Remembering Estemirova, Immortal Russian Hero

Natalia Estemirova, Immortal Russian Patriot

Natalia Estemirova, Immortal Russian Patriot

Memorial, the NGO human rights organization slain Russian hero worked for, has shut down its operations in Chechnya becaue of the danger to its staff.  Exactly what the Kremlin wanted!  Newsweek Russia correspondent Anna Nemtsova, writing on Foreign Policy’s blog, remembers her fallen comrad (watch Estemirova speaking on YouTube with English subtitles here;  watch HRW’s video tribute to her here, listen to the New Yorker‘s interview with her here; read a plethora of reader comments on a eulogy by a New York Times Russia correspondent who also knew her here):

Natalia Estemirova had a dry sense of humor and a giant heart. I remember the first time she showed us around her apartment, in the war-weary city of Grozny, she pointed to a huge shrapnel hole in the wall separating her daughter’s bedroom from the hallway. “Check out the new design of the ventilation,” she said. “I never have time to fix it, so let it stay a part of our interior.”

That was classic Natalia — a single mother and a human rights activist in a place that desperately needed them, she never had time for her own life; there were too many troubles to report on. She was a walking fountain of Chechnya’s sad stories: “I want to tell you a story about this man, a widower who was kidnapped from his house in a mountain village and now is being tortured in jail. His two little children live with his mother, who is almost 100 years old.” That was the first thing she told me when we met in Grozny in 2005.

Many times after that, I would call her to see how things were in Russia’s forgotten war zone. Natasha, as we called her, would always quickly reply: “They abduct people by the dozens, they burn their houses, they torture guerrillas’ relatives, kick people out of their apartments — something has to be done, something has to be done to help them.” Who are they? I would ask her. “Come over, I will tell you.”

Well, on Tuesday, they came for Natasha. At 8:30 that morning, as she walked out of her house, she was dragged into an unmarked white Lada, screaming vainly for help. Just like one of the stories she so doggedly pursued. And of course, we know how this one ends: They found her body later that day, in nearby Ingushetia, riddled with bullets. This, unfortunately, was the Chechnya that she knew all too well, the place of thuggery, violence, and corruption that most of the rest of the world has been content to forget. Just recently Moscow declared that the war there is over. Well, it may not be war, but it remains as lawless as a war zone. Abductions and killings by them are rising.

Until this week, Natasha had a simple rule: She never gave up her investigations until she knew for certain that nothing else could be done. That became her practice from an early age, when she was a reporter. Before the wars started, she had been a history teacher. Back in the 1990s, when the violence began, she reported 13 documentary stories for local television stations. “That was when I became a human rights activist at heart. When my husband died in war, my heart hardened,” she said. That was all she told me about her personal life; there was none. She never liked talking about what happened to her husband.

Ever since 2000, amidst the horror of the second Chechen war, she worked for the Russian human rights group Memorial. She reported on filtration camps during the war, and abductions and torture of civilians after the war. These were haunting stories she found, of widows in burnt and blackened houses, crying relatives, dead bodies.

And in pursuit of the truth about this suffering, she was relentless; she could make the dead walk if she needed something. People said that about her. It was Estemirova who investigated and documented the witnesses who saw air bombings in the Vedensky region in 2004, where a mother and her children died; at the time the Russian army officials denied the attacks. If not for Estemirova’s efforts, the world would have never heard of it. It was Estemirova who discovered a mass grave at a construction site in Grozny and put the city authorities “on their ears,” as she said, to do something about the remains.

And it was Estemirova who wrote reports about 50 abducted civilians this year; many locals blamed the disappearances on forces loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the region’s thuggish young president. “Ramzan hated her. It was him who got rid of her, as only death could stop that woman,” Oleg Orlov, Memorial’s director, told me the night she was killed.

Whenever we arrived to work in Chechnya, Natasha’s home was our home. The last time we stayed with her, in 2006, she lived with her 13-year-old daughter in a tiny two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a nine-story building. She had no tap water and the elevator did not work. The city water deliveries came to Natasha’s building at noon, when both Natasha and her daughter were at work or at school. “It is OK, guys, tonight you take a shower out of a water bottle,” she commanded, and sent us off to buy water and food, as her fridge was totally empty. “And no complaints, let’s be happy they do not bomb us,” she said with her natural optimism.

Later that night in her kitchen, we were looking through pictures on a laptop of Mikhail Galustov, a freelance photographer I was working with. Before coming to Natasha, we had spent two days at Kadyrov’s residence; at the time he was Chechnya’s prime minister and heir apparent after the death of his father, the Kremlin’s handpicked leader. The pictures featured Kadyrov showing us around his private zoo: cages with little lions and bears, ostriches running around the garden.

In one series of pictures, Kadyrov was taking his huge dogs out of their cage and baiting them, trying to get them to fight. “I know what else he uses these dogs for,” Natasha said in a heavy voice. The story Natasha told us that night was breathtaking. It was about a teenage boy, a brother of a guerrilla, who had told Natasha that Kadyrov’s police threatened to put him in that cage with the dogs, so he would tell where his brother was. Natasha was telling us story after a story that night about Kadyrov’s methods of “making relatives talk.” Her face darkened, her big beautiful eyes looked tired.

Two years later, the Chechen president offered Estemirova a position as the head of a civil society advisory commission for the city of Grozny. She accepted. It was not in Estimirova’s character to shut up, though. Even while advising the government of Kadyrov, she did not stop writing reports for Memorial. The one about Kadyrov forbidding girls to come to universities without head scarves made him really angry. In March 2008, Kadyrov called her to come to a city office and yelled at her. Estemirova was fired. He threatened her multiple times, she later told us, but her Memorial friends “decided to keep that out of publicity, as Memorial’s work in Chechnya would stop the moment we decided otherwise.”

Last summer, Memorial was so worried about Estemirova’s safety that they had to send her to London and Dublin for a couple months, Orlov, the director, told me. “Of course she could never stay away from Chechnya for too long. She was back doing the worst part — abductions,” Orlov said. This year Natasha’s calls to Moscow Memorial’s office sounded especially alarming. She called every day with her famous line: “Something has to be done.”

And that was just what I was thinking as I wrote this while flying to Natasha’s funeral in Chechnya. Something has to be done. Her body had a bruised face and four bullet holes, two in the chest and two in the head.

15 responses to “Remembering Estemirova, Immortal Russian Hero

  1. May you rest in peace Natalia Estemirova, and may those who killed you suffer for it in this world and the next.

    Chechen leader ‘threatened’ Natalia Estemirova

    Mark Franchetti in Moscow

    THE human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, who was abducted from her Chechen home last week and murdered, had been forced to flee to Britain last year after the republic’s president personally threatened her, say colleagues.

    Estemirova left Chechnya for four months because she no longer felt safe after a heated exchange with President Ramzan Kadyrov. He was angry that she had challenged his order that women should wear headscarves in public in the predominantly Muslim territory.

    According to Estemirova’s colleagues, Kadyrov lashed out at her for daring to stand up to him. It is said he told her that only loose women would not wear a headscarf and reportedly stated: “You must understand there’s no place for you here. Yes, my hands are covered in blood. I’m not ashamed of it. I killed and will kill bad people. We are fighting Chechnya’s enemies.” Estemirova, a former teacher, argued back but later felt vulnerable. Memorial, the Russian human rights organisation she had worked for since 1999, felt it was too dangerous for her to stay in Chechnya, so she moved to Britain in March 2008 but returned in the summer.

    “Kadyrov directly threatened her and she took it seriously,” said Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial. “She agreed it was best to leave, but after a while she felt things had calmed down so she wanted to get back.”

    Orlov blamed Kadyrov – who for five years has ruled Chechnya with an iron fist – for her murder, saying: “He threatened and insulted her and considered her his personal enemy.

    “We don’t know if he personally gave the order or if his people did it to please him, but either way he’s responsible.”

    Estemirova, 50, a widow with a 15-year-old daughter, was seized by four men as she left her flat for work last week. Witnesses saw her being bundled into a car and shouting: “I’m being kidnapped!” Her body was found hours later in a field in neighbouring Ingushetia, shot in the head and chest.

    The murder was strongly condemned by the Kremlin which vowed to bring the killers to justice, but Estemirova’s colleagues are sceptical. Similar promises made after other high-profile murders have not led to any convictions.

    Kadyrov, 32, has been accused of abducting, torturing and executing his opponents, but vehemently denied any involvement and said he would take personal control of the case. He reportedly told Orlov in a telephone call: “Estemirova posed no threat to me and was not a problem. You’ll be ashamed when your accusations turn out to be wrong.”

    Estemirova had begun documenting a sharp rise in kidnappings and extrajudicial executions in Chechnya. “We’re witnessing a crime wave,” she said in an interview on the eve of her death.

    A week before, she had revealed that Chechen security forces had abducted a civilian named Rizvan Albekov and his son Aziz. Armed men in camouflage had paraded him in underpants in a village square. They asked him whether he had helped insurgents, then shot him when he replied “no”. His son’s fate remains unknown.

    In the fortnight before her death, Estemirova reported on other abductions, the alleged murder of a Chechen woman suspected of links to rebels and an arson campaign that razed the homes of militants’ relatives. “There was no one like Natalia in Chechnya,” a friend said. “That’s why they killed her. Now we won’t hear of such crimes any more.”

    Ironically, in April Estemirova had told a friend: “I’m almost scared to say so, but I’m starting to think I’ve made it out alive.”

  2. A few more words about the Noble Lady, Natalya
    Estemirova, of whom, this world was not worthy:
    She is now where no harm can touch her,with others of her kind, the righteous.
    “But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch thm. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was judged an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.” (from the Old Testament)

    “Blessed are they Whom Thou hast chosen and taken, O Lord. Their memory shall be everlasting, from generation to generation.”
    “Grant me O Lord, the home-country of my heart’s desiring, making me again, a citizen of Paradise”.(from the Orthodox funeral).
    Virtue is truly it’s own reward, and this has nothing to do with the false passing praise or curses of the living.
    Natalya has achieved more in her short virtuous life and martyric death, than all of her ignorers or enemies combined.
    “The memory of the just, is celebrated with hymns of praise!”
    With deepest respect for our beloved departed sister, Natalya Estemirova….and for all maytyrs for truth and justice and mercy.
    Reader Daniel

  3. CIA and MI6 do good job. Oleg Orlov (the betrayer bastard) I think is next.

  4. to baloney-babbler, ‘aglyamoff’: ‘CIA and M16 do good job. Oleg Orlov (the betrayer bastard) I think is next’…..???
    Can’t you or your dog- handlers think up something more plausable than that? Come on, comrade!
    You just make me laugh. But, thanks for a laugh.
    And, your vulgarity, does impress me, as it is the typical filthy-mouthed mind-set of your whole criminal low-life gang that terrorizes Russia and surrounding peoples. Your minds are in the gutter, your hands have blood on them, and you make Russia the universally despised and…ridiculed …and impoverished nation, that it is presently. You, are the ‘betrayer bastards’ of Russia and it’s enslaved peoples. Shame on you!
    But….thanks for a laugh. Your words are ridiculous beyond measure or reason. Tanks a whole rot!

    • CIA organized conveyer of death in Russia. Politkovskaya, Markelov, Estemirova. Who is next? This betrayers is fattened by grants and then killed. It’s interest Orlov know about his fate?

      And not only in Russia.

      “Iranian Ambassador to Mexico Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri made this accusation on Saturday night in an interview to the CNN television network. He denied that the young woman was killed by Iranian security forces and suggested that the CIA or another intelligence service may have been responsible.
      Ghadiri said that the bullet found in Neda’s head was not of a type used in Iran. “These are the methods that terrorists, the CIA and spy agencies employ,” he said. “Naturally, they would like to see blood spilled in these demonstrations, so that they can use it against the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is of the common methods that the CIA employs in various countries.”,7340,L-3737891,00.html

      • Unfortunately Algymuff is an excellent example of the retardation of the Russian people.

        Rather than accept responsibility for their disgusting crimes, Russians will always try and pass the buck.

        They enjoy being slaves to criminal scum, and unfortunately I cannot see Russian culture improving unless it is forced to do so.

        • I am an excellent example of skill of Russians to think by own head and not believing to foreign propaganda. And I’m not alone.

          But unfortunately you enjoy being slave to criminal scum which are now the USA goverment and FRS, and unfortunately again I cannot see your protests.

          • Russians and thinking, LOL, thats an oxymoron.

            Once again Algymuff, you are an excellent example of the retardation of an entire “culture”.

            Russia is a nation of criminals pure and simple.

            The good ones like Politkovskaya, Markelov, Solzhenitsin, and now Natalya Estimirova and persecuted, and in most cases killed, for telling the truth about the vile nation Russia was and is.

            The biggest mass murderes in history are the Russian state and its peoples.

            The biggest suppliers of weapons to genocidal and repressive regimes around the world is Russia and its peoples.

            The biggest threat to the sovreignty, peace, and security of former communist block states is Russia which still dreams its sick fantasies of empire.

            You are loathed and reviled in Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics, Poland, Finland, Chzec & Slovak republics, Hungary, Bulgaria, Roumania and of course Bosina, Croatia, Slovenia etc, because of the crimes you have committed.

            You have spent the last century or more killing their Natalya Estimirovas and Markelovs.

            Russia is like a cancer, always killing those who try to do good.

  5. Associated Press:

    Activists said Kadyrov was outraged when Estemirova, in televised remarks in March 2008, criticized his order for women and girls to wear headscarves in schools, universities and government offices — a requirement that clashed both with federal law and, many Chechens say, Chechen traditions.

    Kadyrov “yelled at her, asked questions about who she lived with, where her relatives were and how old her daughter was,” said Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher with the Human Rights Watch who specializes in Chechnya and the surrounding region.

    “With Kadyrov she spoke like a schoolteacher — she put this D-student in his place,” said Alexander Cherkasov, a Chechnya expert at Memorial, choking back tears at the news conference last week. “But he knew how to do more than just spit wads of paper from the back row.”


    Fearing for her safety, Estemirova fled to London a short time later, where she worked for Human Rights Watch, said Alison Gill, director of its Moscow office. But she returned three months later.

    “She came back because of her commitment to her work,” Gill said. “She felt her home was in Chechnya, her place was in Chechnya.”

    Activists say Estemirova was the key source on human rights violations in Chechnya in recent years, working with the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and lawyer Stanislav Markelov — both of whom were slain in assassination-style killings.

    “Fifty per cent of what Politkovskaya published was written by Estemirova, because publishing it under her name was perilous,” Latynina said. She said Estemirova wrote articles under other pseudonyms, but Chechen authorities knew she was the author.

    Kadyrov, who became acting president of Chechnya in February 2007, initially tried to establish good ties with Estemirova. Latynina said Kadyrov paradoxically found the idealistic rights campaigner useful in outmaneuvering rivals for power, including other warlords and Russian officials.

    “Kadyrov definitely got rid of his opponents by using Memorial reports,” said Lokshina. “Natalya was glad because it stopped the torture.”

    But as Kadyrov consolidated power, Latynina said, Estemirova became more of an irritant than a help.

    Last Friday, Orlov said, Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev summoned the head of Memorial’s Grozny office and told him that the group’s most recent material had “caused extreme indignation at the highest level of power.”

    According to Orlov, the ombudsman ominously added: “You understand that you are putting yourself in grave danger. You need to change your style of work.'”

    Nukhazhiyev urged Memorial to report alleged abuses directly to Kadyrov and not make them public, Orlov said.

    The last straw, several rights activists said, may have been Estemirova’s work with Human Rights Watch to publicize the execution of a man suspected of giving a sheep to insurgents: he was allegedly stripped to his underwear and shot in a village square by police July 7.

    • Only words, no one document or other prove.

      A propos Kadyrov brought in action against Orlov for slander.

  6. A Fearless Activist in a Land of Thugs

    To the families whose pain she worked to relieve and whose stories she forced the world to see, she was a resolute champion. To the men whose crimes she exposed, case by case, with a quiet composure, she was a confounding enemy, a feminine nemesis they could neither fathom nor dissuade.

    She wandered the ruined republic wearing a skirt, blouse and heels, lipstick on, carrying her purse and presenting a straight face, perhaps warmed by a slight smile, to masked gunmen and victims alike. She could seem as proper as a chief librarian, ready to add to her archive, both on paper and in the mind, which revealed the Chechen wars for what they really were. How did she dare?

    This was Chechnya, after all, a world of violence so sinister it can be difficult to describe in a newspaper. Thugs dominate this land. Experience has taught them that fear will bend opponents to heel. Who was she to chase them? Why could she not be persuaded to quit? The answer is now written, though everyone who knew her knew it long ago: only death would stop her. All her friends could do was trust her to dodge it, as she had, somehow, for years.

    A QUESTION hangs over her execution, the most recent in a series of killings of those still willing to chronicle Chechnya’s horrors. Is the accounting of the human toll now over? Without her, will Chechnya become, like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, a place where no one risks asking hard questions openly?

    Chechnya is a tiny spot on Russia’s big map, home to only several hundred thousand souls. But its past two decades offered lenses into factors driving modern war: nationalism, oil, religious intolerance, racism, tribalism, blood codes that demand revenge, irregular fighters and ill-disciplined conventional units, outright banditry, poverty, official corruption and, for good measure, traveling Islamic mercenaries and a government rooted in a personality cult.

    Her world could not be much worse. First it matched pie-eyed separatism against crude Russian tactics. Then it hosted insurgency, terrorism and state-directed rights abuses on an extraordinary scale. Lately it morphed into micro-Stalinism under Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the former rebel turned feared president.

    Ms. Estemirova’s office became a kaleidoscope of the macabre.

    She was, improbably, a one-woman parallel government, providing services that the real government was unwilling to offer. She found the incarcerated. She hunted for hidden graves. She built cases against perpetrators, even when she found, as she often did, that they wore government uniforms.

    Grozny was a wasteland, physically, morally, psychologically. Ms. Estemirova was almost otherworldly. She inhabited a separate Chechnya, a region where dignity might prevail.

    Russia fell silent to the wars. State-controlled television did not broadcast her findings. Most Russian journalists avoided her. Her truths were not welcome. In Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia, she was a nonperson. She was undeterred. She took her findings directly to prosecutors, having done their jobs for them, and requested investigations.

    Sometimes she found allies in government, in part because she possessed an integrity born of independence. Unlike many voices that rose against Russia’s Chechen policies, Ms. Estemirova was not enamored of the rebels. She lived through separatist self-rule in the late 1990s. She saw they were corrupt and brutal, too. She did not choose sides. Her work pointed elsewhere: to facts.

    Facts drove her. She had trained as a historian, and once history erupted around her she wanted both to document the suffering and crimes and give Russia a chance to address them, thereby stepping toward the modern world. The Kremlin was not interested.

    Her files were stuffed not with innuendo or sweeping judgments. They contained facts, each one carefully checked. They were a damning accumulation. A Chechen friend, a heavily scarred former fighter who knew something of the ideas and the men that brought Chechnya to debasement, offered an explanation of how she managed to carry on. She was a fighter apart. Bezstrashnaya, he said: “without fear.”

    Did she see what awaited her? Her friends would say: Yes.

    WARNING her was a constant. But asking her to leave Russia for her own good was a conversation she would cut short with sighs. She was shaped by a mission inextricable from her life, even if it predicted her death. She even turned the concerns back around.

    It is you who should be careful, she told a pair of us last fall. Call me tonight so I know you are safe.

    All the while she calmly confronted the authorities, while people around her dropped out or were killed. Over the years, and again recently, Ms. Estemirova and her co-workers were summoned to official meetings to hear blistering complaints about their work.

    The message was crude and clear: Stop. It is difficult for an outsider to grasp how awful these meetings must have been.

    She was called before President Kadyrov, head of a government that ran torture centers where, as her records showed, detainees were subjected to beatings, stompings, electric shocks, mock executions, sodomy, burnings by gas torch and, in the end, for some, execution.

    Mr. Kadyrov, survivors said, participated in these crimes with delight.

    Many victims have not been seen since. Mutilated remains of others turned up — limbs broken, faces smashed, skin charred, heads and torsos shattered by bullets fired at close range — the characteristic human refuse of Chechnya’s wars and its governing style.

    Almost inevitably these cases were documented by Ms. Estemirova. Almost no one was ever charged. And now Ms. Estemirova, the lead investigator, who refused to quit when told it was time to be silent, is gone, taken from life — and from Russia — the same way.

  7. Mary Robinson: Estemirova’s death is a tragic example of cold-blooded murder of a courageous human rights activist

    jul 20 2009, 18:00

    The murder of Natalia Estemirova, an employee of the HRC “Memorial” is another tragic example of a cold-blooded murder of a courageous human rights activist, runs a personal statement of Mary Robinson, President of the International Commission of Lawyers. According to Ms Robinson, Natalia Estemirova was one of the most courageous and inspiring human rights defenders she had ever met.

    When in spring of 2000 Ms Robinson came to Chechnya as the UN High Commissioner with the aim to assess the situation with human rights after the conflict, Natalia and her colleagues from the “Memorial” were most helpful for the mission, as marked in her statement. Natalia Estemirova then informed Ms Robinson in details about the situation with human rights, including both the violations committed by Russian troops and security forces, and the violations of the international humanitarian law against civilians committed by Chechen rebels.

    “From time to time I continued to receive messages about Natalia’s brave work and I know that the ‘Memorial’, as well as a broad circle of her friends, also engaged in defence of human rights, were more and more concerned about her safety and the growing enmity expressed against her by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and his administration,” says the statement.

    Mary Robinson also calls Russian authorities to more effective protection of her colleagues and employees of the HRC “Memorial”, and also to help to respective UN missions in getting access to complete investigation of the circumstances of her death and other violations of human rights.

    See earlier reports: “”Memorial” closes up its work in Chechnya,” “Foreign media advise Medvedev to dismiss Kadyrov,” “”Memorial” leader Oleg Orlov is ready to face Ramzan Kadyrov in court,” “Statement Condemning the Murder of Natalia Estemirova, a Prominent Journalist and a Human Rights Defender.”

  8. Politkovskaya murder retrial begins in Moscow
    Today, 12:01 | Reuters

    MOSCOW, (Reuters) – Three suspects in the murder of journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya went on trial for a second time in Moscow on Wednesday as supporters questioned the authorities’ will and ability to solve the case.

    • Don’t hold your breath.

      Observers say truth unlikely to emerge from Politkovskaya retrial,,4541281,00.html

      A deputy editor at the newspaper for which Politkovskaya worked, Novaya Gazeta, says Russian authorities had only scratched the surface.

      “The investigators were obstructed in their work,” Sergei Sokolov told AFP.

      The implication is that there’s been a cover-up, possibly to conceal links between Politkovskaya’s murder and the Chechen government or maybe even the Kremlin.

      And given that others with connections to Politkovskaya have also been killed, some suspect that there is an active campaign to silence journalists critical of the current leadership in Russia’s most troubled republic.

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