by Anna Nemtsova
MOSCOW–On a sunny morning in July 2009, I got a phone call from a friend in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya: “They abducted Natasha right from the courtyard of her house.” Shortly after that, we learned that our friend and colleague, Natalya Estemirova, or Natasha as we all called her, had been murdered. I jumped on a plane and flew to Grozny.
Natasha’s neighbors told us that several men, whose names we still do not know, grabbed the 51-year-old human rights defender and journalist and dragged her into their Lada car. She managed to scream: “I’m being kidnapped!” The Lada drove away from Chechnya to Ingushetia, a neighboring Russian republic in the North Caucasus. Natasha’s battered corpse was dumped by the side of the road. Two bullets destroyed half of the top of her head, the others hit her chest.
Looking at her body, beautiful and seemingly so young there in funereal repose on a table in her family house, I was thinking that she would have probably lived a long life if she kept her job as a schoolteacher. I quickly brushed that thought away.
Once, in 2005 when I stayed in Natasha’s apartment during the Second Chechen War, she told me that she would keep reporting for as long as she witnessed injustice.
Natasha was a contributor to the Russian independent publication Novaya Gazeta, and she was the first to write about the “abduction epidemic” in Chechnya. She continued to document and publish her reports in Novaya Gazeta even after receiving undisguised death threats from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Today we continue to publish our stories about abductions and the impunity of murderers in Chechnya, especially those who target gay men and women.
I have lost too many friends to assassinations, to crossfires. They were all journalists who tried to give voice to the voiceless in Russia and Eastern Europe.
During Vladimir Putin’s rule since January 2000 we’ve seen at least 28 reporters assassinated for telling the truth in Russia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists; nine journalists fell victim to contract murders in Ukraine during the same period of time. We rarely find out the truth about whose bullets kill our colleagues. The murderers would have you think hearts just mysteriously stop beating in women and men who bear witness to atrocities.
The work is dangerous no matter what. In August 2008 I covered the Russian-Georgian war for Newsweek and also tried to help evacuate the bodies of our colleagues Alexander Klimchuk and Giga Chikhladze, killed in a crossfire on the first day of the war. They were freelance reporters who did their job trying to cover both sides of the front line.
Six years later we saw colleagues die in Ukraine. On May 24, 2014, Andy Rocchelli and Andrei Mironov, a long-time friend of mine, were killed while covering a firefight in Andreyevka village, known for almost daily combat between Kiev’s troops and pro- Russian rebel forces.
But while it is tragic to lose friends to bullets in war zones, it is even more painful to see them hunted down and killed by assassins. Journalists know too well that once the order comes for a hit, it does not matter whether their journalistic assignment is in Chechnya, in Moscow, or in Kiev. Even bodyguards won’t save you, they say, and yet they continue to work.
It is our duty to carry on investigating every one of these assassinations. We look at the aftermath–the crime scene, the grief of the family– we cry, we hurry to work harder.
In 2004, Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned on her way to Beslan to cover the scene of a terrible massacre made worse by a botched security operation. The attempt on her life did not slow Anna down. Then, on Oct. 7, 2006, which happened to be Putin’s birthday, her body was found in the elevator of her apartment building with two bullets in her chest, one in her shoulder, and one in the back of her head. She was 48 years old.
One more of my dear friends, Pavel Sheremet was assassinated near Kiev’s opera house in July 2016. Somebody set off a bomb in his car. Why did anybody want to murder 44-year-old big-hearted Sheremet? He was not just a reporter, he was a walking journalistic institution. Sheremet founded a school for investigative reporters in Kiev. At his funeral his colleagues from the newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda told me they were heartbroken, as if they had lost their father.
Whoever ordered the murder of Sheremet managed to hurt the entire community of journalists working in Ukraine. But they did not manage to stop independent reporters from publishing true stories about state corruption, Russia’s aggressive violence in Ukraine, state officials working in tandem with the local criminal world, the rise of far-right radical groups, or repeated human rights violations.
Reporters and photographers often are told by their editors, or tell each other, “Stay safe.” But we all know that’s not going to happen. And it cannot happen. If you “stay safe” you are not going to be doing your job. In Russia, and in many other countries, telling the truth gets more dangerous by the day.
Last summer we had a terrible tragedy. Three of our brave friends and colleagues, Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastarguyev and Kirill Rodchenko were murdered in the Central African Republic. They were eager to report one of the most important stories about the way the Putin government uses mercenaries overseas. The day before they were killed, our colleagues tried to film Russian contract soldiers at a military base.
After their murder, the Russian government tried to convince the public that the reporters were victims of an ordinary robbery, but none of us believe that.
The community of independent journalists is convinced that our friends were set up in Africa. Dzhemal, a senior reporter and his colleagues, talented filmmakers, traveled to the CAR to focus on the role played there by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, also known as “Putin’s Chef,” whose name also appears in one of the Mueller probe indictments for election interference in the United States. Prigozhin is famous for threatening journalists in Russia.
Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that has lost five of its writers to assassins, continues to investigate and reveal crimes and human rights violations by Russian authorities. We say goodbye to our colleagues but we never see their workplace empty for too long. That is what the masterminds behind the contract murders do not get– violence does not stop journalists from producing stories that give voice to humanity.
Anna Nemtsova reports from Moscow for The Daily Beast and Newsweek. In 2015 she received the prestigious Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).