War-weary Chechens "are ready to live in fear"

The Chechen capital of Grozny was flattened during the second Chechen war Keystone

A Chechen human rights activist who fled to Switzerland in January has been recognised for her courage at a ceremony in the Swiss capital Bern.

This content was published on May 14, 2011 minutes
Julia Slater,

Zainap Gashaeva tells that the current Chechen government wants the two devastating wars of 1994-6 and 1999-2009 to be forgotten.

Several of her colleagues who spoke out against the wars, including the prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered.

She herself, having received numerous death threats, finally took the decision to leave, and has been granted refugee status in Switzerland.

On May 14 she was awarded the 2011 Somazzi prize, which is given to women involved in human rights and the protection of peace and freedom. What is your background, and how did you get involved in human rights?

Zainap Gashaeva: In 1944 my parents were deported from Chechnya to Kazakhstan, which is where I was born. We returned when I was 13. My concern for human rights probably has its roots in my childhood.  

My parents didn’t talk about what had happened, they kept it to themselves. But one day when I was quite small I overheard them talking about events in our home village of Khaibakh in 1944, when the NKVD [the Soviet secret police] drove more than 700 people into a barn and set it on fire.

My parents were afraid, so what happened was never mentioned. I wasn’t brought up to hate Russians and I had Russian friends. What happened when the first Chechen war started in 1994?

Z.G.: When the Chechen campaign started I was living in Moscow, I went first to collect my parents, and then went to see what was happening. I was living between Moscow and Chechnya. I saw the reality in Chechnya, and then I saw the reality in Moscow: people there knew nothing, didn’t want to know. Is one problem that Russians look down on the smaller nations of the Russian Federation?

Z.G.: I love the Russians, their music, their culture. But there are more than 100 national groups in the Russian Federation, and you can’t speak as if there was just one single people. 

The Russian people are also enslaved by the system in which they now live. Even they do not have rights. And the small national groups have no rights at all.

Corruption flourishes now more than it did in Soviet times. Corruption at federal level and at local level. The goal of every official is to make money from his post. But to get the post in the first place he had to pay for it. It’s a vicious circle that is hard to break out of. So your struggle is not only for Chechnya?

G.Z.: What I am primarily involved in is peacemaking. To put an end to violence. There were ten years of war in the Chechen republic. It brought so much suffering, to women and children and the wounded. And not just in Chechnya. Do you think a Russian mother is happy that her son died in Chechnya? That she’s happy that her son fought there and came home embittered, unable to fit back into the society which deceived him?

Houses are now being built in Chechnya and sports and culture are being developed. That’s good. But how can we live in those houses when there is no stability, no work, when we are living in fear, and can’t say a word against what is going on?

People want to forget the war, they don’t want to speak of it, or think about it. They are ready to live in fear of the authorities in the republic, just as long as there is no war. That’s like your parents’ experience?

Z.G.: Exactly. After so much suffering, people have closed in on themselves. They are frightened, even at home. Within the same family there are different views. They are afraid of their neighbours – they might report them.

After every war it’s the same: we build, we want everything to be restored. But we don’t restore people’s souls. The pain remains.

They didn’t drop flowers on us. They dropped bombs, including forbidden bombs. Even today people can’t say what, because the policy of the current Chechen government is that it should be a war that left no trace. And the world has now forgotten or just doesn’t care?

Z.G.: Yes indeed. There are new wars, new disasters. Everything gets forgotten.

I am now working on the Chechen archive in Bern. I am sure that one day I shall be able to hand this archive over to my people. Otherwise there would be no point. I want them to see the huge amount of work that was done by a small group of women, who, at the risk of their lives, went all over these towns and villages in Chechnya to collect these stories.

Until now no one has asked the people for forgiveness, no one has admitted being wrong. I think there needs to be an international verdict on this war. A controversial Chechen businessman has bought Neuchâtel football club. Does the muted reaction in Switzerland indicate that despite all the talk of human rights, in the final resort it’s money that talks?

Z.G.: During the war, I had the chance to visit many international organisations. At the United Nations, the Council of Europe, in parliaments – I always called on the international community to look at what was happening in Chechnya. And I often met political indifference. They would throw their hands into the air and say: ‘Yes, but what can we do? We need the gas, we have economic cooperation, and so on.’

Even when there were mass killings and bombings – Grozny was flattened for example; there was torture, concentration camps, so many people fled – and the world remained silent.

But wherever I have met ordinary people, I have found support and understanding. What does the Somazzi foundation prize mean to you?

Z.G.: It’s a great recognition for our modest efforts. It gives hope and support to me and my colleagues and fellow campaigners, and to all of those who, despite the mistrust and enmity of the authorities, are still struggling to get human rights recognised in the northern Caucasus.

Zainap Gashaeva

Gashaeva, who is 58, was born in Tekeli in Kazakhstan after her parents were deported from Chechnya in 1944.

She trained as an economist, lived later in Moscow, and started working in human rights 17 years ago.

During the two Chechen wars, Gashaeva saw her main task as documenting what was happening and getting the information out of the country, a task she, and other women, carried out at the risk of their lives.

She worked with Russian and western European journalists and activists, including Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006, Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, murdered in 2009, and children’s activist Zarema Sadullayeva,

murdered in 2009.

In 1997 she helped to found the Ekho Voyny (Echo of War) organisation, of which she is one of the two co-presidents. The other is a Russian, Anna Ivanovna  Pisetskaya, who lost her only son in the Chechen war.

The organisation helps search for missing persons and looks after the needs of injured veterans and orphans.

After fighting died down, she worked on promoting peace and other humanitarian work in both Chechnya and the rest of the Russian Federation.

An orphanage she opened for 30 children, supported by the French Caritas organisation was closed down after three years, as part of government policy to leave no traces of the war.

After receiving threats over many years, she fled the country, and was accepted as a refugee in Switzerland in January 2011.

She now works in the Society for Threatened Peoples in Bern, on the Chechen archive, consisting of material she and her colleagues were able to get smuggled out of Russia.

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The Chechen republic is in the northern Caucasus. It is legally part of the Russian Federation.

During the Second World War Stalin accused the Chechens of siding with Germany. In 1944 he had the entire ethnic Chechen population deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

The Chechens were allowed to return home in 1956 during the “thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya claimed independence.

The first Chechen war – 1994-96 – erupted when Russia tried to regain control.

The second Chechen war broke out in 1999 when Islamic forces invaded the neighbouring republic of Dagestan. The campaign ended Chechnya’s de facto independence.

Separatists continued to battle Russian forces, who were supported by some Chechen paramilitaries. Fighting was declared over in 2009.

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