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Too Soon, Again

Saying goodbye to Natasha Estemirova.

Two weeks ago, Natasha Estemirova, a human rights activist in Chechnya, was kidnapped and murdered. A fierce defender of those victimized by the region's conflicts, Estemirova joins Anna Politkovskaya and others on a growing list of Russian activists slain for revealing dark truths about lawlessness in Chechnya. We asked Usam Baysaev, a journalist and activist, to remember his friend.

It’s hard for me to write in the past tense about Natasha Estemirova. I feel as if I’ve always known her, but today, she is no more. All that is left are memories and a portrait on the wall, in which she looks so alive. Over the last ten years, I’ve had to part with many friends, and there are always the same heart-breaking thoughts: Was I kind to the one that has departed? Was I gentle with her? Did I offend or hurt her? And why this person and not someone else?

I thought that after the death of my mother, which happened less than a year ago, I would be immune. But that turned out to be wrong. The killing of Natasha opened up all the old wounds. It turned out that not everything in me has hardened.

I met Natasha toward the end of 1999, at the height of the battles in Chechnya. The Russian military was eager to occupy as many towns and villages as possible, without regard to the methods used to achieve this goal, or the number of civilians that would be killed. The region sank into a swamp of blood; there was information daily about the targeting of civilians, killings, reprisals, repressions. I worked for Human Rights Watch and helped its staff to collect information. I gathered testimonials from refugees in Ingushetia who had fled the war in Chechnya. I couldn’t go into Chechnya myself; it was too dangerous for a young man to cross Russian checkpoints in the direction opposite to the flow of refugees. If a Chechen man tried to go into Chechnya, he would be suspected of being a fighter, and at minimum detained. And, once detained, then quite likely to disappear without trace.

The only ones who could risk going in and out of the warring republic were women. For this reason, in the first, hardest, and bloodiest months of the war, the work of Memorial, a Russian human rights organization best known for extensively documenting abuses during and after the two Chechen wars, was built exclusively on women's personal heroism--their willingness to risk their lives on a daily basis. We, the men, exploited our women. We sat in the offices and typed up the information that was obtained by women who went into villages and towns what were undergoing “cleansing operations” and were blocked off by Russian soldiers.

I remember feeling awkward and embarrassed by Natasha Estemirova. From each trip, she returned so happy: She was gleaming, almost joyous. It looked strange. The photos, the taped interviews, the testimonials that she brought back were horrific, the materials were shocking and terrifying. But she would relate it all very calmly, very deliberately. She wasn’t a heroic figure with an atrophied sense of personal fear; rather, she had learned to subdue her fear. The joy, which she didn’t even try to hide, was the happiness of making it back, the joy of still being alive after the stress and danger she had experienced.

Natasha was in dangerous situations many times. In September 2000, when she was in the mountains with Viktor Popkov, a Russian Orthodox Priest and human rights activist, they were held prisoner by Russian soldiers. They were kept in an armored personnel carrier in the forest all night long. She related to me later that she was so frightened she could not stop from trembling and was scared that she would somehow provoke the drunken soldiers that held them. Her companion’s appearance--his long grey hair, a grey beard, a black cassock tied with a plain rope and rubber galoshes over bare feet--was provocative enough. According to Natasha, Father Viktor didn’t react to the soldiers’ taunts and insults and instead told them Bible stories until daybreak. “If not for that, they definitely would have killed us,” Natasha recalled, laughing about it later. We found out about their detention only after it was over. They were released when local people noticed that they were being held and informed the local administration of the nearest Chechen village. The town officials knew the soldiers and persuaded them to release the activists.

Viktor Popkov was killed later, in April 2001. He was shot by unknown persons as he was trying to enter a village that was blocked off during a cleansing operation. The car carrying the wounded priest was held up repeatedly when checkpoints required documentation. He was in serious condition when the car finally arrived in Ingushetia. He died in Moscow. For Natasha, this was a terrible tragedy and, unfortunately, not the last such tragedy. Next came Malika Umazheva, then Zura Bitieva, Anna Politkovskaya, and Stanislav Markelov--all of them were her friends, and all of them were people who together tried to counter the lawlessness that characterizes Russian policies in the North Caucasus. I heard about Politkovskaya over the phone from Natasha. “Anya was killed,” she said and started sobbing. We bought tickets and flew to Moscow immediately.

When Anna Politkovskaya visited Chechnya, she always stayed with Natasha. They traveled together everywhere, met victims, paid visits to officials. I wouldn’t say that their relationship was always harmonious--they were two very strong personalities. They were united in one goal, but each had her own view of how to reach it, and often, they diverged.

Natasha demanded a very cautious treatment of testimonies. She thought that sometimes, it was better not to publicize the facts, at least not right away. Because she lived permanently in Chechnya, Natasha understood the danger that hangs over anyone who dares to speak the truth. She used only the methodology of human rights work: writing appeals and requests for information, persuading the authorities to open criminal cases, and seeing to it that investigations continued and resulted in the punishment of wrongdoers. If she revealed information, it was without names and other identifying details. Only in very unique situations, when it was necessary to save a life or preserve the person’s health, only then would she summon her courage and reveal her source.

As a journalist, Anna Politkovskaya had the opposite vision. She thought that you have to write about everything, and do it immediately, and say as much as possible. She believed that the only thing that could stop the killers was the fear of being exposed, of their misdeeds being displayed for everyone to see.

I saw them argue about this on many occasions. It would be after they returned from a trip, having visited Chechen villages--they would come back to the Memorial office in Nazran and debate how to treat the materials they had gathered.

What motivated Natasha Estemirova? Why did she do this work that led eventually to her death? She did this for nearly 17 years, having started in 1992 during the Osset-Ingush conflict. I don’t think that patriotism, at least as it is generally understood, was her motivation. She didn’t have well-defined political views. She was neither a supporter nor an opponent of Chechen independence. She wanted political questions to be resolved without blood, without shooting, without suffering and killing. She was interested in politics only when this would help her to resolve her human rights cases successfully, to the small degree that this is still possible in Russia.

Natasha’s mother was Russian and her father was Chechen and she loved both of her nations equally. For her consciousness, what she saw happening around her was as if one part of her was killing the other. She cried when the elected president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, was killed. She refused to walk on Victory Boulevard after it was renamed Putin Boulevard, even though, from our office to the center of Grozny, this was the most convenient route. The latter was responsible for killing the former, and for the former, she had cast her vote. It sounds naive, but, for her, this was very important.

She was a naive person in general. She would begin by saying, “now, listen to my idea,” and what would follow would be completely impractical, at least in my view. For instance, there was her desire to reconcile everyone with everyone else, by creating a reconciliation commission in Chechnya, similar to one that had existed during Soviet times. The difference is that, back then, the government was reconciling people who were involved in blood feuds, where one family had wronged another. Now, the crimes are being committed by the government, and an institution of this type could well become an additional form of pressure against the victims, so that they would not appeal to the courts or the police. What do you have to complain about if you have already forgiven the offense? It did not take long to persuade Natasha. When she understood the argument against it, she gave up the idea.

She was a real human rights activist. If she took on a case, she gave it her full attention, and she didn’t transfer the work onto others. She wrote the appeals to the prosecutors herself, carried them to their offices herself, and monitored them to be sure that criminal cases would be opened. She gave information to the press, when it would pose no risk to the people she was defending. She valued the lives of other people above all else, and for this, did not even spare her own.

A few days ago, the friends and colleagues of Natasha Estemirova, and those whom she had helped, carried her coffin down Victory Boulevard in Grozny, past tacky signs with Putin’s name. After that, we held a meeting of Memorial staff, including our colleagues from Moscow, where all the Chechens insisted that we wanted to continue working. The work of the Memorial office in Grozny is only temporarily suspended. After we mourn Natasha and think through strategies and logistics, we shall resume. In that continued effort, there might be some small victory for Natasha.

Usam Baysaev is a member of Memorial. He is also a freelance writer and a Chechen desk correspondent for Radio Free Europe. (Translated from the Russian by Miriam Lanskoy.)

By Usam Baysaev