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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

For MTMagomedrasul Magomedov together with his Polish colleagues after their release
For Magomedrasul Magomedov, a scientist from Makhachkala, the ordeal began in August 1999: He was dragged from his Niva by masked gunmen who then took him from his native Dagestan to Urus-Martan, the kidnap capital of Chechnya.

"It was a real zoo. Cages and pits in almost every house but instead of animals, people were languishing in them," Magomedov recalls.

His own experience as a captive of the Chechen slave trade drove Magomedov to find out how many more people had been victims. After his release, he combed through newspaper archives to calculate how many kidnappings had taken place in the North Caucasus in the 1990s, and how many people had been released in that period.

"It turns out there were around 2,000 hostages held in Chechnya along with us," says Magomedov. "An average of 70 people were kidnapped in the region every month."

A prominent Dagestani ecologist, Magomedov was kidnapped along with his colleague Alexander Kaimarazov, and two visiting Polish biologists, Zofia Fischer-Malanowska and Ewa Marchwinska-Wyrwal.

The Dagestani scientists were freed from their pit in Urus-Martan a month later, but their Polish colleagues had to spend more than six months in captivity. While Magomedov denies that a ransom was paid for him directly, he says his family paid thousands of dollars in "gifts" to secure his release. His Polish colleagues, he says, went for a higher price.

In Urus-Martan, the four hostages inhabited the same cell where Sergei Shvarts, a 25-year-old dentist from the Dagestan capital Makhachkala, had suffered alone for weeks. His only companion was the copy of "The Master and Margarita" his captors had given him -- a concession that kept him from going mad.

While Magomedov and his colleagues were captured in a small village about 100 kilometers from the Chechen border, Shvarts was kidnapped in broad daylight in Makhachkala and released four months after he was taken in June 1999. Shvarts was not the first in his family to suffer at the hands of Chechen slave traders. His father, a well-known plastic surgeon in Dagestan, was kidnapped in late 1998, and he is still in captivity. Shvarts believes his father is being kept by Chechen warlord Khattab.

The stories of Magomedov and Shvarts, and those of so many other survivors of kidnap attacks, have become frighteningly common in the North Caucasus. Many local residents know only too well what it is like to have a loved one fall victim to cross-border body snatchers.

Kidnapping is nothing new in Chechnya and Dagestan. Indeed, it is an integral part of the region's ancient culture, and some traditional folk songs remain about kidnapping and selling victims. The slave market in the Dagestan village Endirey-Aul, the largest in the region, flourished during tsarist times and continued up until the 1917 revolution.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the corresponding slackening of the police force, the kidnapping business has returned in full force. The Interior Ministry started registering kidnap attacks connected with Chechen criminal rings back in 1992. Since then, the number of incidents has skyrocketed from two cases in 1992 and 1993, to 312 attacks in 1995 and 437 attacks in 1996 -- during the first military campaign in the region. For the remainder of the decade, the official number of reported kidnappings has hovered around 350 cases per year.

Mind numbing as they are, the official kidnapping figures are misleading; in many cases the victim's relatives don't apply to authorities for help, fearing reprisal from those holding their loved ones hostage.

The new millennium saw a considerable drop in kidnappings. In 2000, when Russian troops claimed control over the previously de facto independent Chechnya, the number of cases decreased by 66. That was when, according to Colonel Akhberdilav Akilov, chief of the Interior Ministry's regional directorate to fight kidnapping, "Russian law enforcement agencies got the opportunity to act in Chechnya."

But in 2001 kidnapping incidents in Chechnya and Dagestan shot up again to 343 official cases, proving that Russian control over the restive republic is somewhat illusory.

According to Akilov, last year's increase is due to the collapse of the region's black market trade in oil. Since these proceeds have dried up, Chechen warlords have turned to kidnapping to finance their campaign against the Kremlin.

But some analysts believe that the cease-fire in Chechnya is the reason for revival of the hostage trade.

"Two years ago the infrastructure of the criminal business was partly destroyed by the war," said Timur Muzayev, an expert from the Panorama think tank and an adviser to the Chechen government in 1994 and 1995. "Today's semblance of peace permits the kidnappers to return to their business."

Indeed, they have not only resumed business, but developed the art of kidnapping into a highly sophisticated industry.

"Earlier the bandits' usual practice was simple -- grab the victim and run over the border to Chechnya," says Akilov. "Today, the kidnappers conduct preliminary reconnaissance of the future crime scene, they take care to secure transportation and hide their hostages -- they even spread false information to mislead the investigating authorities."

The returning victims also report that the gangs enjoy cooperative links with the police and a strict division of labor within the criminal rings. The kidnappings of Magomedov and Shvarts illustrate the high professionalism of the perpetrators.

"Our Niva was blocked on the road by three Ladas full of people wearing the uniforms of OMON officers," Magomedov remembers the day he was abducted. "When Sasha [Kaimarazov] asked what they wanted from us, they broke his leg with a rifle butt and then made us take seats in their cars."

Magomedov's kidnapping occurred just one week after Chechen warlords Shamil Basayev and Khattab invaded Dagestan in August 1999, when thousands of Dagestani policemen and Russian troops were amassed at the Dagestani-Chechen border and hundreds of police check points were set up on the roads. All transport between the two republics was shut by the decree of Dagestan's interior minister, yet Magomedov's kidnappers had no trouble moving their cargo into Chechnya. Their motorcade passed through numerous checkpoints without being stopped because, Magomedov believes, the policemen -- who had already been bribed -- knew in advance they were coming.

"One man in my car was giving orders via radio to the police to open the check points," he says, smiling bitterly. "It was useless to call to the police for help."

After spending 18 days in a hole in the woods, Magomedov and his fellow victims were sold to the Akmadov brothers, Chechen warlords notorious for their activities in the slave trade.

"We crossed the border checkpoint as if there were no police restrictions at all," recalls Magomedov. "The man who had kept us got a plastic bag full of money from the Akhmadovs' envoy."

Since Basayev's 1999 invasion, relations between Dagestan and Chechnya have worsened -- a condition that is only aggravated by the rising number of Dagestanis who fall victim to Chechen kidnappers. But since the locals are wary of Chechens, kidnappers working within Dagestan have forged links with local criminals to abduct their victims, says Shvarts.

"Dagestani criminals abduct people and sell them to Chechnya," says Shvarts.

Shvarts' experience suggests that his captors also had the local police on their payroll. The dentist, who was kidnapped just steps away from his home, was kept in the Kadar zone, a Wahhabi enclave some 100 kilometers west of Makhachkala, before being transferred to Chechnya.

After 10 days in captivity, his captors handcuffed Shvarts, put a gas mask over his head and placed him in a large, coffin-like box. They nailed it shut and hid it underneath a KamAZ truck. After traveling like that for several hours, Shvarts lost consciousness.

"I woke up when a man in a police uniform lifted the lid of the box and asked me whether I was still breathing. Seeing me alive, he shut the lid," recalls Shvarts, speculating that it had been an officer at a checkpoint between Dagestan and Chechnya.

Once inside Chechnya, the kidnappers divide their duties and responsibilities, says Magomedov.

"Everybody there had cells in the basement of their house that were used like hotel suites," he says. "The owner of the house gets paid by the hostage-keepers, and the local youths hired to guard us were paid a per diem."

While most of the survivors speak of the complicated nature of the crime -- stressing the developed information exchange between Dagestani and Chechen criminals -- there are cases when mistakes are made.

For MT

Sergei Shvarts relishing freedom immediately after his release at the Gerzel checkpoint between Dagestan and Chechnya in October 1999.

For MT

Shvarts sitting in his Makhachkala dentist clinic where he has returned to practice following his kidnapping ordeal in Chechnya.

A professor from one of Dagestan's universities, who asked to remain anonymous, believes that his kidnapping in September 1999 was a mistake.

Taken hostage together with the deputy rector of his university, the professor was forced into a Toyota Landcruiser that made it through dozens of police checkpoints -- all the way to Gudermes in Chechnya.

"We were brought into a large villa surrounded by a 5-meter high brick wall. Dozens of hostages were kept in small cells in the yard," the professor recalls.

Once the professor was taken inside, a middle-aged Chechen asked him his name and inserted a disc labeled 'Makhachkala' into his computer. After a brief search, the master shrugged:

"You are not in my database. You were taken by mistake," he said. "What can you offer for yourself?"

The frightened professor immediately wrote a letter to his wife asking her to give all their savings, the keys to his Volga and the car itself to the bearer of the letter. He was released several days later, when his master's envoy returned to Gudermes with his possessions.

Before being delivered to the border checkpoint, the professor asked his master about the fate of his fellow captive, the deputy rector -- who was only released a month later.

"He headed the university admissions office this summer and shortly after that bought a brand new Jeep for himself and a Mercedes for his son," the captor said. "My calculations show he can easily cough up $50,000."

According to Shvarts, nobody is released for less than a $50,000 ransom.

The dentist was in captivity for two months before his kidnappers decided to raise the ransom issue.

"They gave me a mobile phone and told me what to tell to my mother," says Shvarts, adding that his captors kept a gun to his head throughout the conversation. "Then they talked to her themselves."

He refused to say exactly how much his family and medical colleagues paid to retrieve him, but dentists are considered to be well off in Dagestan -- one reason why he was targeted in the first place.

"Even when you have the money, you have to beg your masters to take it," he says.

Ransom rates weren't always so high. Back in the days when Chechen kidnappers adopted the grab and run policy, the ransoms requested reflected the region's standard of living. Depending on the victim's social status, they could run anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. That was the typical price for a Russian soldier or Dagestani policeman serving near the border of Chechnya. But as the kidnappers grew savvier, collecting a database of information on wealthy citizens, their ransom demands skyrocketed.

Dozens of representatives of Dagestan's business community as well as statesmen, public figures and their relatives have been kidnapped and ransomed in the recent years. The ransoms ranged from $300,000 for the son of the deputy rector of Dagestan's Medical University to $25 million for the son of the former Dagestani prime minister.

Not surprisingly, the rates rise again if the victims are foreigners, or if the media gets hold of the story.

In the case of Herbert Gregg, an American preacher living in Makhachkala where he was kidnapped in November 1998, the initial ransom demand was $3 million. To expedite the deal, his masters passed videotape to one of his Moscow friends that showed Gregg's keepers cutting off his finger. This film was then shown on Russian television several times.

After numerous meetings between Dagestani police officials and Chechen warlords acting as mediators for the hostage takers, the ransom was dropped to $2 million. That, according to the chief of Dagestan's Interior Directorate to Fight Organized Crime, was the amount that was paid to release the American.

The price tag for French relief worker Vincent Cochetel -- who was released in 1998 -- was even higher. While common official practice is to deny that any ransom was paid, Magomed Tolboyev, former head of the Dagestani Security Council and a participant in the negotiations to free Cochetel, told journalists that the kidnappers received $4 million.

One of the largest ransom demands ever made was for Gennady Shpigun, Russia's deputy interior minister, who was abducted in Chechnya in March 1999. According to Russian media reports, Shpigun's kidnappers requested $25 million for his release. In order to confirm that Shpigun was still alive, his captors sent a photograph of the Russian official -- haggard and bearded -- reading a newspaper account of his capture with a portrait of the official neatly shaved and in full officer's dress. Shpigun's dead body was found in Chechnya in July 2000.

Police officials rarely confirm that ransoms have been paid, preferring to use the euphemism: "The hostage was released in a result of the special operation."

"But this is nonsense," says Magomedov, who is writing a book about Chechnya's kidnapping industry. "It always takes money or the exchange of Chechen prisoners for hostages."

Sometimes the slave traders demand that their friends or relatives be released from Russian prison in exchange for the release of their hostages. This exchange chain often involves dozens of people -- victims, masters and mediators.

A Chechen-for-Russian exchange program was officially set up in February 1996 when then-President Boris Yeltsin ordered the creation of a presidential commission on prisoners of war, internees and missing persons.

"Initially, we changed the seized rebels for seized Russian soldiers," says Vyacheslav Izmailov, a reporter from Novaya Gazeta and a member of the commission's task force. "When the war stopped, the kidnappings of civilians in and around Chechnya skyrocketed and we had to look for new options to get them back."

The commission reached an agreement with the Prosecutor General's Office allowing for Chechens in prison accused of less severe crimes to go free in exchange for the release of a hostage in Chechnya.

"I always tried to get several hostages for one Chechen," says Izmailov. "Once I got seven people for one."

There is one other way -- other than paying money -- to arrange for the release of your kidnapped relative, says Magomedov.

"The most important thing is to know who is holding the hostage -- this is the information kidnappers hide most," says Magomedov. "Once you know it, you can find a way to pressure the captor. He probably has his own relatives in Russia, and you can threaten them."

According to one high-ranking Dagestani police official, such was the case when a Dagestani gangster living in St. Petersburg discovered that his father had been kidnapped from his native village near the Chechen border. The captors demanded $300,000 for the old man's release, but the gangster had other plans. He flew home and drove over the border to the nearest Chechen village.

"I am ready to bury my father without his body and mourn his loss," the gangster told the local Chechen elders. "But then I am going to spend $300,000 to hire 100 cutthroats who will turn your village into ashes."

The next day, the gangster's father was returned home with apologies.

It was Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's inability to put a stop to the kidnappings that contributed to his downfall, analysts say.

"Kidnappers in Chechnya were not common criminals -- every gang was protected by a local prominent leader," says Panorama's Muzayev. "Whenever Maskhadov attempted to intervene, he had to retreat for fear of provoking the internal conflict. His tolerance [of the kidnappers] led to his loosing power in Chechnya."

"Maskhadov decided that the struggle with the kidnappers would push the republic into civil war and serve the interests of Moscow," says Shamil Beno, a minister in the government of the first Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev.

"Only the decriminalization of politics in the region can have a positive impact on the kidnapping situation," he says. "Today the participants of the political process in the region use criminal methods -- and kidnapping is among the most popular -- to reach their political ends."

According to Beno, around 3,000 hostages are currently being held in Chechnya, while the Interior Ministry says only 700 people remain in captivity.

Exposure of the kidnapping is extremely complicated work, says Akilov of Dagestan's anti-kidnapping force.

According to a source in the Dagestan Supreme Court, only 31 kidnappers were convicted in 2001, most of them for light offenses such as kidnapping brides.

Such poor effectiveness on the part of law enforcement agencies only fuels the proliferation of the kidnappings, the former hostages believe.

"If a kidnapper wants to take somebody, they will do it anyway," says Shvarts, sighing sadly. "One must be aware of it here."