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Chechnya's Disappeared

Monday, April 4, 2005; Page A20

WHEN RUSSIAN forces killed Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov last month, they also eliminated the best remaining hope for a negotiated settlement between Russia and Chechen separatist forces. The strongest surviving Chechen leader, Shamil Basayev, is a terrorist who favors the slaughter of Russian civilians and with whom negotiations are unthinkable. Mr. Maskhadov, by contrast, the elected leader of the breakaway region in Russia's south, was a secular Muslim who repeatedly called for a political solution to the grinding conflict -- and who was just as repeatedly rebuffed by President Vladimir Putin.

Now a new report from Human Rights Watch illuminates some of the human costs of this conflict without apparent end. In the capital of Grozny, the nonprofit advocacy group reports, full-fledged combat no longer takes place, but what remains is "worse than a war," according to many residents. The city remains in ruins, without running water or electricity, but what makes life truly unbearable there and throughout the Connecticut-size province is the constant threat of "disappearances." According to the respected Russian human rights group Memorial, between 3,000 and 5,000 civilians have "disappeared" since 1999, when Russian troops moved into Chechnya for a second time in the decade. Official government statistics acknowledge more than 2,000 disappearances.

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During a January reporting trip to Chechnya, Human Rights Watch investigators found that the vast majority of abductions are carried out by Russian or pro-Moscow Chechen security forces. Most of the victims are men, but increasingly women are being taken also. Security forces, often armed and hooded, sometimes drunk, typically come to a house and take someone away without explanation. Some bodies, showing signs of torture, have been recovered; in most cases, relatives have no idea whether their loved ones are dead or alive. "According to a Chechen official, 1,814 criminal investigations were opened into enforced disappearances, yet not a single one has resulted in a conviction," Human Rights Watch reports.

For the most part people outside Russia don't speak much about these crimes. U.S. officials are reluctant to press Mr. Putin on Chechnya while seeking his cooperation elsewhere in the world; the Bush administration's vulnerability to charges of human rights abuse in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere also may be an inhibiting factor. Most European officials face no comparable charge of hypocrisy but, driven often by commercial considerations, are even less willing to offend Mr. Putin by discussing his crimes against humanity in Chechnya. And the conflict seems so intractable, and many of the Chechen fighters themselves are so unsympathetic, that there is a tendency to shrug and move on to other issues.

Meanwhile Chechen civilians continue to fall victim to fighters on both sides of the conflict. The population once numbered 1 million; though no one knows exactly, probably hundreds of thousands have been killed, wounded, "disappeared" or forced to move during two wars with Russia (the first lasted from 1994 to 1996). No one can force Mr. Putin to negotiate an end to the war, and for now perhaps no one can conjure a negotiating partner. But the U.N. Human Rights Commission could insist that disappearances be investigated and that responsible officials be held accountable.

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