I remember most the terrifying silence. The mist, clinging to the listless morning air, drifting through the skeletal remains that were Grozny. It was an absolute silence. The birds had deserted the skies. The rumble of Russian T-80s was gone. The once bustling marketplace had disappeared. Rubble and unexploded ordnance littered the streets of the ruined capital, testament to the ferocity of battle that took place in the previous weeks. It was a surreal experience for a young and inexperienced photojournalist.
I made this image almost 20 years to the day of writing, in the immediate weeks after the recapture of Grozny from Russian forces. It was buried in a box of photographs I’ve hauled from house to house, and resurfaced during a move just as Chechnya headed to its presidential election last month.
The separatists’ victory in Grozny signified the end of the First Chechen War, which ran from 1994 to 1996. In August 1996 Boris Yeltsin’s then national security adviser, General Alexander Lebed, and the leader of the Chechen independence movement, Aslan Maskhadov, signed the Khasavyurt peace accord.
But first, the ruining of Grozny. The Russian commander Konstantin Pulikovsky had issued an ultimatum to the city’s residents – leave within 48 hours or the full power of the Russian military would be unleashed, an aerial bombardment of strategic bombers and ballistic missiles that would level the city. Panic reigned as thousands evacuated. In 2003, the United Nations would declare Grozny the most destroyed city in the world.
Today, Chechnya exists under the brutal dictatorship of Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Following the Chechen declaration of independence in 1991, Ramzan, as well as his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, became supporters of separatist president Dzhokhar Dudayev, and fought prominently in the First Chechen War before the Kadyrov clan defected to the Russian side at the beginning of the Second Chechen War in 1999. Since then, Ramzan has led his militia with support from Russia’s Federal Security Service. After the death of his father in a targeted stadium detonation in central Grozny in 2004, Ramzan was appointed deputy prime minister of the Republic of Chechnya. By February 2007, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a decree removing Alu Alkhanov as the republic’s president and installing Ramzan Kadyrov as Chechnya’s acting president. In March of that year, Putin’s nomination of Kadyrov bore fruit, with the Chechen parliament approving Ramzan’s nomination and appointing him to the presidency.
Though Chechnya appears to be in an apparent state of calm, Kadyrov and his forces, known as “Kadyrovtsy”, have ruled Chechnya with an iron fist, crushing opposition and dissenting voices with impunity. In July 2009, prominent human rights activist and journalist Natalya Estemirova was abducted from her Grozny home and whisked across the neighbouring border into Ingushetia. Her body was found later in a shallow, roadside ditch, with bullets wounds to the back of her head. Estemirova worked for a human rights group called Memorial and in the wake of her murder only one human rights organisation has been able to operate on the ground in Chechnya – the Joint Mobile Group, from Russia. Earlier this year, it too left Grozny due to safety concerns.
While the total number of reported cases of enforced disappearance in Chechnya has decreased in recent years, hundreds of people have been “disappeared” by Kadyrov’s forces.
In July 2004, the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, Paul Klebnikov, was shot dead in Moscow. Klebnikov was investigating a complex web of money laundering involving a Chechen reconstruction fund reaching into the centres of power within the Kremlin. Also in that year, former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed by Russian agents in a targeted car bombing in Qatar. In October 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, famed Russian author and fierce critic of both Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin, was gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment block. At the time of her assassination, Politkovskaya was investigating human rights abuses and regular instances of torture in Chechnya.
Back in 1996 I had returned to a section of Grozny where I had been the previous day, photographing a young girl living in the basement of a bombed-out apartment with her father and grandmother. They were the sole survivors of an extended family and cowered in their dank underground fortress by the light of a single kerosene lamp. I guess it was disbelief that anyone could have possibly survived through what they had endured that drew me back there. Less than 500 metres from the former presidential palace, they had lived through some of the heaviest street fighting and sustained aerial bombardments of the first war. Their survival, along with several orphaned cats, was a miraculous tale of human endurance and represented the only life in an area that formed the epicentre of the battle for Grozny.
Despite Kadyrov’s despotic rule and a ratcheting up of the persecution and shaming of his critics in the lead-up to last month’s elections, he still holds the support of many average citizens, being largely credited with ending ethnic cleansing at the hands of Russian forces. And while exiled Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev concedes Kadyrov may well overstay his term in office, he offers a sombre yet ominous warning to both Kadyrov and the Kremlin. “Chechnya is just biding its time,” he says. “Chechen has not been pacified. Chechnya has never been as militarily strong as now. The slightest political shifts in Russia will be echoed in Chechnya.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 1, 2016 as "Grozny shadows". Subscribe here.