Saturday, November 21, 2009
I’m a retired professor of psychology who after retirement volunteered to work with the University of Missouri, International Center for Psychosocial Trauma. I traveled into trauma zones such as Bosnia and Palestine working with physicians, teachers and mental health workers in treatment skills to use with traumatized children. Rather than individual therapy we focus on techniques that can be used with groups.
My first personal contact with the problems in Chechnya was during a training program in the trauma psychology in Moscow in 1998. The participants were from a number of former USSR countries and some that had not yet split off.
One area that wanted independence was Chechnya and a team of Chechen psychologists and psychiatrists who were participants had joined me in discussions outside the classroom and talked freely about conditions in their “country.”
The following summer Kuri Idrisov, a psychiatrist, and Khapta Akhmedova, a psychologist, joined us on the campus of the University of Missouri for our regular summer training program in Trauma. They did a presentation on post-war psychological problems in Chechnya. Russia and Chechnya went back to war with each other shortly thereafter. Because of their problems with English, I helped Kuri and Khapta translate their presentation. Besides presenting a history of the relationship with Russia, they gave a detailed description of the use of torture by the Russians. I found working on the presentation with colleagues who had treated these victims a harrowing experience.
About that time the team had been given funds to run a training program for helping professionals in Chechnya, but given the dangers in the area the Russians refused us entry. It was a year later before we could make arrangements to meet with professionals from Chechnya in Istanbul, Turkey.
The first report in this section is background on the Chechnya-Russian conflict, and the later two reports are based on our contacts with the Chechen professionals and refugees in Istanbul.
Chechnya, Russia unable, unwilling to compromise
In October, 2002, a group of 40 terrorists/freedom fighters seized a crowded Moscow theatre and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. After a two-and-a-half-day siege Russian authorities pumped an unnamed chemical agent into the building’s ventilation system and raided it. Forty of the Chechens were killed and 129 of the hostages. Many others were made seriously ill by the gas.
Russian President Putin tried to tie this act in with international terrorism. Chechens I have talked to, on the other hand, see the actions of their people in a different light. Their actions are internal and taken in pursuit of freedom for their “country.” This situation is very different from the external terrorism threat that we in America face and probably more serious in terms of the number of people who will die before it is resolved.
In 1998, I was on a team of the University of Missouri’s International Center for Psychosocial Trauma working in Moscow and interviewed members of both sides of the conflict. Later, a number of professionals from Chechnya spent some time with us at the University in Columbia during our summer training program. Our team was then invitied to conduct programs for Chechen teachers and mental health workers in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. This fell through and instead we met with them in Turkey.
Sources of conflict
Because of its oil resources and its position controlling access to the Black Sea, the province of Chechnya is critical to Russia’s economy. When times are peaceful, the area has operating oil refineries, natural gas and pipeline transit. An independent Chechnya would be damaging not only to Russia, but also to the people who live there.
Chechens are a Caucasian people who have been abused by Russian governments since the first half of the 19th century. Frequent attempts have been made during the last 200 years to repress Chechens, culminating in Josef Stalin dissolving the republic in 1944 and ruthlessly deporting hundreds of thousands of its leading citizens to Kazakhstan. Unprepared for the move, many died during the first winter.
Thirteen years later, Nikita Khruschev allowed those who were still alive to return home. This kind of treatment added to the anger of the Chechen people.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the resistance to Russian control again broke into the open, and there was the war of 1994-96. Similar to the situation the Russians faced in Afghanistan, warlords fought for control. The war devastated the republic, and more than 80,000 people died, a considerable part of a population of about 1 million. More sinister, however, is the fact that, with the Russians driven out, it became a major training ground for the Russian Mafia, which is now reportedly run by Chechens.
When I was in Moscow with the International Center for Psychosocial Trauma in 1998, I met with the faculty of the police academy in Moscow. Because of my book, Stress Management for Law Enforcement Officers I was known to the police training academy in Moscow who were using a bootleg version of my book in one of their classes.
They admitted organized crime was a major problem in Russia. The police felt there was no way they could do much about the leading criminals because the protection of so many people in high places had been bought. If cooperation couldn’t be bought, the resisters were killed. It appeared to be common knowledge that Chechens were in control of organized crime, having done away with the competition.
Through the years, the Russians had either kept competent Chechens out of power or had deposed those who came to power. The only way for an intelligent Chechen to get power was outside the system. Their brightest men seemed to take naturally to the skills required for successful organized crime. The corruption hit a growth spurt during the period of peace after the outbreak of resistance in the mid-1990s. The Chechen Mafia spread its power out over the country. Many moved to Moscow and bought the services of influential people in Moscow. Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, became a center for criminal activity.
Law and order were nonexistent in the republic, so smuggling became a prime income producer. The Moscow police told me this actually benefited the larger economy because without Chechen organized crime, the economy would have been totally under the control of corrupt government officials and would have ground to a halt. Besides commercial goods like cars, the Mafia also trafficked in narcotics and kidnapped foreigners for ransom.
Although there was money to be made in oil and the transportation of products to the Black Sea, the Russians had not allowed these industries to be open to young entrepreneurs who were Chechen. Hostage-taking became a source of income and could almost be considered a cottage industry in Chechnya.
A young mental health worker from Chechnya whom I met in Moscow had been in an apartment with a group that included agency workers from outside the country. The door suddenly slammed open, and masked men with guns rushed in. Her first thought was that this was a training exercise, and it took a few minutes before she appreciated the seriousness of the situation. The men took several of the outsiders to hold for ransom. At the time I talked to her, they had not been returned and she was suffering from a post-traumatic reaction.
The taking of hostages at the theater in Moscow to put pressure for freedom on the government is a continuation of this kind of guerrilla warfare. Our trauma team has been invited to train Chechnya mental health workers and teachers, but because of the danger of hostage-taking we would not be allowed into the republic. Instead the trainees would come to us in Ingushetia.
The failure of the Russian army
During the war in the mid-1990s, the Russians sent in troops who were poorly trained, poorly led and in many cases not as well armed as the Chechens. When the Communists pulled out after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, they left a significant number of weapons. When the warlords and the Mafia took over, they were able to arm their troops well. Some weapons such as anti-tank rockets were sophisticated and devastated parts of the Russian army. They bought some of their arms from the Russian soldiers fighting them, who used the money to buy vodka.
The military tactics used by the Chechens, like those in Afghanistan, bewildered the Russians. Out of frustration, some of the Russian troops engaged in atrocities that turned Chechens who would have supported the government against them.
A Chechen psychiatrist we worked with reported that many of his clients had been victims of Russian torture. This failure of the Russian army also had a negative effect on the troops. One of the problems our informants in Moscow talked about was the number of post-traumatic stress reactions the returning Russian soldiers were suffering.
On Oct. 1, 1999, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia officially declared war on Chechnya. Russia wants to re-establish its control over the Caucasus even if it has to kill every Chechen. A large part of the population, 200,000 people, have fled the fighting and gone to Ingushetia.
The ordinary Chechen citizen was caught between two forces that showed little evidence of backing off. Both sides were blind to the needs of the other, with Russia being blinder than the Chechens. As a result, freedom fighters/terrorists are likely to plague Russia for some time to come.