♦ Burying the victims of the First Chechen War (1994-6) ♦
The remains of 109 people have been interred at a cemetery in the village of Pobedinskoye in the Grozny rural district of Chechnya. Since the remains were not identified before interment, the graves bear numbers which will make it possible to exhume the deceased for burial by their relatives in the event of later identification.
According to official information, a mass grave with the remains of approximately 160 people was discovered by employees of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation in 2014 next to a Christian cemetery in the Oktyabrskoye district of Grozny.
As staff of the Memorial Human Rights Centre learned from local residents whose relatives went missing during the armed hostilities, the mothers of the soldiers who were still looking for their sons after their disappearance during the two Chechen wars were told about the grave in the Oktyabrskoye district by a group of military personnel.
The soldiers’ mothers then contacted the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, and Ministry officials determined the exact location of the grave.
According to official sources, the remains removed from the mass grave were taken to a laboratory in Rostov-on-Don for identification.
The official reports state that only two Russian military personnel could be identified over the course of two years, and their remains were handed over to their relatives.
The remaining bodies are presumed to have been Chechen citizens, and the Chechen Government took the decision to bury them on Chechen territory. Some of the remains were interred on 31 December, and others will be buried in a year’s time.
The burial rites were performed by clergy belong to the Islamic High Council of the Chechen Republic, led by the mufti Salakh Mezhiyev.
Staff of the Memorial Human Rights Centre have been informed by family members that at least one Chechen citizen whose remains were found in 2014 in the Oktyabrskoye district of Grozny has been identified and buried in their ancestral graveyard.
On 31 December 1994, Visita Batayev, born in 1967 in the village of Komsomolskoye (later renamed Goy-Chu, also known as Saadi-Kotar) in the Urus-Martankovsky district of Chechnya, a resident of Grozny, and his neighbour, Musa Israilov, born in 1963, went missing. Batayev left behind two children, who were two and four years old at the time their father disappeared.
Their relatives searched for them for many years without success. Visita Batayev’s father, Abuyazit Batayev, spent over 20 years searching, until his health made it impossible to continue.
He appealed to all the possible authorities, and met and exchanged information with the relatives of other missing people. Batayev’s family was one of the first in Chechnya to create a genetic passport, using a DNA sample from Visita’s youngest son. The General Lebed Peacemaking Mission provided the family with a great deal of assistance in its search.
The mass grave in the Oktyabrskoye district of Grozny was discovered in 2014, and the remains which were recovered from it were taken to a laboratory in Rostov-on-Don. In autumn 2016, Batayev’s relatives were told by the staff of the General Lebed Peacekeeping Mission that his remains were thought to be among them.
After comparing the DNA results for the remains which had been discovered and the data in the genetic passport, this hypothesis was proved conclusively.
On 29 October 2016, almost 22 years after he went missing, the relatives of Visita Batayev brought his remains home themselves and buried them in the ancestral graveyard.
“The Almighty has heard my prayer, and now I can depart this world in peace,” said Abuyazit Batayev after the funeral. Twenty days later he was buried next to his son.
The remains of Musa Israilov, who went missing together with Batayev, were identified in 2014 and laid to rest at the ancestral graveyard in the village of Akhkinchu-Borzoy in the Nozhay-Yurtovsky district.
They had been found at the Bogorodskoye Cemetery in Moscow in the grave of an unknown soldier. Staff of the Memorial Human Rights Centre were told by Musa Israilov’s relatives that the remains of some of those killed had been kept in cold storage for around six years, and then buried in various cemeteries around Russia.
Thousands of people went missing in the Chechen Republic during the two Chechen Wars, and in some cases their relatives are still unaware of their whereabouts.
Those whose remains were discovered in the Oktyabrskoye district of Grozny and buried in Pobedinskoye were not identified, and it is entirely possible that their relatives are still continuing to search for them.
Since 2013, the relatives of missing persons in Chechnya have started creating “genetic passports”, or DNA passports containing genotype details which makes it possible to identify remains.
Many Chechens were therefore understandably displeased at the Chechen authorities’ failure to notify anyone of the planned burials. The first reports about what was going on in the village cemetery, and photographs of bodies in plastic sacks, were posted on WhatsApp by people living in the village. The burial proceedings started in the morning and ended by lunchtime.
Members of the Chechen public who are still searching for relatives who went missing during the war were deprived of the opportunity to find out about the planned burials or to compare the data in their DNA passports against the genetic characteristics of the remains, thereby potentially identifying their relatives in order to take away their bodies and bury them in the ancestral graveyard next to other deceased family members.
The Chechen citizens in contact with Memorial Human Rights Centre staff were also perplexed as to why the burial had taken place on New Year’s Eve, and why a cemetery had been chosen which was located in a remote and sparsely inhabited area.
After the burial had taken place, Salakh Mezhiyev, mufti of the Chechen Republic, said that those with DNA passports may apply to the Islamic High Council so that an analysis can be carried out with a view to establishing whether their relative was among those buried. As reported by the Memorial Human Rights Centre, however, members of the public find it very difficult to understand why these checks could not have been carried out before the remains were buried.
Translated by Joanne Reynolds
2 February 2017