by their fallen predecessors. We can look at the stories of a few of them.

Anna Politkovskaya is perhaps the most famous. A journalist who braved government intimidation to report from the Chechen killing fields, she was detained and beaten by Russian troops, thrown into a pit, threatened with rape and subjected to a mock execution. Freely mingling with the Chechens gave her an edge in describing the horrific barbarity unleashed by Kadyrov. Politkovskaya was equally fearless in linking Kadyrov’s butchering to the policy architects in the Kremlin: she extensively wrote about Chechinization, the KGB-style divide-and-conquer program sponsored by Vladimir Putin. She refused to be intimidated by death threats, and continued to write, probe, and talk to Russian officials who refused to come out in the open for fear of Kremlin retaliation but trusted her as a way of bringing out forbidden words and stories. Sketching her self-portrait, she said, “I am somebody who describes the life around us for those who cannot see it for themselves, because what is shown on television and written about in the overwhelming majority of newspapers is emasculated and doused with ideology.” Her personal cost in delivering truth unvarnished with ideology was high; on October 7, 2006, her body was found in her Moscow apartment with bullets pumped into her head and chest.

Another key figure is Victor Popkov, who was not only a journalist but a human rights activist. Trained as a physicist and seismologist, he found himself unable to ignore the suffering wrecked by Russia’s wars and transformed himself into one of those long-haired, bushy-bearded wandering monks described by Tolstoy and Dosteovesky. He went to work in Chechnya’s isolated mountainous regions visited by few journalists, driving ambulances and delivering food, supplies and medicine to the villagers bombarded by Russian air strikes. While Grozny’s wreckage was somewhat in the public eye, he exposed the rural panorama: shepherds blown up by landmines, village children deported to gulags, pristine mountain communities destroyed, and survivors decaying from starvation and disease. He said, “I work to preserve my feeling of involvement in what is happening in Chechnya, to keep within me a striving to help and to defend the people of Chechnya, who are being destroyed by my Russia.” Repeatedly accused by the Russian government to be aiding the Chechen fighters, he was shot in 2001 near a Russian checkpoint close to a Chechnan mountain town.

Natalya Estemirova is a more recent casualty. A former schoolteacher who vigilantly reported on the reign of terror unleashed by Kremlin proxies in Chechnya, she herself became a statistic in the covert program of torture, abductions and death squads through which Russia wages the Chechan conflict 3.0. On July 15, 2009, she was kidnapped outside of her home in Grozny, dragged into a car as she screamed for help. She was killed by bullets to the head, and her body was dumped into the neighboring province of Ingushetia in a clumsy attempt to disguise the perpetrators. Hours after her death, the Kremlin unleashed a barrage of condolences and commanded Chechan officials to bring her murderers to justice. This hypocritical performance illustrated the incredible convenience of the current system in which Russia outsources its’ work to puppets installed in Punch and Judy establishments all across its occupied territories. The widow of a Chechen policeman, Estemirova made numerous documentaries on Russian torture practices and post-war death squads. An accomplished photographer, she contributed to the human record of the Chechan war by photographing child victims in hospitals across Chechnya and Ingushetia.

Finally, it’s important to remember Stanislav Markelov, the human rights lawyer who successfully put Yuri Budanov –” a Russian colonel charged with raping and strangling an 18-year-old Chechen girl to death –” behind bars. While many accusations of war crimes came up during the Chechen War, this is one of the few cases when guilt was proven in a court of law to the Russian government’s immense political embarrassment. Despite the court’s verdict, Budanov was released 15 months prior to the termination of his sentence. Markelov was only 34 years old at the time of his death, his boyish face furrowed with the strain of such fights. He fearlessly defended Chechan civilians, whose human rights were grossly violated in the war, and Russian journalists like Politkovskaya, who were being criminalized by the Russian government. He was shot dead on January 19, 2009 on a Moscow street while returning from a press conference he had organized spotlighting the Russian government’s unconstitutional release of Budanov. He was dispatched in a similar style to the others, showing the grisly if unimaginative pattern of the Russian assassin’s rule-book: execution by a bullet to the head.

At first glance, it seems as if the fate of these four individuals, along with the tragic end of Chechan resistance leaders such as Abdul-Halim Sadullayev and Aslan Maskhadov, confirms the problem of resistance and power. These men and women did what had to be done, and their lives were erased because they were up against a heavily armed petro-power that clings onto Chechnya at all cost as an important node in the energy infrastructure for piping and refining oil from Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan. And yet, if we consider the ferocity of Russian response to their words and actions, we are given another view of the situation. Should we state that Russia was able to kill them because they had no power? Or rather, is it that Russia responded with so extreme an act as the wiping out of life because they represented a form of power far more potent than technology run amok? These journalists were not Muslim, but they embodied the Quranic ayah on the incredible potential of human speech,

Are you not aware how Allah sets forth the parable of a good word? [It is] like a good tree, firmly rooted, [reaching out] with its branches towards the sky, yielding its fruit at all times by its Sustainer’s leave. And [thus it is that] Allah propounds parables unto men, so that they might bethink themselves [of the truth] (14:24-25).

The timeline of a word bearing fruit may not correspond to the chronologies through which we experience reality. However, it does and in unexpected ways that can never be planned for by the projection and analysis departments of oppressive governments. Through the lives of these men and women, we recall that the faculty of speech is tied to memory and action: the process by which we are reminded of our supreme contract to one another and the Divine, and through which we are impelled to act in concert. Politkovskaya, Popkov, Markelov, and Estemirova knew that what they were doing was not an isolated act of testimony; it was a reminder to the social community at large that power lies in human hearts being moved and human wills joining together to change topographies on earth. Iron-mailed and nuclear-tipped nations like Russia, China, Israel, and the US know this well, which is why the good word cannot be tolerated in sensitive regions where they are hooked up to life support. Journalists like these four are being killed because their words and work had consequences; the publics in Chechnya, Russia, and the world were stirring, and the potential for social and political action was being tapped to the surface of minds and hearts. Not only were many people becoming convinced of the case they were drawing, a number were looking to their extraordinary lives and asking themselves; if they can do it, why can’t we? Therefore, despite the blood and shock, we shouldn’t be awed; their struggles show us an alternate view of the situation, which is that such graphic violence is an expression of governments’ powerlessness, not their power. There is sorrow only on the other side of the equation. The deaths of these journalists, and genocide in places like Chechnya are possible, only because we are wrongly persuaded that we are the powerless ones.