MOSCOW — Tatyana Lokshina is in mourning. And she is angry.
Human rights workers are supposed to aid those in need and document the cases of those who have been wronged. They are not supposed to attend the funerals of their colleagues.
Yet that is where Lokshina, an activist at the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, found herself, yet again, last week.
Her friend and colleague Natalia Estemirova, the leading human rights campaigner in the Russian republic of Chechnya, had been kidnapped and murdered, silenced for tirelessly reporting the atrocities that activists say are not only sanctioned but committed by the regime of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.
“I’m devastated, totally crushed about her death,” said Lokshina, echoing the sentiment of dozens of activists and journalists who relied, both professionally and personally, on Estemirova, one of the last in their field to live and work in Chechnya.
News of the murder was met with shock, but not with surprise. Kadyrov was said to harbor a personal hatred for Estemirova. At least seven of his well-known opponents have met violent deaths.
One of the first was Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading journalist for opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who was gunned down in the entrance to her Moscow apartment building in October 2006. She and Estemirova were what activists called the soul of their campaign to expose the atrocities that have flourished under Kadyrov’s rule.
When critics of official power in Vladimir Putin's Russia are killed, be they journalists, politicians or activists, it strikes a blow to Russia’s beleaguered human rights community.
Yet Estemirova’s murder has prompted an unprecedented collective soul searching among the women who form the heart of that community. With two of their best and brightest felled by assassins’ bullets, life has become all the more dangerous and the future all the more uncertain.
The sense of defiance that once bound them is crumbling.
Karinna Moskalenko is a lawyer who focuses on Chechen cases and represents Politkovskaya’s family. As the trial of alleged accomplices to Politkovskaya’s murder got underway last year, she was struck with mercury poisoning at her home in France. An initial investigation ruled the poisoning an accident. A second investigation raised doubt.
Moskalenko said she used to feel brave, traveling to Grozny in Chechnya and Nazran, the capital of the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. “I would believe that no one could do anything illegal against me. I’m a lawyer, I don’t do politics,” she said. “I was very brave then, I sincerely believed nothing can be done with me, because it was so clear I was acting in a legal way. Now I’m not so sure,” she said.
On Saturday, Memorial, the Russian NGO where Estemirova worked and the last major NGO to maintain an office in Chechnya, said it was shutting its doors there.
“This murder has shown that working in Chechnya is fatally dangerous and we cannot risk the lives of our colleagues even if they are ready to carry on their work,” said Alexander Cherkasov, who also works there.
That means events inside Chechnya, which Kadyrov runs as a personal fiefdom, complete with an ingrained cult of personality, a feared security force and a network of secret prisons, will withdraw even further from the public eye.
Allison Gill, the American head of Human Rights Watch in Russia, said that was the message Estemirova’s murder was intended to send.
“The manner of her death was symbolic,” she said. “She worked on hundreds of cases of people who were kidnapped, shot and killed, or disappeared. And here she is, suffering the same fate. They did it to say: ‘You could be next.’”
Yet the women carrying on Estemirova’s legacy say they cannot give up.
“One has to see it with their own eyes to understand the immensity of the tragedy, the immensity of the injustice,” Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch, said.
“Once I saw it with my own eyes, I felt on a human level that the only way not to feel complicit, not to be complicit, was to do something to stop them directly,” she said.
Yet that is becoming more difficult, as Kadyrov and his thugs, known as kadyrovtsy, spread fear throughout the republic.
Lokshina speaks of victims slamming their door in her face as she seeks to investigate alleged torture and disappearances. “Or people share the story with you, whispering it into your ear, and repeating time and time again, ‘If you tell this to anyone, if you write about it, never mention my name and don’t even mention the name of the village, because they are going to find me and my whole family will suffer.’”
That is what makes life in today’s Chechnya all the more perilous, both for average residents and the human rights workers who seek to help them.
Svetlana Gannushkina, a board member of Memorial who also runs an NGO focusing on nationalist violence in Russia, has received numerous threats telling her to stop her work.
“When I worked in Nagorno-Karabakh where they were shooting, or when I worked in Chechnya when it was being bombed, that was physical danger. Now it’s different. It’s physical but it’s different. Before, that bullet or bomb would have hit one by accident,” she said. Now, victims are targeted.
The main victims of human rights atrocities inside Chechnya are relatives of men who have joined the growing insurgency against Kadyrov’s rule.
“Families of insurgents are treated as if they were insurgents themselves,” Lokshina said.
Their houses are burned down, their family members disappear. Some are tortured in secret prisons. Others are lost forever.
“You develop a certain emotional resistance,” Lokshina, 36, said. “I’m not the crying type. But I can get attacks of anger when the story which is told to me is so horrifying, it’s so completely gruesome, that I feel I want to go and get them personally.”
It has, quite understandably, affected her personal life. Lokshina, married to another leading human rights activist, Alexander Verkhovsky of the Sova Center, which tracks nationalist violence, said her work has led her to decide not to have children.“I was putting it off because of the work that I do,” she said.
The tension between activist and mother is one Estemirova felt strongly, she said, fearing constantly for her 15-year-old daughter, Lana.
“She was really frightened that something would happen to the girl. I’m pretty sure, I know it sounds horrible, that when Natasha was abducted, the one consolation she had was ‘Thank God it’s not Lana. Thank God it’s not my daughter.’”
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