Chechnya Through Her Eyes - A Memoir of Slain Activist Estemirova
On July 15, a group of men seized human-rights advocate Natalya Estemirova outside her home in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and forced her into a car as she shouted for help. Eight hours later, her body was found nearly 50 miles away with bullet wounds in her head and chest. Estemirova, 50, was a key figure in the human-rights movement in Chechnya. She began working as a journalist and an advocate for the Organization of Detention Camp Inmates in 1999, and in 2000 she joined the staff of the Memorial Center in Chechnya. She received the Swedish Parliament's Right Livelihood Award in 2004, the Robert Schuman Medal in 2005, and the inaugural prize named for Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist shot dead in Moscow in 2006. Estemirova is survived by her daughter. NEWSWEEK Russia has obtained her own account of her life, which was recorded a year ago on audiotape. Excerpts:
I was born in the Urals and came to Chechnya when I was 19 years old, because my father was a Chechen. My mother was Russian. The relations among ethnic groups in the republic were not always smooth. I can definitely say that the Russian population had a disdainful attitude toward Chechens.
The problem today comes from the fact that many Chechens then were compelled to repress their ethnic characteristics in order to preserve good relations. Eventually this produced an explosion. I have two nationalities, and a number of times I had to criticize Russians who would tell me, "Natasha, we don't consider you a Chechen." I would say, "No, I am a Chechen." At the same time, I used to have to cut off Chechens who would say bad things about Russians.
1991-94: THE DUDAYEV PERIOD
I agree with what [Ruslan] Khasbulatov [former speaker of the Russian Parliament under Boris Yeltsin and an ethnic Chechen] said: Russia has lost its moral right to Chechnya. But our independence was, in effect, torpedoed in 1991. My assessment of [Dzhokhar] Dudayev [the Chechen president who launched the republic's separatist movement in the early 1990s] hasn't changed. I could see that this man would bring disaster to the republic. And that's what happened. I realized that independence is not won through war, it is built. To describe that period in brief, it was a mess. People were disoriented, and they became angrier and more apathetic.
The intelligentsia absolutely did not support what was occurring in the republic, but at the same time many of my relatives supported Dudayev. We argued a lot, but never got to the point of an open quarrel; our family relationships were not cut off over some political disagreements. Disillusionment prevailed.
Legality per se collapsed, and compliance with the law by the state and protection of citizens practically disappeared. But then the power of customs grew stronger, and they helped to support society and prevented criminals from running amok.
There was reason, of course, to fear for your life. I would, for example, hear at the time in Chechnya, "Get out of here and go back to your Russia!" And in Russia, when I would visit my mother, I'd hear, "Get out of here and go back to your Chechnya!"
1994-96: THE FIRST WAR
I left Chechnya in October 1993. I wanted my baby to be born [in normal conditions]. I came back two years later. Of course, I was absolutely outraged: how could troops have been sent in? I took this as a personal tragedy.
The most important thing then was to get through that time, to somehow survive there, to preserve the school [where I was teaching] and the children who were still left and to retain the ability to teach. It was hard. We lived in a one-room apartment on the first floor, which had no bars, nothing. And the father [of my daughter] said, "Maybe I should give you a grenade in case somebody sneaks in at night, so you can protect yourself." I said that I couldn't bring myself to set off a grenade, so it would be better not to. It was probably through some divine mercy that we were kept safe and remained alive.
There is no justification for the federal authorities' actions. Already, the victim was my homeland. And I'm sure that the resistance of the first war was completely justified. The population supported the [separatist] fighters during the hostilities—that is, until 1995. But then everybody wanted peace already.