Manon Loizeau: "Absolute schizophrenia reigns in Kadyrov’s Chechnya
When French filmmaker Manon Loizeau arrived in Grozny several years ago to begin work on a new documentary, she didnt recognize the city.
Loizeau had traveled to Chechnya on numerous occasions and had already filmed four disturbing documentaries about the deadly impact of Russias two wars against separatist insurgents in the republic, including Chronicle of a Disappearance.
But when she returned, she found a population that had seemingly forgotten the wars and a glistening new city of skyscrapers, shopping malls, and ubiquitous portraits of the man once seen as Enemy No. 1 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Its absolute schizophrenia, " says Loizeau. "I was there during the first war and then during the so-called restoration of constitutional order after the second campaign. At that time, Chechens still talked in terms of freedom or death. But now theyve named a major road after Putin. They celebrate his birthday."
Loizeau explores this sense of schizophrenia in her latest documentary, Chechnya: War Without Trace, which looks at continuing violence and intimidation in peacetime Chechnya under leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
The film, which debuted at human rights film festivals in Geneva andPrague and aired March 3 on the French-German channel ARTE, comes amid mounting fascination with Kadyrovs close ties to Putin.
The Russian leader last week awarded the Chechen strongman the prominent Order of Honor even as militants close to Kadyrov were being blamed for the brazen murder of oppositionist Boris Nemtsov.
Loizeau dismisses as "unlikely" speculation that Chechens were to blame for Nemtsovs murder. Not that Kadyrov isnt up to it -- the 38-year-old leader commands a powerful security force that has been blamed for numerous atrocities, including continuing disappearances and the torture of members of the local population.
Loizeau, who had planned to live in Chechnya while shooting War Without Trace, quickly altered her plans when she realized she was being followed. She left the republic, returning a total of 12 times to snatch a few hours here and there where she could work undetected.
"It took a lot of tricks to shoot this film without putting people at risk, " she says. Surveillance was only part of the problem. After years of intensifying repression, she adds, most Chechens -- even friends she had known for 15-20 years -- were now too afraid to speak to a journalist on camera.
"Theyre more afraid today than they were during the wars. Because now its their own people who are killing them, " says Loizeau. "Theres no more Russian army bombing them or conducting mopping-up operations. But there are Chechens killing their own."
She adds, "Everyone is afraid that their neighbors or even their relatives will inform on them. Every night theyre afraid that someone is going to knock on their door. Thats why its a war without trace. The war is continuing even now."
In her film, Loizeau documents recent cases like that of two Chechen women, both mothers of small children, who were kidnapped in 2013 from the car wash where they worked.
The manager heard the women scream and found pools of blood, but no culprits were ever found. The womens brother, searching desperately for any trace of them, was warned hed be jailed for their murder if he continued.
In another scene, she shows women looking for unmarked mass graves in Grozny. The territory of Chechnya is believed to be peppered with dozens of such sites, where hundreds of bodies were unceremoniously dumped after being tortured and killed by Russian forces.
The Committee of Chechen Mothers, one of the few groups still focused on the issue of missing people, says as many as 18, 000 people disappeared during the wars. "These mothers told me they were the last ones to remember, and that they needed to pass it on to the next generation. They believe that once theyre gone, no one is going to remember everything that happened here."
Kadyrov, Loizeau says, is to blame for erasing Chechnyas recent history from the map as a service to "best friend" Putin. No public discussion of the Russian wars is tolerated; no memorials stand in Grozny to commemorate the dead; the "Chechenization" of the war, as she calls it, has effectively replaced Russians with local Chechens as the new element of fear.
Last year, Kadyrov went a step further in stamping out national memory, canceling the annual commemoration of one of the most symbolic dates in the North Caucasus, Stalins 1944 deportation of hundreds of thousands of Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia.
The grim anniversary, marked on February 23, coincided with last years Olympic Games in Sochi, a showcase moment that Putin did not want interrupted.
"Kadyrovs own family was deported!" Loizeau says. "But he even went so far as to say it was right for Stalin to organize the Chechen deportation. This offended many Chechens. I dont think that Putin asked Kadyrov to do this. Kadyrov did it himself, to show Putin what a good student he is."
Ruslan Kutayev, an activist who defied the ban, organizing a small conference to discuss the deportation, was later arrested, reportedly beaten, and sentenced to four years in jail. The Chechen Committee Against Torture, which organized Kutayevs defense and represented one of the last sources of support for families of the disappeared, was forced to close its operations in Grozny after its headquarters were deliberately set on fire.
Loizeau, who says she hopes her film will awaken Europeans to the continuing reality of torture and abuse in Chechnya, says she worries that the "darkest days are still ahead."
"One person in Chechnya said to me that [Putin and Kadyrov] are conducting an experiment on them, in order to see how it works, and then theyll spread it to all of Russia, " she says.
"I dont think thats happened yet in Russia, but the methods are already in place. Anna Politkovskaya, who I knew well, said that the conflict in Chechnya has entered into all spheres of Russian society, its everywhere. And whats going on in Ukraine is tied to it as well."
By Dmitry Volchek, with contribution from RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar