NS Special Report - The conflict the west always ignores

Russian policy in Chechnya is breeding terrorists

Two images from a forgotten war: an emaciated 13-year-old boy, unable to absorb food because of shrapnel in his stomach; and an old man who has lost his mind and is yelping like a dog, then is calmed by the sight of his own face reflected in the small mirror that his wife holds before him.

The images are from 1999, when Russian troops went to pacify what President Vladimir Putin called "a bandit enclave". Five years later, the war in Chechnya sputters on with no end in sight. Chechen rebels, who are mainly Muslims, lay landmines and ambushes that kill dozens of Russian soldiers every month. The Russian security forces are reported to use death squads that "disappear" anyone they think might support the rebels.

In the past year, a new force has come on the scene: a Chechen militia known as the "Kadyrovsky" because of its loyalty to Russia's puppet president in Grozny, Akhmad Kadyrov. The Kadyrovsky terrorises those who would resist his rule.

In Chechnya, human rights abuses and war crimes are not aberrations but tactics, an integral part of a war that, according to the American aid group Refugees International, has killed or driven into exile nearly half the Chechen population. Atrocities carried out by Russian troops and their proxies are well documented, but attract almost no censure from European or American governments because Putin's war in Chechnya is deemed to be part of the war on terror.

"We're not dealing with indifference. We're not dealing with ignorance. We're dealing with tactical expediency," said the former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski at a recent conference on Chechnya in Washington. "After 9/11, it is deemed better to sweep this issue under the rug, even though we know better."

Despite considerable danger to its staff, the Russian human rights group Memorial manages to document atrocities. In one case, a young woman described how masked men abducted her brother, Aslanbek, after two Russian soldiers had been blown up near where he was tending the family's cattle. She believed the kidnappers were Russian soldiers taking revenge, even though her brother had nothing to do with the explosion. "We are worried that we will never find his body and bury him," she said. "In Chechnya it is widely known that when people are taken without shoes, like Aslanbek was, it means they will never be seen again."

Shoes, according to the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which monitors Chechnya closely, are something that can identify a body. The Russian army has learnt how to cover its tracks.

The main reason to question the European and US policy of turning a blind eye to the Chechen problem is that Russian tactics do not work. There is no evidence that Russia's hard line in Chechnya has discouraged Chechens from joining the Islamist networks that threaten terror attacks in Europe. On the contrary, the Russian campaign in Chechnya seems to be breeding terrorists.

The latest are the "black widows", who have carried out a series of bomb attacks in Russia and were behind the 2002 Moscow theatre siege. They are the widows, mothers and sisters of Chechen men, mainly Islamists, who have been killed by the Russians. Last year, one killed 14 people and injured 53 others at a rock concert in Moscow; and last month two detonated a bomb outside the National Hotel near the Kremlin. One thing that Chechnya isn't short of is widows. The Russian response, according to the International Helsinki Federation, has been a "growing number of crimes targeted at women", including disappearances.

Now the war in Chechnya may be spreading to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. Last year, Russian troops attacked Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia and several clashes between Russian and Chechen forces erupted on the Ingush side of the border. President Putin has just announced that the remaining Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia must close by 1 March - two weeks before the Russian presidential elections.

Putin has no chance of being ousted, but it is part of his election campaign to present the war in Chechnya as over. No matter if the refugees have nowhere to go because their homes have been destroyed, nor if they fear the dangers that await them back home.

Only the bravest journalists report from Chechnya - the chances of being kidnapped are high, while the cold, lack of electricity and general misery of the place make it difficult to work in. Moreover, the news likes things that change and Chechnya never does - the violence may alter as new forces appear, but the story essentially remains the same.

Tony Blair maintains that intervention in one place where people are tortured and oppressed doesn't mean we can or should intervene everywhere. But Chechnya is a shameful example of western leaders refusing to confront another government on human rights abuses and war crimes because, in the end, strategic and political issues matter more. Chechnya is complex and dangerous and miserable, and we just don't care enough to try to make a difference.

A Chechen website provides a weekly report - this is week 228 of the war. In broken English, it catalogues pain and violence. Last week's entry ended: "The world in which we live is full of dirt and meanness."

Lindsey Hilsum is the Channel 4 News diplomatic correspondent