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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Woman's Story From the Grave

The last time anybody saw Nura Luluyeva alive, she was blindfolded, hooded and screaming as masked men dressed in military fatigues dragged her into an armored vehicle parked by the side of an improvised market in Grozny on a bright June morning.

When she was found nine months later, the blindfold was still there. So were the earrings, by which her cousins managed to identify her half-decomposed body, discovered in a mass grave in Zdorovye, a village of abandoned summer houses on the outskirts of the Chechen capital.

Luluyeva, a 40-year-old mother of four, is the first woman to be identified among about 50 bodies found last month lying scattered or buried in mass graves in the village. Two of her female cousins, who were detained with her, were also found buried there.

"My wife went to the market to try to sell some fruit to help our family budget," her husband, Said-Avdi Luluyev, told a group of journalists in Moscow on Tuesday. "That was the only thing she was guilty of."

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, pro-Moscow Chechen prosecutor Vsevolod Chernov confirmed some of the bodies found in Zdorovye were female, but refused to give the exact number. Earlier he said virtually all were men of combat age and were believed to be Chechen rebels or foreign mercenaries.

Luluyev's story bolstered previous reports by human rights groups that a number of the bodies found in Zdorovye were of civilians who had been arbitrarily detained by federal forces in the last year.

"I never wanted her to go to Grozny in the first place — too many checkpoints on the road there from Gudermes, too many soldiers," Luluyev said, eyes fixed on a leather briefcase filled with documents describing every futile step in his nine-month-long search for his wife.

Luluyev, 47, used to be a federal judge, but he has been out of work for a few years. As the family budget grew thinner and thinner, he eventually gave in. "She only went there two or three times, sold some strawberries and cherries," he said with a shrug.

Luluyeva and her two cousins — Markha and Raisa Gakayeva — were detained on the morning of June 3. Their cries as they were loaded into an APC were so loud that people living in neighboring buildings called the local police, Luluyev said.

A few hours later, informed of his wife's detention, Luluyev reached Grozny and talked to the police, but there was little they could do to help.

"They told me they tried to approach the APC, but the men there flashed some IDs and said they were from the secret service, conducting a special operation, so the police shouldn't interfere," he said. "After that they started shooting at the police from a large-caliber machine gun and drove off."

The last place the three women were heard from was the courtyard of the Grozny military commandant's office. "The maintenance workers there told me they heard women's cries from inside the APC," Luluyev said. "From then on, there was no trace of them anywhere."

Luluyev, who earlier in his career had worked as a police investigator in Yekaterinburg, spent the following months conducting his own private investigation into his wife's disappearance and filing complaints, letters and requests to every official in Chechnya he thought might be able to help locate her.

He wrote to the Federal Security Service branch in Chechnya and in Grozny and got the answer that Luluyeva "was never detained."

He wrote to the military commandant of Grozny and got no answer whatsoever. He wrote to the chief military commander in Chechnya, Ivan Babichev, and even managed to meet him in person.

"He told me: 'Nobody here obeys my commands, everybody's doing what they want,'" Luluyev recalled, resignation mixing with anger on his face.

The only person who showed any interest in his case was regional prosecutor Nikolai Shepel, who "tried to force his subordinates to do their work," he said.

"But in the nine months that passed, nobody even bothered to check the number of the plates of the APC that took Nura away, which I found out thanks to my contacts in the police," Luluyev said.

On Feb. 5, he got a letter informing him the criminal investigation into his wife's disappearance had been "suspended for lack of information on the whereabouts of the perpetrators."

A few weeks later, the mass grave in Zdorovye was discovered and a relative went to check if Luluyeva and her cousins were there. Two weeks later, the three women were buried in the family grave in their village near Gudermes.

The news came as a shock to representatives of the pro-Moscow Chechen government. Shamil Beno, the representative in Moscow and a long-time acquaintance of the Luluyev family, was dumbfounded. "I know one thing — neither Said-Avdi nor Nura had anything to do with any armed group in Chechnya," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

According to the Russian human right group Memorial, Luluyeva and her cousins were no exceptions. All 14 bodies identified in Zdorovye were civilians who had been detained by federal troops between June and January and had since disappeared, Memorial's Oleg Orlov said by telephone Tuesday.

"These were all people detained during the mop-up operations, at checkpoints or at other public places," he said.

Disappearances have become all too common in Chechnya during the last year, human rights organizations say. The head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, Diedrik Lohman, says they had almost 100 documented cases of disappearances, while Memorial claims to have a list of about 200 cases. Of the 14 people Memorial says were identified in Zdorovye, six were on its list, Orlov said.

Memorial says a total of 54 bodies were found in Zdorovye, and the Chechen prosecutor's office puts the total at 51, with three retrieved by their relatives early on. The prosecutor's office says 17 have been identified.

But without waiting to identify the remaining 34 bodies, the pro-Moscow administration buried them Saturday. The prosecutor's office said it would have been "blasphemy" had the decomposed bodied been kept any longer.

"The material we gathered is more than sufficient for any future identification, no matter how complicated it may turn out to be," Interfax quoted prosecutor Chernov as saying. He added that "the cause of death of every single person has been established" and the majority died as a result of gunshot wounds.

Ever since the discovery and identification of the first bodies in late February, Memorial claimed the people were killed execution-style: shot in the head, some with their hands tied behind their backs. Some had traces of torture.

The unannounced burial was harshly criticized by human rights organizations Tuesday.

"From what we know there was only one forensic expert working on those bodies and he had a pair of rubber gloves and a scalpel as his only equipment," Lohman said in a telephone interview. "It's hardly enough to establish the real cause of death and provide the solid basis for a possible trial later on.

"The absolutely inadequate way in which this mass grave case was handled shows the Russian government has no real intention of investigating it properly," he said, adding that Human Rights Watch would call for an international investigation.

The prosecutor's office has already opened an investigation, but Chernov refused to comment on the progress.

For Luluyev, though, there is no doubt as to the ultimate result. "The government will do everything they can to hide the perpetrators and prevent the truth form coming out."