Moscow Theater Siege: Terror's Toll

Chechnya: The Other Hostages

Chechen refugees in Ingushetia
Chechen refugees in a tent at the Sputnik refugee camp in Ingushetia (Photo: Joel Robine/AFP).

The Chechen refugees in Ingushetia empathize with the victims of the Moscow theater tragedy, as much for one side as for the other. And they fear that they themselves may become the next victims. It is Saturday night, the last day of the Moscow tragedy. In the Chechen refugee camp near Karabulak, I am watching television with Yuvais, a bus driver from Grozny. On the program “However,” moderator Mikhail Leontyev is showing Federal Security Service (FSS) footage—a body of a terrorist with a bottle of cognac beside him—while he makes mocking statements about the Muslim prohibition on alcohol.

Yuvais observed sarcastically: “My policy is this: If there is no cognac, I don’t drink; if there is, I do, and Allah will forgive me. But strangely enough, before I drink, I usually uncork the bottle. And naturally, I remove the seal. But this poor, kamikaze-shahid (martyr) was probably an enlightened soul: He didn’t even need to remove the label to open the bottle but still managed to drink the cognac just the same. At least that’s what I get from the FSS’s footage.”  Yuvais turned the TV off with resolve.

“This box does not respect me, and I will not respect it. I watched it for three days straight, enough already. I have to go to Chechnya.” “To fight?” a correspondent from Moskovskie Novosti inquired.

“If I had wanted to fight, I would have left the camp a long time ago. No, I have to work. I have not taken the bus out in three days. I kept watching this box. Like everyone else here, I kept hoping for something....”

“If I were asked whether to take hostages or not, I would have said ‘no,’ ” says Liza Sadulaeva while looking at the ripped top of her tent and trying to gather her three children around herself. (“Look, for three years we have been living under a plastic tarp.”) “Because nobody has this right. When this happened in Moscow, I sat here, feeling so bad.”

“For whom?”

“For everyone. For those who were taken and for those who took them. After all, they were not asking for dollars, they didn’t want to escape to a third country; the only thing they talked about was peace in Chechnya.”

Rosa Hasimikova, a warden of the Logovaz refugee camp in Nazran, joins the conversation: “You know, at first I thought that this is how Putin wanted to put an end to the war. I thought the plan was to provoke the Chechens to take the hostages, so that there would be a good enough excuse to then say, ‘I am forced to end this war because otherwise people will perish at Nord-Ost.’ He could have done this: He is a smart man and understands that he can’t win in Chechnya.”

Various conspiracy theories are extremely popular in refugee camps. But, to tell the truth, not everyone sees the president in the same favorable light as Rosa. “If Bush could use two skyscrapers in order to secure his supremacy over the world, who would stand in Moscow’s way of putting 700 people at risk?” said Hazhar Esambaeva, expressing one of the most popular beliefs. Hazhar is a relative of the late dancer, Mahmud. She has been in the camp for a month. After a federal bullet in her stomach, she has decided it would be a blessing to move to Logovaz from her own Kurchaloyevsky district. “Now Putin has his hands untied, and we will finally all become bitter enemies for Russia.”

“What did we feel when we watched TV? That they will bomb us, that’s what we felt! The latest census counted over a million Chechens, which means they need an excuse to bomb us,” added one woman.

They weren’t bombed, of course. There are other means to the same end. “The democratic press? Weren’t you the ones who announced yesterday that our troops surrounded the refugee camps in order to ship them off to Kabardino-Balkiria? I heard it on the news this morning, almost choked on my tinned stew,” said Yura, a police major who walked toward us, moving away from 50 colleagues at the entrance of the Sputnik refugee camp, five kilometers from the Chechen border.

So far, thank God, there is no shipping off of refugees to Kabardino-Balkaria. And, similarly, there has been no raid by rebels at the Ordzhonikidzevskaya station, which stands nearby the Sputnik camp and three other refugee camp cities.

But one untruth is not like another. Because it was “the rebel raid” that became the only newsworthy event reported on the RTR TV news program alongside the Moscow tragedy.  And it was after this so-called raid that a very specific order came from the Interior Ministry to its troops deployed in Ingushetia: to surround the refugee camps near Ordzhonikidzevskaya station. The reaction was the same as in the good old times: The program appeared. What has happened in its aftermath?

“We are doing what we are supposed to do. Digging trenches, putting in electric lines,” reports Salavat, the commanding officer of the Interior Ministry troops, as he approaches Yuri and me. He is from the Altai region. “I don’t know how long we’ll be stationed here. They are sending reinforcements, though.”

The new arrivals, those who have not yet gotten down to arranging the welfare of the security post, are familiarizing themselves with the environment. They walk around the camp grounds with machine guns, for now only in the direction of the shopping booth. The local camp police officers—Mahomed, Vaha, and Ruslan—have begun thinking about putting themselves on a more intense drinking regimen because the soldiers are trying to buy not only sweets but bitters, too.

“People are worried,” explains Mahomed. “No, they are not afraid of the equipment. They’ve seen worse in Chechnya. But the soldiers have stationed themselves near the baths, and for two days now the women don’t feel comfortable going there. We’ll have to accompany them.You know yourself that the informational smoke screen regarding Chechnya comes in two types. The first is simple nonsense: Two or three people have been killed, armed or unarmed. ‘As a result of our special operations, a well-known enemy squad has been destroyed.’ The second type is utter nonsense, where they lie outright, without any pretense of truth at the core. This is the case of the rebels
at Ordzhonikidzevskaya.”

In the Ingushetia Ministry of the Interior, several officers who agreed to give a general picture for Moskovskie Novosti have expressed great unease about the situation of the refugee camps on the Chechen border.

“There is a very strange coincidence,” noted one of the local police officers. “It was exactly when the federal forces arrived here that a lot of people started disappearing. Less so than in Chechnya, and not in the camps, but still, it doesn’t put us at ease.”

Recently, the similarity to Chechnya has become more evident. For example, a couple of months ago in the Malgobek district, the crew of a federal armored personnel carrier organized a roadblock along a highway. In other words, simple highway robbery, accompanied by swearing and a drinking binge. The soldiers did not take one thing into account. In Ingushetia, people are not used to such arrangements. Disgruntled drivers called the local police, who surrounded the highway entrepreneurs and took them in, together with their armored personnel carrier.

“They started questioning the soldiers, and they said, ‘We thought this was Chechnya already.’ So we had to disappoint them.”

To be fair to the soldiers, they seemed to get the message. Lawlessness on the roads has stopped. Right now, however, Ingushetia’s police doubt if they’ll be able to sustain peace much longer since the troops are not decreasing in numbers. But a complete smoke screen as is seen in the story with the rebel raid has far-reaching effects.

“I could never wear a belt with explosives. But I envy those young women who found courage within to stand up to evil.”

To the question “Who among you would go to demand peace in the role of a hostage?” there was the same reaction in different camps. Almost all the people raised their hands.
“It’s a musical, right?” asks Esita Dakisheva. “Our children swelled from hunger and died, spending their holidays under bombing attacks, and you, over there in Moscow, took yours for strolls under fir trees?”

It is not that Dakisheva (who has spent three years in the camp, like most here) does not feel compassion for the victims in Moscow. She does, like the absolute majority of Chechen refugees. Let’s just say that it is difficult to explain to Rosa Hasimikova, the warden of Lagovaz, that on Sept. 11, 2001, it wasn’t for her sister, Yahit, that the whole world felt compassion when, on that day, her leg was blown off at a checkpoint by mortar fire. It is hard to persuade Shirvani Batalov from Sputnik to understand that his nephew, born in 1983, who was “disappeared” by the “Feds” in Grozny’s Lenin district last Friday, is less newsworthy outside the Caucasus than the 19-year-old actor in the Moscow musical. Such talk does not go over smoothly with other inhabitants of tent camps—those who have lost their loved ones in similar ways on other days in the past three years.
The hostages went hungry for two and a half days? This is a pretty weak argument for those who, as a result of federal efforts, saw their humanitarian aid cut by the Emergency Administration (half a kilogram of grain, a kilogram of noodles, and a couple of cans of stewed meat based on the equation of “one migrant, one month”).

The water was going to be shut off at the theater? “Let them run across the street a kilometer-and-a-half long, like we do!” said one women in a camp near Karabulak. She just returned from the trip across the highway with two full pails of water.

And 118 dead [according to initial reports—WPR]? “First of all, add another 50 Chechens, and please don’t wince. Second, in peaceful Chechnya, from both sides, there are as many casualties in a week and a half,” said Musa Bogatyrev, a teacher, interrupting the correspondent from Moskovskie Novosti. People nodded in agreement.

In refugee camps lifestyle determines mind-set much more starkly than in Moscow. But so far, other than an expectation of trouble, there are few evident consequences of the Moscow tragedy. There are only two, and both are language-based. First, the tent at the Sputnik camp where Vaha Temirhanov, a choreographer from Grozny, teaches the children several times a week (“the only escape for our kids”). Today, they call it the “theater center.” “We have been here for three years as hostages, why are we worse than they are?” Second, as soon as the sound of a fighter jet or a helicopter heading for Chechnya is heard, the refugees point to the sky and declare, “There goes Nord-Ost!”  Which is absolutely correct: Moscow is located exactly northeast of Chechnya and Ingushetia.