“For ten years they have not let us breathe,” a friend told me on a recent trip to Grozny in December 2004. A decade earlier, on New Year’s Eve, 1994-95, Russia ordered troops into the city of Grozny. At that time, I could not imagine the chain of events this doomed assault would trigger. What at the time was a military and political mistake, one that could have been corrected, instead was just a glimpse of much more death and destruction that Chechnya would suffer in the coming decade. The war continues today. The first invasion into Grozny was a misguided and arrogant show of force that ended in massacre for most of the soldiers. A shocked Russian public vehemently questioned and criticized the war that ended by Russia withdrawing in frustration by the end of 1996. In 1999, Russian forces invaded a second time, with promises to restore law and order. However, this time, they had ruthless determination backed by anti-Chechen public opinion fueled by recent bombings in Moscow and incursions in Daghestan by Chechen rebels. The second war’s assault and brutal aftermath reached levels of violence even more destructive than the first war.
In the new millennium, Chechnya became a black hole, inaccessible to the media, closed to international organizations, where human rights abuses went unseen, unpunished and unknown to the outside world. Abduction, torture, and extortion were daily realities of life in Chechnya’s new millennium. People faced such levels of oppression that it resembled genocide, a far cry from the law and order that the Kremlin announced the military would bring. The US Holocaust Museum has put Chechnya on its Genocide Watch list. The horror of Chechnya’s second war produced extremism unknown ten years ago when I first went there. The seizing of children in mass hostage taking in Beslan’s school and in a Moscow theatre, passenger planes simultaneously blown from the sky by women suicide bombers is a new way of fighting back that was not part of Chechen society before this war. In Chechnya today, such extremism is the only court of appeal for many who have lost all and are willing to become suicide bombers. Almost every family in Chechnya has had loved ones killed. Almost every family is searching for loved ones that vanished after arrest or the feared “mopping up” (zachistka) operations by Russian military and unknown accomplices. “The lucky ones are the ones that find a body” one man, a teacher, told me, who had been looking for his nephew for over two years. In my work I have tried to give a human face to the many victims of this war: the Russian teenage conscripts, the young generation who is growing up without education or a normal childhood, the missing and the disappeared, and civilians who have had no recourse to justice or a political system. Residents scrawl “People Live Here” across the bullet-riddled gates and walls of their homes, to show where their life exists in a city that looks dead at first glance. Grozny is alive – to me a monument to modern war and destruction, but also a powerful symbol of the oppression, strength and survival of the Chechen people.