The New York Times reports:
The men who set fire to Valentina Basargina’s house arrived in the stillness of 3 a.m. There were three of them. Each wore a camouflage uniform and carried a rifle. One held a can of gasoline. They wore masks. They led Ms. Basargina and her son outside and splashed gasoline in their two rooms, she and her relatives said. One man produced a T-shirt, knotted onto a stick. It was damp with gas.
“This is for the one who is gone,” he said in thickly accented Russian. Ms. Basargina’s nephew had recently disappeared; the police had said he joined the small but smoldering insurgency fighting for Chechnya’s independence from Russia.
The man lit the torch and tossed it inside. The air whooshed. Flames shot through the house.
The attack, late last month, was part of what Chechens described as an intensified government effort to stamp out the remnants of a war that has continued, at varying levels of ferocity, for nearly 15 years.
In a campaign to punish families with sons suspected of supporting the insurgency, at least a dozen homes have been set ablaze since midsummer, residents and a local human rights organization said.
The burnings have been accompanied by a program, embraced by Ramzan A. Kadyrov, Chechnya’s president, that has forced visibly frightened parents of insurgents to appear on television and beg their sons to return home.
“If you do not come back I will never forgive you,” one father, Ruslan Bachalov, said to his son on a recent broadcast. “I will forgive the man who will kill you.”
“I have no other way out,” he added. “The authorities and the president demand that I bring my son back.”
In the arson cases, each attack has followed the same pattern. The families have been awakened by men in uniforms and black ski masks who have herded residents outside and then torched their homes. Many of the attacks have been accompanied by stern declarations that the homes were being destroyed as punishment.
The burnings have occurred in several districts or towns — including Alleroi, Geldagan, Khidi-Khutor, Kurchaloi, Samashki, Shali, Shatoi, Nikikhita and Tsenteroi — suggesting that the arsonists have been operating with precise information and with a degree of impunity in a republic that is crowded with police and military units.
Residents and the human rights organization said that the impunity was unsurprising, because the arsonists appeared to be members of the police.
The pro-Kremlin Chechen government said it knew nothing about the burnings. “We have no information about what you are talking about, so we cannot help,” a spokesman for Mr. Kadyrov said to a query from a journalist.
In a series of state-run news programs this summer in Chechnya, senior officials spoke openly of the collective responsibility of people whose relatives have joined the insurgency, and of collective punishment.
The broadcasts are in Chechen, a language spoken in a tiny portion of Russia and understood by scarcely any of the Russian officials in the region who work with Mr. Kadyrov’s government.
On one, Mr. Kadyrov spoke bluntly about households whose young men “go to the forest,” the local idiom for joining the rebels.
“The families whose relatives are in the forests, they are accomplices in the crime,” he said.
Muslim Khuchiyev, a confidant of Mr. Kadyrov’s and the mayor of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, went further. “We are not now holding dialogue with you on the basis of the laws of this state,” he said. “We will act according to Chechen traditions.”
“The evil which is done by your relatives in the forest will return to you and your homes,” he added. “Each of you soon will feel it on your skin.”
Toward the end of his televised remarks, Mr. Khuchiyev said the government would not allow relatives to bury insurgents who had been killed. “If we find out that someone buries them, we will take tough and cruel measures on this person,” he said.
Violence by all sides in and near Chechnya has been one of the darkest chapters of post-Soviet Russian life.
Since war erupted in 1994, Russia and its local proxies have been implicated in bombings and aerial attacks on civilian areas, armed and indiscriminate sweeps of neighborhoods, and patterns of illegal detention, torture and killings. Tens of thousands of Chechens have been killed. Thousands of others have disappeared.
The violence has occurred in what human rights groups have called a culture of official indifference to criticism and enduring impunity, which has been documented by human rights researchers and independent journalists.
Last week, in the latest finding against Russia, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian Army had indiscriminately shelled the village of Znamenskoye in 1999, killing at least five civilians. Russia never conducted a serious inquiry into the shelling, the court found.
The separatists, and criminal gangs that once proliferated under their rule, have committed a wide range of violent acts themselves, including assassinations of pro-Russian officials and intimidation of local supporters of Russian rule.
They have pursued a campaign of terror against Russian civilians, including suicide bombings in Chechnya, in Moscow and in passenger aircraft, and mass hostage-taking operations that have killed hundreds of civilians, including 186 children at a public school in Beslan in 2004.
Since 2005, however, the insurgents have been weakened, and have not conducted large-scale operations in Chechnya.
As Mr. Kadyrov’s strength and confidence have grown, forces under his control have co-opted or defeated the insurgents in former strongholds, including Grozny and all of the towns in the lowlands. Many rebels have switched sides. A sizable fraction of the remnants have moved to neighboring Ingushetia, where the Moscow-backed local government is weak.
The events of this summer, however, have made clear that the rebels have proven resilient and remain able to recruit new members.
And the Chechen government, attuned to the intensive loyalties that define family life in the Caucasus, has applied intensive pressure on what it sees as the insurgents’ vulnerability: their relatives.
On television, one mother from Argun begged her son to spare her the pressures she faced. “You must remember me,” she said. “You are not on the right path. Open your eyes! Everyone will forgive you. Do not destroy yourself. Do not destroy us!”
How effective the intimidation has been is an open question. Natalya Estemirova, a researcher for Memorial, a private Russian human rights organization with an office in Grozny, said that young men had continued to join the rebels, no matter the threats. “It is like Palestine,” she said. “The young guys leave for the forest, even knowing that their relatives are at risk.”
For insurgents who do return, the government has generally promised amnesty. The amnesty typically does not cover those accused of serious crimes.
In the case of Ms. Basargina, she and her relatives said her family had no connections to the insurgency, but had been under police scrutiny since last year.
Before the attack, Ms. Basargina and 11 relatives had lived together in several small buildings behind a wall; the building was badly damaged and is no longer habitable.
Their troubles began, they said, when a car formerly owned by her nephew was used by a rebel in an attack last year. The rebel escaped after a skirmish, but abandoned the vehicle, which the police traced back to her nephew, Abubakar Musliyev, 31, the father of five.
Mr. Musliyev had sold the car long before, the family said, but the police did not believe him. He was summoned repeatedly to the police station during the ensuing year and was beaten several times, they said.
On Aug. 8, he disappeared. His relatives said they did not know where he went; their accounts of his activities cannot readily be confirmed.
Once he disappeared, they said, the family notified the prosecutors that he was missing, to seek help in finding him. A week later, a police officer visited their yard, according to Nakhapuv Islamova, Mr. Musliyev’s mother.
“He said, ‘Your son did not go missing,’ ” Ms. Islamova said. “ He went to the forest.’ ”
Then the police came several times at night, apparently hoping to catch him, she said. And on Aug. 28, she said, three armed men with masks appeared, with the torch and the gasoline.