On Nelli Radzhabova’s desk, a pile of materials was growing: hand-written accounts, complaints to local and federal authorities, flash drives with videos and photographs. Dozens of letters. All of it evidence of the destruction caused by a recent counter-terrorism operation led by Russian interior ministry forces in Vremenny, a village in the troubled North Caucasus republic of Dagestan. The images in Radzhabova’s files depicted demolished homes; furniture, clothes and other belongings turned to rubbish and partly buried by bulldozers; broken windows, walls and gates at the village school and clinic. In one of the videos, men in interior ministry forces uniforms are seen throwing people’s belongings down a hillside.
There were also photographs of a Koran cut down the middle by an ax, as well as swastikas and other humiliating signs painted over the village’s ruined walls—all done by the military, or so locals claimed. One line of graffiti said: “Moscow is the force.”
“Local policemen asked Russian soldiers not to attack our Koran, so a military commander called Moscow to complain that Dagestan cops were not letting them do their job. After that, our local policemen were called away from Vremenny,” said resident Aminat Magomedova in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Two days ago, a local man found two more Korans in a pile of garbage,” she added.
Radzhabova sympathized with her clients. She was a member of an oversight commission that the Dagestan administration had appointed to observe the consequences of the anti-terror operation in Vremenny, after over 100 village men had complained to authorities about their looted or destroyed property. Over the course of two months, as the military conducted counter-terror raids, special operations forces destroyed 42 homes, Radzhanova said.
“This is not a professional army, they are criminals. What will the children witnessing such special operations remember about Russian soldiers? They will remember them as robbers and murderers,” Radzhabova told The Daily Beast on Friday.
Radzhabova’s long time colleague and friend Magomed Shamilov clucked his tongue as he looked at a picture of the vandalized Koran—the holy book was sliced through the middle. “This is even worse than those French cartoons, worse than a bomb—it hurts me, a Muslim believer, to look at this,” Shamilov said.
Neither Radzhabova nor Shamilov had received any foreign grants for their documentation work. They did their work in the name of their beloved republic, of justice, and of peace for the local people. Shamilov led a professional union of Dagestan policemen who fought against corruption in the republic. Most of his colleagues in the union, including over a dozen colonels, lost their jobs in police force as a result of their activity. “Corruption is the main trouble in Russian interior forces; without fighting corruption we won’t be able to put the end to interior ministry’s violations; but our leaders ignore most of our efforts to find justice,” Shamilov said.
On September 18th last year, hundreds of military units arrived by APCs and military trucks. They surrounded Vremenny and set up camp. The military started detaining all residents for “filtration,” a term used in Dagestan for questioning, collecting fingerprints and DNA tests. The Daily Beast interviewed women who complained that police had photographed them each holding a piece of paper with a number on it, as if the women were prisoners. “Authorities tell us that Ukrainians are fascists. Look at what federal forces do in Dagestan—they humiliate local women and children; mothers cannot find their sons and then they draw swastika on the houses, which they ruin,” Radzhabova said.
In 2013, Dagestan was the leading source of terrorist attacks inside Russia. An independent website, the Caucasus Knot, kept record of the 59 attacks by Dagestanis that that year. As a result, Russia’s National Antiterrorist Committee (NAK) put more effort into taking control of the underground insurgency. Both local law enforcement and federal special forces increased pressure on the region, arresting alleged accomplices helping the so-called jihadi “forest” in the republic. By the end of 2014, the number of terrorist attacks had decreased almost threefold from the year before, according to Yevgeny Sysoyev, deputy chief of the NAK. The editor-in-chief of the Caucasus Knot, Gregory Shvedov, confirmed to The Daily Beast that the number of killed and wounded in Dagestan—hit by acts of terrorism or caught in the crossfire of shootouts between authorities and jihadis—had also decreased by 54 percent in 2014, compared to the previous year. Out of 168 victims of armed conflict in the North Caucasus, only 40 people were killed last year in Dagestan.
The destruction of houses in Vremenny village was a casualty of the crackdown from on high. “The destruction in Vremenny looked like a punitive operation, the kind we often saw in Chechnya during the war,” the chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Society, Oleg Orlov, told The Daily Beast. “Officials claimed that the village was hiding insurgents and weapons in bunkers in Vremenny. Dagestan was taught a lesson, so no other villages would dare to help the underground.”