Dagestan: The Invisible Ethnic Cleansing Happening in North Caucasus
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Homes and lives destroyed by Russian Security Forces [FSB] in the remote mountain village of Vremenny, Dagestan recently.
Very few people outside Dagestan know about the remote mountain village of Vremenny, with just over 1,000 residents. Even fewer paid attention when on 18 of September, Russian military, security services and Dagestani police surrounded the village. The next day, a large-scale counter-insurgency operation ["Anti-Terrorist" Operation] began in Vremenny. Armed military personnel searched every house. They led away four local men without explaining where, or why they were taking them. Three were later released, but 30-year-old Sultanbek Khapizov has not been seen since, becoming a victim of a sinister enforced disappearance.
The soldiers rounded up every villager, including women and children, into buses and took them to nearby improvised "filtration center," where they were photographed, registered, and assigned a number. Some were interrogated.
To quell the villagers' anxiety, the officials promised that everyone would return home in a few hours, but it took much longer. Children were getting hungry and wouldn't stop crying. Women were pleading to be allowed to go get some food and blankets. All to no avail. And when it was over, the soldiers said women and children were free to return but no men would be allowed back into the village.
People were shocked. They had no warning, so the men never even thought of bringing any money or a change of clothes. The women started screaming that they would not be parted from their men, and the officers shrugged: "You can go with them if you want."
Some of the men went to stay with relatives in the nearby village of Gimry or in Makhachkala, the republic's capital. Others went off alone — in Dagestani mountain villages, having more than five children is common and finding someone to host such a large family is no easy task. In any case, they all hoped the operation would be over in a few days.
But it took more than two months. The security forces searched the houses many times over, they broke floorboards and made holes in the walls while they reportedly were searching for rebels and weapons caches.
After the first couple of weeks, most of the women who remained in Vremenny with their children gave up and left — they were afraid of the armed personnel, many of them rude and drunk, roaming around the village, repeatedly tearing the houses apart, grilling the people about rebels and weapons. No one else was allowed inside the village. Not a single journalist or rights activist could provide first-hand reporting on what was going on.
On Oct. 6, the security forces demanded that the remaining villagers — about 70 in all — leave at once for their own safety because they anticipated an imminent clash with the rebels. Among them were mothers with sick children and two elderly people who cared for their paralyzed, blind, and deaf 10-year-old grandson. The security forces did not provide any transport to evacuate people. So the villagers had to walk and carry the sick.
Officers told the villagers that they could simply stand on the road near the village for a few hours and return by nightfall. As a result, most did not pack any belongings. But come nightfall, the security forces still did not let them return. People were finally allowed to return to Vremenny on 26 of November — to realize that some of them no longer had a home. The luckier ones still had a roof over their heads but lost most of their property.
The village was devastated in a way only a war zone can be. A dozen houses were blown up, another 40 damaged beyond repair. Those that weren't destroyed were stripped bare inside. There was neither electricity nor water. All the infrastructure had been wiped out.
Houses were not only severely damaged or destroyed but completely flattened to the ground. Since the end of these military operations, the government has done nothing to rebuild Vremenny. The village remains uninhabitable. In addition to destroying the homes, the security forces looted everything of any value, refrigerators, televisions, kitchen equipment and carpets. What they did not steal they destroyed — chopping up furniture, throwing clothes, pots, pans and all sorts of other things into the mud. They covered walls of the houses with offensive drawings. They damaged everything they could get their hands on, even Qurans, which bore slice marks from sharp-edged objects and some were even found burned.
According to the villagers, despite all of their pleas to the authorities, they are not recognized as internally displaced persons, the government is not providing any relief and apparently does not intend to pay compensation quickly or provide housing soon. They are not receiving any assistance except from relatives, friends and rare private benefactors.
A government commission recently assessed the damage in Vremenny and recognized 42 houses as "unlivable." Their residents should eventually receive between 50,000 and 100,000 rubles in damages ($800-$1600) — a derisorily low amount. The villagers were also told by a range of local officials that they won't be getting even that if they keep talking to the media and rights groups.
A clear example of the helplessness of civilians of Caucasus from violence was recently found in Vremenny, a village of just 1,000 inhabitants located in the mountains of Dagestan. Human Rights investigators drove there in early January where neighbors met them secretly to show the excessive damage that the Russian security forces had committed in the village during an "anti-terrorist" operation.
When they arrived in Vremenny, a group of women were already waiting at the entrance of the village, all dressed in black and with headscarfs. They explained, with a mixture of indignation and sorrow, that on September 18, 2014 Interior Ministry’s troop’s agents, the FSB (Federal Security Service, former KGB) and OMON (Special Police Unit) surrounded the people, blocked all access to the village and led all the inhabitants to a filtration site, where they announced to them that they would carry out a search in every house.
At the filtration facility all of them were photographed and their fingerprints and DNA samples were taken. They arrested four men. Three of them were released a few days later, but the fourth disappeared and his relatives are still unaware of where he is.
That same day the men were banned to return to the town, only women and children were allowed to return. However, Once in Vremenny, the women could not move freely. The authorities had closed the school and the shops and raids were held in the homes daily. The women report that the soldiers were masked, had loaded guns and used them as human shields as they raided their homes. Sometimes they were drunk and women feared for the safety and of their children.
"Then on October 2, we heard a loud explosion followed by gunfire. A group of soldiers came and told us that 'everyone needs to get out of here, we found a bunker'," Fatima, a mother of three says. "We left quickly, without time to get clothes for the children. Later we found out by the media that they killed three fighters. Nobody informed us about anything." The women thought they would be away only a few days, at the most, a week. In reality, the "anti terrorist" operation lasted more than two months "without letting us get our things from our homes, without the Government giving us any help, support or information about what was happening ", tells Fatima. Most of the residents of Vremenny went to live with relatives or friends who, until today, have provided shelter, clothing and food.
The village did not look the same than the one they had left behind two and half months earlier. Sixteen houses had been completely razed: instead there was only a field, 40 more houses were partially destroyed. Moreover, indoors there was virtually nothing. The few family heirlooms and things of expense that some of the villagers posessed had disappeared, along with computers, appliances ... everything that was of any value was gone.
They found other objects and possessions (clothes, furniture, carpets, etc.) burned or half-buried in the streets, or thrown into the river. Neighboring vehicles were looted. They had taken engines and tires and in some cases were in the river. Even most fruit trees (peach, apricot and persimmon), which were the main source of income for some families were uprooted.
The villagers do not understand why there is so much devastation: "We understand that during an "anti-terrorist" operation, especially if they are looking for bunkers, the military can lift the floor of the houses, break some things, but this has been complete destruction of our properties freely. They have stolen everything and what they were not able to load in Kamaz trucks, they have destroyed it." explained Aminat, who had been a nurse in the hospital, as she showed us the damage.
The villagers are convinced that all agents of the security forces who participated in the "anti terrorist" operation have received large sums of money.
"Our children do not feel like Russian citizens, nobody respects our rights here. The only explanation I have is that the security forces do not really want to clear the forest of fighters at all," Aminat, concluded.
Additional photos can be found here:
A few things about the punitive cleansing operation done in Vremenny-Novaya Gazetta