WARNING: This post contains graphic photos. Viewer discretion is advised.
I was rushing to a meeting when a call from Radio Liberty made me stand still: "Miss Lokshina, is it true that you showed a graphic photograph of five killed Chechen children to President Bush when he was in St. Pete for the 2006 G8 summit? Why did you do it? Why this particular case? Do you still remember it?"
Do I remember the case? Certainly. And I'm not the only one. Just a few weeks ago, the European Court on Human Rights found Russia responsible for the deaths of those five Chechen children and their mother in an aerial bombing in 2004. The oldest girl was 5, the tiny twins less than a year old, with two other small girls and a boy in between. They were laid out on the grass like broken dolls next to an open grave.
As for showing the photo to President Bush on the eve of the summit, now that they mentioned it, it sort of comes back to me... But I was not the one who took the photograph. It was my friend, Natasha Estemirova, a Chechen-rights activist, who made it first to the scene of the bombing in the remote mountain hamlet of Rigakhoy, so high that no proper roads led there. She talked the relatives into taking the bodies from the grave so that the world could see what had been done to the Damaev family. Natasha has been dead for three years now, abducted and brutally murdered in July 2009, which happened to be precisely the third anniversary of that G8 summit in St. Pete, the first one in Russia. So when I'm thinking of July 15, it's Natasha, not the magnificent summit, that comes to mind. But how happy she would have been to see justice prevail in Strasbourg after all these years.
On April 8, 2004, four military planes bombed Rigakhoy, just 15 kilometers from the Chechnya-Dagestan mountain border, leveling the house of Imar-Ali Damaev. At the time of the bombing, Imar-Ali was at the local cemetery, some distance from the house, higher in the mountains. It was close to 3 p.m. when he heard the unmistakable sounds of a close aerial attack. Imar-Ali rushed home, wanting to be with his family; a few nights earlier, there had been another heavy bombing close to Rigakhoy, and his wife, Maidat, and their five small kids were frightened almost to death. But when he reached the house, breathless, all he saw was a ruin, a huge bomb crater, and the bloodied body of their horse, with its front legs torn off. Maidat and the children were nowhere in sight. Imar-Ali hoped they were just hiding somewhere. He ran around, calling their names. That's how his brother Minkail later found him and went to the neighboring hamlet for help.
Soon, people from nearby hamlets and villages came to Rigakhoy with spades. Three weeks later one of them told me:
We dug through the ruins until we found Imar-Ali's wife. She was sitting there and holding her children in a tight embrace, covering them with her arms. They were flattened by a thick layer of hard earth and rubber tiles, which had been the roof. I think they died right away. The bomb was a direct hit. So, Maidat was just sitting there, hugging her kids, in death as in life. She probably thought they'd be less afraid if she held them close... Such tiny children. We were all crying from the shock of it, men and women alike. We pulled the bodies out of the ruins and buried them.
Imar-Ali Damaev's relatives immediately went to the authorities, demanding justice for the deaths of Maidat and the children. Officials from the military prosecutor's office only made it to Rigakhoy five days later, on April 13. People ran to them explaining about the bomb, begging to exhume the bodies, to find those responsible, but the officials did nothing. As one of the witnesses later described it to me:
They kept saying that aerial bombing had nothing to do with it, that an explosive device went off and destroyed the house. They even claimed the device had been hidden there by Imar-Ali himself. And supposedly they had no time for an exhumation and had no doctor with them. And they just left... I'd say they spent most of the time there trying to scare Minkail, Imar-Ali's brother (Imar-Ali was too crushed to complain or try to do anything, so he seemed harmless to them). They threatened to take Minkail away and pressured him to keep quiet.
Who knows? Maybe those who wanted to keep things "under the carpet" would have succeeded. But the officials in the prosecutor's office were not the only ones who came to Rigakhoy on April 13. Natasha Estemirova also made it there. All she'd heard was a rumor about a whole family getting wiped out in a bombing, and the name of the place, Rigakhoy. Back in 2004, there was no telephone communication in Chechnya, so you could not find out what happened by making a few phone calls. You actually had to go there. Natasha's friends were horrified. A tiny place hardly visible on a map, somewhere high up in Vedeno, Chechnya's most turbulent district? A place unreachable by car? A place where aerial bombings and artillery fire are common occurrences? But Natasha just could not do otherwise. The nightmarish rumor gave her no rest. She needed to find out what happened.
Natasha left Grozny early in the morning, and it took her the whole day to get to Rigakhoy. Later, she told me laughingly that the trip cured the fear of heights that she had suffered since childhood. When she started out on those narrow, curved mountain roads, she was nearly paralyzed with fright, but the need to know, the need to help, were so strong that they pushed back the fear. Close to the hamlet, the mountain roads were washed out by rain, and she almost agreed to get on horseback for the first time in her life when, to her utmost relief, a bunch of local residents found a tractor and gave her a ride.
Natasha explained to all those mourners in Rigakhoy that though she could neither do a formal examination of the bodies nor open a criminal case, she could at least photograph the victims and make sure they were not forgotten. She promised to tell journalists about what happened in Rigakhoy, to have foreign countries ask Russia questions about it. It is from Natasha that Imar-Ali Damaev and his relatives first heard about the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and how it could deliver justice when the national system failed. They opened the grave and laid the tiny bodies in front of her. Natasha did not cry when photographing them or when helping close the grave. She only broke down when saw the printed image a day later.
Along with other colleagues in Moscow, I helped share the photograph and the story with the press and with international organizations. The horrific image went around the world. Two weeks later I joined Natasha in Chechnya. Together we braved the road to Rigakhoy and interviewed dozens of people who had heard and seen the planes, who had found the bodies under the ruins, who had tried to make the authorities investigate the attack. It is those interviews that laid the foundation for Imar-Ali Damaev to win his case in Strasbourg.
But the European Court takes a long time, and soon people started forgetting about the woman and her kids killed in Rigakhoy. More than two years after the tragedy, in summer 2006, I was invited to meet with George W. Bush in St. Petersburg, the day before the G8 Summit opened. I knew I'd be using my five minutes to speak of the rampant impunity for horrific human-rights violations in Chechnya, but how much can you say in just a few minutes? How can you make sure your words stand out among a dozen other speakers? So I brought a blow-up of Natasha's photograph with me and pushed it toward him, saying, "Mr. President, this is what's being done to children, and it goes completely unpunished. When you meet your friend Vladimir later today, ask him about Chechnya." He promised to do just that; maybe he did not keep his promise. But the Damaev story made headlines on that day, because the U.S. president had no choice but to take that picture and hold it in his hands. I'm glad to have done something to keep the story alive.
And now, another six years later, the European Court has finally delivered its judgment. Just like Natasha and me, the court did not believe the Russian authorities when they contended that Damaev's own hidden explosives had caused the tragedy. "It appears improbable," the court asserted, "that any reasonable person would try to extract highly explosive material from an artillery shell at home in the vicinity of five minor children. Such a course of events appears even less probable considering that an artillery attack was taking place in the area on the day of the explosion."
The court held that the six deaths were imputable to Russia's bombardment of the area, and that the Russian government, having failed to justify this use of force against Damaev's family, consequently violated their right to life. Notably, it also found that the domestic investigation into the deaths was ineffective. The ruling requires Russia to pay 300,000 EUR compensation to Imar-Ali. And it is up to Russia's international partners to make sure that in this case, as well as in over 200 other Chechen cases already ruled on by the European Court, justice does not stop at the payment of compensation but actually leads to accountability for the perpetrators. That's what Natasha would still be fighting for if she had lived to celebrate the ruling on Rigakhoy.