Thousands trapped by Russian forces in live-fire zone: Chechen civilians spent days under siege
Russian forces began to shell Komsomolskoye on March 4 to dislodge Chechen fighters who were trying to break through to the Chechen lowlands. On March 5, without warning, Russian warplanes, helicopters, tanks, artillery and mortar units unleashed a ferocious assault on Komsomolskoye, aimed at fighters present in the village. More than 2,000 civilians fled as far as a Russian checkpoint about 500 meters from the village, along the main exit route, where they were trapped en masse in the open air.
Russian forces did not permit males between the ages of ten and sixty to pass the checkpoint. The vast majority of female civilians also did not leave, fearing their absence would invite the beating and/or detention of their male relatives.
Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch researchers that several civilians were wounded by gunfire and shrapnel while they were trapped in the field. On March 7, Liuba Ozdomirova (about sixty), Tamara Ilyasova (seventy) and her son Khassan (thirty-six) were injured by shrapnel, and on March 8, Aindi Bataev (forty-one), received a bullet wound to the stomach. Other civilians trapped in the field had injuries from the first day of bombing.
On March 9, Abdurakhman Gilaev (eighty) died of suspected heart failure. Two women gave birth while trapped in the field; the baby of one of these women, Zura Shaipova (about thirty-two), born on March 8, died that day from exposure, according to one witness. Twenty-one-year-old Luisa Ismailova, who left the field on March 8, told Human Rights Watch how her three-month-old baby daughter, Markha, currently in intensive care in Nazran, contracted double-pneumonia due to exposure while trapped outside Komsomolskoye.
"Russian authorities claim their forces are protecting civilians and restoring their rights," said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "But Russian forces certainly didn't protect the people of Komsomolskoye -- they exposed them to greater danger. This is unacceptable in wartime."
Russian forces did not provide any food or water for the trapped civilians. Some women in the group who managed to reach the town of Urus-Martan-some twelve kilometers away- brought back small supplies of food and water.
On the morning of March 9, the fifth day of the assault on the village, Russian soldiers separated the men and women trapped in the field and began to check their documents. Eyewitnesses described to Human Rights Watch how soldiers detained as many as eight men, and kicked and beat them with rifle butts. The detainees included Said Visaev (seventeen), a refugee from Grozny; Beslan Umarov (twenty-two) from Astrakhan; Arbi Moloyev (about thirty-two) from Komsomolskoye; and two Chinese citizens, Hassan Saidi (thirty-six) and Amirzhan Amuti (thirty), who ran a cafe in Grozny. The detained men were taken away by Russian forces.
On March 10, Said Visaev's mother and two aunts traveled to Urus-Martan to ascertain whether he was being held in a detention facility in an abandoned orphanage. Visaev's aunt Fatima described to Human Rights Watch how they found Visaev's corpse in a hospital building in Urus Martan, beaten almost beyond recognition. She said his left eye was missing, his face swollen and a large hole had been smashed in the back of his head. On March 17, Saidi's and Amuti's business partner, Lema (forty-three), told Human Rights Watch that he has since been unable to determine his partners' whereabouts. Human Rights Watch is concerned for the welfare of these and other detainees, last seen alive in Russian military custody.
Up to one hundred civilians, mainly elderly, disabled, or wounded persons, were left trapped in Komsomolskoye itself throughout the bombardment. These civilians may well have been killed in the ferocious fighting that ensued.
Initial reports suggest that large numbers of Chechen fighters under the command of Ruslan Gilaev arrived in Komsomolskoye in early March. The presence of many armed fighters in a densely populated village greatly endangered the lives of the civilian population. Human Rights Watch also condemned this serious violation of international humanitarian law.