Enemy at the gates

Fellows Spring 2006

By Kelly McEvers

June 02, 2009

This will only take five minutes. We just have a few more questions. You haven't done anything wrong. We're doing this to protect you. That's what they told me, every hour, for three days.

Kelly McEvers conducts an interview on the steps of a mosque in Dagestan.

They picked me up at a roadside checkpoint in Khasavyurt, a small town in the republic of Dagestan, in Russia's troubled, Muslim south. It has been said that the brutal, twelve-year war in Chechnya is spilling into republics like Dagestan. Attacks by Islamic militants against authorities occur there almost weekly. Over the past year, I have reported from nearly all the republics that border Chechnya. On this trip, I wanted to see if the story in Dagestan was as simple as Russia has spun it--bad Muslim insurgents versus good Christian soldiers. Or, more likely, if Russia's own repressive and brutal counterterrorism tactics are only creating more violence.

I figured my interrogators just wanted to scare me, to convince me not to write critically about Russia anymore. They held me in an office and refused to let me leave. The uniformed man in charge yelled a lot. He wanted me to think I was there illegally. "This visa was issued by Moscow," he would say, flipping through my passport. "But you are in Dagestan. Do you know how dangerous it is here?" At first, I communicated in rudimentary Russian. Later, we were joined by an English teacher who had translated for me earlier that day.

As the night wore on, a new crop of interrogators arrived--plainclothes men who would not give their names. Their questions took on a menacing tone. Who do you really work for? they asked. Are you an agent of the U.S. government? Are you here to start a revolution like in Ukraine and Georgia? Do you really believe in democracy? It was late. I was exhausted. I sent a text message to a relative in New York. "Call the Committee to Protect Journalists," I wrote. "Things are bad." Then I started to cry.

By 4 a.m., I had provided my itinerary in Dagestan: every village I visited, the people I interviewed. My interrogators knew I had no place to go. They offered me a ride back to Dagestan's capital, about an hour and a half away. I declined. I begged the interpreter to help me find a place to stay. He took me to his colleague's home, and I managed to sleep for a few hours.

Later the next morning, I headed back to the capital with a big, brash opposition journalist who had accompanied me on interviews earlier that week. At a checkpoint, authorities entered our car and ordered us to drive to police headquarters. I looked behind us and saw two more cars full of goons. After an hour of arguing, my interrogators agreed I could have my own interpreter--my trusted friend, Andrei--and also a lawyer during the next round of questioning.

Again, I was held for hours in a locked office. To pass the time and stay calm, I applied hand cream to each of my ten fingers. My interrogators said they wanted more names, more phone numbers. There were a lot of papers to sign. They produced a phony-looking document that had arrived by fax. It said I had information about a terrorist attack in Chechnya, a place I have never been. My interrogators said the document required them to search the home where I was staying. A gang of 20 goons descended upon the hostess. I watched as they took my laptop, my tapes, my notebooks, my camera, and my phone. The authorities said I was "free to go," but they kept my passport and implied I would get "hurt" if I tried to leave Dagestan. When the U.S. Embassy reached officials in Dagestan, they were told I had been released. That night, I slept for a few hours at Andrei's house.

On the third day, I was summoned again. The prosecutor from Chechnya is here, the authorities said. If you don't come down for more questioning, we'll have to take you to Chechnya. I understood the threat. People are tortured, kidnapped, and killed every day in Chechnya. The "prosecutor" was rotund and Slavic. His ID said he was Chechen, but I heard him say, in Russian, that he was from "far away." He was more professional than my previous interrogators. He wore a clean blue uniform and used a laptop.

He showed me photos of terrorists -- bearded men in camouflage with guns. He played a tape recording of me on the phone. He insinuated I was talking to the bearded men. He asked if I had ever provided money or "electronic materials" to terrorists. I laughed and told him no. I wasn't scared anymore. My interrogators' attempt to make me believe in my own guilt had failed. The prosecutor gave me my passport. I asked when I could go home. He said I could leave Russia "when the court is finished checking my things." The goons hinted that it could take two more weeks. But I wasn't going to wait. The following day, my lawyer and I took a car to the airport and flew to Moscow. The next day, I left for the United States.

Now that some time has passed, it's clear that my detention was one small move in a continuing effort by Russia to muzzle the press and demonize the West. Just after the Beslan school siege by Chechen militants in September 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted in a speech that the West might actually be aiding terrorists as a way to destabilize Russia. Since then, the Kremlin has claimed that Moscow is awash with Western spies and has clamped down hard on nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from the West.

Analysts call this Putin's "enemy at the gates" strategy--a nod back to Soviet times. It allows Putin to cast his nation's problems--including the violence in Chechnya and Dagestan--as products of outside intervention, rather than admit that they result from his own failed policies. Russians apparently believe the hype. Just last month, Russian TV reported that a panel I spoke on--sponsored by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank--was promoting terrorism. For me, the ordeal is over, but for our two countries, a new and chilly conflict may just be beginning.