Kremlin urges refugees to return to 'peaceful' Chechnya. But when order is kept by a bare-knuckle bruiser with a shadowy 'private army', many are reluctant to do so

Jeremy Page
The Times

Ramzan Kadyrov looks down at his swollen and scarred knuckles, sucks his teeth and rolls his shoulders like a prizefighter.

The Chechen President's son fights without gloves, explains one of his aides at the "Ramzan" boxing club in the town of Gudermes.

His retinue of attendants, all thick necks, cropped hair and sharp, pinstripe suits, chuckle complicitly like a group of extras in a bad mafia movie.

The scene is almost comic. Except that, at 27, Ramzan is one of the most powerful and feared men in Chechnya.

As head of the Chechen presidential security service, he officially commands 1,000 men charged with protecting his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, who won a dubious Kremlin-backed election last year.

But human rights groups and many Chechens accuse Ramzan of running it as a private, criminal army responsible for the disappearance, illegal detention and torture of dozens of civilians.

"They drive around in cars without numberplates and do whatever they want. Even the federal forces are afraid of them," said Tanya Lokshina of the Moscow Helsinki Group, who recently returned from a trip to Chechnya. "I have first-hand evidence that he tortures prisoners himself. He beats them. He is a sadistic maniac."

Some critics accuse the Kremlin of tolerating, if not sanctioning, his behaviour to terrorise the population into submitting to the new pro-Moscow Chechen administration. They call it the "Chechenisation" of the conflict, paving the way for the withdrawal of Russian troops. Others say that Ramzan is out of control, a Chechen equivalent of Marco Milosevic, the wayward son of the former Yugoslav President, or Uday Hussein, Saddam' s psychopathic son.

Either way, persistent reports of Ramzan's excesses are undermining the Kremlin's message that peace and stability have returned to Chechnya a decade after it began an ill-fated two-year campaign to quash the region's separatist leadership.

President Putin, who sent troops back to Chechnya as Prime Minister in 1999, introduced a peace plan last year, including a referendum on its status, an amnesty for rebels and the election of a new President. The Kremlin now wants to prove the plan's success before a Russian presidential election on March 14, in which Mr Putin is running for a second term.

But to do so it must persuade the 65,000 Chechen refugees living in neighbouring Ingushetia to return to their war-ravaged homeland. Among them is Oleg Khalilov, an opera singer whose home in Grozny was obliterated by a Russian rocket at the start of the second Chechen war.

Mr Khalilov, a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory of Music, has spent the past five years living on aid handouts with his wife and five children in the muddy Bart tent camp in Ingushetia.

But Russian officials now say that they will close Bart and all the other tent camps by March 1. Mr Khalilov should go back to his job teaching music in Grozny, they say. He and his family are not convinced. They have heard rumours about Ramzan and the masked, Chechen-speaking men who drag away young men in the middle of the night.

"Stability? What stability?" asks his wife, Tamusya, a former nurse who lost her father and two cousins in the fighting. "We don't believe there is peace. This is all because of Putin's election campaign."

Monday is the 60th anniversary of the day in 1944 when Josef Stalin had about 500,000 Chechens loaded on to trains and deported en masse to Central Asia. Six decades on, Chechen refugees in Ingushetia say that they are being forced to return to their homeland against their will.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement yesterday expressing concern that local authorities had cut gas supplies to ten settlements, accommodating more than 2,000 people, and threatened to cut off water and electricity. "UNHCR believes that whatever the pretext, it is unacceptable to cut utilities, particularly heating gas, in mid-winter," Kris Janowski, a UNHCR spokesman, said. "These unfortunate utility cuts exert pressure on the IDPs (internally displaced persons) to go back to Chechnya and bring into question the voluntary nature of the return."

The Kremlin denies these accusations. It says that refugees are returning to their homes of their own accord now that the war is over. To back up its claim, it took a group of foreign reporters to Chechnya, under heavily armed escort, to show them the reconstruction effort.

"The conditions we are creating are much better than in the tent camps," President Kadyrov declared at his fortress headquarters in Grozny, surrounded by a vast no man's land of rubble and twisted metal. "The spine of terrorism in Chechnya has been broken," said the 52-year-old Muslim cleric, a former rebel leader who switched sides. "There are no forces capable of reversing the situation in Chechnya."

But despite his assurances, there are still almost daily clashes between Russian forces and Chechen rebels. One night this week, gunfire could be heard and tracer bullets were seen apparently strafing a hillside outside Grozny.

Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for federal forces in Chechnya, said that there were still bombings once or twice a week and a gunfight every day.

Even without the fighting, returning refugees face a struggle for survival. Grozny is a picture of apocalyptic devastation. You can drive for half an hour without seeing a building intact. Residents eke out a living in concrete apartment blocks, pockmarked by machinegun fire, with walls caved in and roofs ripped open by Russian missiles.

The Chechen Government has set up temporary accommodation for returning refugees and is offering 350,000 roubles (£6,595) in compensation to each for lost homes and property. But refugees who have returned say that they get little government support.

"It would have been better to stay in Ingushetia," said Rumisa Chokayeva, 47, a German language teacher who returned to Grozny in October after four years in a tent camp. "There are no international aid organisations to help us here."

Of the 500 people in the cramped block where she shares a room with her husband and three sons, only five have completed the paperwork necessary to collect the compensation. None has received money yet.

What worries her most, though, are the continuing disappearances. "I wish my sons were younger," she said. "Then I could keep them at home all day."

The Chechen Administration has admitted that about 400 people have disappeared in the past year. Human rights groups say that the figure could be three times as high.

"Most of those disappeances are connected not to the federal forces but to Kadyrov's people," Alexander Cherkasov, of the human rights group Memorial, said. "The transfer of authority from the federal structures to the Chechens is making this into a conflict between the Chechens themselves."

President Kadyrov promised to work to address the problem but dismissed suggestions that his son was involved. "Does anybody believe that I am interested in things becoming worse in the republic and that my son is complicit in this?" he asked. However, he added that questions about Ramzan's security force should be put to his son.

Sitting beneath a gaudy portrait of his father at the boxing club the next day, Ramzan was at first reluctant to give details of his work. But he eventually said that he commanded a task force of 320 people from the army, police and intelligence services responsible for hunting down separatist rebels.

The force was "bringing constitutional order to Chechnya ... so that we can live like normal people anywhere: the United States, France, Moscow," he said. "I want it so that our sisters and mothers don't cry."

His dream, he said, was to capture the rebel leaders, Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, blamed for suicide bombings over the past year.

And what would he do if he found them? "Salaam Aleikum! (Hello!)" he said, punching the air for effect.

The news conference over, he leapt up to begin a guided tour of his eponymous boxing club, all paid for by the Chechen Government. He posed for photographers in boxing gloves, punched the air a few times and barked out encouragement to youngsters sparring in the ring.

At one point, one of his heavies ripped off his suit jacket and bench-pressed a 140kg dumbbell to enthusiastic applause. Around the back, Ramzan showed off the fleet of eight matching silver Ladas with tinted windows that locals have learnt to avoid.

His hospitality did not extend, however, to showing reporters a local chicken farm reported to be a makeshift detention and torture centre. "We'll put it on the programme the next time," he said. "I give you my word as a Chechen."

As the reporters left, Ramzan was still all smiles, joking with his aides. But that evening, a Russian television station asked him how he had enjoyed meeting the foreign press. He shrugged his shoulders and sneered: "What can I say? In my opinion, these people are not our friends."

History of a region at war for nearly 200 years War in Chechnya began in the early 19th century, when Russian armies entered the Caucasus an area previously under Ottoman rule. Unlike the predominantly Christian populations of Georgia and Armenia, who saw Russian rule as a protection from Turkish persecution, the Chechens viewed Orthodox Russia as a threat. A 40-year guerrilla campaign ensued.

The revered leader of the Chechen resistance was Imam Shamil, a Dagestani religious and political leader who united the mountain clans. Half a million Russian troops were eventually deployed to the conflict, which ended with Shamil's capture in August 1859.

The Chechen Autonomous Region was created in 1922. This became part of the Chechen-Ingush republic in 1936.

Stalin ordered a mass deportation of the Chechen and Ingush people to Siberia and Central Asia in 1944 after they were accused of collaborating with invading German Army units. Up to a quarter of the republic's population is thought to have died. Those who survived were repatriated in 1956.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the Chechen-dominated parliament declared the region's independence. Shortly afterwards, Russia granted the Ingush inhabitants their own republic in the western fifth of the territory.

Russian troops entered Chechnya in the winter of 1994 to crush the independence movement. Up to 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the 20-month war that followed; the capital, Grozny, was devastated. Russian troops gained control of many of the urban areas, but guerrillas were never subdued in the mountains. Chechen separatists began hitting targets within Russia, often causing heavy loss of civilian life.

Russian troops withdrew in 1996, leaving the republic effectively independent but lawless. Troops returned three years later on the orders of President Putin after a series of attacks by Chechen rebels in Russian

and the neighbouring republic of Dagestan.