“There is No One to Protect Us”: A Human Rights Campaigner’s Chilling Last Interview
Award-winning human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was determined to expose some of the shocking abuses taking place in Chechnya – but just weeks after giving this moving interview to BBC radio correspondent Lucy Ash, Natalya’s bullet-riddled body was found by the side of a road.
I had trouble finding Natalya Estemirova in the crowded Moscow cafe. I walked past her table a few times because she was sitting with her 15-year-old daughter Lana and I had expected to find her alone. Natalya was wearing a long, flowery skirt that might have looked dowdy on some women, but she was tall and elegant enough to carry it off. She had a direct gaze and an unexpectedly infectious laugh.
Mother and daughter were chatting about their shopping plans and about a play they had seen the night before. They had been enjoying a short summer break staying with friends in the Russian capital before returning to their home in the Chechen capital Grozny. Over breakfast, Lana reminded me of my own teenage daughter. She rolled her eyes in the same way and had the same passion for indie rock bands.
Natalya and I talked briefly about the story I was investigating – a string of abductions, unexplained disappearances and murders of Chechen women – for the radio documentary I was making. It isn’t safe to discuss such topics over the phone or by e-mail. Natalya helped many journalists because she was well-informed and unusually outspoken. We agreed to meet again in Chechnya a few days later.
The North Caucasian republic of Chechnya, two hours by plane from Moscow, has resisted Russian rule for centuries. In the past 15 years, it has been deeply scarred by two devastating wars. Fighting between Islamic separatists and Russian troops claimed tens of thousands of lives and Grozny was pounded to rubble. In 2002 the UN declared it “the most destroyed city on the planet”.
Today it’s a different picture. In the centre of town, next to Natalya’s office, there’s a rose garden ringed by pavement cafes where people sip tea in the shade. There’s a gigantic mosque with fountains that light up in different colours at night. The main street is lined with department stores, fashion chains such as Benetton and sushi bars.
Given that the former Russian president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin launched the second war, I was surprised to find the street has been renamed Putin Avenue. Natalya refused to walk down it after the name was changed. There are pictures of Putin all over the city but even more portraits of a much younger man with a beard and a crooked smile – Ramzan Kadyrov.
This 32-year-old, who has encouraged his officials to take second wives to help boost the birth rate, is president of this once rebel mainly Muslim republic. Kadyrov struck a deal with the Kremlin: he keeps a lid on Islamic separatism and in return he gets a free hand and huge wads of reconstruction cash.
But behind the shiny new façade, Chechnya remains a lawless place. I realised that early on when I saw some shocking footage doing the rounds on local mobile phones.
The videos, one of them set to a famous love song, show women being snatched from the streets by gangs of men and bundled into cars. They are then forced into marriage. I was told that this old Chechen tradition is sharply on the increase. At first the grainy films look faintly comic until you hear the women’s screams and the gunshots. Natalya and others investigating this ‘bride stealing’ told me many of the kidnappers work for local security forces and their victims are often young, sometimes teenage schoolgirls.
Coercing women into marriage at gunpoint is just one part of a larger, more sinister problem. Sitting on a bench outside Natalya’s office, I found a queue of people patiently waiting their turn to tell me their often terrible stories. One woman had had her house burned down because her son was suspected of joining the insurgency against Kadyrov. Others spoke of relatives arrested in the middle of the night who hadn’t been seen since.
Natalya was determined to document and publicise these abuses. Her office consisted of two cramped rooms, a tiny kitchen and a lavatory with a broken light. There were shelves of cardboard files, all carefully labelled with dates and names of villages and towns. That evening, when she finally switched off her computer, she looked grey with exhaustion.
As my producer Nick and I gave Natalya a lift to her home on the outskirts of Grozny, I apologised for pestering her with so many questions. She said that was her job. I wondered if she had a bodyguard or at least a driver. ‘You must be joking,’ she laughed. ‘I take the bus.’
The next day, I met the distraught family of a 29-year-old woman called Zalina Shidieva who had vanished on her way to work in May. By law, the police are meant to launch an official investigation within three days of a disappearance. That didn’t happen and weeks went by.
But in a rare moment of candour, one investigator the family spoke to suggested that somebody in ‘the structures’ might have taken the young woman. That could mean rogue elements inside the police or it could mean the president’s own men. Officially his militia is the anti-terrorism squad, but everyone refers to its soldiers as Kadyrovtsy or ‘Kadyrov’s guys’. It’s a group that has been accused of torture, kidnap and murder.
Natalya urged the family to submit a statement to the prosecutor’s office. She offered them legal help. She later told me she had dealt with a similar case in which a young woman had been kidnapped and forced to work in a brothel for soldiers. The girl eventually escaped and fled the country.
But many of those who disappear in Chechnya aren’t so lucky. Last November, within a space of two days, the bodies of seven murdered women were found in and around Grozny. Natalya took me to the place where three of the corpses were found.
The desolate field was on the edge of town next to a disused factory. I heard crows and distant traffic as we walked along in the dusk, marshland on either side. ‘One of the women was wearing red boots,’ said Natalia. ‘There was very little grass in winter so you could spot her a mile off.’
All seven had been shot in the head and chest with an automatic weapon. The chief investigator in Grozny suggested they were victims of so-called honour killings. Natalya dismissed that theory. So did the brother of one of the victims.
He told me that two of the women had last been seen being driven off in a van by men in paramilitary uniforms. Masked men with guns were also spotted several times outside the home of another of the dead women.
Natalya told me she thought that at least one of the victims had links to brothels frequented by paramilitary groups. She said one of the women was friendly with men who worked for a commander of President Kadyrov’s security apparatus. The commander was later assassinated in Moscow.
The bodies of women killed by relatives in honour killings, Natalya explained, would usually be buried deep inside the forest, not left on display near busy main roads. ‘Somebody clearly wanted to make a point. This was meant as a warning.’
As we stood shivering in the dying light, I never dreamed that, three weeks later, Natalya herself would suffer a similar fate. She was abducted outside her flat on 15 July as she was leaving for work.
Later that day her body was found by a roadside with two bullets in her head and two in her heart. I was the last Western journalist to speak to her.
The Chechen president(Kadyrov) denied responsibility and initially called Natalya’s murder a ‘monstrous crime’, but a couple of weeks later he denounced her on the radio as a woman without ‘honour, dignity or conscience’.
He continued, ‘Why would Kadyrov kill women that no one needs?’
It was chilling to hear him refer to himself in the third person and it reminded me of his nickname in Chechnya – ‘Little Stalin’. I remember Natalia told me the atmosphere in Grozny is as fearful as it was in Moscow during the 1930s purges.
I feel guilty now to admit I thought she was exaggerating. According to reports, Natalya had time to scream out that she was being kidnapped. Yet not one of her neighbours called the police or dared to tell anyone about what they had seen. Terrified of being associated with victims of abductions or torture, most Chechens have learnt to turn a blind eye.
But Natalya was not a woman who thought much about self-preservation. She cared passionately about two things in life – helping other people and her daughter Lana.
When I got the shocking phone call about Natalya my first thought was for poor Lana, now an orphan (her father was killed in the first Chechen war) in one of the worst places on earth for young girls. Friends of the family are now trying to raise money to help her leave the country and study abroad.
Then I remembered something Natalya had told me in the car as we left the spot where the women’s bodies were found. ‘Despite the huge numbers of men in uniform per member of the population, there’s still no one to protect us.’
I didn’t realise at the time how true her words would prove to be.
19 September 2009/Daily Mail
Lucy Ash has donated her fee for this piece to human rights organisation RAW in War (Reach All Women in War), which is administering a fund set up to provide for Lana’s education.
Details for donations to Lana’s fund:
Sterling or foreign currency cheques
To be made payable to RAW for Women and Girl Survivors of War (or simply to RAW)
To be sent to:
RAW for Women and Girl Survivors of War
90D Hazellville Road
London N19 3NA
FOR ELECTRONIC TRANSFERS
Coutts & Co
ACCOUNT NAME: RAW for Women and Girl Survivors of War
ACCOUNT NO: 07455186
COUTTS SORT CODE: 180002
FOR FUNDS COMING FROM: the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway & Switzerland, inter alia:
IBAN BIC COUTGB22
FUNDS COMING FROM: outside the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway & Switzerland – may ask for the Coutts SWIFT code, in addition to the Coutts sort code and RAW’s bank account number:
COUTTS SWIFT CODE: COUTGB22