Hundreds of innocent civilians have allegedly been kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Moscow's battle against militant Islam in the republic of Ingushetia.
Airdate: 
Sunday, October 18, 2009 - 20:30
Channel: 
SBS One

A hidden war is escalating in the Caucasus Mountains along Russia's southern fringe.

In response to an increasing number of suicide attacks, Moscow says it is battling militant Islam in the tiny republic of Ingushetia.

But locals say hundreds of innocent civilians are being kidnapped, tortured and murdered at the hands of Russian security forces.

This week Evan Williams travels to Ingushetia to report on this deadly battle for control.

Locals say they live in terror of a Russian security apparatus out of control.

Find out more this Sunday 8:30pm on SBS ONE.


Transcript

In the Caucasus Mountains along Russia's southern fringe, a hidden war is escalating. Moscow says it's battling militant Islam in the tiny republic of Ingushetia. But people here say hundreds of innocent civilians are being tortured and murdered.

REPORTER: He says, "We can no longer walk. "Our teeth have been broken, our jaws are broken. "We desperately need some help."

They say they live in terror of a Russian security apparatus out of control.

We arrived in Nazran, the largest town in the mainly Muslim Russian Republic of Ingushetia. We were taken to a house, where we were met by a crowd of grieving women. Just a few days earlier, at 5:30 in the morning, 400 heavily armed Russian soldiers had surrounded the house.

REPORTER: And then what happened?

KHEDI, NAZRAN RESIDENT: They grabbed my son like this, placed him here. The Russians followed us, we go in first, open the doors, show them the house.

She said the soldiers dragged her outside and kept her son, Musa, here on the floor.

KHEDI: The Russians spent four to five hours right here. They wouldn't let me in or my son out. They wouldn't let our neighbours in. They wouldn't let anyone go home.

Khedi led us to the front room, where she thinks the soldiers then took her son. Angry relatives tried to explain what they believe happened next. One of the relatives is saying, "You can see here the outlines of the blood stain." They believe this is where he was tortured and killed. Next they showed me a small cellar. They told us they thought troops put Musa's body in the cellar, then blew it up with a grenade.

SALUMBEK, MUSA's FATHER: When they threw that grenade from the hole;see the blood on the ceiling?

They point to bits of flesh and blood that are on the side of the brick, and if you look up at the ceiling you can see the signs where the grenade blast has gone in - the shrapnel has ripped into the ceiling and the door. Rashid, a cousin of the dead man, had filmed his body. It had been torn apart.

Musa's father, Salumbek, told us his son was 27 years old and was taking exams to be an architect. He'd just got married and had a 1-month-old baby.

REPORTER: Why is this happening? Why are the Russians doing this?

KHEDI: They need the Caucasus without us, the Caucasians. They want to destroy us. They don't need kind peaceful people. That's it.

Salumbek claimed young men were specifically being targeted to wipe the Ingush out as a race.

SALUMBEK: They destroy absolutely innocent people. What's going on is the destruction of a nation.

WOMAN 1: It should stop at some point shouldn't it? I don't know. It shouldn't go on.

Ingushetia is officially a self-governing part of the Russian Federation. We could see Moscow's influence and its troops everywhere. That was just a traffic police checkpoint, but we have to be very careful how we film here. We have to keep it very low-key, because while we've got accreditation to work anywhere in Russia, the authorities don't really want foreign journalists down here. For centuries, Ingushetia has been run by a system of clans. We'd been told that many of them had been targeted by Russian security forces. Maksharib Aushev heads a clan of 20,000 Ingushetians. His home is surrounded by closed circuit cameras and armed guards.

They've got weapons in here that they're legally allowed to have for their own self-protection, because he fears they could be attacked at any time. Last year, Maksharib said, several truckloads of heavily armed Russian troops stormed his compound with armoured personnel carriers, or APCs.

MAKSHARIB AUSHEV: Early in the morning, at 6, two APC's burst into the backyard over there. They crashed through the iron gate and burst into the house. One APC with a large calibre gun stopped right over here. And they used the APC, the loud speaker system in the APC to shout and swear at us. "œCome out here you dicks." That's what they said.

They came in and smashed up the office, turned everything upside down and were shooting around the compound. They were shooting at his wife and they threw this little fellow to the side and fractured his arm.

MAKSHARIB AUSHEV: A very strong warning that I was to be killed.

Maksharib told us he believed the only reason he wasn't killed or captured was because he wasn't in the compound at the time of the attack. We moved away from the children to discuss the scale of the violence. Maksharib told us this wave of killing started in 2002 when Moscow installed a pro-Russian president to rule Ingushetia.

MAKSHARIB AUSHEV: From 2002 to 2004, in two years, 457 young men were murdered in Ingushetia. They are proclaimed terrorists, weapons are planted on them. Whenever a man is murdered his relatives take up arms. And where will they go for revenge? Those operatives are supported by the Russian troops, so they join the fighters.

With checkpoints on all the main intersections, we had to take back roads to move around. Rashid, the cousin of the dead man whose grieving family we had met earlier, asked to meet us at a graveyard just outside Nazran. Rashid revealed that his cousin wasn't the only family member to be killed recently - his brother and three friends had been buried here just the week before.

RASHID: We don't know for sure but we were told they had stumbled upon a special operation in action on the road from our village to Srednie Achaluki. They were arrested on the road.

Rashid told us he believed his brother and friends had been tortured and, to hide the signs of torture, security services had blown their bodies up in a car. Security officials said they were rebels, but Rashid denied this.

RASHID: That was the most insulting part of it. They said they were killed by their own device that they'd wanted to install. They planted a gun on them;

He told us he couldn't fight Russia because it's too powerful.

RASHID: Personally I have no wish, no opportunity and no resources to fight such an enormously huge state that;they hold power, they have the state behind them. They have these special services, everything.

The allegations we were hearing were shocking, but we'd been warned that if we approached the Russians about them while we were here our sources could be put in serious danger. Next day we were stopped passing through a checkpoint and taken in for questioning. At the police station we were questioned by layers of security bureaucracy. It started with the local police, immigration officials, and then we were questioned by the FSB, the Russian secret service, as to why we were here. The FSB - or Federal Security Service - is the successor of the infamous KGB. It's responsible for Russia's internal security and says it's leading operations against armed Islamist rebels here in Ingushetia. We were allowed to continue on our way for now.

We got news that one of our contacts urgently wanted to meet us. She claimed she had information from inside the security services. We were told that following our detention security officials had decided we were part of an anti-Russian conspiracy to investigate human rights violations in Ingushetia. We were to be considered enemies of the state and, if caught, prevented from working and our material confiscated.

CONTACT: I was told today that foreigners aren't supposed to get out even a scrap of data. It must be confiscated.

We've come further out of Nazran to meet this family that are in this apartment building here. You very much have the sense the whole place is being watched very closely so we have to be quick.

Petimat Albakavar showed us photographs of her 24-year-old son, Batheer. She told us on July 10 police came here demanding to see everyone's passports.

PETIMAT ALBAKAVAR: We had no problem with that. We felt we'd done nothing wrong.

When her son Batheer presented his the police took him to Nazran police headquarters. She said when her son failed to return home she went to all the police stations trying to find Batheer, but she could find no trace of him anywhere.

PETIMAT ALBAKAVAR: Ten or eleven days went by. On the twelfth day in the evening, at about 8.30, we read a message on the internet.

They found out on the internet that a man with her son's name was killed in the forest. She told us the authorities claimed Batheer was killed in a clash with government forces when he was fighting as a rebel, that he was wearing camouflage and was found dead, carrying a weapon.

PETIMAT ALBAKAVAR: What did they say? That he was a leader of terrorists, that he resisted arrest, that he had a machine gun and that he was killed. Nothing else.

When, in fact, she was here when he was dragged away by the police from this very home. Petimat showed me Batheer's licence to work as an aircraft engineer. She said he'd been security-cleared for this job, not something given out to suspected Islamist militants. And yet he's been killed, allegedly as a rebel. She said he had no time to go and train as a rebel - he was always doing his exams. Petimat told us, when she finally received Batheer's body, it was covered with what appeared to be signs of torture.

PETIMAT ALBAKAVAR: Whatever. I have no idea what they did. Maybe they electrocuted him. People say they did. I'm not an expert but that's what they say. Here on the tops of his shoulders. And his arms were covered in bruises and sores. His legs as well.

She saw two gunshot wounds, one to the heart. We wanted to verify Petimat's claims. We're going to see one of Ingushetia's leading human rights workers, but it's believed that he's very closely watched and so to try and keep our profile down and to try and lessen the danger to him, we're going to see him at night. Magomad Mutsolgov runs Ingushetia's main human rights group, Mushr - which means 'peace' in English. Since 2002 the group has been documenting the arrests and torture of civilians in the republic. I asked him about Petimat's case and he called up the file. He told us this was the body of Petimat's son, Batheer. And as she said to us, you can see the signs of torture - and his arm was virtually cut off. It's unclear whether that happened before he was dead. Magomad showed us the pictures of hundreds of people he claimed had been tortured and killed by security forces.

MAGOMAD MUTSOLGOV, MUSHR HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP, LEADER: All those kidnapped and killed, more than 1000 of them, represent a huge tragedy for a small place like Ingushetia.

Next he showed us the photograph of a 6-year-old boy, who he said was killed by government soldiers when they stormed his house. He said there were 14 children inside and the pictures showed how it was raked with automatic gunfire. Magomad said troops then drove an armoured personnel carrier into the house to make it look like there'd been a gun battle. Magomad claimed that those reporting the violence have also been targeted. Last July, he said, his deputy was kidnapped by state security and tortured to reveal the source of reports of FSB death squads.

MAGOMAD MUTSOLGOV: After he refused to confess, they tortured him and tried to make him say that I'd posted that list.

This man only spent four to five hours in the detention cell. His leg was broken and many of his internal organs were damaged. Magomad told us that he found that in addition to the 1,000 people who had been murdered since 2002, 175 people had disappeared without trace.

MAGOMAD MUTSOLGOV: First of all, out of 170 kidnapped people our police have yet to find a single one. Moreover, not a single kidnapper has been found and brought to trial for crimes committed in our republic.

He told us people can be arrested on suspicion of being a rebel, being related to a rebel, or even just being seen with a suspected rebel.

MAGOMAD MUTSOLGOV: There are people who were kidnapped purely to catch their brothers who served in illegal arms militias.

He claimed rebel attacks only started here in 2002, after Russian forces became active in Ingushetia. He said the problem has been created by the Russian security forces and the secret services by killing people, and there's this chain of revenge now which is leading to support, growing support for the rebels. The Ingush rebels have killed around 200 Russian and Ingush police and soldiers over the past seven years. Civilians have also been injured and killed in those attacks. Moscow has said the attacks are motivated by militant Islam. Unable to meet the rebels themselves, we went to Nazran's main mosque to ask what role religion plays in the uprising. The imam here is very nervous about speaking to us. He says we could talk about religion, but we do not want to talk about politics at all. Imam Xacamobur explained that after years of repression during Soviet times, Ingushetians were still struggling to rediscover their religion.

IMAM XACAMOBUR: Once again as I've said, they don't understand our people. They don't see what's necessary in our daily rhythm.

He said it was dangerous for some to attend prayers because they could be treated with suspicion by the authorities, but this danger came from the state's misunderstanding of what he called a normal religious obligation.

IMAM XACAMOBUR: It's an ordinary thing. Nothing special about it. People have to go to prayer and purify themselves.

REPORTER: We keep hearing about so many young men who disappear here. Why is that happening?

IMAM XACAMOBUR: Honestly, I can't answer this question because I don't have reliable enough information. Of course people aren't happy. They can't understand the situation they're in. Murders, kidnappings;they don't understand.

The troubled Caucasus region has been blighted by conflict for centuries. Ingushetia borders Chechnya, which, after two wars, is now largely under Russian control. Many of those who for years have reported on Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya, have now turned their attention to Ingushetia. We're called to a meeting with local journalist Heda Saratoeva. She told us a charity worker and close friend of hers had just been kidnapped in the nearby Chechnyan capital, Grozny.

HEDA SARATOEVA: Generally she was working with programs for children. Their organisation was helping poor people. Her organisation was called "œSave a Generation."

She claimed that one hour before she was seen being taken away from her home by men in uniform, and nobody knew where she was. Each day more people came forward wanting to tell us their stories. Sultan Uzkakov showed us what he claimed was evidence of a recent attack on his family. He showed me a cupboard that had been retrieved from the photographic shop owned by his two sons. It was riddled with bullet holes. There's about eight or nine shots in to this piece of furniture, and Sultan's got another piece here, more bullet holes. So the whole place was sprayed with automatic weapon fire. Sultan said that in January of this year he was in his garden when he heard gunfire from the street outside.

SULTAN UZAKOV: That was on Saturday. After dinner, me and my wife, in our backyard;I walk there all the time for my health. Machine gun bursts, gunshots. I told my wife "œIt's not Sunday is it? No weddings?"

Witnesses later told him troops and police had stormed his son's shop. They attacked with two APCs - armoured personnel carriers - two truck loads of troops and several Jeeps for an area he says not much bigger than a quarter of the size of this room. He said his sons, Murad, 29, and Ruslan, 26, were killed in that raid.

SULTAN UZAKOV: Well, officially, no one would say anything. I mean the authorities wouldn't. But all of us knew it was the FSB.

Sultan told us that after the attack the government claimed his sons were rebels. He says I believe they attacked them because they need to show their bosses they're doing something and they go round killing innocent people. He claimed that most of those being killed are hardworking, well-educated, religious young men. He believed this latest phase of killing is a continuation of a centuries-old Russian attempt to control the region. Sultan told us that if he was to complain to the authorities, then he would be the next one found dead with a weapon planted on him, and his picture sent to Moscow. Layla was married to Sultan's son, Murad. They had two children. 3-year-old Fatima was very close to her father, but was still too young to understand why he's no longer around, so they make up excuses.

LAYLA: Every evening, at the beginning, she'd wait for him to come back. She's probably grown out of it now, but we haven't forgotten her Dad. We say he's in hospital. It's an excuse. It's too early to tell her, so I haven't.

Like many of Ingushetia's children, Fatima is likely to grow up with feelings of anger towards the Russian forces that her family believes killed her father. We contacted the FSB requesting a response to the allegations, but they didn't respond. Russia says strong military action is needed to maintain the integrity of its southern frontier. Moscow says its actions here support its war on Islamist terror, and if it didn't take these steps, Ingushetia could become a new home for global jihad. It had become increasingly difficult to move around Ingushetia - it was time to leave. We drove across the border into Chechnya and spent the night in the capital, Grozny. Next morning, as we prepared to fly home, we had an unexpected visitor - Heda, the Chechnyan journalist, was distraught.

REPORTER: What have you heard, Heda?

She told us that her friend Zarima, the aid worker who'd been kidnapped, had been found murdered. Her body, along with that of her husband, had been dumped in a car boot on the outskirts of Grozny. No-one had claimed responsibility.

HEDA SARATOEVA: If there was anything worth killing her for;she had nothing to do with politics or anything. They were working with children who'd been injured by mines, who'd been crippled, lost their arms and legs. Who could they interfere with? It's just unbearable.

Reporter

EVAN WILLIAMS

Camera

CLANCY CHASSAY

Research

RICHARD COOKSON

Fixer

OLGA KRAVETS

Editor

ROWAN TUCKER-EVANS

Translations/Subtitling

ELENA MIKHAILIK

Producer

ASHLEY SMITH