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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya's Most Mopped-Up Village

TSOTSIN-YURT, Chechnya -- Like many Russians, Satsita Saltayeva, 34, long believed that neighbors who were arrested or killed during the night were guilty of some crime.

She changed her mind July 27 when federal troops marched into her home in this Chechen village. Saltayeva, the mother of a 1-year-old daughter, said the soldiers looted the house, beat her husband and took him away. They returned the next day and sexually abused her.

"They said I should never say a word to anyone about what they said or did," she said.

She reluctantly agreed to tell a reporter her story after human rights activists convinced her that military abuses would only continue if they were kept secret.

Saltayeva is far from alone in reporting robberies, torture and killings in mopping-up operations in Tsotsin-Yurt, once a prosperous village of 19,000. Tsotsin-Yurt has been targeted in more than 40 operations over the past two years, more than any other Chechen village, according to the human rights organization Memorial. Dozens of residents were killed, villagers said, and half of the town's population has fled.

Chechen prosecutors recently opened an investigation into the "beating of peaceful civilians in Tsotsin-Yurt" during the latest mopping-up operation, at the beginning of September, said Rudnik Dudayev, the head of Chechnya's Moscow-backed Security Council, Interfax reported.

A high-ranking Kremlin source said Tsotsin-Yurt is repeatedly targeted because its residents stubbornly refuse to stop supporting Chechen rebels. "Tsotsin-Yurt was, is and will be a target of mopping-up operations until its residents understand that they must stop supporting terrorists," he said on condition of anonymity.


Salvation Committee's Ruslan Badalov


Maskhadov supporter Apti Shakhgiriyev


Tsotsin-Yurt resident Satsita Saltayeva

He said Tsotsin-Yurt used to be a main rebel base with a highly developed network of contacts and a huge weapons stockpile. Federal troops have destroyed much of the network, but parts of it remain intact.

"So the rebels keep coming there, to their people, to a place where they can hide themselves and their weapons or wait for a mopping-up operation to finish in a neighboring village," he said. "Unfortunately, sometimes there is quite a large number of rebels in this village."

Some Tsotsin-Yurt residents acknowledged that they provide shelter and food to rebels but said they largely do so to spite the army for its abuse. They also said they believed the army was carrying out sweeps as a pretext to loot their homes and plant mines, thus creating a need to return later for another mop-up. Soldiers get paid extra for participating in these operations, which are considered high-risk.

"Who else could have placed a mine in the middle of the bridge in the village center?" one resident said. "They make explosions themselves and then come and rob us. What other reason do they have for always choosing the wealthiest houses for their checks?"

Matters came to a head on Feb. 12, when 4,000 outraged residents started an around-the-clock protest that lasted almost three weeks. They demanded an end to mopping-up operations and for federal troops to be withdrawn from Chechnya.

Residents say the rally was dispersed by security service agents in the crowd who persuaded protesters to go home. They said the protest would have spread across Chechnya had it continued.

A short time later, about 700 Tsotsin-Yurt residents signed an appeal to the United Nations, the European Parliament and Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, asking for protection from federal troops. The appeal included a list of 89 villagers who have been killed since the start of the second Chechnya campaign in September 1999 and the names of 29 others who have disappeared.

Of the people listed, 41 were killed during cleansing operations in the village or disappeared after they were detained, said Ruslan Badalov, head of the Chechen National Salvation Committee, which backs rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.

He said none of the recipients of the appeal has replied.

The February protest and appeal did not squash the mop-ups, and in the next, from March 25 to April 1, at least 14 people disappeared, several homes were looted and three houses were blown up, residents said.

Additional cleansing operations were conducted in July and September, and they did not conform to the military's infamous Order No. 80, which the commander of the campaign in Chechnya, Vladimir Moltenskoi, signed Match 29, Memorial said. The order said soldiers had to treat residents with respect during mop-ups.

"The troops were looting and extorting," Memorial said in a report about the July mop-up. "The military demanded ransoms of 500 rubles to 2,000 rubles for young men. Those who could not pay were taken to the village outskirts, where they were beaten and tortured with electricity for several hours. Wires were attached to penises. People were told that they would not be able to have any more children."

Memorial said 10 people were killed -- seven Tsotsin-Yurt residents and three from neighboring villages -- and hundreds were beaten, tortured and robbed.

It was this mop-up that shattered the convictions of Saltayeva, the young mother. Her problems started on July 27 at about 11 a.m., when a group of about 20 soldiers surrounded her home. Saltayeva's husband tried to go to a neighbor's house for a cigarette but was ordered back into his home.

"When he walked in, they did not check his documents but immediately grabbed him, put him in handcuffs and threw him on the floor on his back," Saltayeva said. "They started beating his stomach with a sledgehammer.

"They also put handcuffs on me, and I could only cry and shout for help. They put pantyhose on my daughter's head and beat her with a towel.

"When they left with my husband, they took every single valuable we had, including clothes and about 3,000 rubles. They broke other things that they did not take and even smashed my daughter's toys.

"They wanted us to tell them where rebels were hiding, but we told them that we hadn't seen any."

The next day, three of the soldiers returned and dragged her to a neighbor's house, she said.

"They lifted my dress and started to touch me everywhere," she said. "They told me to touch and suck their ..." she looked down at her thighs "... if I wanted to live and see my child again. I refused and started to shout.

"One of them covered my mouth with his hand and began to strangle me while beating my belly with his knee. I could not breathe. He then stood me against a wall and beat my stomach.

"He asked where the bruises on my body had come from. They were from the soldiers' beating the day before, but he asked whether I had been climbing mountains and helping rebels.

"Then they threw me on a couch and gave me an injection in my anus. I don't know what the liquid was, it was greenish."

Saltayeva said she quickly lost consciousness. She suspects that she was raped and sodomized. "My whole body was shaking for two weeks afterward, and I could not sit," she said.

She would not say directly that she was raped and probably never will, said Memorial official Libkhan Bazayeva.

"In Chechnya, such women become outcasts," Bazayeva said. "But Saltayeva agreed to tell her story to the world to try to stop such military abuses."

Neighbors took Saltayeva to a doctor after the soldiers left, and she did not say anything to him about the pain.

In addition to feeling ashamed, she remembered the warning that she and her daughter would be killed if she said anything. In relating the story, she spoke slowly and tears glistened in her eyes at the most difficult parts. But she carried on.

"When I awoke, they were straightening my dress," she said. "They made me sit in an armchair and repeated several times that they would kill me if I told anyone what had happened."

Saltayeva's husband was found July 30 on a road near the neighboring Avtury village. He had been badly beaten.

"He could not stand, he was all blood and bruises," Saltayeva said. "He said he hadn't been given food or even water for three days. He said he had been tortured and asked to name rebels in Tsotsin-Yurt. He only remembered that the head of the group who tortured him was called Afonya."

Saltayeva said rebels left Tsotsin-Yurt long ago, but Wahhabis -- members of a fundamentalist Islamist movement who are considered to form the core of the rebel movement -- still reside in the village.

"We used to have about seven of them living nearby. They are easily spotted -- they wear black clothing and their shirts cover their necks," she said. "Even during the day they go around with machine guns and shoot at those who cooperate with the [Kremlin-backed village] administration. I wonder why the troops don't arrest them." Saltayeva said her family disliked Wahhabis because "they are dangerous."

"They have many times asked my husband to transport weapons for them on his Gazel [truck], offering him a lot of money, up to $1,000 for just a one-way ride. But he never agreed and kept saying he wanted to live quietly and peacefully.

"And this is how he is treated ..." She sighed and bit her lip.

Her family may have been targeted because the day before soldiers came, a relative asked her husband for help pulling a car out of mud.

"He did not know that the car belonged to a recently killed Wahhabi," Saltayeva said. "But even if he knew, he would never refuse to help. It was just about pulling a car out of the mud. Chechens cannot refuse to help a relative or a friend."

Unlike Saltayeva's family, many people in Tsotsin-Yurt readily lend a hand to the rebels.

"Many have been insulted and humiliated by the troops and want revenge," Memorial's Bazayeva said.

The situation in Tsotsin-Yurt appears to be a vicious circle -- soldiers rely on residents' support in capturing rebels, but residents are reluctant to provide support after being caught in repeated mopping-up operations.

A source in Tsotsin-Yurt said "armed men" frequently come to the village and ask for assistance, and residents agree to help.

"Those who help them immediately become known as their supporters, because there are a lot of informers in the village," he said. "Some Chechens who come with arms are informers of the special services themselves, and they betray those who help them."

A source in the military said, "In other villages, residents are not letting the rebels in. But in Tsotsin-Yurt, rebels are still welcome and they feel at home."

Residents said they are trapped between two evils.

"If we try to find protection with federal troops, the rebels kill us. If we seek protection with the rebels, the troops kill us," one resident said.

Tsotsin-Yurt was once one of the richest villages in Chechnya. Up until late last year, the villagers were making money in the illegal oil business, operating makeshift refineries in their backyards. The low-quality gasoline was then sold in 10-liter jars on Grozny streets.

Last year a special division was created in the Chechen police to fight illegal oil production, and all of Tsotsin-Yurt's backyard refineries were destroyed.

"No illegal petrol is produced in Tsotsin-Yurt any more," Vakhid Arsemikov, a top Chechen police official, said in an interview in Grozny.

Having lost their easy source of wealth, Tsotsin-Yurt residents focused on growing vegetables and selling them, said Apti Shakhgiriyev, a Tsotsin-Yurt resident and member of Maskhadov's rebel parliament of Ichkeria.

"The soil is rich, and the crops are good," he said in an interview in Nazran, Ingushetia. "The troops know that they can collect a good ransom from the people again."

Shakhgiriyev said he was growing vegetables to survive until federal troops started paying regular visits during mopping-up operations.

"The 37th mopping-up operation, from March 25 to April 1, was the cruelest of all," he said. "I slept in different gardens, as did many others. We understood the tactics of the operations: The hardest time was from midnight to 3 a.m., then until 7 a.m. We could get some sleep between the vegetables.

"During the day, a group of about six of us would follow the troops. They never turned back, so we felt relatively safe watching where they went."

Shakhgiriyev said he finally managed to flee the village through a federal checkpoint. "I paid the soldiers 150 rubles, and they let me go," he said.

Shakhgiriyev said he has not returned to the village since.

Saltayeva and her family have also fled the village for Ingushetia, where they share a rented room with her brother and his family. Ten people in one room may be cramped, but Saltayeva does not even want to think about returning home.

Memorial's Bazayeva said she was helping the family register for aid from the United Nations. The problem is the family has only one set of documents for the three of them: Saltayeva said soldiers confiscated her husband's passport and tore up her daughter's birth certificate.

Foreign aid is their only hope. Russian aid is only distributed to those registered as internally displaced, and Saltayeva's family has no chance of getting registered.

"Refugees who flee Chechnya now are not allowed to get registered," Bazayeva said. "The policy is to make everyone return to Chechnya.

"But while inhumane conditions continue there, I would not advise anyone to move back."