Relocation of Chechen 'genocide' memorial opens wounds

Aslan Nurbiyev, AFP

Published: Wednesday, June 04, 2008

GROZNY, Russia  - Old wounds are reopening in Chechnya over the relocation of a memorial erected more than a decade ago to victims of Stalin's attempt to destroy their mountain nation.
The memorial - comprising hundreds of tombstones and a huge dagger in a clenched fist - was raised in Grozny at the launch of Chechnya's ill-fated independence drive after the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The monument's miraculous survival through years of Russian bombardments against the Chechen capital matched the uncompromising message emblazoned on a brick backdrop: "We will not break, we will not weep, we will never forget."
Now Chechnya's controversial leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who was installed by the Kremlin and brooks no dissent, has ordered the monument relocated from the centre to the outskirts, within sight of the main Russian military base.
Work started at the end of last week without any public debate and ordinary Chechens are angry.
"No one has the right to move those gravestones. A monument like that should be put right in the centre of the city so that every Chechen knows his history," said housewife Fatima Ibragimova, 35.
The memorial recalls Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's deportation of the entire Chechen nation and the related Ingush group - half a million people - to the steppes of Central Asia in the winter of 1944.
As many as a quarter of the deportees froze, starved or died from disease in what many historians and the European Parliament call a genocide.
Survivors returned to their homeland at the end of the 1950s to discover the Soviets had tried wiping out Chechen identity. National archives had been burned, villages resettled and cemeteries stripped of their gravestones, which were turned into construction material.
When independence leader Dzhokhar Dudayev came to power in 1991 he ordered those ancestral stones, called "churty" in Chechen, to be the focus of a deportations memorial.
The stones are carved with intricate and often unusual designs, including pagan symbols common in Chechnya before the mountainous region's full conversion to Islam in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Some were piled around the dagger and fist statue and hundreds more planted in neat rows in front.
Kadyrov's government, which is accused of using torture against separatist rebel suspects, says the memorial will be better far away from central Grozny, where intense reconstruction efforts are underway.
"The reason we're moving it is the lack of space between several roads, which is uncomfortable for citizens who want to visit this place on remembrance day," Grozny Mayor Muslim Khuchiyev said.
The fist and dagger will be retained, as well as the "churty," and there will be three scaled-down models of the soaring, slender stone towers that ancient Chechens built in the high Caucasus mountains, the city administration said.
There will also be a dedicated space for Chechnya's popular Sufi prayer rituals and a parking lot.
But some Chechens suspect Kadyrov wants to hide a symbol of defiance against Russia and to eradicate memories of Dudayev, killed in 1996, the second year of a guerrilla war that continues on a small scale to this day.
Zhaneta Amirkhanova, a university student, feels the memorial should stay put regardless of links to the independence movement.
"What does it matter who built it? What, will we have to rebuild it every time we have a new leader? It's the people's history."
Natalya Estemirova, who works with the Memorial human rights group in Grozny, said the monument was unique.
"It's really the only true monument to the people," she said. "When it went up, Chechens could finally talk about the deportations. People wanted so much to commemorate all those that never came back. For years that had been forbidden and the pain was suppressed."
And relocating the monument near the sprawling Russian military headquarters of Khankala, also linked to torture allegations, is an insult, Estemirova said. "Everyone here knows very well what Khankala stands for."
Musa Bagayev, dean of the history faculty at Chechen State University, said the city outskirts were logical for a major site, but that it was wrong to shift the existing memorial.
"They put this together bit by bit," he said.
"Now it's there, better to leave it. It's a monument and doesn't belong to any one person. You mustn't rewrite history."


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