VANCOUVER – When I met Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2002 to discuss her new book about Chechnya, `Dirty War,’ I began by asking her about life in Moscow.
She brusquely interrupted me, `Please, I am here to speak only of Chechnya.’
The 48-year old Russian journalist told me her days were numbered. There had already been two attempts in Moscow on her life, and a third in Chechnya.
Last week, this crusading journalist was murdered in Moscow.
At a time when too many journalists have become clapping seals for governments or their corporate employer’s party line, Politkovskaya risked her life to report the truth.
She exposed massive human rights violations being committed by Russian forces against independence-seeking Chechen, as well as economic crimes and gangsterism.
She was among a handful of Russian journalists who dared cover the brutal war in the Caucasus, fearlessly reporting it in her crusading newspaper, `Novaya Gazeta,’ one of the last free voices in Russia’s mostly government-controlled media.
But because of mounting death threats against her and her two children, Politkovskaya told me she had regretfully decided to seek political asylum in Austria. Since 1996, 23 Russian journalists have been murdered for reporting on Chechnya and domestic crimes.
But this hero journalist could not stay silent about the slaughter in Chechnya. She challenged head-on the news blackout Moscow imposed on this forgotten and largely invisible conflict.
I had a taste of what she went through. While covering the 1980’s war in Afghanistan, the Soviets and Afghan Communists put a contract out to kill me as part of their effort to stop western journalists from reporting on the war.
My own mother, another crusading journalist who sought in the early 1950’s to tell Americans the truth about the plight of Palestinian refugees was finally silenced after numerous threats were made to throw acid in my face.
Politkovskaya returned to Russia, and continued to cover Chechnya in spite of more death threats and an attempt to poison her. She was about to come out with a critical new book about Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, and the crimes being committed in Chechnya.
A contract killer murdered Anna Politkovskaya outside her Moscow apartment. The consensus in Moscow was that the finger of suspicion pointed right at Chechnya’s Moscow-installed puppet ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, a brutal Chechen warlord who inherited the job of Moscow’s local thug from his father.
Politkovskaya’s murder was another sign that Russia, in spite of President Vladimir Putin’s claims it has become a nation under law, is still dominated by its shadowy security organs and ruthless gangsters.
By now, Moscow has mostly crushed the life out of Chechnya’s 1.5 million people. These tough Muslim mountaineers have battled Russian rule for 400 years. During World War II, Stalin attempted genocide by sending 60% of all Chechen to concentration camps, where the majority perished.
In 1999, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, Chechen, like Ukrainians and Baltics, declared independence. Russian leader Boris Yeltsin sent his army to crush Chechen independence. The elected Chechen president, Jhokar Dudayev, was assassinated, thanks to electronic locating gear supplied Moscow’s secret police by CIA.
Chechen fighters, in one of modern history’s most remarkable and valiant feats, defeated Russian invasion forces. In the process, the Russians killed 100,000 or more Chechen civilians by massive carpet bombing and shelling.
The world turned its back on this massacre. President Bill Clinton hailed its author, Boris Yeltsin, as `the Abraham Lincoln of Russia.’
The world bought Moscow’s claim that Chechen independence fighters were `Islamic terrorists.’
Russia invaded a second time and slowly crushed the Chechen by mass killings, savage reprisals, and torture. All the Chechen leaders were murdered. Journalists and aid workers who sought to report this second genocide were killed or kidnapped.
Some of the remaining few Chechen fighters were driven to desperate acts of terrorism, like the school hostage taking at Beslan. But Moscow relentlessly ground the life out of Chechen resistance.
The world turned its back on the slaughter of the Chechen people and their struggle for freedom. But Anna Politkovskaya did not. She spoke for those who had no voice.
She refused to be intimidated and fought to her last breath against injustice.