International Herald Tribune
In Caucasus, delay of burials stirs local anger
By Steven Lee Myers The New York Times
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 1, 2005
NALCHIK, Russia The bodies of 89 men, wrapped in black bags, are laid out in two refrigerated railroad cars at a militia post on the edge of town. The authorities refuse to return them to relatives for burial because of a law that is worsening the climate of anger and distrust that led to the deaths of these men in the first place.
"What kind of terrorist is he?" Yekaterina Sabanchiyeva asked about her only son, Murat. He would have turned 21 this week, but he was caught in the violence that swept this city in the Northern Caucasus on Oct. 13, when scores of fighters attacked police and security stations.
"It was not terrorism," she said, standing among a group of parents outside Nalchik's main mosque, appealing to officials to release the bodies, as the parents have each day since the fighting stopped. "They attacked the police."
Many people here said they saw the attacks as an uprising against corruption and abuse, including arbitrary arrests and police beatings of anyone suspected of embracing Islam. Last year the authorities closed six mosques in Nalchik.
Struggling to contain the violence from the war in Chechnya and a rise in Islamic-tinged militancy across the Northern Caucasus, the government has turned to a form of collective punishment. Under a law adopted in the wake of the siege of a Moscow theater in 2002, which ended with the deaths of at least 129 hostages, the bodies of those considered terrorists have been deemed unworthy of family burials.
They are buried instead in anonymity - and in undisclosed locations.
They have included the 31 terrorists reported killed in the school siege in Beslan last year; Aslan Maskhadov, the former president of Chechnya and rebel leader who died in a raid in March; and dozens of people involved in attacks in or near Chechnya.
The intent of the law is to deny veneration of those who kill innocents, but it also denies families the chance to observe burial rites that are deeply ingrained in the traditional cultures of the Caucasus. That has caused an angry reaction here in Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkariya, the latest place to have scores of dead.
Takhir Atmurzayev, deputy mufti of Kabardino-Balkariya, said returning the dead would be a gesture of respect to the Highlanders, as people of this mountainous region are known.
"If they are not buried, it might be another bomb that lands somewhere else in the future," he said. He cited Islamic scriptures, saying, "If a man is not buried, sin falls on all of this place."
The fighting in Nalchik killed at least 138, including 35 security officers and 14 civilians, the republic's coroner said. Visiting the city Sunday for the funeral of the republic's former president, who died Saturday, President Vladimir Putin denounced the others who died on Oct. 13 as militants with "criminal goals."
But unlike in Beslan, the dead whose bodies are being held included men in civilian clothes and adolescents as young as 15. Most were not fighters from Chechnya's war, but local residents. Many were educated and employed.
Their relatives say that some were simply caught in the cross-fire.
Saradin Alakayev, 25, had been arrested several times, most recently two days before the attacks. He died in the fighting near a police station. He had a son, who is 4, and a daughter, who is 4 months old. His father, Khauti Alakayev, said his son had been dismissed from a factory job because the shop manager saw him praying.
"What the authorities did to them, what the police did to them - this is why they attacked the police," Khauti Alakayev said. He drew a distinction that many here have: "They did not attack schools, kindergartens. They did not attack the children."
As the violence grinds on in the Caucasus, officials in Moscow have debated stronger punishments for terrorists' families, including seizing assets and even relatives. But the anguish here has caused some to express concern that a law written in Moscow did not consider local traditions, or the murkier circumstances of what happened in Nalchik.
Aleksandr Torshin, a member of the Upper House of Parliament leading an investigation into Beslan, acknowledged that some of those killed in Nalchik might not have been terrorists, saying it was sometimes difficult to know.
He defended the law, but suggested that amendments might be necessary to allow a court to determine whether the dead had been terrorists.
"It is much better to give them back the body than to give rise to new hatred," he said.