This article appeared in today’s Telegraph. Despite the clear and present danger to life, some people are still prepared to document human rights abuses in Chechnya.
Tatyana Lokshina has slowly watched her colleagues die. One by one, they have fallen to anonymous assassins protected by powerful forces whose appetite for murder seems to know few bounds.
Last week, in a ritual that has become all too familiar, Mrs Lokshina donned a black head scarf to bid farewell to one of her closest friends. Accompanied by other mourners, she walked in slow procession behind a open-backed lorry carrying the body of Natalya Estemirova, a fellow member of a dwindling group of female human rights campaigners dedicated to exposing the horrors they say the state has sanctioned in one of Russia's darkest corners.
Lokshina and Estemirova had been working jointly to expose the ordeal of a Chechen man who was publicly executed earlier this month by forces loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Chechen president who has been accused of presiding over a reign of terror in the republic. The man had been accused of providing rebels lurking in the southern mountains with a sheep, a crime considered sufficient to warrant an extra-judicial execution in Chechnya.
Mrs Estemirova's murder was undoubtedly linked to her work. But according to fellow campaigners, its brazen nature was intended as an unmistakable message to the women who seek to complete her mission."The manner of her death was symbolic," said Allison Gill, the head of Human Rights Watch in Russia. "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'."
Many inheriting Mrs Estemirova's mantle are women. The risks they face are self-evident and some organisations are considering the wisdom of exposing their staff to such danger. Yet the idea of surrender, for all the peril, seems out of the question.
Mrs Lokshina had little interest in Chechnya until she was sent there for a meeting by a US-funded rights organisation."One has to see it with one's own eyes to understand the immensity of the tragedy, the immensity of the injustice," she 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."
Like Mrs Estemirova, Tatyana Lokshina has been one of the principal characters who has woven the narrative of the of Chechnya in recent years. Most of the others are dead. One such was the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya (Below). Who played a pivotal role for foreign correspondents seeking to understand Chechnya. Often, just as she did in print, she would excoriate Vladimir Putin, the man she held responsible for the callous disregard for human life in Chechnya.
One Saturday morning in October 2006, Mr Putin's 54th birthday, she was shot four times as she returned to her flat in Moscow from her local supermarket.
Another was Stanislav Markelov (below), a lawyer, human rights defender and colleague of Mrs Politkovskaya, was felled by an assassin's bullet shortly after speaking at a press conference in January. Known for his sunny disposition and dirty jokes, Mr Markelov was another crucial figure in the Chechnya activist community. Shot with him was Anastasia Barburova, the fourth reporter at Mrs Politkovskaya's Novaya Gazeta newspaper to meet a violent end since Mr Putin came to power in 2000.
Then there was Mrs Estemirova herself. Working from a tiny office off Vladimir Putin Avenue in central Grozny, Natalya investigated and chronicled the parlous state of human rights in Chechnya. Along with a small but dedicated team, it was her work more than anyone's that held the Kremlin-backed regime to some account.
For Mrs Estemirova, the only prominent activist who lived in Grozny full-time, it was far more than just a story. To anyone who saw her in action, it was evident how passionately she cared about every victim whose cause she championed."She completely gave her heart to every person she spoke to," said Mrs Lokshina. "I often saw Natasha crying when interviewing victims."
Mrs Lokshina is aware that, in continuing her friend's crusade, the powers ranged against her and her colleagues is immense. None is more powerful than Ramzan Kadyrov. In a secret affidavit to the European Court of Human Rights, his former bodyguard painted a chilling picture of the Chechen leader. According to Umar Israilov, Mr Kadyrov would wander around a gym that doubled as a secret jail, administering electric shocks to prisoners bound to exercise machines while casually kept up a game of billiards with his friends.
In January, as western reporters were preparing to publish his allegations, Mr Israilov was shot dead on a busy Vienna street as shoppers dived for cover. "I will be killing as long as I live," Mr Kadyrov once boasted to a reporter, although he consistently denied involvement in all the individual murders linked to his name.
He is especially indignant about such allegations that he targets female activists. "I do not kill women," he has insisted. Yet women in Chechnya seem increasingly at threat. One of the cases Mrs Estemirova was struggling to expose when she died was the murder of eight women whose bodies were dumped in different parts of Chechnya one day last November.
Mrs Estemirova's death will only increase the fear of ordinary people in Chechnya. Not a single murder of any significant opponent of Mr Kadyrov has ever been solved, a failure critics say suggests the acquiescence – perhaps even the complicity – of Mr Putin, Russia's most powerful man. The Kremlin has consistently denied such allegations, blaming the deaths on Russian exiles intent on besmirching Mr Putin's reputation.
Since Mrs Estemirova's death, the responsibility for exposing the abuses she dedicated her life to revealing have largely fallen to women like Mrs Lokshina. But in the culture of impunity that reigns unfettered in Chechnya, it has become an almost impossible task.