Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.
In the space of just a few years, Chechnya has undergone a remarkable transformation.
Gone are the minefields and piles of rubble, replaced with broad avenues, luxury boutiques and glass-fronted skyscrapers. It is virtually impossible to see there was ever a war.
Award-winning journalist, Manon Loizeau, has spent the past 20 years covering the Chechen conflict. She returns to the places she knew so well, filming undercover in Chechnya, to reveal how Putin has “pacified” this once proud land.
Behind the gleaming facade of the new Grozny, Loizeau discovers women and men more terrified than in all the years of war and occupation.
By Manon Loizeau
This year marks the 21st anniversary of the beginning of the war in Chechnya.
As a correspondent living in Moscow for 10 years working for Le Monde, the BBC, the Nouvel Observateur and different French TV channels I had covered the war and later on made several films during the Russian occupation.
I decided to go back to Chechnya 10 years after my last journey there in 2004. I wanted to try and find the people I had met and filmed during all those years.
The film was intended to be a journey down the memory lane, but I soon discovered a land where having a memory was forbidden. All I remembered of Chechnya and the Chechen people had disappeared. All the past had been erased by state policy.
The capital, Grozny, now looked more like Dubai or Las Vegas, with its high towers glittering at night. On every building hung a portait of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. I felt lost, as if the Chechnya I had known for 20 years had vanished. Now I saw people strolling along, with smiles on their faces, on Putin avenue.
The film became a journey into a schizophrenic land, a land of terror and oblivion.
Under the surface of the shining city I found people more terrified than during all those years of war and Russian occupation. All my Chechen friends had warned me that I would never be able to make a film.
During his rule, the young Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov had installed such a rule of fear and repression that no one dared to speak out. And although I had been warned, I did not expect to find the people I once knew more frightened that when I had met them under the bombs, or under the terrible rule of Russian snipers.
The people I once knew all told me they yearned for the times we had met during the Russian occupation because, as they said, “at least we were together fighting against a common enemy. Now the enemy is everywhere, Now we are killing each other. The enemy is inside us.”
Over the years Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin have managed to erase the identity of the Chechen people who, since the Tsars, were always striving for independence.
Kadyrov has erased all traces of the war. Even as we were filming, he decided to go even further by banning the Day of Remembrance of the deportation of the Chechen people by Stalin. He actually went as far as going on local television, saying the Chechen people deserved to be deported, even though his own family suffered from deportation.
Under such a dictatorship it was very hard to film. But still, I met very brave Chechen women and men who agreed to be filmed, taking a huge risk to their safety. All of them felt they could not keep silent anymore.
I worked with three different cameramen (Thibault Delavigne, Laurent Stoop and Xavier Luizet) and we went to Chechnya 12 times over a period of a year. The local authorities never guessed what we were doing. We would film for three days, sometimes a week, each time having to leave hastily because we were being followed. We filmed in short stints because we feared putting at risk the people who were helping us and who were taking part in the film.
I have worked in Russia for the last 20 years, I have also filmed in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Iran, so I have developed an instinct of when to pull out of a country.
We were able to make this film thanks to the great courage of the Chechen people we met. All those who helped us secretely on the ground and the wonderful people who appeared in the film.
Every day I think about the old couple who lost their two girls, young mothers who disappeared after a struggle with men from the powerful militias. The old couple are now left alone with their granchildren, not knowing how they will survive. They still hope Zargan and Mobarak will come back one day.
I will never forget the courage of the women we call “Rosa’” in our film. I had not seen her for 10 years. She used to be an incredibly beautiful woman, trying to survive under the Russian occupation. When I finally found her, she opened the door and she was trembling and covered with bruises. She is essentially locked in her flat in Grozny and never dares to go out. Every week the militias of the Kadyrov regime come and harass her. Her family has never accepted the ruling power.
I will always remember the determination and strength of the beautiful mothers of Chechnya, still looking for their lost ones 20 years after the beginnning of the war.
I constantly remember the face of Ruslan Kutayev behind the bars of his cell as he was condemned to five years of prison for alleged drug charges. Of course, the real reason for his imprisonment was because he had organised a conference on the deportation of the Chechen people by Stalin. The European court in Strasbourg has just accepted to open his case.
With this film, I want to make a tribute to the magnificent work and the incredible courage of the Committe Against Torture. In December 2014, the organisation’s office was attacked by masked men and burned down. And then, at the beginning of June 2015, just as the committee began to refurbish their office, another group of men destroyed their office once again.
Finally, I would have never made this film if I had not been inspired by the work and the courage of two great women. Anna Politkovskaya, one of the best journalists in Russia and the only one who really covered the war in Chechnya until the end, was shot in 2006 at the entrance of her flat in Moscow. A few days earlier, she had been threatened by Ramzan Kadyrov, while working on a story about the crime and torture committed by the regime’s militias.
Natalia Estemirova was a Russian human rights activist who was also murdered in Chechnya in 2009. She also had been personally threatened by Ramzan Kadyrov.
Anna and Natalia were friends.They gave me the strength to try and tell the story of a forgotten land, Chechnya.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.