Beyond skyscrapers and parks, little has changed in Chechnya

The absurd, Kafkaesque trial of Oyub Titiev proves the Chechen Republic’s impressive makeover is only skin deep.

: Anya Neistat during Oyub''s trial
Oyub Titiev, the head of a Chechnya branch of the respected human rights group Memorial, went on trial this week on drug charges [Courtesy of Anna Neistat/Amnesty International]

Flying into Grozny, the Chechen capital dominated by brand-new skyscrapers and a massive four-towered mosque, it’s hard for me not to reflect on the other times I’d travelled here.

In the past, I always arrived in Grozny by road. Sometimes I would come by car if I could find a driver willing to risk navigating multiple military checkpoints with a human rights investigator in the passenger seat. On other occasions, I would arrive by public minibus, wearing a headscarf and local dress, hoping the soldiers would not bother to check my documents.

I had never stayed in an air-conditioned room in Grozny either. Rather, I would stay with people who were kind and courageous enough to host me, in half-destroyed houses with no running water, on streets lit up by jets of fire from leaking gas pipes.

For years, during the so-called Second Chechen War of the early 2000s, I came here to document and expose unimaginable human rights violations. These violations were committed first by Russian troops fighting the Chechen rebellion. Later, they were carried out by the even more feared “Kadyrovtsy” – security forces under control of Ramzan Kadyrov, who still runs Chechnya, now as president.

It began with carpet bombings that wiped out entire villages. Thousands of civilians died in their homes and in the streets. Then there were the brutal “sweep operations”, in which hundreds of men and boys would be picked up at night, never to be seen again.

Women I interviewed spent days on end going from one mass grave to another, searching for husbands, brothers and sons. The men who were lucky enough to survive told of months and years spent in one of Kadyrov’s secret prisons, tortured to the point that their wounds would never heal and forever haunted by the images of other prisoners executed in front of them daily. Hundreds of thousands fled and were constantly pushed back to return to their destroyed homeland because officially the “war was over”. Back then, the fear in Chechnya was palpable.

In those days, my first stop in Grozny would be the office of Memorial Human Rights Centre – a local branch of Russia’s most prominent human rights organisation. We would discuss recent abuses they had documented, strategise, visit witnesses together and, of course, drink a lot of tea in their tiny kitchen, which felt like the safest and most welcoming place amid the chaos.

It was difficult to comprehend that people could not only live in this hell, but also work, every day, keeping meticulous records of violations, trying to help the victims, confronting the authorities, and fighting seemingly unwinnable battles in the courts. I came often but I always left, while they stayed to face slander, attacks and death threats.

One of the most dreaded places in Chechnya at the time was Gudermes, Ramzan Kadyrov’s headquarters, where his forces had completely free rein. People would try to make themselves invisible as the Kadyrovstys’ silver cars, with tinted windows and no licence plates, swished through the streets.

It was in Gudermes, in 2003, when I first met Oyub Titiev. Or, rather – Oyub. I didn’t know his last name and didn’t ask – the risks he faced working as Memorial’s representative there were enormous. He was careful and quiet, but relentless. His work documenting human rights abuses and helping their victims was courageous and immensely valuable and, of course, not unknown to the authorities. Over the years, the threats and warnings he and his colleagues have faced, at times coming from the very top of the Chechen administration, have become more and more explicit.

The abduction and murder in 2009 of Natalya Estemirova, a leading investigator in Memorial’s Grozny office, was clearly intended not only to silence her but also to send a message to others, like Oyub.

But rather than giving up, Oyub stepped up, becoming the head of Memorial in Chechnya. He refused to stop in the face of mounting risks and continued to lead the organisation’s work against all odds.

In January 2018, Oyub’s car was stopped as he was leaving his hometown of Kurchaloy and he was arrested. Police claimed they found a bag of marijuana in his car. The accusation was unthinkable for anyone who knows Oyub. But the authorities here have never shied away from such tactics to silence their critics.

This week I found myself in a room with Oyub again. This time, rather than drinking sweet tea in Memorial’s kitchen, we are facing each other across a courtroom in Shali, Chechnya’s third largest city. As the absurd, Kafkaesque trial unfolds, Oyub sits in a metal cage.

When we briefly have the opportunity to speak, Oyub greets me as an old friend. He asks me to pass on his thanks to the supporters who have sent him letters and messages to keep his spirits up. “This support is much needed. But it will all be fine,” he assures me. Same old Oyub: strong as ever, focused and fearless.

Witnesses for the prosecution, including the criminal investigator who brought the case against Oyub, fail to answer key questions. When quizzed by the defence they repeat their mantras like a broken record: “it was long ago”, “I don’t remember”, “I am not sure”. As the unanswered questions mount, the patches of sweat spread ever further across the criminal investigator’s shirt. He clearly doesn’t know what to say. He gets angry. The prosecutors get even angrier, interrupting the defence and whispering answers to the witness. 

Watching this trial, I am reminded again that glittering skyscrapers and blooming parks in Chechnya do not hide the fundamental truth: the crimes of the past will continue to haunt this region until they are accounted for and the abuses of the present are brought to an end. Oyub Titiev is one of the few people who has worked tirelessly to ensure that the change in Chechnya is meaningful and that behind the shiny facades people can live without fear. As long as he remains behind bars, the impressive makeover does not fool anyone.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.