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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sifting Through a Mass Grave

NAZRAN, Ingushetia — Only when the soldiers left them in an abandoned building long enough for the 10 Chechen prisoners to undo their ropes and blindfolds and flee, did Ruslan Tekibiyev realize that his young brother-in-law was no longer with him.

The pair had spent two days squatting with nine other men in a 3-meter-deep pit at what appeared to be a military camp. But now, when it seemed the ordeal was over, 16-year-old Said-Rakhman Musayev was missing.

The boy's body was found 70 days later, on Feb. 21. His father, Magomed Musayev, spotted it facedown under 7 centimeters of fresh snow, across a highway from the main military base in Chechnya. The corpse was one of 50 that would be found there.

"When I picked him up, I heard the cracking sound of broken bones," said Musayev, one of many relatives who told their stories here.

Many of the victims had been dead three or four months, according to Memorial, a human rights group whose officials examined some of the corpses. Most disappeared from different villages, on different dates. One was a 45-year-old mother of three, who relatives said sold rice and tea at Grozny's market. Her brother and father said she had been missing since June, when soldiers rousted her from bed and threw her into an armored personnel carrier. Another was a 37-year-old father of four detained at a military checkpoint near Shali in early December. His widow said her family paid soldiers $3,000 for his corpse.

Some of those killed were relatives of Chechen officials in the new pro-Moscow civilian administration.

Russia's human rights envoy to Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, said the "tragic find" will be fully investigated and the guilty brought to justice. Kremlin officials said it is wrong to assume soldiers were the killers just because their headquarters is about 50 meters away. Chechnya's then-prosecutor, Vsevolod Chernov, said rebels used Zdorovye as their own cemetery.

Human rights groups have documented repeated cases of military abuses against civilians. Human Rights Watch said in a report last month that it had documented cases of 113 Chechens disappearing after detention by soldiers.

Prosecutions are exceedingly rare. Military prosecutors have brought charges in only eight alleged crimes against Chechen civilians. Another 29 cases are under investigation.

Tatyana Kasatkina, Memorial's executive director, who saw two dozen corpses at Zdorovye, said investigators were working with nothing but scalpels and rubber gloves. After relatives identified 16 corpses, the prosecutor ordered the 34 others be buried, saying the investigation was completed.

Said-Rakhman was the youngest of the victims identified. He disappeared Dec. 10 after visiting an elderly relative. Family members said he was a shy, quiet teenager, who rarely strayed far from his home in Raduzhnoye.

Relatives said that when Said-Rakhman and his brother-in-law, Tekibiyev, set off to visit Tekibiyev's grandmother — a 10-minute car ride away — they left their passports at home. They left her at 8:30 p.m., half an hour after curfew. The soldiers who stopped them tied their wrists and threw them in the back of a truck, together with Adam Bikiyev, who'd been detained separately.

The soldiers kicked and beat the men, according to Bikiyev, who also said they stole his watch, hat, two sweaters and 1,500 rubles (about $50).

In the morning, blindfolded and bound, 21 men, almost all detained in Raduzhnoye, were led to pits and told to jump in. Bikiyev said some of them told him that, judging by the sounds of gates and helicopters, and by the soldiers' conversation, they were in Khankala.

The next evening, the men were ordered to squat and waddle, "like a goose," to a tent. There, Bikiyev said, an officer promised to "make chops" of him if he didn't identify Chechen fighters. Tekibiyev said he was accused of planting mines, and using Said-Rakhman as a decoy. "We'll hang the boy and shoot you," the officer promised.

On the third evening, a Russian who identified himself as a colonel told the prisoners they'd been arrested for violating curfew, and if they told anyone what had happened, they and their parents would be found and shot, Bikiyev said.

For reasons Bikiyev couldn't explain, Said-Rakhman and another prisoner, Magomed Magomadov, were put in a different vehicle than the men taken to the abandoned building.

Pleas by Said-Rakhman's family to the military, prosecutor and other officials for information went unanswered. More than two months later, a woman from another village said she had seen many bodies near Khankala.

There, Musayev found his son. Under the wool cap that covered the boy's head was a gaping wound. He had been shot twice, near his right lung and his heart, Musayev said. Magomadov's body was there, too.

"I was the one who wanted to cry most of all but I couldn't," Said-Rakhman's father said, his eyes filling up. "Because I am a man. And because there are people among the Chechens who have seen worse things."