Throughout history, brave men have risked their lives to stand against horrible injustices and evil threatening to destroy their family and country. Though women are often just as brave in these struggles, they have rarely received the recognition they deserve for their sacrifices and courage. This post and future ones like it therefore aim to highlight the work and lives of some truly amazing women who have been willing to give up everything for the chance to live in a country free from abuse, tyranny, and terror. Natalia Estemirova was one such woman.
Before discussing this extraordinary woman, however, it is first necessary to examine the political, military, and historical context in which she lived in order to better understand her actions and motivations.
Chechnya and Russia have long experienced a volatile relationship. In the 19th century, military forces of Russia's czar conquered the oil-rich Caucasus region. Years later, during World War II, Chechen forces were accused of conspiring with the Germans which resulted in swift action from Joseph Stalin who “dissolved the republic and ordered many of its people deported to Central Asia, to what is now Kazakhstan.” It is estimated that anywhere from 400,000 to 800,000 people were deported during this time, with 100,000 people dying due to the harsh conditions. With this action, the seeds of the last 60 years of tension between Moscow and Chechnya were sown, along with intense nationalism and anti-Russian sentiment. Though many of the Chechens exiled during the war died, survivors and their children returned to the region during the 1950s, and after Stalin died, “the republic was reborn in 1957.”
After the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, tensions between Chechnya and Russia began to intensify. The presence of a separatist movement in Chechnya began to grow and consequently, in 1994, the Kremlin began to assist the pro-Moscow opposition in Chechnya who were fighting the Dudayev regime. Russian President Boris Yelstin moved decisively and sent 40,000 Russian troops to remove Chechnya's President Dudayev and “prevent the region from breaking away.” However, while Yelstin believed this mission could be accomplished quickly since his Russian military outnumbered the rebels, it actually “escalated into a bloody 13-month war” that ultimately destroyed Chechnya's capital of Grozny and resulted in the deaths of anywhere between 30,000 to 100,000 people. In retaliation, Chechen rebels “staged a number of devastating attacks on the soldiers.” In August 1996, the two sides managed to agree to a ceasefire that “left Chechnya essentially autonomous,” but not before the Russian army gained control of many of the urban areas in Chechnya while the rebels controlled the mountainous regions in the south, and Dudayev was killed in a Russian rocket attack.
Under the conditions of the ceasefire, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Chechnya in January 1997. Alsan Maskhadov, the separatist army leader, won the election and began a time in power “marked by chaos and lawlessness.” For the next three years, kidnappings, assassination attempts, bombings, and the illegal tapping of oil pipelines crossing Chechnya were all commonplace. A few weeks later, almost 300 people were killed in several bombings in a Moscow shopping mall and two apartment blocks; bombings that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen terrorists under the government of Maskhadov. Consequently, Russia began bombing targets inside Chechnya by late September 1999; Russian planes, tanks, and troops were all present inside Chechnya by the end of the month.
Though it is impossible to determine the exact number of Chechens killed throughout these conflicts, it is safe to say that tens of thousands have died. Further, approximately 400,000 live in refugee camps in next-door Ingushetia as a result of the years of fighting, damages, and danger.
In May 2000, President Putin proclaimed that Russia would rule Chechnya and he appointed Akhmad Kadyrov, a former construction worker and Muslim cleric who was originally a separatist but eventually joined the pro-Moscow side, to lead the government in Chechnya. Separatists soon began a series of attacks against Russian targets including bombings and the murder of hostages in theaters and schools. Kadyrov (along with several other people) was killed in May 2004 at a soccer stadium by a bomb planted by Chechen separatists.
In August 2004, Interior Minster Alu Alkhanov (Moscow's preferred candidate) was elected by voters to be the new president of Chechnya. A few days after the election, on Sept. 2, 2004, an event that many people still remember took place in Beslan, southern Russia. On that day, militants armed with weapons entered a school and took more than 1,200 hostages, including hundreds of children, in a siege that lasted for three days. They also set up bombs throughout the school and when they went off, the hostage-takers began shooting at those attempting to escape. Russian troops then entered the school. After the exchange of gunfire stopped, several hundred people were dead, more than half of which were children. The following year, the leader of the Chechen rebels, Aslan Maskhadov, was killed during a “special operation” conducted by the Russian army.
Despite ceasefires and the official end to conflict, the situation has not drastically improved. For example, in articles written this year, select journalists continue to stress the fact that despite the official end of Russia's 10-year counter-terrorist operations, “conditions continue to deteriorate, not only in Chechnya, but across the entire North Caucasus region.” Violence, intimidation, violations of freedom of expression, and the deaths, harassment and imprisonment of journalists and human rights defenders continue.
“Chechnya is plagued by a volatile and worsening security situation. Separatist groups still clash intermittently with government forces and (President of Chechnya) Kadyrov's regime has been accused of pervasive human rights abuses, including torture and killings. This violence has also spread to neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan. There are few investigations into attacks and even fewer prosecutions, leading to a widespread culture of impunity.”
Natalia Estemirova was a human rights activist who lost her life due to her tireless advocacy on behalf of those experiencing horrific abuses. Though her murder was widely reported throughout the international media and human rights organizations, her murderers are still walking free since investigations are ineffective, prosecutions are almost non-existent, and political will to crack down on these murders are just a pipe dream.
On July 15, 2009, at 8:30 in the morning, Natalia Estemirova was grabbed by men as she left her apartment in Grozny. As she was being shoved into a car, Estemirova yelled out that she was being kidnapped, but onlookers were too scared to report what they had seen. Within a few hours, the woman who risked her life to tell the world about what was happening in Chechnya was dead, murdered like so many of the people for whom she spent her life attempting to get justice. Her body was found with three bullets in her chest and one in her head, along with “a mark from a man's hand on her shoulder, where she was grabbed, and a bruise on her face, where she had been hit. Her wrists bore the marks of bindings.”
Viewed by the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, as an enemy, Natalia Estemirova spent her adult life attempting to hold the government accountable for horrible crimes:
“She documented hundreds of similar cases in Chechnya, supplying witness statements and photographs, forcing prosecutors to investigate and the media to write about kidnappings, torture and killings, often conducted by people in official uniforms.”
Predictably, the murder of Estemirova failed to make much of a splash in Russian newspapers, long known for their silence on murders like hers. It is only through a small group of national and international media sources and human rights groups that the world knows about the life and death of this brave woman who started out as a history teacher but soon transformed into a beacon of hope in the face of Chechnya’s two wars and their aftermath. No longer content to teach history, she instead attempted to change it.
Born to a Chechen father and a Russian mother in 1959, Estemirova moved to Chechnya when she was 19. Despite extreme poverty and Stalin’s deportation of the entire Chechen population in 1944, “separatist and even nationalist feelings were weak” in Chechnya while Estemirova was growing up. Grozny was still a “predominantly Russian” city where the “Chechen language and culture were suppressed.” Everything changed, however, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. When General Jokhar Dudayev came to power in Chechnya in 1991, Estemirova at first wanted nothing to do with his “nationalist rhetoric.” By 1994, however, the Kremliin “decided to dislodge Mr. Dudayev with tanks and bombs,” an action that Estemirova and many others viewed as occurring without any justification.
In October 1999, Estemirova was riding on a bus when she witnessed Russian rockets exploding next to a maternity hospital, in a crowded market, and a water collection area near a mosque. She saw the blood-covered body of a young man who she said had “nothing to do with rebels.” Within a few days, Estemirova traveled to Moscow where she “publicly confronted military officials” who in turn “claimed that the attack on the market was aimed only at rebels.” This was at a time when Russia, under Putin, had initiated a second, longer war against Chechnya. Rocket attacks were soon “followed by 'mopping up' operations, often accompanied by killings, rape and the burning of houses.”
It is important to note that Estemirova did not take sides when reporting on human rights abuses – she documented the actions of Russian forces, as well as the actions of pro-Moscow Chechen forces, and Chechen separatist rebels – because all parties to the conflict have committed horrible human rights abuses. The words of Estemirova herself describe her experiences of monitoring and documenting human rights abuses during this conflict, as well as after the end of official hostilities:
“I remember going to the village of Aldi on March 20th 2000. It was dead. We counted 47 victims, but of course there were more ...A woman was hanging up bloodstained clothes left from her husband, who had been executed...People were in shock and would talk only in whispers...I remember walking over the bridge together with Aldi's villagers and a boy walking in front of us. And some sniper, bastard, started shooting.”
After visiting the mountain village of Rigakhoi in April 2004 after it had been bombed by Russian forces, Estemirova described this disturbing scene:
“They bombed it knowing it was a family house, that children's nappies were drying on the line, that sheep were wandering about. Inside there was a woman with five children. When they started bombing, she gathered them all around, because that is how they were found--she must have tried to cover them with her arms.”
Estemirova photographed these children, aged nine months to five years, as evidence since prosecutors refused to go to the village to see for themselves.
Though the atrocities she witnessed outraged her, Estemirova continued to tirelessly investigate the actions of all parties to the conflict. Even after the war ended, however, her work did not, especially considering the huge number of disappearances carried out, namely at the hands of Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces. In March 2005, Human Rights Watch produced a comprehensive report discussing enforced, widespread, and systematic disappearances in Chechnya. As of 2005, between 3,000 and 5,000 people have “disappeared” since 1999.
As with the kidnapping and murder of Estemirova, disappearances rarely lead to in-depth investigations by police and prosecutors and perpetrators are rarely held accountable for their crimes. Men, women, and teenagers alike are disappeared and their bodies are often rarely found. Further, interviews with people who were eventually released after being held in detention centres “strongly suggests that torture in custody is rampant in Chechnya.” Examples include being held for days in unheated cells, having a plastic bag placed over their head, injection with unknown drugs, beatings, and broken bones. For those who are not murdered, the end result is often shock and psychological trauma.
After the horrors in Beslan, the idea of detaining relatives of suspected terrorists was brought forward in Russia. Though this plan was struck down in Moscow, in Chechnya it was not. Some of the people who have disappeared “were members of known or suspected rebels's families...Yet most were ordinary young people who caught the wrong eye, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Further, it is suspected that when people are being tortured, they “may incriminate innocent people, who are in turn snatched and tortured.” Hence, a vicious cycle of kidnapping, torture and death have long existed.
In the words of Lindsey Hilsum, “Only the bravest journalists report from Chechnya - the chances of being kidnapped are high, while the cold, lack of electricity and general misery of the place make it difficult to work in.” Yet this is the environment where Estemirova lived, worked, and eventually died.
Estemirova was one of the few activists brave enough to live and work in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, where she “ran a courageous and lonely campaign to hold Chechnya's Kremlin-backed government to account.” The people who came to her for help were always in desperate need of someone to stand up for them and included mothers searching for “disappeared” sons, torture survivors, and women who had been beaten publicly. In addition to monitoring and reporting on human rights abuses, she was also a source of comfort and encouragement to all the people who came to her for help. As a friend of Anna Politkovskaya, Estemirova was acutely aware of the risks she faced in becoming another casualty. And on that fateful day in July 2009, that is exactly what happened.
In the words of C.J. Chivers, a journalist who personally knew Estemirova,
“She was compassionate, meticulous, gritty, patient and driven at once, possessed of a strong stomach and light touch...To the families whose pain she worked to relieve and whose stories she forced the world to see, she was a resolute champion. To the men whose crimes she exposed, case by case, with a quiet composure, she was a confounding enemy, a feminine nemesis they could neither fathom nor dissuade.”
Estemirova bravely interviewed both gunmen and victims throughout her work. She searched for and found those who had been imprisoned, sought out hidden graves, and built cases through meticulous gathering of evidence. She did all of this in an attempt to ensure that perpetrators of atrocities were held accountable for their actions and rampant abuses finally ceased. Further, Estemirova worked tirelessly even when state-controlled television stations refused to broadcast the evidence she discovered and when most Russian journalists avoided her since “her truths were not welcome.” Yet, she continued to investigate and report, bringing the evidence she gathered directly to prosecutors and requesting investigations. Importantly, she did not let bias rule her work, instead, she searched for, checked, and proclaimed the facts, having been trained at one point as a historian. Rather than make judgments, she meticulously documented the suffering of the people around her, as well as the crimes of perpetrators partly in the hope that Russia would address these crimes and make positive changes. However, the Russian government was not interested in what Estemirova had to say.
Her work even lead, more than once, to her being “summoned to official meetings” where those in power, including President Kadyrov, told her in no uncertain terms to stop her work. This is especially terrifying considering the fact that according to Estemirova's records, Kadyrov lead a government that ran torture centers where “detainees were subjected to beatings, stompings, electric shocks, mock executions, sodomy, burnings by gas torch and, in the end, for some, execution.” According to survivors, Kadyrov gladly participated in these activities. Further, many people who disappeared were never seen again, while the remains of some bodies have been discovered with “limbs broken, faces smashed, skin charred, heads and torsos shattered by bullets fired at close range.” Scores of cases like these were researched and documented by Estemirova, even though almost no one was ever charged for these atrocities.
Finally, even though she lived in a regime where fear and violence were daily constants, everyone who knew Estemirova knew that the only thing powerful enough to stop her would be death. And even though Estemirova knew that was a real possibility, she refused to be deterred; she refused to put her own life above the safety and lives of the people around her.
With her death, two important questions must be asked and answered. First, who killed Natalia Estemirova? It is imperative that an in-depth investigation be conducted into her murder and the perpetrators prosecuted and given severe prison sentences. This will send the necessary message that kidnapping and executing human rights defenders, journalists, and others brave enough to speak out will not be tolerated in Chechnya. Second, who will replace Estemirova in investigating and documenting the abuses carried out by Russia, pro-Moscow Chechen forces, and Chechen separatists? Her death has created a vacuum that must be filled. If human rights violations in Chechnya are met with silence, atrocities will only intensify and the people of Chechnya will continue to suffer unimaginable horrors.
The death of Natalia Estemirova, along with other brave activists and journalists silenced like hers, must not go unnoticed. The only way to truly honour their sacrifice is to continue speaking out against abuses in Chechnya until they stop forever.
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