Lidya Yusupova: “Russian Politicians will be Tried for the Crimes which have been Committed in the Caucasus!”
“Fear is a companion which will never leave you” says Lidya Yusupova, who was called “the bravest woman in Europe” by BBC and Amnesty International. She was a Nobel Prize Candidate in 2006 for her work as a human rights defender in Chechnya.
Lidya Yusupova is a Chechen lawyer around 40 years old. She is fascinating, charismatic, tall and so thin that seems very fragile. Lidya is actually a woman of steel, determined and tireless. Since the first Russian – Chechen war (1994-1996), she collaborated with the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya; and in 2000 she founded the Grozny branch of Russian human rights organization “Memorial” where she worked with rights activist Natalya Estemirova who was abducted and killed in July 2009.
When I asked her opinion about Dmitry Medvedev’s speech that they have identified the murderer of Natalya Estemirova, Lidya answered me with her wry and enigmatic smile. She then shook her head and told me that three days before the murder of Estemirova some unidentified Russian agents came to her house when she was out. What they wanted, Lidya never learnt, because the agents did not came back again. She does not worry because after the years she has spent in the Chechen genocide, she is used to living in the midst of danger.
Lidya does not like to talk about herself. However, she was overpowered by my insistence and told me the story of her family that is inextricably linked to the tragedy of the Stalin ordered deportations of the Caucasus people in 1940s. Her father, from Chechnya, and her mother from Karachay-Cherkessia, met in the distant lands of the deportation. His uncle, from his mother’s side, who objected to the deportation, was imprisoned in Siberia, but he managed to escape from Kolyma, the worst Soviet gulag. He lived in hiding with a group of opponents to Stalin in the high mountains of Karachay-Cherkessia. Lidya’s successful life in contrast, began with the tragedy of the death of her mother. Lidya was saved by her aunt who was only 12 years old, but stil wanted to be the mother of the little niece who had been assigned to an orphanage. Lidya’s brother, a young Chechen police officer, was killed before the war broke out in 1994. The war also hit her adoptive mother hard as she lost her three sons in the conflict. During the first Russian-Chechen war (1994-1996), Lidya has been applauded steadily and courageously in respect to her work in civil rights, amongst the river of dead. She was injured and also kidnapped during this period. Soon after the start of the more devastating second Russian-Chechen war, which was ordered by Putin, Lidya founded the Grozny branch of “Memorial” to defend victims against the violence. She had witnessed the tragedy comprised of tens of thousands dead, tortured and kidnapped civilians. Today she lives in Moscow in a tidy apartment, works in the Law Faculty and writes for some newspapers. She is a single woman who knows the thousands of tragic stories that may mark your soul, and lives almost exclusively for defending the rights of innocent people.
For a moment I interrupted her hectic schedule and she gave answers to my questions:
-Caucasian nations have suffered persecutions, deportations and violence, first by the Czars and later by Stalin. What is the effect of past history on recent conflicts in Chechnya and Ingushetia?
-In the Caucasus people do not forget, do not delete anything from their memories. But unfortunately the people of the Caucasus have not learned anything from the past. They did not take any lessons from it, so they repeat their mistakes again and again. Everything is closely linked to the past. Today’s events seem to be in a different hue but in reality, it is always the same.
-Human rights associations have denounced the continued civil rights violations in Chechnya and Ingushetia for many years, and they have even appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. There have also been many kidnappings and murders committed by the Russian governmental forces. What can the international community do to stop the massacre that occurs daily in both of these areas?
– Human rights violations do not happen only in Chechnya , but throughout the Caucasus and Russia. European governments should change their political relations with the Russian leadership, however, there are various economic interests, thus I do not perceive this to be a realistic solution. In contrast, the European Court of Human Rights could do much more to stop the Russian authorities. There are partial “small victories” which represent a step forward and a hope for the relatives of the victims. These victories also may introduce to Russia the same legal standarts that are practiced throughout the rest of the democratic world. Citizens of the Russian Federation have great faith that the European Court of Human Rights will carry out justice and this gives them the hope and energy to continue fighting.
-Conflicts in Chechnya and Ingushetia have led to the growth of religious extremism. The [puppet] Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov competes in this area with the most radical wings of the independence movement . Kadyrov has imposed Islamic rules outside the Chechen tradition, which especially impact women. Where will this lead the population?
-Religious extremism does not lead anywhere, it only leads to an impasse. It has happened before in Chechnya’s history; women had to wear scarves and stand opposite of the men on public transportation. Those rules were ridiculous especially in comparison to all of the serious problems Chechnya had.
What about the problems in Chechnya and Ingushetia, have they been solved? How many people are dead or missing? How many people are unemployed, pensioners or disabled? Let us look at these issues and stop talking about how long women’s skirts should be or whether or not they should wear scarves on their heads.
-Other people of the North Caucasus live in fear as it seems that the Russian – Chechen conflict may extend beyond the borders of Chechnya. Is it possible that the entire region is sinking into generalized war?
-For a long time a “total war” has been going on underground. The war is visible in Chechnya, but republics in the Caucasus are like an ocean today that will eventually be uncovered. Maybe there there will not be longterm conflicts but today, accross the Caucasus in the midst of general neglect, people are being killed deported and kidnapped every day. I am not a politican but simply a lawyer. I have the feeling that Russia is doing everything possible to lead finally to the seperation of the Caucasus. The situation in the Caucasus is terrible but politicians do not think the same way. They are only concerned with Russia. In this reason, I do not think that the repetition of large-scale operations will continue, but they will keep kidnapping and murdering the people. The perpertators of these illegal activities of the secret services will continue to be protected. This is the way which they have chosen to exterminate the population of the Caucasus. The war in the Caucasus is historical. Even though there have been positive changes in education and social development, there has also been a rise in extremists, seperatists and others who invent conflict. In 1991, when President Dudaev declared our independence, someone invented the military conflict.
-Why are the conflicts in Chechnya and Ingushetia, which cause dozens of civilan casualties every week, ignored by the world?
-To stop extermination, it is necessary to work internationally in the area of law. It is useless to use foreign media to make a list of the dead and wounded people every day. We need to defend victims internationally. Many of our colleagues, including Russians, were persecuted for reporting the facts to international tribunals because Russia has not obeyed any international agreements. If not today, then tomorrow or maybe in five or ten years, I am sure that many Russian politicians will be tried for the crimes which have been committed in the Caucasus.
-You were threatened more than once for your activities in the defense of human rights. Some of your friends and colleagues were even killed. What gives you the strength and courage to press on?
-If you think that you are doing something necessary, then you must follow through with it to the end, even if there will be extreme consequences. I am just a person who tries to do her job and maintain the belief that it is my duty. I must focus on the fact that it is my duty. They have murdered my colleagues and threatened me, but I cannot pay mind to it. I have to continue, because this work is necessary.
Prensa Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide Press)– 12.08.2010
*The interview was translated by Waynakh Online and edited by Michael Capobianco