Photo Gallery: Fleeing from Grozny

Foto: Musa Sadulayev/ AP

Third Wave Thousands of Chechens Seek Refuge in Germany

A decade after the end of the war against Russia, thousands of Chechens have headed for Germany seeking asylum. They are fleeing from Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who many say is a brutal strongman who ruthlessly persecutes his enemies.

When Adam leaves for Germany, his mother tells him to have a good trip -- and hopes that he won't be coming back. "Here's to your never returning to Chechnya," she says, "God willing and with the help of German officials."

Adam lives in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, which is part of Russia. He is traveling with very little luggage: two T-shirts, some mashed potatoes and a roast chicken as food for the journey for him and his five young sons. Adam is also carrying a document for the officials in Berlin: a letter from a prison doctor describing welts and hematomas, the traces Adam's tormentors left behind on his body.

His mother's real name is not Malika, and when she gave birth to her eldest son more than 30 years ago, she didn't name him Adam, either. We can't print Adam's real name because it appears on a death list circulating in Chechnya. According to the list, he faces the threat of "execution without trial."

Adam picks up his wife from the doctor's office in Grozny, where she has just had an ultrasound. Zamira is nine months' pregnant. She hopes that she won't go into labor until she sets foot on German soil. The family takes a taxi to the train station, passing the skyscraper where Gérard Depardieu, the French actor who now lives in Russia, has an apartment.

The car passes the boutiques along Putin Prospect, Grozny's magnificent mile. President Ramzan Kadyrov named the street after his benefactor, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who gives Kadyrov free rein. Adam and family leave behind the glass façades of the new Grozny and board the train to Moscow, for the first stage of their trip to Germany.

Eerie Exodus

Thousands like Adam are also making their way to the West, in a mass exodus from Chechnya. It is the third wave of refugees triggered by the two Chechen wars in the 1990s. What makes the current exodus so eerie is that it is not accompanied by fighting.

In the first seven months of this year, more than 10,000 Chechens applied for asylum with German government offices, almost three times as many as in all of 2012. The small republic in the North Caucasus, with a population of one million, is suddenly appearing at the top of German asylum statistics. More people are coming to Germany from Chechnya at the moment than from Syria and Afghanistan combined, two countries racked by civil war. According to Russian state security estimates, some 600 families have left Argun, a provincial city of 30,000 people, where Kadyrov is having glass-and-steel office buildings erected that resemble the structures in London's Canary Wharf commercial district.

Putin values Kadyrov, because he has brought a funereal calm to Chechnya. Moscow waged two devastating wars to prevent the republic from seceding. But it was only Kadyrov who managed to wrestle down the Chechen rebels, albeit with brutal methods.

In return, the Kremlin provides him with virtually unlimited credit, including more than €1.6 billion ($2.14 billion) in annual subsidies. Moscow also pays for the despot's escapades without blinking an eye. They include Kadyrov's private stud farm, worth millions of euros, and a giant new mosque in Grozny, which he built in honor of his father.

But the gleaming facades are nothing but smoke and mirrors, in a republic where many people already have their suitcases packed. One of them is Tamara from Grozny, who wants to go to Germany because a cousin tried to kill her after she allegedly brought shame on her family. Another is Arbi, a poor rural resident who hopes that Germany will provide his mother with a new prosthetic leg and give him work.

The Chechens pose a difficult challenge to German authorities. In their offices in Berlin and elsewhere, they must evaluate which refugees are merely in Germany for financial reasons, whether the refugees include Islamists prepared to use violence and which asylum seekers truly deserve protection, because they became innocent victims of the Kadyrov regime.

A Shocking Story

Adam runs his hand across a scar on his head. He got the scar, he says, after being hit with the butt of a Stechkin pistol, a police officer's service weapon. He says that men from the interior ministry pulled him into a car, blindfolded him and threw him into a basement room at a police station. They described the act as the arrest of a suspected terrorist. According to Adam, they hit him with water bottles, and later with clubs. He also says that they connected wires to his fingers and ears and gave him electroshocks.

There was only one other prisoner in the basement. Adam heard his screams for two days. There was no sound on the third day, because the man was dead. According to Adam, police officers blew up the body in the woods and wrote in their records that they had eliminated terrorists with explosives.

It is a shocking story, and one which Chechens find plausible. Human rights activists are aware of an investigator who kept half a dozen men captive in a cell in the Achkhoy-Martan administrative district. He planned to shoot them to death in the forest, and then to claim that the bodies were the remains of Islamist rebels, so that he could collect a reward.

In Grozny, a young man is being tried on charges of illegal possession of firearms. Yussup Ektumayev was allegedly involved in a bombing attack. When he heard that he was wanted, he went to the police voluntarily, accompanied by his mother Azya. They both believed that it was a misunderstanding, but then Yussup was beaten and given electroshocks. Police officers held a pistol to the head of his brother Khalid, demanding that he testify against his brother.

Adam's uncle fought against the Russians. He was a follower of rebel president Dzhokhar Dudayev, but not a radical Islamist. The police beat a confession out of Adam, forcing him to say that he had bought food for his uncle at the time. In Chechnya, that alone is enough to convict someone of aiding and abetting terrorists. Under torture, Adam also revealed the location along a river where he had once hidden his uncle's Kalashnikov.

'Safer than Great Britain'

The next time his mother Malika saw her son alive, Adam was spitting blood. A judge sentenced him to two years in prison. A criminal investigator named Ruzlan occasionally came to his prison cell and had him brought to the warden's office, where he beat Adam.

Chechen President Kadyrov claims that such descriptions are pure fiction. His spokesman characterizes the reports on refugees as an "invention of German journalists." Chechnya is "safer than Great Britain," says Kadyrov, noting that the Chechen economy is the most effective in all of Russia.

Grozny looks imposing enough, but when night falls and the buses depart for Germany, the leadership's deception becomes evident. There were two buses a week a year ago, but now there are five. Those with money choose a less onerous mode of transportation. A developer, for example, bought airline tickets and obtained visas for Europe to bring her daughter to safety. Kadyrov's supporters were among her customers, "but instead of paying their bills, they are now threatening my family."

Under the eyes of his patron Putin, Kadyrov has established a feudal system, more of a medieval sultanate than a modern state. And his rule is an arbitrary one. At one moment, he is pardoning a Chechen convicted of murder in Russia and appearing with him in public. At the next, he is sending an Internet user to a labor camp because she had joked online about a fire at one of the buildings he owns.

The Kremlin is practicing a dangerous laissez-faire policy in the Caucasus. It lets Kadyrov do as he pleases, even when this includes establishing his own paramilitary force, the black-clad "Kadyrovtsy," as Chechens call them. This spring, when investigators with the Russian domestic intelligence service FSB tried to take action against Kadyrov bodyguards who had kidnapped and tortured a man in Moscow, they were called off.

Kadyrov's realm exists practically outside Russian laws. Kadyrov himself once put it this way: "As long as Putin supports me, I can do as I please." His friends control various companies. Like dark knights, they race around the country in their SUVs. The letters KRA appear on their license plates: Kadyrov's initials, but with the last name first.

Welcoming Money?

In the dark of night, a man steps underneath the trees along Putin Prospect. Despite the gloom, he wears a cap pulled down over his face. "If they recognize me, they'll kill me," he says. Despite the risk, he wants to tell us how he was once in favor and then fell out of favor with the Chechen despot. He is the opposite of Adam, the man who was abused in prison. He built his career with Kadyrov's security forces. His family was influential in Chechnya and had money, until "Ramzan gave the order to destroy us," he says. No one knows why. He was fired from his job and an uncle was tortured. His brother is in prison. The man is getting ready to flee the country and, like Adam, he wants to go to Germany.

Adam crosses into the EU in early August, near the Belarusian city of Brest. Polish border agents document the family's personal data and take fingerprints. Almost all Chechens enter the EU through Poland. Warsaw houses some refugees in prisons, and family members are sometimes separated. According to a report by the Society for Threatened Peoples, the sick have only limited access to medical care.

Zamira hasn't gone into labor yet. Adam gives a taxi driver the last of his money, about €1,000, for the trip to Berlin. Poland has approved only a few hundred asylum applications in the last three years. Germany, on the other hand -- as a popular rumor would have it  -- receives Chechens with open arms and welcoming money.

But the opposite is the case. Only 8.3 percent of refugees from the Caucasus are allowed to stay in Germany. The German government refuses to accept responsibility for the refugees, citing the Dublin Regulation, under which refugees can only apply for asylum in the EU country in which they first arrive. As a rule, Germany sends them back to those countries. The approach is controversial, but it benefits Germany.

The skepticism of security officials complicates the situation for those arriving from Chechnya. Just in April, the Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev  killed three people by detonating bombs during the Boston Marathon. Caution is warranted in Germany as well. There is one case, for example, of a Chechen woman who is in a Berlin hospital and hopes to bring her husband from Turkey to Germany. But the husband is part of a Chechen rebel clan and has fought in Syria.

The head of the German police union proposes isolating Chechens deemed dangerous in guarded accommodations.

Running Inside

Adam's mother Malika is sitting in the kitchen of a wooden barrack in Grozny. Someone from the mayor's office has just been to see her. After her son's escape, the city now wants to evict her from the emergency shelter. Malika, her husband and their two children are expected to move in with another grown son. He lives in a 30-square-meter (323-square-foot) shack on the outskirts of Grozny, where there is no electricity or sewage service.

A police officer has told Malika that her son lied to her, that he is in fact a terrorist and has gone to Syria. After the meeting, Malika reread the text message Adam sent her from abroad. It was sent with a German mobile phone, from a number preceded by the German country code, +49.

The authorities in Berlin have placed Adam and his family in a former school building. The German doctors say that Zamira weathered the trip well and is expecting a girl. The shelter manager tells Adam that their chances of being allowed to stay are slim, and they will probably be sent back to Poland, where they will likely be deported to Russia. The manager says that every Chechen she encounters at the shelter tells her the same story of torture and persecution.

Adam sits down at the small table the management has placed in his room and reaches for a pen and paper. Then he writes down what happened to him in Chechnya. He writes about his uncle's Kalashnikov and being tortured with electroshocks. He describes many details, hoping that this will make it difficult for the Germans not to believe him.

His sons are playing in the courtyard. When a black SUV pulls up in front of the hostel -- a vehicle like those driven by Kadyrov's men in Chechnya -- they run inside and hide.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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