Russia

Chechnya: Far from war, but not at peace

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by Vladimir Kovalev

Thousands of Chechen asylum-seekers biding their time in the Alps feel the perilous pull of their homeland.

VIENNA, Austria | There are some things Roman Shamayev will never forget.

Dead bodies of civilians and soldiers, destroyed tanks and cannons, crying children, apartment buildings in the Chechen capital of Grozny covered with thousands of holes left after brutal artillery assaults.

Shamayev, a former Chechen army commander, lives far away from such scenes now, but they are still with him, just as they dog the memories of the tens of thousands of Chechen refugees living in Western and Central Europe.

And just as many plead their cases to West European governments, hoping to be allowed to stay, they long, too, to return home. Some are even compelled to do so, either by governments who reject them or by thuggish Chechen authorities who threaten loved ones left behind. For many, staying or leaving becomes a matter of - someone's - life or death.

Shamayev came to Austria several years ago, shortly after being seriously injured in the second Chechen war. After giving orders in the separatist Chechen army for more than a decade, he is one of roughly 20,000 refugees who fled the region to come to Austria in the past several years.

"From the first war in Chechnya I remember [dead] children and people lying on streets, being eaten by birds, cats and dogs," Shamayev recalled during an interview in a Vienna restaurant last month.

"Once I mixed up a container of dead bodies with ammunition. I was told there were a number of cargo cars at the train station in Grozny that we thought were delivering weapons for the Russian army. When I opened one, I saw corpses, corpses, and corpses of Russian soldiers lying frozen, stacked up," he said.

"I don't remember battles themselves. I never remember battles. I do remember, of course, the guys I was with during the war, but engagements themselves I try not to remember. People have a tendency to forget what they don't want to think about," he said.

More than two years after moving to Austria and recovering from his wounds, Shamayev works with Chechen refugees who live in camps in the Alps waiting for permission to stay. He has found a role, and a haven, but the calm sits uneasily on him.

"It's [too calm]. It's just ... as a rule a person gets lost if he's removed from the thing he's done most of his life. And it's hard to find yourself in that case," he said. He believes that someday he will return to Chechnya, provided the breakaway republic becomes more stable and secure.

A PERILOUS PLACE

In talks last year with Russian President Vladimir Putin, then-Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel suggested that his country would send back the Chechen refugees if certain conditions in the republic improved. He did specify which conditions, but according to human rights advocates, the essentials have not changed.

"[The refugees'] safety cannot be considered without looking at the precarious security situation in the Chechen Republic as a whole," warned a 2006 report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

"Despite the fact that the UN deemed the security situation improved in Chechnya in July 2006, the situation remains complicated, unstable, and dangerous. Every day [aid organizations] register violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Chechnya, including extra-judicial executions, disappearances (including of women and children), illegal arrests, torture, hostage-taking, destruction of property, and looting. There remains a serious threat from landmines and unexploded ordnance," the report said.

People still disappear frequently in Chechnya, according to Civil Assistance, a nongovernmental organization that worked on the report with the NRC.

"Human rights violations continue to take place in Chechnya. It happens that some unidentified armed persons come in the night and arrest people without explaining why," said Yelena Burtina, a co-director of Civil Assistance.

"Sometimes such detainees are found later, but it happens, not rarely, that they are detained and charged on evidence from testimony other people have given under pressure or after torture. In some cases, detainees are later found dead or thrown onto the road badly beaten," she said. "These tactics resemble the political repression in the USSR in 1937. Such repression continues in Chechnya, not on the same scale as several years ago, but the fact is, it takes place regularly."

One typical case is that of Iliyas Azimov, who was allegedly arrested without explanation on the evening of 28 July 2005. The NRC report said he was abducted from a residential complex for former refugees in Grozny by masked men who drove up in cars without number plates. His mother, sisters, and neighbors were beaten, according to information collected by the NRC. When residents of the complex blocked one of the major highways in the city the next morning to demand his release, the police tried to disperse them by shooting into the air and then at the ground by their feet.

Azimov was later released without charge, but only after appeals from the local branch of the Russian human rights group Memorial to Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, and to the human rights ombudsman of Chechnya, who provided Azimov with a lawyer.

"The Chechen interior minister explained that he had been suspected of murder and denied that masked men or unmarked cars had been used during his arrest. In the absence of prompt outside intervention - which was possible only because a human rights conference on Chechnya was under way in Kislovodsk at the time - it is unlikely that the incident would have been resolved in a satisfactory manner," the NRC report said.

Providing security for refugees and for Chechen citizens in general was acknowledged recently as a problem by Romzan Kadyrov, the new Kremlin-backed Chechen president, who nevertheless tried to downplay it.

"The problem of security existed in the Chechen Republic before. Now, according to statistics, it is the region's fourth-biggest issue, and social and economic problems are more urgent," the Regnum news agency quoted Kadyrov as saying in April.

"Step by step we are trying to solve the question of the returning people who left the republic. For instance, the regional Akhmat Kadyrov Fund [named after the former Chechen president] buys destroyed apartments and hands them over to Kumyks, Russians, Chechens. They are all our people, and we want them to come back to our city," Kadyrov said.

Kadyrov has been repeatedly linked to torture and political persecution of his opponents by the international press and human rights advocates. He denies the accusations.

UNCONVINCED

The new Chechen president's assurance of a new era in the breakaway republic apparently rings hollow to the many refugees who have arrived recently in Austria and continue to seek asylum there.

About 30 people a day submit applications for asylum status in Austria, according to the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe, a Vienna think tank whose experts are often called in by Austrian courts to assist in examination of cases of Chechen refugees. About 5,000 Chechens have asylum status in Austria, and about three times that number are awaiting a decision in refugee camps in the mountains or just hanging around illegally, claiming that they have escaped from the war.

Some 70,000 to 80,000 Chechen refugees live in the European Union, according to Hans-Georg Heinrich, a political science professor and researcher at the institute. Heinrich said Austrian legislation is likely the most liberal in the EU for Chechen asylum-seekers. While Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia often reject applications, Austrian law demands only that the newcomers prove they are Chechens by speaking the language and by showing on a map the region in Chechnya where they come from.

Some claim falsely to be Chechens. Occasionally, the institute's specialists discover Russians from that country's southern regions, such as Krasnodar, masquerading as Chechens, Heinrich said.

Some refugees, but still only a few, have begun trying to return, whether because they miss their families or are being pressured by authorities in Grozny, Heinrich said.

"I have an anonymous case of a guy who served as a security guard for Ramzan Kadyrov. He told me, and I can't vouch for the truth of what he said, that he had broken with [Kadyrov] and left for Poland," Heinrich said.

"He was called by Ramzan Kadyrov on his mobile phone and Ramzan allegedly told him that his father had been arrested, and that if he did not return his father would be killed. This is an unverified story, but these are stories that I keep hearing," he said. "Some of them want to return because they want to see their relatives. I keep hearing from relatives of these people and representatives of Russian NGOs that some of them been arrested, some of them were not. It's in Chechen hands," he said.

Returning home then, has become a new kind of Russian roulette, a game of life and death that the refugees would rather not have to play.

Roman Shamayev will not play it, even though after 14 years of fighting battles in Chechnya, he has not given up hope of seeing his homeland again.

"I want to return some day. I have some plans there," Shamayev said.

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