In The New York Times van afgelopen zaterdag stond een mooi, persoonlijk artikel van mijn gewaardeerde collega C. J. Chivers over Estemirova, dat zoveel zegt over de situatie in Tsjetsjenië dat ik het u niet onthoud.
Op de site van de New York Times staat bovendien ook nog een bijbehorend filmpje over de dagelijkse gang van zaken in Tsjetsjenië. De beelden deden me denken aan de foto’s van de nazi-misdaden op het platteland van Wit-Rusland en Oekraïne tegen de joodse bevolking tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Opnieuw vraag ik me af waarom het Kremlin dit allemaal tolereert.
A Fearless Activist in a Land of Thugs
By C. J. CHIVERS
NATALYA ESTEMIROVA is gone now. Her executioners forced her into a car in front of her home in Chechnya and sped away with her on Wednesday morning. She managed to shout that she was being kidnapped, her last known words documenting the beginning of the crimes against her, just as she had documented crimes against uncountable others.
Her killers worked quickly, as if on orders. They drove to a remote place, shot her and left her near the road, killing her in exactly the manner her friends had long feared would be her fate. Her purse was nearby. Her killers did not want it. This crime was about something else.
Ms. Estemirova was an essential member of a tiny circle of the premier human rights investigators in the entire Caucasus — a woman of immeasurable courage, precision and calm. She was a researcher for Memorial, the human rights organization, in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital.
I will step out of character as a reporter and declare it: she was both a trusted source and friend of the last several years, a time when the foreigners still trying to understand Chechnya shrank to an inadequate few.
She was compassionate, meticulous, gritty, patient and driven at once, possessed of a strong stomach and light touch, a counselor and a hunter, someone who knew what she knew and understood what she could not prove.
To the families whose pain she worked to relieve and whose stories she forced the world to see, she was a resolute champion. To the men whose crimes she exposed, case by case, with a quiet composure, she was a confounding enemy, a feminine nemesis they could neither fathom nor dissuade.
She wandered the ruined republic wearing a skirt, blouse and heels, lipstick on, carrying her purse and presenting a straight face, perhaps warmed by a slight smile, to masked gunmen and victims alike. She could seem as proper as a chief librarian, ready to add to her archive, both on paper and in the mind, which revealed the Chechen wars for what they really were. How did she dare?
This was Chechnya, after all, a world of violence so sinister it can be difficult to describe in a newspaper. Thugs dominate this land. Experience has taught them that fear will bend opponents to heel. Who was she to chase them? Why could she not be persuaded to quit? The answer is now written, though everyone who knew her knew it long ago: only death would stop her. All her friends could do was trust her to dodge it, as she had, somehow, for years.
A question hangs over her execution, the most recent in a series of killings of those still willing to chronicle Chechnya’s horrors. Is the accounting of the human toll now over? Without her, will Chechnya become, like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, a place where no one risks asking hard questions openly?
Chechnya is a tiny spot on Russia’s big map, home to only several hundred thousand souls. But its past two decades offered lenses into factors driving modern war: nationalism, oil, religious intolerance, racism, tribalism, blood codes that demand revenge, irregular fighters and ill-disciplined conventional units, outright banditry, poverty, official corruption and, for good measure, traveling Islamic mercenaries and a government rooted in a personality cult.
Her world could not be much worse. First it matched pie-eyed separatism against crude Russian tactics. Then it hosted insurgency, terrorism and state-directed rights abuses on an extraordinary scale. Lately it morphed into micro-Stalinism under Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the former rebel turned feared president.
Ms. Estemirova’s office became a kaleidoscope of the macabre.
She was, improbably, a one-woman parallel government, providing services that the real government was unwilling to offer. She found the incarcerated. She hunted for hidden graves. She built cases against perpetrators, even when she found, as she often did, that they wore government uniforms.
Grozny was a wasteland, physically, morally, psychologically. Ms. Estemirova was almost otherworldly. She inhabited a separate Chechnya, a region where dignity might prevail.
Russia fell silent to the wars. State-controlled television did not broadcast her findings. Most Russian journalists avoided her. Her truths were not welcome. In Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia , she was a nonperson. She was undeterred. She took her findings directly to prosecutors, having done their jobs for them, and requested investigations.
Sometimes she found allies in government, in part because she possessed an integrity born of independence. Unlike many voices that rose against Russia’s Chechen policies, Ms. Estemirova was not enamored of the rebels. She lived through separatist self-rule in the late 1990s. She saw they were corrupt and brutal, too. She did not choose sides. Her work pointed elsewhere: to facts.
Facts drove her. She had trained as a historian, and once history erupted around her she wanted both to document the suffering and crimes and give Russia a chance to address them, thereby stepping toward the modern world. The Kremlin was not interested.
Her files were stuffed not with innuendo or sweeping judgments. They contained facts, each one carefully checked. They were a damning accumulation. A Chechen friend, a heavily scarred former fighter who knew something of the ideas and the men that brought Chechnya to debasement, offered an explanation of how she managed to carry on. She was a fighter apart. Bezstrashnaya, he said: “without fear.”
Did she see what awaited her? Her friends would say: Yes.
Warning her was a constant. But asking her to leave Russia for her own good was a conversation she would cut short with sighs. She was shaped by a mission inextricable from her life, even if it predicted her death. She even turned the concerns back around.
It is you who should be careful, she told a pair of us last fall. Call me tonight so I know you are safe.
All the while she calmly confronted the authorities, while people around her dropped out or were killed. Over the years, and again recently, Ms. Estemirova and her co-workers were summoned to official meetings to hear blistering complaints about their work.
The message was crude and clear: Stop. It is difficult for an outsider to grasp how awful these meetings must have been.
She was called before President Kadyrov, head of a government that ran torture centers where, as her records showed, detainees were subjected to beatings, stompings, electric shocks, mock executions, sodomy, burnings by gas torch and, in the end, for some, execution.
Mr. Kadyrov, survivors said, participated in these crimes with delight.
Many victims have not been seen since. Mutilated remains of others turned up — limbs broken, faces smashed, skin charred, heads and torsos shattered by bullets fired at close range — the characteristic human refuse of Chechnya’s wars and its governing style.
Almost inevitably these cases were documented by Ms. Estemirova. Almost no one was ever charged. And now Ms. Estemirova, the lead investigator, who refused to quit when told it was time to be silent, is gone, taken from life — and from Russia — the same way.