A Dark Shroud: the Pernicious Perception of Violence in Chechnya

BY MARGAUX BAVLSIK

3021587707_a46c6307ce_oPrior the Sochi Olympics, rumors of potential terrorist attacks threatened to shroud the games in an atmosphere of fear and distrust. Chechen “black widows,” or female terrorists involved with the Chechen separatist movement, have carried out twenty attacks on Russian soil since the fall of the Soviet Union, killing nearly 700 people since 1992. Leader of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucuses, Doku Umarov, claimed that the Olympics were to be held “over the bones of thousands of Muslims who were killed and buried on the territory along the Black Sea,” and fighters must not allow that “by any means.” But surely not all Chechens are involved in terrorism. Rather, it seems that large numbers of them have attempted or are attempting to leave Chechnya to seek asylum in other areas, generally Western Europe.

Chechnya is one of the twenty-one republics of the Russian Federation, similar to Dagestan or Chuvashia or other areas described in terms of their non-Russian ethnicity. Most Chechens tend to be Muslims. In 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, Dzhokhar Dudayev was elected president and declared Chechnya’s independence. Russia then tried to quash the independence movement in the First Chechen War (1994-1996). In 1999, Russia blamed Chechens for a spree of bombings and again sent military forces there. The situation was complicated by Chechen rebels invading the neighboring republic of Dagestan in attempts to create an Islamic state. The Second Chechen War was declared over and the situation “normalized” in 2009, though insurgency continues to the present. (For clarification and broader detail, check out the BBC Chechen timeline here.)

During the conflict, Russian forces razed several villages as well as the capital city, Grozny, killing thousands of people. Throughout the conflicts, humanitarian organizations and activists made several attempts to investigate alleged human rights violations, such as holding Chechen civilians for ransom, beatings, rape, and extrajudicial executions. The discovery of mass graves in 2000 drew further concern, but official reports blame Chechen rebels and not the Russian military, denying any Russian atrocity. Furthermore, human rights activists estimate that between 3,000 and 5,000 people are still missing after the Second Chechen War, many of which are blamed on Russian forces who rounded men up in “filtration” camps in order to find out if they had links to rebels. One Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, made her reputation reporting on the violence in Chechnya. In October 2006, she was found shot dead in her apartment. Surrounding her death are rumors of assassination by Kremlin (or pro-Kremlin) officials as a result of her anti-Putin and politically-charged reporting.3021603271_fd3e28ce83_o

In addition to those missing, many people have chosen to leave the area, generally heading to Europe. Estimates suggest that fewer than 200 Chechens live in the United States, the majority of which are women living in Boston. BBC notes that around 26,000 Chechen refugees have moved to Austria, and as a result constitute the largest group of asylum applicants. Similarly, Germany reported in 2013 that a record number of asylum seekers from Russia moved to Germany, the majority of which came from Chechnya and the North Caucasus. In Austria, many Chechen immigrants fear rumors of forcible deportation, as the war has technically been over for nearly five years and the government claims drastic improvements in the republic’s infrastructure.

Further complicating the situation are the possible ties between Chechen rebels and militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. Chechens have been found on both sides of the US Global War on Terror. Additionally, Al-Awsat news website reported 14,000 militant Chechens joined the hostilities in Syria. These connections to militant Islamism and acts of terror and violence would seem to make the suffering of many Chechens easy to ignore. According to Eric Margolis (Huffington Post), “The outside world totally ignored the death of another 100,000 Chechen after Moscow successfully branded them, `Islamic terrorists.’ A quarter of the Chechen people, Muslims and Russians, died from 1991 until 2010, not counting Stalin’s mass murder.” Throughout the last two centuries, the Chechen people have suffered and died in massive quantities, largely at the hands of the Russian or Soviet state. Yet these cruelties have been largely overlooked and overshadowed by those tragedies closer to home. And when Chechnya does make the news, it has generally been in terms of producing terrorism or militant Islamism. While activities carried out by these groups are in no way justifiable, to using them as an excuse to ignore the damages inflicted upon the rest of the Chechen population seems like a cheap attempt to use scare tactics to sell papers instead of reporting on the suffering of human beings.

Further Readings:
Chechnya Profile – BBC
-Timeline-Chechnya – BBC

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Margaux Bavlsik is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at mbavlsik@wustl.edu

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