On Feb. 24, the Russian news media first reported the discovery of a mass grave outside a Russian military base containing the bodies of at least 60 Chechen civilians who had been tortured, then executed. This discovery is nothing new in Chechnya, and yet the international community has been indifferent to it.
The Russian government's initial reaction was to claim that the victims found in the mass grave -- within earshot of the Russian military base in Khankala -- had been killed and buried by Chechen separatists. When the FSB (former KGB) realized how implausible this sounded, it backtracked and claimed that all the victims had been dead for a long time.
Fortunately, the Russian nongovernmental organization Memorial was able to document the grave site with video and photographs. These photos, revealed in Moscow, showed that many of the bodies had been decomposing for less than two months, that among them were women and children, that many had their hands and feet bound and that almost all had been killed by a bullet to the head fired at close range.
Russia now claims that the victims were separatist guerrillas. This too is untrue. Memorial and several media outlets have documented the stories of the victims' "disappearances." Most victims were forcibly taken from their homes at night by heavily armed Russian security forces. Some were abducted at checkpoints when they could not pay a bribe. Others were taken at random from the streets. The only clear pattern is that these abductions were arbitrary and final.
The Russians say this mass grave is an exception. It is not. The Chechen people face arbitrary detention, torture and summary execution as a fact of their daily lives. If they are able to avoid abduction and processing through "filtration camps," then they must fear bombings, shelling and land mines. These "dirty war" tactics have only increased since Vladimir Putin turned over operational control of the war two months ago to his alma mater, the FSB.
Conservative estimates from Western and Russian nongovernmental organizations place the number of dead at between 30,000 and 40,000 since 1999. In addition, more than 400,000 Chechen civilians have been displaced to Ingushetia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and other countries. The interior minister of Russia proudly claimed a year ago that Russian forces had detained 10,000 Chechens for processing through "filtration camps." No one can say how many never returned.
How does Russia get away with it? Simple: It has closed the doors. Independent media and nonprofit investigators are unable to get access to Chechnya except on special military tours. Those bold enough to speak with Chechen civilians must keep a low profile and often are subjected to arbitrary imprisonment by Russian security personnel. The only information on Chechnya comes exclusively from state-run media repeating propaganda from the state information center. If we are to believe them, Russia has won the war and is withdrawing its troops. This could not be further from the truth.
As President Putin recently admitted in an interview with Russian newspaper editors, this war easily could go on for another decade. At the current extermination rate (conservatively 30,000 in the past 18 months, 100,000 between 1994 and 1996), how many more will die in Putin's time frame? In 10 years the small Chechen nation will be on the brink of extinction. In the meantime, Putin's claims of radical Islamic terrorism will turn from propaganda to prophecy. Look what happened after Russia's 10 years in Afghanistan.
The recent bombings in the Northern Caucasus, which Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov vehemently condemned, may be a sign of individual Chechen desperation or, as is claimed by many, a sinister FSB plot to rebuild public support for the war. Unfortunately, as with the rest of the conflict, the truth may never be known. The trial of those captured only hours after the bombings will be for show only. No real evidence will be presented, and no justice will be had for the victims. Most executed Chechens, however, don't even get a show trial.
Russia is fighting a protracted dirty war against the Chechen nation. It will not end until the world faces up to the cruel reality of what is happening in Chechnya and fulfills its pledge to "never again" remain silent while genocide takes place. Only then will Putin sit down and negotiate a peaceful end to this tragedy.