Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Women's Invisible War

No one knows for certain how many people have been killed and how many houses have been destroyed during the recent events in Kizlyar and Pervomaiskoye. Various sources of information have given contradictory accounts of those events. But one thing is certain: We will have additional and more objective accounts of these tragic happenings thanks to women from the northern Caucasus, who are gathering information and writing the current history of the war. These women have been collecting information since the very first attacks on Grozny.

At a recent conference on Women in Ethnic Conflicts, Gulnaz Otiyeva, an inhabitant of the Chechen village of Samashki until it was destroyed by Russian artillery, spoke about how she went around what was left of her own house, trying to recover in the mounds of ashes and debris the remains of her 11-year-old daughter. Many months have gone by since the tragedy, but Gulnaz continues her search to this day -- and sometimes finds what she is looking for. Whether it be a joint from a finger or a scorched shred of clothing, she considers these to be a part of her daughter.

The hundreds of women who have been raped and suffered ethnic insults -- mothers who have lost their children, or refugees with many children to care for who have lost their homes and belongings as a result of wars in Karabakh, Abkhazia and other areas -- have not seriously drawn the attention of politicians and journalists. Nor have women in ethnic conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet empire been seen as a special problem.

The war in Chechnya changed a great deal. This tragedy reminded people both in Russia and elsewhere that women have their own views on war and that their voices should be heard. The first ones to make themselves heard were the Mothers of Russian Soldiers. Even before the first zinc coffins of soldiers killed in combat returned home, activists from numerous unions and committees of soldiers' mothers came to the fields of battle to look for their sons, from whom they had not heard any news. And several mothers succeeded in taking back their children who had been captured in battle. The soldiers' mothers movement, which has united mothers from various countries, is living proof that society has truly changed and that returning to a former period of stagnation is no longer possible. The situation of 15 years ago, at the start of the war in Afghanistan, in which mothers could only suffer and mourn the dead in silence, is no longer imaginable.

Much has been written about the soldiers' mothers movement. But not everyone knows that the main aid to the mothers comes not from politicians but from ordinary women from the northern Caucasus itself, and above all Chechen women.

"Today, the authorities are trying to set one mother against another, and this is criminal," said one activist. About 10 new women's organizations have been created recently in Chechnya and other Caucasus republics. One of the leaders, Zainap Gashayeva, has spoken about how women themselves were in some ways to blame for what has happened. "We women were silent when the Karabakh and Ingushetia conflicts occurred. It is time to realize that misfortune elsewhere is a common misfortune. We women cannot be enemies. Our common enemy is war."

Among the most striking acts of collaboration on the part of mothers was the Mothers' March of Compassion, which began in Moscow on March 8, 1995 -- the day of international solidarity of working women. After marching through several Russian cities, they were warmly greeted by the local populations of Chechnya and Ingushetia. The women were invited to spend the night in the homes of the local inhabitants and kind words were exchanged. Several hundred women of various nationalities and religions participated. In mid-April, the Russian federal troops stopped the peaceful march. The demonstrators were surrounded, forcefully put into buses and sent back to their own republics.

But the breaking up of the march did not lessen the determination of its participants. In spring 1995, the Association of North Caucasus Women was formed, which united women from many nationalities with the goal of promoting women's solidarity, delivering humanitarian aid, gathering information on the situation in the regions and reporting to international organizations. The union actively collaborates with the Memorial group in Moscow and other human rights organizations both in Russia and abroad. The different nationalities and religions of the participants do not get in the way of the work. They are in constant collaboration with the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. On the other hand, the official women's organizations of Russia, the Union of Women of Russia, and the former parliamentary faction, Women of Russia, do not work with the North Caucasus Women, once again underscoring the fact that the defense of great power is more important to them than women's solidarity.

According to the North Caucasus Women, today in Russia there are about 400,000 Chechen refugees outside the country and about 300,000 within the republic. Some 65,000 peaceful inhabitants, of which 14,000 are children, and 40,000 Russian soldiers have been killed. According to observers, one out of every three of these inhabitants was Russian. All these numbers are dramatically higher than other estimates by human rights groups, let alone official casualty figures.

Among the destroyed buildings of Grozny, Chechen children are studying the Koran. Revived Islamic traditions have taken hold of society. Children of unbelieving parents go to mosques and learn from the old people how to pray. At the same time, in the republic and in the Chechen diaspora, the women's movement is gaining strength, growing from life itself -- a movement that formerly did not exist and that truly is helping people.

Nadezhda Azhgikhina is editor of the women's page of Nezavisimaya Gazeta. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.