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Why I traveled to Chechnya

It is risky to travel to places where torture and murder take place. As a journalist, one can quickly become unwanted – and attacked. Just this happened on my trip in Chechnya.


I look out over Grozny town and think of all the armed guards guarding the entrance to the five star Grozny City Hotel. One of them had a large wooden club which he swung in a circle in the air. I wonder why he looked at me when he did this. Or is this waving with the impact weapon something he usually does to make time pass?

It is around ten o'clock in the evening, and the hotel restaurant with panoramic views of Grozny is half empty. This is the place where those who govern the country meet. The eatery is located at the top of the hotel built and owned by Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's single president. I spot one of Kadyrov's men. A delegation of important non-Chechens eats with this President's trusted – two tables beyond me. The man is wearing a silk bubble jacket that says "Republic of Chechnya" in capital letters. As the group eats and talks together, a guy comes away and starts massaging the shoulders, face and scalp of Kadyrov's emissary. The talk goes and the food is consumed, before the masseur is waved away after 20 minutes.
Behind me are two men in their late fifties. They have gray hair and a physique that shows a lot of good food and little exercise. They stop talking as the elevator stops. Out come two pretty girls at the start of the 20 years, on high heels and designer dresses. The girls walk toward their table, sit down next to them, and place their hands discreetly over the men's arms.

_DSC5889"They burned our office in Grozny summer 2015, and shattered everything in the new office just before Christmas, ”says lawyer Katya while our group of nine journalists have breakfast the next morning. Katya works for the Committee Against Torture (CAT) and their mobile group (Joint Mobile Group) in Chechnya. "Because of these attacks, we have moved our office across the border to Ingushetia. That's where it's quieter, and that's where we're going now. ”CAT is the latest group active in Chechnya. They meet the families of people who have disappeared without trace or have been found tortured and killed. They meet people who themselves have been subjected to torture. They interview, create databases and records of violence, abuse and threats in the country. The overwhelming proportion of torture they have recorded and documented is perpetrated by people working for or on behalf of the Chechen authorities. She continues: “We at Joint Mobile Group are only here for six weeks at a time, because of security. We can't live here, and it's never the same lawyers who come here. "
What she says makes me think of Russian lawyer Natalia Estemirova who lived in Grozny and did exactly this job that CAT is doing now. She was kidnapped from her house in Chechnya, driven across the border to Ingushetia and murdered with two shots in the chest and one in the head in 2009. I also think of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who wrote extensively about the conflicts in Chechnya. She was found dead in the elevator in the block where she lived in Moscow, also with two shots in the chest and one in the head, in 2006.
Our bus rolls off with courses for Ingushetia. In addition to the driver, we are journalists and lawyers.

“A car has followed following us all the way from Grozny, ”says one of the lawyers inside CAT's office when we arrive in a village in Ingushetia. On the way up the stairs to the office, there are surveillance cameras that cover every angle. The lawyer goes on to say: "Several of those we had agreed to meet later this week in Grozny have canceled, they are not saying why, but it is clear that they have received threats." I pick up my phone and open the encrypted messaging service Signal and writes home: “We are being monitored and persecuted. People cancel meetings in fear. Now it begins. "
A group of people enter the office and tell what they have experienced. The representatives of CAT note and record their reports. Close family members have been assaulted and tortured because someone else in the family has been involved in opposition activities. My thoughts turn to Ramzan Kadyrov's speech on December 24 on state television: “Here in Chechnya, brother must answer for brother. We will find you demonstrators, no matter where you are in the world, and your family members here must be held accountable for what you do. " I inquire about what the lawyers know about two Chechens who were denied asylum in Norway and later found dead in Chechnya. We wrote about them in Ny Tid in December. Everyone is well aware of the deaths and the brutal torture they were subjected to. I will gather more information and information about the case, and contact several sources I will meet later this week.

The lawyers tell more: «Recently a policeman came to us. He had been abducted, abused and tortured – really beaten. This happened because he started investigating a murder case. The police themselves abducted and severely abused him. " I note, thinking that here I have a case that illustrates the situation in Chechnya. The lawyers have interviews, witnesses and photographs of the wounds of the policeman. The man is no longer in Chechnya. I look forward to contacting him and publishing the case in Ny Tid, without him being prosecuted.
As I photograph the huge Russian flag on the wall, one of CAT's members comes up to me and says:
“Our main mission is to ensure that the Russian Constitution and Russian laws are actually followed, and that the laws should apply to everyone – in all sub-republics. After all, we are here because we want to help secure the rights of Russian citizens. I don't see why this should be so controversial. ”He shrugs, raises his hands to the side and glances at the monitors from the surveillance cameras.

The bus ride goes on to Beslan in Ossetia. Swedish Radio's Moscow correspondent Maria Persson-Løfgren shows us the way. She covered the terrorist campaign against this school in 2004, and has been to the scene several times in retrospect. On the walls of the burned-out gymnasium hangs 338 pictures of children, teachers and soldiers who died during the attack. I ask myself how anyone can do such a thing and what kind of people they are. I can't let go of these thoughts.
It is half past eight in the evening 9. March. We are on our way back to the border with Chechnya and it is completely dark outside. As we drive along the road called Kavkaz, the same road where human rights lawyer Natalia Estemirova was found tied up and murdered.

_DSC5866Suddenly the bus stops abruptly. Four cars push us into the side and out flow men with long wooden sticks. It smells loud as the first route is turned in. The men hit all the squares in the minibus, and there were pieces of glass everywhere. They shout, in Russian: «Journalists, gays! You are destroying our country Chechnya! You are terrorists! ”They are clearly angry. They have been waiting for us on the Ingush side of the border. The bus driver refuses to open the door to the attackers, who scream loudly and bang wildly against anyone they can hit. The women are dragged out the windows after the hair, while fighting the sticks. One by one, the others are also brutally thrown out, thrown to the ground and knocked on by the masked men standing over them screaming.
I move to the very back of the bus and now have a man on each side who hangs in through the windows and hits me with the sticks and fists. One of them is unmasked. He is between 20 and 25 years, and shaved. They tear me in to get me off the bus – but I think then I'm done; then the 20 man goes loose on me with his weapons and no one survives. I also look forward to being shot with a neck shot. I try to protect my head while they loose. They can't get hold of me and stick a screwdriver into the foot I kick with so as not to get caught. At the same time, they hit me from the other side. But I'm not going out. I don't want to die. I'm not going to die! I'm going home to Wojoud, my wife. Fuck you guys, you ain't gonna ruin me and Wojoud. You're going to have to struggle to get me. I'm naked on the upper body after they tear into my clothes. Full of wounds and with blood all over the body.

Everyone is well aware of the deaths and the gross torture they were subjected to.

Suddenly, they move forward outside the bus. I see my chance to run out into the dark to hide, and jump out of a bus window. I run like I've never run before. Two of them come after me. Then there is a violent bang, and I see the minibus catch the fire explosion and become completely overpowered.
What I didn't know was that the attackers had shouted in Russian that everyone had to get off the bus, or be burned alive. It was only seconds after I jumped before the explosion came. The attackers then pushed in the direction of Chechnya.
I live. I'm breathing. I am shaking. A stream of local Chechens and Ingushians come and give us first aid, call ambulance and police. One of them looks at me and my bloody naked torso and gives me his sweater.

First night At the hospital I don't sleep for a second. What if they come back? What if they throw a grenade through my window or a man with a muffled firearm arrives? Only the next day do I realize I'm safe. The authorities in Ingushetia have provided us with armed guards around the clock and we receive solid, good and careful medical treatment. Health care is free and it is clear that all the forces in Ingushetia are doing what they can for our safety. The Minister of Health comes to visit and asks how things are going. Everyone is clearly embarrassed that this has happened – and that on their soil. I tell them that we know who is behind the attack and that they are not from Ingushetia.
I get armed police aprons for the airport in Ingushetia. On the flight to Moscow, I meet one of the Russian journalists from our group. The CAT office had been raided by armed masked men shortly after the attack on the bus. He also says that a car bomb in Ingushetia was aimed at an imam. There have been no such unrest in Ingushetia for years. The imam that was tried to kill is strongly critical of neighboring country president Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov has even said publicly that if no one else kills the imam, he will do it himself. I wonder if all these things have a connection, and whether Kadyrov has become increasingly brave, as much can indicate that he now dares to act outside of Chechnya as well.

_DSC5933On the plane I think at the locals I have met and would meet. What about them, have they also been taken? Have they ended up in one of Kadyrov's dungeons and torture bunkers? Will Russian authorities go after CAT? The questions are many.
When I land at Gardermoen I think I'm alive, I'm safe, I'm home. On Norwegian soil. But again comes the mind of those who still live in Chechnya. Those who live in these conditions every day, and those who still bravely fight for human rights in their country.
On the way out of the arrivals hall, I hear applause and suddenly see a ring of cameras, journalists, friends, family and spectators. There is a warm feeling going through my support and that so many care so much. I bump forward on crutches and know my wife Wojoud Mejalli throws around my neck. Tears are pressing. It is indescribable to be back, and with her again. I live. And they didn't break my fingers. So I'll still write!

See leather.

Monocle report on Øystein in their radio program from 11. March can be seen here .

Øystein Windstad
Øystein Windstad
Former journalist at Ny Tid.

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