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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'I Was Kept in a Dark Pit and Often Beaten'

Among the tank barriers that mark the Gerzel checkpoint between Dagestan and tormented Chechnya, a ritual is repeated with oppressive regularity. In this instance, a black Jeep Grand Cherokee inched into the no-man’s land from the Chechen side and was met midway by a white Volga from Dagestan. From the Jeep emerged a girl of about 14 and two unshaven men. After a brief talk and the exchange of a plastic bag full of money, the girl ran to the arms of her waiting mother, sobbing near the Volga.

Kidnapping in Chechnya and adjacent areas is as common today as it was before the Russians began their "counter-terrorist operation" in 1999. Despite the torments of war, Chechnya’s notorious kidnapping gangs have been thriving and, in the process, helping to undermine Chechen attempts to win sympathy in the face of the overwhelming Russian military machine.

Witnessing a kidnapping in the southern Caucasus is a frighteningly common occurrence for local residents, many of whom fear that they or their family members might be the next victims of cross-border body snatchers. The practice has become so common that Russian border guards at the frontier are blase by the exchanges that take place in front of them.

"Did you see that?" asked Yury, an OMON officer who was checking my car a few weeks ago when the scene described above took place. "They just paid the ransom for that girl. Sometimes I see it several times a day."

When I asked why the authorities don’t get involved, Yury shrugged. "This is probably an unreported case, so the police have no authority. Don’t you know about these things?"

Unfortunately, I do know. Three years ago, my brother-in-law was kidnapped in broad daylight and kept in Chechnya for 80 days until my family collected $30,000 to pay for his release. I tried to get the Dagestani Interior Ministry to investigate the case. They filed my report and did nothing. No case was ever even opened. I got the impression that the authorities were trying to maintain the republic’s good image during a rare period of peace.

Despite the fighting in Chechnya, kidnappings continue. In fact, the conflict may have increased such activity. As proceeds from the region’s black-market trade in oil — now under Russian control — have dried up, kidnapping has become more attractive. Since people who might be particularly attractive to kidnappers tend to stay away from Chechnya itself, the body snatchers have taken to grabbing their victims in the neighboring regions of Russia, particularly Dagestan and Ingushetia. In the past seven years, the Dagestani Interior Ministry has registered almost 600 cases of kidnappings, with about 30 people presently in captivity. But these figures are misleading because hundreds of kidnappings go unreported out of fear of reprisals from hostage-takers.

My brother-in-law was held in the far reaches of the mountainous Vedeno region of Chechnya along with four other hostages — two Dagestanis, one Armenian and one Azeri. "I was kept in a dark pit along with my fellow victims, and we were often beaten. The local population guarded the compound and used us as slaves in turn. Nobody there considered us as human beings," he said.

I still have the videotape that the kidnappers sent me when my brother-in-law was captured. It shows Rashid’s bruised face looking up from the bottom of a dark pit. He looks spiritually and physically broken, monotonously repeating, "Father, Mother, don’t report this to the police or I will be killed. They don’t like jokes. Give them what they want. I am miserable here."

The Chechen government’s inability to put a stop to these kidnappings has contributed to its isolation and hampered its ability to build support internationally. Even the bravest international relief agencies have pulled out of the Caucasus because their workers were repeatedly targeted. The Russian media — which was highly critical of the 1994-96 Chechen campaign — has also felt the sting of kidnappings. Chechen hostage-takers kidnapped NTV star Yelena Masyuk, a crew from ORT, Vladimir Yatsina of Itar-Tass and Dmitry Balburov of Moskovskiye Novosti, among others. That bitter experience may help explain why Russia’s media has been far less critical of the Russian military push this time around.

The Russian government has extensively used videotapes of hostages being mutilated and executed to keep anti-Chechen sentiment high throughout Russia and to deflect criticism from abroad. I remember seeing Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu practically forcing a Council of Europe delegation to take some of these tapes when they were in Dagestan last year. In another memorable case, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin played a particularly gruesome tape at a special screening for Western journalists during a visit to Oslo, Norway in late 1999. One journalist even fainted.

This reputation for savagery merely makes the kidnappers more fearsome and compels people to pay ransoms promptly. The head of Dagestan’s anti-organized crime unit, Imamutdin Temirbulatov, told journalists the story of Herbert Gregg, an American evangelist who lived with his wife in Makhachkala. On Nov. 11, 1998, Gregg was hustled off to Chechnya and held for $3 million ransom. To speed up the deal, his captors sent a videotape to Moscow showing them cutting off one of Gregg’s fingers. The film was shown several times on Russian television.

In recent months, kidnappers have focused their attention on local elites. The 20-year-old son of the deputy rector of the Dagestani Medical Academy, Arsen Abusuev, was recently released after 18 months in a hole that was so small he was unable to stand. It is rumored that his family paid $300,000. Among other high-profile kidnap victims are the son of a former Dagestani prime minister, the nephew of the mayor of Makhachkala, several deputies of the republican parliament, the head of the Kizlyar Cognac Factory, the son of the Caspiisk town prosecutor and others. Last August, 11-year-old Dzhamal Gamidov, son of a former Dagestani finance minister, was kidnapped while playing soccer in front of the building where he lived.

Of course, the preferred victims remain foreigners, especially aid workers and journalists who command the highest ransoms. Mogomed Tolboyev, former head of the Dagestani Security Council, told journalists that a $4 million ransom was paid for the release of UN humanitarian relief worker Vincent Cochetel in 1998. Such kidnappings — including that of Kenneth Gluck of M?decins Sans Fronti?res this month — have done much to prevent assistance from reaching those who so badly need it. It is tragedy piled on top of tragedy with no end in sight.

Nabi Abdullaev is a freelance journalist from Dagestan. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.