Nothing is more important in Russia right now than to stop the war in Chechnya, to halt the killing and suffering.
When I visited Chechnya with colleagues from the Human Rights Commission, along with monitors from the Russian State Duma and the Memorial Society, we soon found that there was no way to make a direct count of the numbers of civilians who had been killed in the war. Even before the war started, General Dudayev’s government did not keep accurate records of Chechen deaths, and there is no question of anyone doing so now. During December and January the hospitals and Grozny’s city authorities simply had no time to keep records.
Still, we were able to question closely some 491 Chechen refugees (from 99 different families) about what happened to their relatives and friends. By extrapolating statistically from their experiences, after making allowances for accounts that overlapped, we were able to arrive at an estimate of the numbers of deaths in Grozny from November 25, 1994, to January 30, 1995. We concluded that about 25,000 civilians were killed as a direct consequence of the military attack on Grozny. Most of these were killed by indiscriminate bombing and artillery or mortar fire. They were, in effect, trapped victims, many of them ethnic Russians, who were caught in the path of the Russian attack.
On the basis of the same interviews, we estimate that among the 25,000 civilians who died in Grozny more than 3,000 were defenseless civilians deliberately killed by snipers or by commando units mopping up after the assault on the city. For the most part those who killed civilians in cold blood in this way were members of the special forces of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, not the regular army units which are made up largely of draftees.
For the period of the war after January 30, we have been unable to make similar statistical estimates of the numbers of people killed, but estimates made by others have run as high as 60,000 civilians and soldiers killed as a result of the war in Chechnya since November 25. There is no way to confirm this figure; but in view of our own conclusion that some 25,000 civilians were killed in Grozny alone during the first two months of the war, it does not seem implausible.
We were particularly concerned about the treatment of the Chechens who were detained and taken for questioning to temporary interrogation centers or to the main “screening centers” in Mozdok and in Grozny on grounds that they were in some way supporting the Chechen forces. The Russian government has been extremely evasive about these centers and has only rarely and reluctantly permitted carefully supervised visits to them by Russian deputies and foreign observers. If my memory is correct, official reports state that something like 580 persons have passed through the screening center in Mozdok, but I suspect that the number of Chechens …