21chechnya

Breaking the Blackout

Anna Politkovskaya, Grant Awarded 2002

Chechen women show portraits of their missing relatives © 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
Chechen women show portraits of their missing relatives © 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

When I think of Anna Politkovskaya, the first thing I remember is a small flat in one of Grozny’s high rise Soviet-style buildings. This is where she often stayed while reporting out of Chechnya on Putin’s war, the war that largely brought him to power and that transformed Russia in a profound and dramatic way. The staircase had been bombed out. Walls were full of holes left by the fighting. In the courtyard, inhabitants would draw water from an improvised well. Colorful plastic tubes, like garden hoses, were used to bring water up from the ground to the upper floors of the building. It almost looked pretty: a myriad of bright red, green, blue, and yellow tubes springing out of the ground and running up the facade of the building, where buckets could be filled.

The small flat was where Natasha Estemirova lived. Natasha was an activist with the Russian human rights group Memorial, and a close friend of Anna Politkovskaya. She was half Chechen, half Russian. Natasha and Anna were roughly the same age. They had set themselves similar goals: to break the media blackout that the Kremlin was trying to impose on its operations in Chechnya, and to help the families of war crimes victims gather material that could be presented, one day, in front of the European Court of Human Rights. They not only wanted to break the silence around Chechnya, they wanted to make sure that, one day, justice would prevail.

© 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
© 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

I knew Natasha’s flat well, but I only later found out how familiar it was to Anna also. It was important to stay discreet about your networks and contacts when you reported out of Chechnya in a clandestine way. In 2004, Natasha and I travelled out of Grozny together, to the village of Duba Yurt, where the bodies of nine young local men had been found by the side of a road, bearing the marks of horrible torture. We visited the father of one of these young men. Sitting in his home, he described the kidnapping of his son by Russian soldiers, and how he was taken, alongside the other young men, to the Russian military base of Khankala, near Grozny, and then, the discovery of the bodies.

He insisted we write down his name and publish it, for the world to know, and because he wanted Natasha to help prepare a dossier for the European court. I hesitated. The danger of Russian retaliation was great. Most witnesses preferred to keep their identity confidential. But this man was adamant: “Print my name! Our sons are being massacred like sheep, the Russians don’t even ask their names!” So I wrote down his name: Sait Hussein Elmursayev. The following year, in May, I received a message from Chechnya: Sait Hussein Elmursayev’s body had been found, with a bullet wound to his head.

© 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
© 2002 Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

In October 2006, Anna was assassinated in Moscow. Less than three years later, in July 2009, Natasha was kidnapped by gunmen, just outside her apartment building in Grozny. Her body was found in neighboring Ingushetia. There was an obvious thread linking these two murders. After Anna’s death, Natasha had bravely pursued Anna’s task of gathering material in Chechnya. The nightmare of their deaths brought back what Stalin once said: “nyet cheloveka, nyet problemy” – get rid of the person and you get rid of the problem.

With hindsight, I can only say Anna Politkovskaya and Natasha Estemirova were like Sait Hussein Elmursayev. They deeply felt that it was essential to speak out publicly. It was their weapon against terror. Refusing to retreat into anonymity or silence was their way of resisting a universe of lies. It was not just courage, it was a question of pride. Like those colorful tubes bringing water to war ravaged homes, their legacy is vital, because it has to do with human dignity.


Natalie Nougayrède is a columnist for The Guardian and a member of its editorial board. She is the former editor and Moscow correspondent of Le Monde.

In 2012, Russia’s parliament adopted a law requiring nongovernmental organizations to register as “foreign agents” with the Ministry of Justice if they engage in “political activity” and receive foreign funding. The law’s definition of “political activity” is so vague, it can extend to all aspects of advocacy and human rights work. Help Defend Human Rights & Save Lives. Donate at HRW.org.
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