by Yusuf Agha
For them, no bells toll. No Spielberg blockbuster evokes sympathy for their plight. No Otto Frank diaries document their anguished plight. Memorials to their holocaust adorn not the boulevards of world capitals. The United Nations repeatedly ignores their pleas for justice. The people of the world are oblivious to their struggle.
Until last week.
Suddenly, the world awoke to the nightmare in Moscow. Armed Chechen rebels commandeered a theater and threatened to blow up the 700-strong audience. Their one solitary demand: Stop the war in Chechnya. The Chechens had brought their war to the heart of Russia. From a Moscow theater, they had brought attention to their plight on the world stage.
The events of the tragedy are well known. In the end, 167 people were dead, with hundreds hospitalized as a consequence of a poorly executed raid by authorities. The proportion of deaths was strikingly similar to the history of forays into Chechnya itself: The Russians had killed 165 (including 117 of their own) in the theater -- the rebels killed two.
The taking of civilian hostages is a horrific act and has rightly been condemned throughout the world. But by looking at the past 150 years, during which the Russians have crushed the oppressed Chechen people, one can understand their anguish and frustration.
Jonathan Steele, writing in London's Guardian, believes that the hostage-seizure of the theater-goers is "a grim reminder to the Kremlin of how badly its hard-line policies in Chechnya have failed."
No form of tyranny has escaped the Chechen experience. These people of the Caucasus mountains have been systematically brutalized in successive Czarist, Soviet, and Russian campaigns. Mass deportation pogroms led to one of the world's greatest experiments in ethnic cleansing; Chechen women have been raped; villages have been pillaged; books and libraries have been burned; and their culture -- museums included -- have been destroyed.
Writing in the Zurich-based NZZ Online, the Georgian historian, Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, describes the systematic decimation of a Chechen population that stood at 1.5 million in 1844: "In 1864 hundreds of thousands were expelled and driven into the Ottoman Empire, and, by 1867, their number on home soil had dwindled to only 116,000, mostly widows, children, old men and cripples."
This was 'decimation' in its truest literal sense -- the Russian operation left only one tenth of the population intact.
A similar tragedy occurred in 1944, when the Soviets enacted the mass deportation of Chechens and other Caucasus peoples to Gulags in Siberia. Writing in London's Independent, Phil Reeves describes last week's siege in Moscow as "the latest chapter in the blood-drenched history of relations between Russia and the peoples of the northern Caucasus." Russia conquered Chechnya in 1858, he writes, "after wars that live in Russian literature and folk memory for the ferocity of the fighting, the romantic desperation of the Chechen warriors and the dramatic grandeur of the scenery."
Chechens have been quick to make grabs at liberty while their Russian antagonists have been busy elsewhere - the Russian revolution, the Second World War, and, most recently, the breakup of the Soviet Union. During the last episode, which led to the independence of the Baltic and other Soviet states, Chechen hopes for similar liberation were shattered. Yeltsin - so eager to see the end of the Soviet empire - cautiously maintained the 'unity of the Russian federation,' of which Chechnya is a part.
Again, the greed for oil has clouded world peace. Writing for IPS World News, Sergei Blagov notes that "as the Russian army tightens its grip around the Chechen capital of Grozny and Moscow becomes increasingly assertive, analysts stress that manoeuvring [sic] over huge oil-transit deals is the real issue of the Chechen war."
Logistically, the Chechen republic stands in the path of Azerbaijani offshore oil fields being developed under a multi-billion-dollar project. The pipeline crosses over 95 miles of Chechen territory, and the Chechens have been reluctant to accept the pennies-per-gallon deal offered for the transit.
The U.S.-based ChevronTexaco Corporation shares 60 percent of the investment with Russia's LUKoil company, part of the consortium that plans to pump half-a-million barrels per day. "Big oil dollars," writes Blagov, "are likely to remain a factor in an ongoing Chechen tragedy."
The Chechen struggle in the post-Soviet era has been fraught with Russian offenses and atrocities. In 1996, the ferocity of their struggle gained Chechens a brief period of autonomy from their Russian masters.
"At that stage," writes Phil Reeves, "the Chechens enjoyed a degree of international sympathy, not least because of the sheer brutality of the Russian army, who flattened the city of Grozny, set up "filtration" camps for young Chechens, ransacked towns and raped women."
Enter President Vladimir Putin, former KGB chief and the new manifestation of the Russian czar.
In September of 1999, a series of mysterious apartment bombings in Russia left 300 dead, and the Russian president was quick to blame the Chechens. Many believe that the entire episode was an engineered pretext to put an end to Chechnya's autonomy. Pravda's online edition reports a press conference by Russian media magnate Boris Berezovsky, held in London in March this year, "to prove to the world and Russian society the connection of the Russian special services with the explosions of the apartment blocks in Russian cities of Moscow and Volgodonsk."
Allegedly, Putin had sacrificed the lives of innocent Russian civilians as a pretext for renewing the war in Chechnya. Thousands of Russia's soldiers were to die - with more dying each day - in Russia's second war in Chechnya that was to follow.
CBS estimates that in 1994 alone, "the number of people killed ranged from 30,000 to 100,000." Only a few weeks ago, a Russian MI-21 helicopter was shot down by the rebels, killing 118 soldiers abroad.
Russian life is cheap for its rulers.
In the aftermath of the Moscow theater tragedy, many in Russia are questioning if the lives of the 117 Russian hostages - and their 50 captors - could have been spared through negotiations or a less drastic 'rescue' effort.
The rebels had come to the building heavily armed and strapped with explosives. Most importantly, they wanted their voices heard by the Russian people and the international community.
In dramatic real-time Internet releases by the besieged theater's management on the theater website, a heart-wrenching plea for dialogue was read: "The terrorists promise to release hostaged [sic] children if a public meeting is arranged in Red Square. Please, support the hostages! The meeting begins at noon, Moscow time."
But Putin was not listening.
The St. Petersburg Times debunks the government claim that that the storming of the theater was necessitated after the killing of two hostages on Saturday. The paper reported that the decision to storm had been taken prior to the killings: "Evidence suggests the special forces planned the operation as early as Friday night."
The newspaper further concludes that the shootings had been instigated by the federal forces, which were trying to infiltrate the theater thereby instigating the rebels to drastic action. "According to the hostages, a man in bloodied clothing came into the theater's main hall at about midnight Friday, saying he had burst through police cordons to find his son, Roman. When the boy was not found in the hall, the hostage takers dragged the man into the lobby and apparently killed him. The Chechens suspected him of being a Federal Security Service agent."
The Times concludes that the rebels were correct in their suspicions. "One of the hostages, who did not want to be named, said Sunday that FSB officers confirmed to him in private conversations in the hospital that the man was a secret service agent."
In a leading article in the Moscow Times, Boris Kagarlitsky similarly confirms that "law enforcement officials admitted that the raid had been planned in advance, and that they had intentionally taunted the gunmen with 'leaks/ about the upcoming attack in an attempt to keep the gunmen off-balance (and thereby goad them into starting a fight). It appears that the gunmen did open fire on the hostages, but only after the raid was already underway, when people panicked and some likely tried to escape."
"So was it really necessary to storm the building?" Kagarlitsky asks. He concludes: "Yes, it was necessary - politically necessary. The authorities needed the raid and all the casualties in order to make it possible for them to continue the war in Chechnya, to contain the growing anti-war mood in society, and to demonstrate Vladimir Putin's decisiveness and strength of will."
The Russians have fully exploited the events of 9-11 by equating the Chechens to their version of Al Qaeda, and long before the Moscow theater incident, they had started to claim that the rebels were terrorists, hence justifying their heavy handedness.
America, in turn, has been slow to condemn Russia's brutal treatment of the Chechens, particularly after 9-11, having lost the moral high ground since its truculent unilateralist stance on Iraq (where Russia holds the high ground, by insisting that Iraq cannot be attacked without U.N. acquiescence).
This has given the Russians the leeway to operate with impunity. For two years in a row, they have rejected the resolution of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights calling upon Russia to "curb abuses by its forces, establish a meaningful domestic accountability process, and invite several of the Commission's key special mechanisms to visit the region."
The U.N. Commission narrates the state of affairs in Chechnya today, where "abuses by Russian forces continued to be an integral part of the daily life of civilians in Chechnya. In villages and towns throughout Chechnya, federal forces conducted dozens of sweep operations. Ostensibly designed to seek out rebel fighters and their supporters and ammunition depots, sweeps are usually reactive, following Chechen military actions such as ambushes on Russian military columns or attacks on Russian checkpoints."
Amnesty International reports of the harrowing saga in the Chechen republic - a continuing tragedy with no end in sight. In the year 2001 alone, "an estimated 160,000 internally displaced people, the majority women and children, remained in overcrowded refugee camps in Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia with inadequate shelter and sanitation. Council of Europe delegates visiting the region in December stated that conditions for refugees in Chechnya were 'terrible' and getting worse."
Amnesty reports human rights abuses which include arbitrary detention; torture, and rape; ill-treatment; "disappearances"; extra judicial executions; unofficial secret detention centers; inadequate and ineffective criminal investigations into human rights, rarely leading to trial.
On his imaginary journey through Hell, Dante encountered a she-wolf and found greed lurking in her soul. On his way to Slovenia last year, George W. Bush encountered Putin, and said that when he had looked into the latter's eyes, he had been able to glimpse into his soul - a sentiment he reinforced earlier this year: "See, and I've been proven right. I do trust him."
One hesitates to wonder what the two leaders had seen in each other's souls that likened the trust. Could it have been the anticipation of the inferno that awaits thousands of Iraqis compounded with the carnage that is the destiny of the occupied people of Chechnya - a Hades emblazoned in an ocean of oil?
Yusuf Agha is a historian who also dabbles in Information Technology. He reads extensively and has an interest in the visual and performing arts. He has resided in the United States for over two decades, loves its people and the land, but is still trying to figure out whom the government represents. This article originally appeared in Yellow Times.org. Email: yagha@YellowTimes.org