And Then There Were None

How they killed Chechnya's conscience.

Natalia Estemirova had a dry sense of humor and a giant heart. I remember the first time she showed us around her apartment, in the war-weary city of Grozny, she pointed to a huge shrapnel hole in the wall separating her daughter's bedroom from the hallway. "Check out the new design of the ventilation," she said. "I never have time to fix it, so let it stay a part of our interior."

That was classic Natalia -- a single mother and a human rights activist in a place that desperately needed them, she never had time for her own life; there were too many troubles to report on. She was a walking fountain of Chechnya's sad stories: "I want to tell you a story about this man, a widower who was kidnapped from his house in a mountain village and now is being tortured in jail. His two little children live with his mother, who is almost 100 years old." That was the first thing she told me when we met in Grozny in 2005.

Many times after that, I would call her to see how things were in Russia's forgotten war zone. Natasha, as we called her, would always quickly reply: "They abduct people by the dozens, they burn their houses, they torture guerrillas' relatives, kick people out of their apartments -- something has to be done, something has to be done to help them." Who are they? I would ask her. "Come over, I will tell you."

Well, on Tuesday, they came for Natasha. At 8:30 that morning, as she walked out of her house, she was dragged into an unmarked white Lada, screaming vainly for help. Just like one of the stories she so doggedly pursued. And of course, we know how this one ends: They found her body later that day, in nearby Ingushetia, riddled with bullets. This, unfortunately, was the Chechnya that she knew all too well, the place of thuggery, violence, and corruption that most of the rest of the world has been content to forget. Just recently Moscow declared that the war there is over. Well, it may not be war, but it remains as lawless as a war zone. Abductions and killings by them are rising.

Until this week, Natasha had a simple rule: She never gave up her investigations until she knew for certain that nothing else could be done. That became her practice from an early age, when she was a reporter. Before the wars started, she had been a history teacher. Back in the 1990s, when the violence began, she reported 13 documentary stories for local television stations. "That was when I became a human rights activist at heart. When my husband died in war, my heart hardened," she said. That was all she told me about her personal life; there was none. She never liked talking about what happened to her husband.

Ever since 2000, amidst the horror of the second Chechen war, she worked for the Russian human rights group Memorial. She reported on filtration camps during the war, and abductions and torture of civilians after the war. These were haunting stories she found, of widows in burnt and blackened houses, crying relatives, dead bodies.

And in pursuit of the truth about this suffering, she was relentless; she could make the dead walk if she needed something. People said that about her. It was Estemirova who investigated and documented the witnesses who saw air bombings in the Vedensky region in 2004, where a mother and her children died; at the time the Russian army officials denied the attacks. If not for Estemirova's efforts, the world would have never heard of it. It was Estemirova who discovered a mass grave at a construction site in Grozny and put the city authorities "on their ears," as she said, to do something about the remains.

And it was Estemirova who wrote reports about 50 abducted civilians this year; many locals blamed the disappearances on forces loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the region's thuggish young president. "Ramzan hated her. It was him who got rid of her, as only death could stop that woman," Oleg Orlov, Memorial's director, told me the night she was killed.

Whenever we arrived to work in Chechnya, Natasha's home was our home. The last time we stayed with her, in 2006, she lived with her 13-year-old daughter in a tiny two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a nine-story building. She had no tap water and the elevator did not work. The city water deliveries came to Natasha's building at noon, when both Natasha and her daughter were at work or at school. "It is OK, guys, tonight you take a shower out of a water bottle," she commanded, and sent us off to buy water and food, as her fridge was totally empty. "And no complaints, let's be happy they do not bomb us," she said with her natural optimism.

Later that night in her kitchen, we were looking through pictures on a laptop of Mikhail Galustov, a freelance photographer I was working with. Before coming to Natasha, we had spent two days at Kadyrov's residence; at the time he was Chechnya's prime minister and heir apparent after the death of his father, the Kremlin's handpicked leader. The pictures featured Kadyrov showing us around his private zoo: cages with little lions and bears, ostriches running around the garden.

In one series of pictures, Kadyrov was taking his huge dogs out of their cage and baiting them, trying to get them to fight. "I know what else he uses these dogs for," Natasha said in a heavy voice. The story Natasha told us that night was breathtaking. It was about a teenage boy, a brother of a guerrilla, who had told Natasha that Kadyrov's police threatened to put him in that cage with the dogs, so he would tell where his brother was. Natasha was telling us story after a story that night about Kadyrov's methods of "making relatives talk." Her face darkened, her big beautiful eyes looked tired.

Two years later, the Chechen president offered Estemirova a position as the head of a civil society advisory commission for the city of Grozny. She accepted. It was not in Estimirova's character to shut up, though. Even while advising the government of Kadyrov, she did not stop writing reports for Memorial. The one about Kadyrov forbidding girls to come to universities without head scarves made him really angry. In March 2008, Kadyrov called her to come to a city office and yelled at her. Estemirova was fired. He threatened her multiple times, she later told us, but her Memorial friends "decided to keep that out of publicity, as Memorial's work in Chechnya would stop the moment we decided otherwise."

Last summer, Memorial was so worried about Estemirova's safety that they had to send her to London and Dublin for a couple months, Orlov, the director, told me. "Of course she could never stay away from Chechnya for too long. She was back doing the worst part -- abductions," Orlov said. This year Natasha's calls to Moscow Memorial's office sounded especially alarming. She called every day with her famous line: "Something has to be done."

And that was just what I was thinking as I wrote this while flying to Natasha's funeral in Chechnya. Something has to be done. Her body had a bruised face and four bullet holes, two in the chest and two in the head.

REUTERS/Dylan Martinez


What Iraq Needs More Than Oil

How a 1964 Turkish film explains water politics in the Middle East today.

Oil isn't the only natural resource that matters in Iraq. Last month, the country announced it had begun receiving over 50 percent more water from the Euphrates River thanks to an upstream neighbor, Turkey.

Mesopotamia was once home to muscular rulers who tamed the abundant waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, making possible a thriving, advanced civilization. As a result, Iraq always had more water than most other countries in the region. The only problem was how to store and distribute it, especially in drought years like the current one. But today, crumbled infrastructure and inefficient water management leave Iraq -- once a preferred backdrop for biblical flood sagas -- reliant on the flow from foreign reservoirs to keep its many wheat and barley farmers afloat.

And it's not the newly behind-the-scenes occupiers, the Americans, or even the Iranians that Iraq needs to woo for continued supply. It's Turkey, the other up-and-coming regional hegemon, that controls most of the floodgates.

Substitute Russia for Turkey and gas for water, and we'd be hearing all about another high-stakes struggle for natural resources. Periodic Russian threats to cut off pipelines have, after all, literally chilled some of its former satellites into compliance.

So why hasn't the world heard more about the Middle East's water dynamics and the threat of "aquadictators"? For one thing, the kind of searing images that link oil riches to corruption and belligerence in the popular imagination don't readily accompany the politics of water. Cinematic depictions of aquapower (which have typically hovered in quality somewhere around Waterworld) are also wanting, unable to compete with movies like Syriana, which provides a complex look at Middle Eastern power politics.

But the imagery was always there; it was just waiting to be rediscovered. In fact, this age-old drama of scarcity was encapsulated decades ago in an almost-forgotten gem of Turkish cinema, lovingly restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation -- and now available to watch for free online. The film was apparently suppressed by the Turkish government shortly after it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1964. Dry Summer reappears at an opportune time, both for modern-day comparisons and for another look at the rich social realism offered by the director, Metin Erksan. It deserves a receptive audience.

What's striking about the film -- besides its frank erotic undertones and its stark depiction of rural Turkish village life -- is how relevant its subject matter remains. In the simple story of a ruthless farmer's claim to a source of water on his land, it dramatizes competing notions of property rights that still trouble us today. And it successfully straddles that line between modernity and tradition so often referred to when talking about present-day Turkey. Even as the characters channel ancient rivalries of Cain and Abel, the female lead's blend of head scarf and billowy salwar pants wouldn't look at all out of place in a Middle Eastern music video.

The story begins simply enough with two brothers who are farmers in a small village. The eldest, Osman, an amoral brute who lusts after his brother's wife, decides that the spring on the brothers' property should irrigate their own land first, at the expense of the disorganized peasants downstream. The younger brother, Hassan, the film's principled, prudent foil, disagrees, arguing that they should let the water flow freely, but he obeys Osman's will.

Layer by layer, the film constructs a debate between two irreconcilable views. On one side is Hassan and the villagers who embody the communitarian view that water belongs to no one and should be shared by all; the spring on Osman's land is "as old as Adam," says one villager. Osman's view, meanwhile, is that the water belongs to whoever owns the land around it. It's to the film's credit that when these admittedly self-serving views clash, both sides seem to have a point.

Even more impressively, the film was completed more than a decade before Turkey actually began to enact this parable on a national scale. Starting in the 1980s, the government began constructing a series of dams and reservoirs to tap into latent hydroelectric potential and wean the country off of foreign energy sources (sound familiar?). The Southeastern Anatolia Project, as it's called, is targeted for completion by 2013 and would be great for some people, especially those in Turkey who would benefit from more-reliable sources of power and better irrigation. Others stand to lose out. The Ilisu Hydroelectric Dam, begun in 2006 on the Tigris River, could displace thousands of Turks and destroy ancient historical sites in addition to affecting those farmers across the border in Iraq.

The point is not to argue that Turkey is a ruthless bully (though Syria, worried about a choked water supply after tensions rose between the two countries in 1998, may beg to differ). Nor is it advisable to exaggerate the likelihood of "water wars" to destabilize the region. Put simply, this prescient film efficiently makes the point that as long as neighbors rely on each other for scarce resources, their interests won't necessarily align. Although it thankfully makes no appearance in the movie, that's the essence of the U.N. Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, a treaty that Turkey incidentally refuses to sign.

But even without legal arbitration, actors in such cases tend to understand the value of compromise. After all, there aren't many options available to desperate thirsty people besides force. Dry Summer delivers this point with a memorable ending and a suggestion for how an agreement might be reached. If the person standing between you and a well understands only greed, offer the only thing he will respond to: money. You'll still be downstream, but at least you'll both be drinking from the same source.