Our dead and injured children

September 7, 2004 — The Guardian

Monday 13 September 2004, by Ahmed ZAKAEV

Beslan was barbaric - so has been Russia’s reign of terror in Chechnya

The bloody denouement to the Beslan tragedy was barbaric: no other word will suffice. There could never be any justification for terrorists who we are told shot fleeing hostages in the back - nor for those who died at the hands of the ill-judged Spetsnaz operation. I have been asked many times about

Chechen involvement in this appalling bloodbath. Of course there can be no denying the direct link between the Beslan tragedy and the war in Chechnya. The president of North Ossetia, Alexander Dzasokhov, made it clear that the terrorists’ only demand was an end to the war in Chechnya and the withdrawal of all the Russian forces from our country.

For the past five years that has been the sole concern of the Chechen nation, led by its legitimate, elected president, Aslan Maskhadov: to end the fighting and force Russian troops to leave Chechnya.

Ten years ago Chechnya had a population of 2 million. Today it is 800,000, and Vladimir Putin has an army of what we estimate to be up to 300,000 Russian soldiers in Chechnya inflicting a regime of terror. Many Chechens are refugees and many others have simply disappeared, often in the night. At

least 200,000 Chechen civilians have been killed by Russian soldiers, including 35,000 children. Another 40,000 children have been seriously injured, 32,000 have lost at least one parent and 6,500 have been orphaned. These are figures supported by reports of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, and we believe they are conservative. This is how Putin’s soldiers treat Chechen civilians.

We feel trapped on a treadmill which is not of our own making. In 1990, at the height of Mikhail Gorbachov’s perestroika, we were told that our republic would be put on an equal footing with others in a renewed Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union collapsed and in 1993 Russia decided that if it was to recreate its empire within the former frontiers, it could start with us. There was no justification for Russia invading Chechnya either in 1994 or in 1999.

In 1993, four years after our declaration of sovereignty, Russia arbitrarily included the Chechen Republic as part of its territory in the new constitution of the Russian federation. It did this in spite of the way things were, de facto and de jure, for Chechnya and its neighbours. Unlike other formerly autonomous Soviet republics, the Chechen republic did not give in to the many threats intended to force it to sign the federal treaty with Russia.

When Putin unleashed the dogs of war on Chechnya in order to occupy it for a second time, he christened his attack a "counter-terrorist operation in the northern Caucasus". Many of us did not realise the significance of that then. Now, with hindsight, we can see that the idea was to discredit the very notion of statehood for Chechnya. While a minority of Chechens regarded Putin’s onslaught against us as justified, the majority of the nation has kept faith with its elected president, Maskhadov.

Five years have passed since then, and little has changed. Especially since September 11 2001, President Maskhadov’s government has systematically disowned any links with international terrorism. Such assurances, however, have not been enough: the lack of any evidence of links between us and any international terrorist network has failed to dent the firmly held views of Putin and his friends.

Putin has been blaming every act of terrorism in Russia on the Chechens and by his linking our efforts to achieve freedom with monstrous acts of terrorism, each more terrible than the last, Putin and his government are trying to force us to renounce any claims to independence. The Kremlin will not, however, succeed. Freedom for Chechnya is in our blood and in the struggle that stretches back for centuries. President Maskhdov and his supporters, including myself, will never endorse or support terrorism to achieve this independence. Our aim is to strive for a peaceful resolution to an end to the barbaric injustice that is being dealt out to the Chechens by Russia’s government.

Putin is keen to get the international community to see the situation in Chechnya as part of the war on international terror. He hopes the outside world will leave him alone to inflict his regime of terror on the Chechens. The international community knows that the situation in Chechnya is quite different, so why does no one intervene? We are keen to participate in mediation to bring an end to this dreadful situation for the Chechens. We call on the international community to step in and help bring peace to both Chechnya and to Russia.

·Ahmed Zakaev is Aslan Maskhadov’s representative and was deputy prime minister in the Chechen government elected in 1997. He was granted asylum by the British government in 2003

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