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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Suicide Squad' Hits The Streets

ReutersChechen policemen sitting in the back of jeeps as they cross a checkpoint at Minutka Square in downtown Grozny this month.
GROZNY -- As darkness falls on the devastated Chechen capital, dozens of young local police officers prepare for a night on the beat, a job so dangerous one rights agency calls them a "suicide squad."

The army controls the city by day, but separatist fighters emerge at night to plant mines, attack checkpoints and ambush military convoys. Chechens working for the pro-Moscow local authorities are among their most frequent targets.

Few of the men lined up at the Staropromyslovsky district police headquarters will escape injury in the months to come. Many of those forced to patrol Grozny's ruined streets on foot, for lack of vehicles, will die.

"We are a target," said Salam Salamov, deputy head of the newly created local Interior Ministry. "Several hundred officers have been killed or injured. Some 240 officers have been killed over the past two years."

Timur Khamidov is tall, broad-shouldered and one of the district's sturdiest officers. But his eyes, all but hidden under a dark woolen hat, shine with fear as he talks about life as a Chechen working for a police force underpinning the pro-Moscow local administration.

"They know where we live. Our families, our parents live in fear," Khamidov said. "I have a brother at school, and he needs to know what computers are, what the Internet is. He needs to know what peace is."

The 9,000 Chechens working as police officers are a key element of Kremlin efforts to prove that the "military phase" of its second war against separatists is over and that control of the region has been turned over to the local administration.

"We must bring the Chechens into the political process, so they can stand on their own feet. Otherwise, no matter how many soldiers we bring in, we will never bring peace to Chechnya," said Vladimir Chernyayev of the Chechen prosecutor's office.

For most Grozny residents, still sheltering in packed rooms and abandoned corridors without running water, electricity or heating, any chance to rebuild their lives is welcome.

"It is not hard to fill our ranks because of the high level of unemployment," Salamov said.

Among Grozny's menfolk, the vast majority unemployed, working for the police is still a coveted job. Few other jobs guarantee regular salaries.

For most, risk is simply part of life in Chechnya. "Living here, you get used to it," said Ramzan, who joined the force four months ago. "Police are needed and that's it."

Ramzan had spent most of his working life as an engineer at one of Chechnya's refineries, which are now closed down.

Adlan, 24, works as a night watchman at one of the handful of freshly rebuilt apartment blocks. His dream is to get a recommendation that will allow him to join the police.

"I work with them now, but I would like to work for them," he said. "As things stand here, it is the best job around."

But separatist fighters have stepped up efforts to undermine Moscow's claims that life is back to normal.

Some attack from within the force.

"Initially, we did take in some people who helped rebels, working during the day and shooting us in the back at night," Salamov said. "Little by little, we are cleaning out the force."

In October, in one of the most devastating attacks against pro-Moscow officials, a bomb was planted at a Grozny police station, killing 24 officers and injuring 18. Police believe the explosives were laid by a former officer.

"We will feel safe only when the situation calms down -- we need political, economic stability, elections," Salamov said. "Over the last few months there have been fewer blasts and shootings, so there is some element of stability."

But even in relatively quiet regions in Chechnya's north, long under Russian control, pro-Moscow officials are targets.

Akhmed Zavgayev, head of the Nadterechny region, boasted so much popular support he refused bodyguards. He was murdered with his secretary while driving home last September.

His replacement, Sultan Akhmetkhanov, a KGB intelligence officer in Soviet times, promised to resist separatist threats and lifted up his sweater to show that he still carries no weapon.

"I'm not afraid. We have long had stability here," he said. "No one is ever entirely safe -- not even in Moscow."

But unlike his predecessor, Akhmetkhanov travels with two bodyguards.

For Chechen civilians, struggling to survive attacks from both sides, having their own police force can only be a good thing. Russian forces are regularly accused of raiding homes, robbing and arresting civilians without explanation.

"The Chechens are nicer to us. We speak to them on a different level," said Yakha, 60. "But they work only until they are murdered. Who kills them? The Russians? The rebels? No one knows."