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Natasha Estemirova: A Few Memories (By Heidi Hoogerbeets)

Natasha's Work at Memorial

It is incorrect to say that Natasha worked for Memorial. She was Memorial. Natasha’s work in the office and on the field was an invaluable resource—the backbone for reports illustrating violations of human rights in post-war Chechnya issued by local and international journalists, human rights activists, and humanitarian aid workers. Natasha repeatedly said that lack of information about the Chechen war led to public apathy throughout Russia and the abandonment of innocent civilians and Russian soldiers who lost their lives or have faced irrevocable losses. She asserted that the Northern Caucasus have largely been neglected in comparison to other modern-day conflict-ridden regions, and that few people outside Chechnya have cared about the Chechens’ fate. She felt it was her duty, especially after the tragic murder of Anna Politkovskaya (who had been her close colleague and friend), to continue the work of documenting the lives of war victims. Paradoxically, journalists like Anna Politkovskaya could never have written their reports without Natasha. They were actually continuing Natasha's work—lending a voice to the stories and facts that Natasha diligently gathered. She meticulously documented hundreds of cases about the extortion, kidnapping, summary execution, looting, and torture of the civilian population.

I visited Nazran and Grozny to conduct academic research as a graduate student at Columbia University. Natasha was my primary source of help while I was there. From the very first day I met her, she had immediately left a powerful impression on me. When I walked into Memorial’s Grozny office, she immediately offered me tea and candies and told me to eat quickly so that I had strength to get as much work done as possible. Her energy was overwhelming and intimidating. Before I could even get out my notebook and digital recorder, she began spewing out name after name of the people she thought I should meet while I was there. I could hardly keep up with her. She asked me who I wanted to meet from my hastily scribbled list but, before I could answer, she had already picked up a phone and was calling all the people on the list to arrange my interviews. This was Natasha—a woman of few words and plenty of action. She always seemed to be one step ahead of everyone else.

During my trip to Chechnya, I observed victims who had waited hours to see Natasha at Memorial’s Grozny office. One day, there was a line of people from the entrance through a narrow, poorly lit hallway, all the way into an office where she worked behind an outdated computer. One old woman expressed the risk involved in going to Memorial under Kadirov’s regime, especially when police would stand outside the office to intimidate visitors from filing their cases and appealing for help. Nonetheless, she—like many other victims—was willing to risk her safety to see Natasha, because Natasha has earned a reliable reputation throughout the community for her determination to help anyone who crossed her path. Many of the victims who I interviewed expressed their gratitude to Natasha for not only carefully documenting their cases in great detail, but gathering money for lawyers and medical treatment—often attending to their families own her own.

Natasha Estemirova told me that disappearances have become one of the most critical tribulations facing Chechnya since the war ended. She explained that the victims of disappearances are mainly male adolescents and men. Consequently, women have little choice but to bear the responsibility, not only to attempt to find their disappeared relatives, but also to assume the financial costs of legal procedures in doing so. In this connection, she wanted to compile a collection of stories about Chechen women during the war—to give them a voice—a project she clearly never got to finish.

Natasha’s character

Natasha’s striking almond shaped green eyes simultaneously revealed warmth and sorrow which often masked her impenetrable strength and determination. She was soft spoken and feminine, yet engaged in work that even the bravest of men couldn’t fathom. While she was quick to show her anger when encountering injustice, she also wasn’t afraid to cry. She had a gift of relating to others on a personal level, always finding common dialogue with people of diverse backgrounds. She was sensitive, inquisitive about the world around her, and had an eye for beauty and appreciation for nature.

I feel fortunate to have met with Natasha several times when she visited Moscow and was temporarily away from the ubiquitous grief that she constantly encountered in Chechnya. On walks, her face radiated joy when she took artistic pictures of flowers and trees. She loved classical music and recalled the times she used to crawl up on her mother’s bed late at night after everyone in her house went to sleep. There was an old Soviet style radio attached to the wall high above the bed which broadcast symphonic music. On many of our meetings, I would bring her CD compilations that I had made with various world and classical music, which she seemed to always look forward to. She particularly liked the Russian song Ja Svoboden by vocalist Kipelov. Once when we listened to Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta, she said that she wished real life could be as sweet as music and that the broken people of Chechnya could someday experience the joy embodied in music.

Natasha also loved literature. She described books as her “best medicine” before going to sleep. When we sat at a cafe one afternoon, she grabbed a green napkin, scribbled the words “Feuchtwanger” and “Schopenhauer” on it, and enthusiastically urged me to read their works, curiously, whenever I felt depressed. Natasha was also sentimental. On a train ride I had taken with her to the outskirts of Moscow, we looked up the phone number of a man we were meeting in my wallet-sized phonebook. After we found the number and made the call, she took the book and scribbled, Delai dobro i brosai evo v reku—an Armenian saying, from Natasha (the rough idea in translation: do a good deed for others to benefit). “This is how we should always live,” she said with joy reflected in her eyes.

In August 2007, I went with Natasha to visit Anna Politkovskaya’s grave at Troyekurovskoe Cemetery. She bought two beautiful red roses. “I gave her red roses then (meaning at the funeral), and I will now,” she said. When we approached the grave, Natasha placed the roses on the grave, steadily walked backwards a few steps, shook her head and said, “What kind of place is this—where brave woman and mothers are killed for speaking out against the government. This has to stop.” It is impossible to comprehend that Natasha is now gone—taken away from this world by bullets, just as Politkovskaya had been three years ago.

Life in Grozny

Like all human rights activists in Russia, Natasha received little pay for her unfathomable, courageous work and lived modestly. There wasn't a functioning elevator in her apartment building, so she regularly climbed a steep staircase to the tenth floor. For a long time she didn’t have running water, so she would haul buckets up those flights. “My other apartment was even worse. It barely had doors that would close. No one ever suspected that Anna Politkovskaya would frequently stay there with me,” she said one day as we climbed the stairs and entered her apartment. The first time I stayed with her, she showed me, with tremendous grief, a pair of Politkovskaya’s navy blue house slippers that she had kept in her apartment’s entrance, even after Anna was killed in 2006.

Natasha’s work hours frequently extended into the night or began long before sunrise. Although she suffered from frequent and severe migraines (sometimes cured by Advil that a few of us would bring her from the U.S.), she would still read through every single report given to her by the people she had met during the work day. Many of these reports comprised pages and pages of original, handwritten notes by the victims—all of which had been exclusively entrusted to Natasha. I was amazed by the overwhelming stacks of crinkled paper with yellowed edges lying on Natasha’s kitchen table —as worn as the victims themselves. It was as if the Chechen people had finally found a woman—their local hero—worthy of possessing the intimate accounts of their astonishing war-torn lives.

One night while staying with Natasha, I woke up at 3 a.m., because she received a call from a woman who needed her help. Although there was little she could do to help the woman in the middle of the night, she stayed on the phone to provide comfort and emotional support. The next morning, she told me that the woman and her children had been kicked out of their apartment by thugs, and police did not come to their aid. After only three hours of sleep, she hurried off to the office so that she could file the case and take it to the local prosecutors. She did this often.

Even in the smallest ways, Natasha was thoughtful and caring. For example, Chechnya’s climate attracts huge crickets during the summer. Natasha had a cat, Vanessa, that loved to chase and capture these crickets, so she thoughtfully left the cat with me at night so that it would capture and deter the crickets that would otherwise have hopped on my bed.

Heidi Hoogerbeets traveled to Chechnya in 2007 as a reporter and graduate student. She is currently a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

 

 


 

The Chechnya Advocacy Network was formed out of deep concern about the alarming situation in Chechnya and the plight of Chechen refugees all over the world. We strive to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict, particularly its human dimension, advocate for a more engaged international response and work to develop adequate responses to the humanitarian crisis. We are neither pro-Chechen nor pro-Russian, but supportive of solutions that promise the best possible outcome for the people of Chechnya and the North Caucasus. As an open, non-partisan initiative we welcome everyone who shares these goals with us.

© Copyright 2004, Zachary Hutchinson
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