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Searching for those who disappear

In a lawless area of Russia, there's little anyone can do about kidnappings. But one victim's brother tries.

Published September 22, 2005

KARABULAK, Russia - It was here, just a few steps from his garden gate, that Bashir Mutsolgov was kidnapped.

Armed, masked men bundled him into a white Jeep with tinted windows and mud-spattered license plates along the busy trans-Caucasus highway, about 10 miles from the war-ravaged republic of Chechnya. It was midafternoon, and lots of people saw it happen.

Someone told a traffic policeman, who flagged down the Jeep, but one of its passengers flashed a document from a government counterterrorist agency, and the Jeep sped off with Bashir inside.

This is how Bashir's brother, Magomed, tells the story. He is at his parents' house, a gracious, rambling place with Oriental carpets and a white lace curtain over the open door. This is where he was nearly two years ago when Bashir disappeared.

From the front porch, he can see Bashir's house and the square of sidewalk where he vanished. Bashir had just left his parents' place. He stopped on his way home to buy milk. He was 28 years old, a math and science teacher with an infant daughter.

"Most kids, their first word is "mama' or "papa,' " Magomed says. "His daughter's first word was "uncle.' "

Kidnapping plagues the rocky hills of Ingushetia, the Russian republic where Bashir disappeared, and Chechnya, where Russia has been fighting separatist rebels since 1999.

Bandits kidnap for ransom and human rights groups say that Russian security forces regularly detain young Muslim men, some of whom are never seen again. Magomed and his family think that's what happened to Bashir.

"If a person commits a crime, he's in jail," said Bashir's mother, Zakhidat Mutsolgova, 59. "Bashir didn't do anything. He was kidnapped."

Violence has spread from Chechnya to nearby republics like Ingushetia, a thin finger of land to the west. Some analysts say the separatists are extending their campaign across the Caucasus, especially in the eastern republic of Dagestan, where insurgents have staged dozens of attacks this year.

The widening unrest is a threat to Russia and beyond. In the Caucasus, whole generations of children are growing up to the tune of gunfire, wounded, angry, short on hope.

Chechens and Ingush, Magomed says, are "like two brothers who live in separate houses." They are linked by their Muslim faith and common history: Stalin deported both en masse to Central Asia and Siberia in 1944, accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis.

In recent years, they have become brothers in arms. One night last June, militants attacked the Ingush city of Nazran, killing about 90 people, mainly police, before disappearing at dawn. A few months later, separatists laid siege to a school in Beslan, a small town in pro-Russian North Ossetia, killing more than 300 people.

The attackers - some Chechen, some Ingush - demanded an end to the war in Chechnya; some of the weapons they used had been stolen during the raid in Nazran.

As the militancy has spread, so have harsh crackdowns by Russian security forces. The human rights group Memorial, which monitors kidnappings in a quarter of Chechen territory, recorded about 400 abductions last year. Activists say that thousands have disappeared since the war began.

In Ingushetia, kidnappings are down. About 15 people have been abducted so far this year, compared with some 150 between 2002 and 2004.

"We can't say the situation is improving, because people continue to be kidnapped and killed," said Shakhman Akbulatov, director of the Memorial office in Nazran, Ingushetia's ramshackle former capital. "But it's less."

No one knows how long the lull will last, but most believe it is just that: a pause, not a cessation. In June, an Ingush student was shot dead when authorities raided a house where he was staying in search of suspected militants. A month ago, Nazran's police chief was badly wounded when a remote-controlled land mine exploded near his car.

On Aug. 25, two bombs went off as the republic's prime minister drove through the center of Nazran; he was hurt and his driver was killed.

For Magomed Mutsolgov, the recent decline in kidnappings offers little comfort. He was a successful businessman, but when his brother vanished, he sold his grocery stores and traded his three cars for a rust-laced, mint-green Lada whose windows have to be forced down by hand in hot weather. Having a nice car doesn't seem so important anymore.

"If you don't feel it for yourself, you don't know about it," he said. "If you watch the local TV, you can learn about the harvest and where the president just visited, but not about these kidnappings. We weren't interested in these things, and I feel ashamed about it now."

For months, Magomed searched for Bashir. His family has money, and they used some of it to buy information. They learned that Bashir had been taken to the local headquarters of Moscow's Federal Security Service or FSB, the main successor agency of the KGB, and then to Army headquarters in Chechnya.

They heard that he had been beaten, and that his captors tried to force him to confess to crimes he hadn't committed. After that, the family lost Bashir's trail. A spokesman for Ingushetia's interior ministry declined to comment on the case, but said that all kidnappings in the republic are being investigated.

One day, a group of men, some in uniform, stopped Magomed on the street and offered to return his brother for $150,000. He and his family added up the value of their houses and cars and found they didn't have enough. Anyway, Magomed wouldn't pay that kind of money without seeing Bashir alive. Like many, he believes that in some cases, poorly paid government agents and criminals work together to extort money. After all, he says, kidnapping is good business.

Magomed knows that some of the young men detained by police really are militants, but he also knows that disappearances like Bashir's are fueling the insurgency.

"I don't justify these people," Magomed says of the militants. "At the same time, I don't blame them."

Instead of going to the mountains - local slang for joining the militants - Magomed, who is 32, turned to the legal system. He had started law school before Bashir's kidnapping because he thought it would be useful for his business; by the time he finished, he had found a new calling.

These days, Magomed works for the Chechen Committee for National Salvation, a human rights organization, and heads a support group for people whose relatives have been kidnapped. He tries to help them find recourse through the courts, either in Russia or in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. He respects the law, he says; he believes in it.

But lawlessness is all around him. On a recent afternoon, a barrage of gunshots exploded in the busy street outside his office in Nazran, a dusty town surrounded by low hills.

His co-workers glanced at each other and moved cautiously toward the windows. After a silence, someone joked that maybe this was another kind of kidnapping: the traditional abduction of a woman for marriage.

Magomed knows that he too could be kidnapped, but he says he isn't afraid. He believes in God. If someone wants to take him, there's not much he can do.

Driving his little Lada through the narrow streets of Nazran, he points out the low-slung cars with tinted windows and no license plates that dart like fish amid the traffic. People live quietly here, Magomed says. They don't want the men in the cars to notice them. Those men, whoever they are, live outside the law. Magomed is just one man, trying to live within it.

[Last modified September 22, 2005, 01:04:14]

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