Mothers Sit and Wait for Answers

MTA group of mothers staging a sit-in protest near the prosecutor's office in Nalchik. "This is our civil society," lawyer Larisa Dorogova said. "But it's not the quantity that counts — it's the quality."
NALCHIK -- Whether from the blazing sun, the strain of emotion or simply the terrible weight of the past three long years, Larisa Aramisova has finally had enough. She wants to know what has been done with her son's body.

"There isn't a single person we can ask: 'Why was he killed? Who killed him? What did my son do?'" she said, her tear-soaked eyes ringed red. "If he was a terrorist, tell me! If he did something wrong, tell me! I want to know! He was my son!"

What authorities have reluctantly disclosed is that her son Murat's body was left to rot for weeks in a sweltering rail car, along with the bodies of almost 100 other young men. They were then secretly cremated, a contravention of Islamic law felt painfully by the residents of the Muslim republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.

Together with a small group of mothers, Aramisova is holding a near-daily vigil outside the Nalchik Prosecutor's Office, the site of one of Russia's bloodiest armed uprisings, when up to 200 armed men attacked police, security and military sites on Oct. 13, 2005.

Although a ruling by the Constitutional Court last year confirmed that the handling of the bodies violated human rights, local prosecutors still refuse to hand over information about their final resting place or take responsibility for the decision. They point out that federal law allows authorities to secretly bury the remains of terrorists.

At least 35 servicemen and 12 residents died in the 2005 attack. According to official accounts, 95 attackers were killed as well. Late Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the raid.

Unlike its restive neighbors Ingushetia and Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria sailed through the 1990s in relative peace. Deeply religious, it managed to escape much of the wanton carnage of terrorist bombings that plagued the Caucasus.

The local authorities, however, made sure that people did not deviate from the state-approved version of Islam. Houses of worship were shuttered, and the torture and humiliation of young Muslim men was rife, residents say. This, analysts say, drove the young men into the hands of extremists like Basayev.

Although Mariam Akhmetova's son Eduard was not killed in the attack -- he will go on trial alongside 57 other suspected attackers as early as this month -- she attends the vigil day after day in solidarity, grounded in the belief that the sons of Nalchik were simply reacting to their horrible treatment at the hands of the authorities.

"You're a man. What would you do?" Akhmetova said to a reporter. "What would you do if you were beaten and thrown out in the street, again and again? What would you do?"

Larisa Dorogova, a lawyer who successfully argued the relatives' case before the Constitutional Court last year, said prosecutors had defied repeated court orders to inform the families about the whereabouts of the cremated remains. The local court has ordered the disclosure after the Constitutional Court ruling.

Dorogova said prosecutors' refusal illustrates the broken state of the legal system. "I don't think that it's a problem with one man," Dorogova said. "It's the system. It's the policy toward religious believers. It's the policy toward Muslims but not only Muslims; it's the policy toward all of the North Caucasus."

Lacking a route for legal satisfaction, the relatives have joined more than 20,000 Russian petitioners in seeking justice from the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. Because of the court's caseload however, it is unlikely that their case will be heard before 2009.

Prosecutors in Nalchik for the Southern Federal District, as well as the Prosecutor General's Office in Moscow, declined repeated requests for comment.

The prosecutor's office for the Southern Federal District has denied issuing the order for cremation, placing responsibility with the office of the republic's president, Arsen Kanokov. Kanokov has also denied issuing the order.

While the bodies of 95 young men are still unaccounted for, only 10 people turned up for the recent vigil outside the prosecutor's office.

"This is our civil society," Dorogova said, half joking. "But it's not the quantity that counts -- it's the quality."

Just like the weeks and months before, the group headed home empty-handed at the end of the day. No one came out to hear their grievances and, they know, no one is likely to when they return the next time. All they have to look forward to is one more day of not knowing.

"And the worst part is that nothing has changed at all," Akhmetova said. "In Chechnya it goes on. In Ingushetia it goes on. In Dagestan it goes on. This is the Caucasus."