GOITY, Russia — When Raisa Turlueva arrived home one day in October, she saw dozens of police and the body of a man lying dead on the sidewalk. Officers said he was a rebel who had been sheltering in her home. Turlueva said she had no idea who he was.
The police brought Turlueva in for questioning, asking about her son, who they suspected of sheltering the rebel. After they let her go, she arrived home to find a smoldering ruin. Seven months later, her house remains a black carcass and she has not seen her son, Said Salekh, since.
“I believe he’s alive and he’ll come back,” she said. “I believe they’ll let him go.”
Turlueva is not alone with her wrenching tale. Hundreds of mothers across Chechnya say their children have been kidnapped or killed, according to Memorial, a Russian human rights NGO. While the Muslim republic in Russia’s south has emerged from a decade of war, its stability has come at a price — Memorial has documented more than 93 Chechens kidnapped by security forces in 2009, just a small slice of the deaths and disappearances in Chechnya since the Soviet Union dissolved 20 years ago.
Chechnya is now ruled by one of the world’s most ruthless authoritarian leaders, Ramzan Kadyrov, a man personally appointed by Vladimir Putin. The official narrative inside Chechnya is that Kadyrov has brought stability to a republic that was ravaged by two brutal wars following the fall of the Soviet Union, as it sought independence in the spirit of a centuries-long struggle to separate itself from Moscow.
Yet critics ask: Is that stability worth the cost and, more importantly, is it sustainable?
On the surface, Chechnya is in love with Kadyrov. Posters and slogans line the sidewalks and roads in and around Grozny: “Ramzan, thank you for Grozny!” “Ramzan, thank you for working for our future!” “Ramzan, we're proud of you!”
Yet as the human rights abuses spread, so does the fear. Underlying it all is a residual, but very alive, anger with Russia. Stalin's deportation of Chechnya's entire population (then about 500,000) to Kazakhstan in 1944 counts as a recent memory (most returned in 1957, after Stalin's death). The two wars Chechnya fought for independence in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse invited a crushing response from the Russian military, leaving 300,000 people dead and most of the republic destroyed.
Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat Kadyrov, turned from independence fighter to collaborator and negotiated the end of the war. In peacetime, some of his more radical former comrades in arms continued their fight against his Russian-backed state. They killed Akhmat Kadyrov in a bomb attack in May 2004.
The current Kadyrov also has his share of enemies. Last summer, a rebel targeted the theater in central Grozny that the president was due to attend, killing six police when they blocked his way.
There are some who don't understand why the rebels continue to fight. Alvi Dubaev is the imam of Yandi-Kotar, a southern village on the border with Ingushetia. Dubaev, who studied at Egypt's al-Azaar university, supports Kadyrov wholly, mainly because he's managed to achieve what generations of rebels have not — an Islamic state.
“There's patriotism and then there's recognizing reality,” Dubaev said. “Chechnya is independent from Russia. We are the khozyain [master] of our republic.”
In certain ways, that's true. Kadyrov has passed laws requiring women to cover their heads when entering government property, including schools. Bands of kadyrovtsy, the thuggish paramilitaries loyal to Kadyrov, patrol the streets shielded by tinted car windows, acting akin to morality police. This reporter can attest to the fact that they will issue warnings and threats if they catch a woman smoking inside a private car.
Kadyrov has been given free rein inside the republic, yet remains almost entirely dependent on Moscow to fill his budget. Jobs inside Chechnya are scarce. Unemployment officially stands at 42 percent, but independent observers say it is likely twice that. Aside from the construction projects designed to rebuild Chechnya from war-scarred rubble or work at the republic's oil refineries, there is little to do.
Raisa Turlueva's son was a typical 19-year-old Chechen when he disappeared — a student at Grozny's oil institute, already married. On Oct. 21, she received a call from relatives telling her that her house had been surrounded and the repeated phone calls she made to her son went unanswered.
Turlueva sits motionless in the yard of the house she’s been living in for the past seven months as she tells the story of his disappearance. She pays no mind to the chicken and roosters running around, makes no mention of the stench of sewage.
She stares ahead and speaks slowly, deliberately, angrily. When the tears come, she doesn’t allow them to flow, burying her face in her hands and letting her body shudder the sadness away.
“There was nothing left,” Turlueva said of her home. Neighbors told her that security forces officers brought three canister of gasoline, poured it on the grounds and set the house alight. It’s a common tactic, human rights activists say, used by government forces as punishment and also as a means of sewing fear throughout communities.
Turlueva has not seen her son since that morning. Her brother-in-law, also questioned that day at the main regional police office in Urus-Martan, said he saw Said-Salekh during his interrogation, badly shaken and beaten.
Turlueva, and the human rights activists working with her, believe her son has become one of dozens of young Chechen men kidnapped by security forces each year. Their theory: The men are detained, kept clandestinely in prisons for several months, during which time they grow long beards — the hallmark of the Chechen Islamic rebel. Members of the security forces then take them into the mountains, where they are killed during a so-called anti-terror operation. In return, officers are given awards and cash prizes. Sometimes they are given cars. Those are announced on state-run television by Kadyrov himself.
“It's a good business,” said Heda Saratova, a local human rights activist and journalist.
According to Memorial, the NGO, of the 93 people were kidnapped by security forces in 2009, 10 were found dead, 19 remain missing, four are being investigated and 60 were eventually released. In the same time period, 30 people were killed in the republic – five rebels, four security service officers and 21 civilians.
Danilbek Askhabov never believed the tales of kidnappings and killings until it happened to his family. His 28-year-old son, Yusup, was killed on May 28 last year, and Askhabov was dragged to the site to identify his son's body. When he refused to publicly denounce and disown his dead son, he was beaten on the spot, in the main square of the village of Shali. Security officers videotaped the public shaming and Askhabov was shown that night, frightened, leaning on his cane, not daring to lift his head as he was lectured by camouflaged officers, on state television.
“It was shown on TV, how the police then got awards and cars. Before I didn't believe it, but now I believe it,” he said. “They build this all up themselves. It's a business.”
No one disputes that rebels continue to operate inside Chechnya. Yet nearly everything about them remains an unknown — their organizational structure, the power of their newly emerged leader, Doku Umarov, their influence in the region. Even their number continues to elude authorities. Russia’s security services put them at 400 to 500 strong. Kadyrov told Russian news agencies last week that the Chechen interior ministry has counted just over 190 instead, noting that federal figures have remained unchanged for years. He even questioned that number, saying up to 40 percent of those had moved abroad or been killed.
Kadyrov has vowed to destroy all the rebels, and has begun leading special operations personally. Yet he doesn’t see them as a band of fundamentalists unhappy with his regime, hoping to create an Islamic caliphate across the North Caucasus. Instead, he sees a Western plot.
"This is not a 'struggle for freedom,'" Kadyrov told Russian newspaper Zavtra in September. “We’re fighting in the mountains with American and English special forces. They’re not fighting against Kadyrov, nor against traditional Islam. They’re fighting against the sovereign Russian state.”
Umarov claimed responsibility for the Moscow metro bombing that killed 40 people on March 29. Yet for the first time in Russia's long history with terror, the perpetrators of the attack on the capital came not from Chechnya, but from neighboring Dagestan. Again, critics were left asking: Is that proof of stability in Chechnya, or proof that the movement is seeping over borders?
Inside Chechnya, anger with Moscow still simmers. But anger with Kadyrov's regime is also growing.
“You can't say what you think,” Askhabov said, sitting next to his weeping wife, and the two sons he has left. “They say the Cheka and NKVD used the same methods,” he said, referring to the Soviet Union's KGB predecessors. “That's what they're doing here now — asking brother to turn on brother, brother to turn on father. What brutalities can happen after this? It will envelop everything – it will be terrifying. I'll never forget what they did to me. No Chechen will ever forget.”