Kidnapping foreigners becomes Chechen industry Lawlessness escalates after rebellion fails


MOSCOW -- In the remote and tradition-bound mountains of Chechnya, foreign visitors have long been treated as guests, valued and cherished. But 21 months of devastating war have warped tradition and traumatized the land.

Now foreigners are valued in a different way -- as kidnap prizes worth millions.

Kidnapping has become a cottage industry in Chechnya, where most legal ways to make a living were destroyed during the war for independence from Russia. So far this year, an estimated $10 million has been paid to ransom journalists and aid workers employed by international and Russian organizations and taken hostage in Chechnya.

"Kidnapping has become a very perverse and profitable industry," says Alexis Troubetzkoy, country representative in Russia for the Baltimore-based International Orthodox Christian Charities.

Troubetzkoy, a Canadian, has become an expert on Chechen kidnappings since two Russian employees of IOCC were seized Sept. 20 as they were returning from delivering humanitarian aid to a remote Chechen refugee settlement. The employees, Dmitri Petrov, 33, and Dmitri Penkowski, 47, actually were seized in Ingushetia, near the border with Chechnya, by six armed men wearing fatigues who shot out their tires with automatic weapons. They were then driven into Chechnya.

During most of the war, which began with a brutal Russian assault on Chechnya at the end of 1994, journalists and aid workers were protected by Chechens. The fighters were grateful for the humanitarian aid and hopeful that journalists witnessing the carnage would galvanize world opinion on Chechnya's side.

But the war destroyed all illusions and most institutions, including policing, and unleashed the sort of lawlessness that pervaded in Lebanon in the 1980s.

Kidnapping happened during the war, but it was Chechen against Chechen and obscured by the fighting. About 400 Chechens were kidnapped. This year, Troubetzkoy says, about 160 are being held, along with about a dozen foreigners.

"Despite intervention by presidents, patriarchs and ministers, the bottom line will inevitably be ransom," he says.

Waiting for demands

Troubetzkoy has not yet received a ransom demand for the IOCC employees. Usually, he says, there is a delay of some weeks.

"It's a vicious, unpleasant waiting game," he says. "They try to humiliate and instill gross fear in the person being held so he'll leave the area immediately after he's freed and won't think about retaliating."

Few aid workers had remained in western Chechnya after December, when six Red Cross workers were murdered in their beds at Novye Atagi.

The first journalist was kidnapped in February, when an Italian was seized in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Since then more than a dozen journalists and international aid workers -- including the two Russians working for IOCC -- have been seized.

Only last Thursday, two Hungarians working for Hungarian Interchurch Aid, a branch of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, were captured.

Witnesses said about 15 bandits in combat fatigues overpowered guards and broke into the Hungarians' headquarters in Grozny at 3 a.m. They took money, papers and a satellite phone and then forced the two aid workers, Gabor Dynaiski and Istvan Olah, to go with them.

$2 million for three people

In August, the Russian television network NTV paid $2 million to free reporter Yelena Masyuk and her two-man crew after three nTC months in harsh captivity.

"We were simply trade goods," Masyuk said last week in an interview in New York, where she was honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

She was captured May 10 as she was preparing to cover a meeting and released 101 days later. "The first kidnappers sold me to a Chechen general and the general sold me to Russia," she said.

For the first 10 days, she and her crew were kept in a small, wet basement. They were moved from place to place and later were held for two months in a 6-by-6-foot cave in the mountains.

"We were threatened many times," she said in an earlier interview. " 'I'll kill you,' some guard would cry."

She often imagined washing her hair with good shampoo or putting on a dress. "We learned to like simple things, like the sun coming up or the rain stopping," she said.

Worst of all was the psychological stress. "There was hope, of course," she said, "but every day there was less."

Snatch near police station

Mauro Galligani was the Italian photojournalist snatched on Feb. 23. He was taken in broad daylight in Grozny, about 200 yards from the police station. He had been in Chechnya only 2 1/2 hours and had just stepped out of a car to take photographs.

An Italian reporter for Il Giorno and a translator, Andrei Mironov, were sitting in the back of their Niva, a four-wheel-drive Russian car, when several men attacked, jumping out of a white Russian-made Zhiguli.

"They wanted all three of us," Mironov says, "but cars started to stop. So they hit [Galligani] with a pistol, shoved him in the car and drove away, right past the police station."

Chechen prosecutors and police investigated, he says, but they were under enormous handicaps.

"They had no money, no gasoline, no radios, no salaries for eight months," he says. "Still, they traced the bandits."

While they waited for news, Mironov says, Grozny began to take on the look of a bad movie. One day Mironov and the Il Giorno reporter, Francesco Bigazzi, walked into a cafe, where they saw a man sitting with three bodyguards.

"It was like a scene from a B movie," Mironov says. "They looked like Hollywood gangsters."

When one of the men heard them speaking Italian, he called out, "I can help you."

Mironov's bodyguard made a show of displaying his Kalashnikov automatic rifle. The three bodyguards opened their jackets, preening their expensive semiautomatic pistols.

Mironov says the Chechen prosecutors running the investigation found the kidnappers and wanted to storm them, but the Italian government decided that was too risky. The man Mironov and Bigazzi had seen in the cafe surfaced again. He was a well-connected Chechen businessman who became involved in the Galligani negotiations and others.

Rogue gangs blamed

Mironov says the kidnappings are carried out by rogue gangs, roaming freely in a country ruined by war. But they go to well-connected middlemen who negotiate on their behalf and are presumably well-paid for doing so. The kidnappings and investigations occur against a complicated background of blood and tribal loyalties that twist throughout the mountainous region.

"It's more a novel than an article," Mironov says. "Everything is personal."

Troubetzkoy says there is evidence that the middlemen have good government connections.

"We are dealing with utterly ruthless, unprincipled and uncontrolled individuals whose sole interest is money," Troubetzkoy wrote in his report to the IOCC office in Baltimore. "There is every reason to believe that these individuals have connections with the highest echelons of government."

Although Italy has denied it publicly, Mironov and other sources say the government paid $500,000 for Galligani's release.

He was released after seven weeks in captivity.

Two Britons, four French citizens working for a French aid organization, a German and a Yugoslav are still missing. A fifth Frenchman managed to escape last week after four months in captivity.

Travel with guards

Foreigners are more cautious in Chechnya, traveling with carefully selected and heavily armed guards.

"The country is out of control," Troubetzkoy says. "It's really fallen apart."

The IOCC, which has been working in Chechnya for two years under the sponsorship of the World Council of Churches, was planning to shut down its operations in a month. Now, Troubetzkoy's work has been extended until he can get the two IOCC men released.

"If ever prayer has been required, it's now," he says, appealing to IOCC supporters, and everyone in Baltimore, to pray.

Pub Date: 10/29/97

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad