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The return and hasty burial of the remains of Chechen fighters killed during the Second Chechen War did not bring solace to their loved ones, giving rise to questions about the fate of thousands who disappeared without a trace in the North Caucasus.
On the last day of December, as inhabitants of Chechnya prepared to celebrate the New Year with hopes for a better life, the festive mood was marred by news from just outside Grozny, in the village of Dolinskoye.
The remains of militants and civilians from Chechnya had been returned from a laboratory in Rostov, after being missing for 20 years. In 2014, they were excavated from a mass grave in an Orthodox cemetery in the Oktyabrsky district of Grozny. According to available information, about 200 bodies had been buried there, all showing signs of a violent death. The bodies were from a period of bloody fighting in 1995 between Russian troops and Chechen separatists under the leadership of Dzhokhar Dudayev, following which the Chechen capital fell to Russian forces. The new authorities moved to clear the streets and basements of those killed and wounded during the fighting.
The remains excavated from Oktyabrsky were transferred to the laboratory in Rostov for DNA analysis to establish their identities. From the 106 remains which reached Chechnya, only two families managed to find the bones of their loved ones. The rest were buried in a mass grave in Dolinskoye’s cemetery, after the religious ceremony of remembrance was conducted. According to Islamic tradition, every bone was bathed and laid out in shrouds, which were later stuffed with cotton to make them resemble a human body. Then the grave was dug with a tractor.
The remainder of the 200 discovered bodies remain in Rostov. Some were identified earlier and taken for burials. It’s possible that they include the remains of Russian soldiers and Russian-speaking inhabitants of Chechnya.
They were brought to the cemetery and unloaded like building materials. All the remains were wrapped in black and white plastic bags and laid out on the snow; it seemed, by the reaction of many people, to be a symbolic mockery and disdain of human decency. Some residents even thought that the bags appeared festive.
After the news emerged and photos and videos spread over social networks, many Chechens abandoned their New Year celebrations.
‘This is the highest level of abuse of human beings and of the memory of their missing people’, Tamara, a woman from Grozny, says. ‘Why was it necessary to bring the remains on 31 December? I am sure that this was done deliberately to mock us. They don’t know how else to hurt us; we have become like shadows of human beings.’
The case was discussed actively on social networks; with many Facebook users reacting angrily.
‘I would like to ask — why no one asked how they were killed, where they were? The Germans are still investigating the murders committed during the Second World War and are still arresting the perpetrators of these crimes. Why don’t they investigate it? This is genocide. Why aren’t human rights organisations or the investigation committee involved in this? They [the bodies] have not appeared from nowhere. It is necessary to investigate’, says a user with the nickname Don Fare.
Many people do not understand why the remains were so quickly buried, and why the authorities didn’t at least wait until more relatives of the slain could appear. People also appeared surprised that the authorities did not even announce a period of mourning in the republic.
‘But why the rush, why was it necessary to bury the remains with tractors in such a hurry? It is necessary to declare three days of mourning (tezet) throughout the country, more than 100 people in one day for our small republic — this is too much. For us, they died today , because until now there was hope at least that somewhere, someone would show up, and that hope disappeared today’, says user Shamsudi Tashayev.
Some Chechens believe that this demonstrates the Russian authorities’ attitude to the Chechen people and that the delivery of the remains on the New Year’s Eve was meant as a threat.
‘Is this a kind of, “do not misbehave, or we’ll repeat everything”? Many people are unable to move on because of the lack of clarity; many mothers are still looking for their sons. One night in our city, they took all the boys from across the street, who were sleeping peacefully at home, all 14–17 years old’, writes Facebook user Kheda Yasupova.
The General Alexander Lebed Peacekeeping Mission (MMGL) is engaged in investigating and laboratory analysis of missing residents of Chechnya. The organisation operates with both Russian and international funding. The organisation’s official website contains a list of the names of 7,621 missing people from the conflict in the North Caucasus, whose fate remains unknown. This list is compiled on the basis of MMGL’s own research, databases obtained from official state bodies, ministries, and departments, as well as information from public organisations and private entities in the Russian Federation. As a result of the MMGL’s work over recent years, the fate of 80 missing people has been established.
According to official data, there are more than five thousand people registered as missing in Chechnya. This data corresponds to estimates from state-funded human rights activists. However, a number of independent organisations believe that the real figure is several times higher. There are numerous well-known locations of mass graves, but due to a number of reasons, the remains buried in these have not been recovered or identified. These mass graves are often located near units of the Russian troops. According to reports from certain independent human rights defenders, one burial ground near the main Russian military base in Khankala, on the eastern outskirts of the Chechen capital, contains around 600 bodies.
The Chechen authorities do not disclose information about such mass graves. It is possible that they would prefer to give proper burials to the remains of the dead; however, in Chechnya, everything is done with an eye to the Kremlin’s.
Given the acuteness of the problem of missing people in Chechnya, and in accordance with the oft repeated expression that ‘the war is not over until the last soldier and victim of war is be buried’ — European authorities expressed a willingness to sponsor construction of a laboratory in Chechnya to identify the remains found in mass graves. This was initially supported by the Chechen authorities, however, they abandoned the idea shortly after without explanation.