A Disappearance in Chechnya

Imani Soltukhanova holds a photo of her husband, slain human rights activist Aslan Davletukaev

NAZRAN, INGUSHETIA—Imani Soltukhanova wasn’t especially taken with her husband’s line of work: Human-rights activists ply a dangerous trade in Chechnya. But she says her husband, Aslan Davletukaev, insisted, “There’s no point if you can’t help other people.”

Just before midnight on Jan. 9, Davletukaev was abducted in front of his family by a group of armed men. Nine days later, Soltukhanova’s mother found his body in a morgue at Gudermes, a town a few miles north.

“They said there’s a corpse that no one can identify,” Soltukhanova says. “My mother found him, poor woman. She recognized him by his clothes—you couldn’t recognize his face. He had a scar from an appendectomy, and one on his hand from when he was 5 years old.”

Davletukaev’s body had been dumped on a roadside in Gudermes. His limbs were broken; his face was pulped; he had been executed with a bullet to the back of the head.

His family buried him on Jan. 19. A few weeks later, Soltukhanova took her three sons and left for neighboring Ingushetia. Her mother-in-law, Sonet Davletukaeva, joined her; sister-in-law Roza brought her daughters.

In the run-up to Sunday’s presidential elections, the administration of President Vladimir Putin is keen to stress that normalcy is returning to Chechnya. In next-door Ingushetia, the authorities are actively encouraging—some would say coercing—Chechen refugees to return home.

Soltukhanova with sons Umar and Bamatguil and three nieces

But for Soltukhanova and her family, returning to lawless Chechnya is not an option—even if the alternative is staying in a sodden cardboard-and-plywood hut in Nazran, the muddy provincial town that passes for the capital of Ingushetia.

While her children crowd around, transfixed by my tape recorder, Soltukhanova describes her husband’s disappearance.

It was around 11:30 p.m. on a Friday. Three armored personnel carriers and two military jeeps rolled up outside the family’s home in the village of Avtury, some 20 miles outside the Chechen capital of Grozny.

“There were three BTRs [wheeled armored vehicles] and two tabletki [military jeeps],” she says. “In the courtyard, there were about 35 or so armed men. They were in fatigues, a few were wearing masks—eight or nine of them. They didn’t ask for anything, they just came in and started searching the house.” Adds Roza, “They just shouted, ‘Stop, nobody move!’ “

According to both women, the troops—who spoke Russian—then ordered all the men out into the courtyard. They searched the house thoroughly. Soltukhanova’s youngest son—1-and-a-half-year-old Bamatguil—was crying; the soldiers would not let her feed him.

“Our neighbors came out to see what was happening. They cocked their heavy machine gun and said: ‘Stop or we’ll shoot!’ ” Soltukhanova recalls. The men then checked the family’s passports and documents. They then bundled Davletukaev into one of the jeeps; that was the last time his family saw him alive.

Sister-in-law Roza with Bamatguil Davletukaev

Davletukaev’s murder fits a definite pattern. As in many cases, the armed men had no insignia on their uniforms; the unit markings on their vehicles were obscured.

According to Shakhman Akbulatov, a representative of the Russian human rights organization Memorial in Nazran, it’s difficult to know who is doing the abducting in Chechnya. In many cases, he tells me, federal units are involved; more recently, though, the disappearances are attributed to “Kadyrovtsy”—militias loyal to Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya.

The Kadyrovtsy are especially feared. According to Chechen refugees here, they have been making more appearances in Ingushetia lately, part of a campaign to intimidate people into returning to Chechnya.

Documenting disappearances in Chechnya is a difficult task. Human rights activists like Akbulatov say that, at best, their monitoring can cover only about 25 percent to 30 percent of Chechnya. However incomplete those statistics, Memorial has recorded the disappearance of 43 people in Chechnya so far this year.

Human rights groups rely on anonymous reports from correspondents inside Chechnya. Davletukaev worked as a volunteer for the Society for Russian-Chechen Friendship, a group based in the Urals that receives funds from the National Endowment for Democracy.

Such volunteer work is critical, because Chechnya is increasingly impenetrable for journalists. Every few months or so, the Kremlin organizes a scripted tour for foreign reporters. Journalists who travel on unsanctioned trips do so at great risk.

A stark example: Cox Newspapers correspondent Rebecca Santana recently took an unchaperoned visit to Chechnya. On Feb. 12, federal agents stopped her at an airport in southern Russia and confiscated her telephone, notebooks, PDA, camera, and undeveloped film (all later returned to her, with the film developed).

Santana made it to Moscow safe and sound. Her fixer and driver, Ruslan Soltakhanov, was not so lucky. On Feb. 13, he was abducted by four or five unidentified men in civilian clothes from his home in the town of Mozdok, just outside Chechnya. His wife has not heard from him since.

So it was with Imani Soltukhanova. She still wonders how her husband—who finished university, had a degree, worked as an economist—could meet such a sudden and violent end.

Our interview concludes. Even the eyes of my local guard, a former boxer packing a 9 mm Makarov, are glazed with tears.