Just a few weeks ago, “Ruslan” was with his wife and children in Chechnya. Now he’s in a safe house for men fleeing detention and torture for being gay.
Reports of a campaign against gay men by Chechen security forces have been trickling through since early April when they first appeared in a Russian newspaper. Now some of the alleged victims are starting to speak out.
“When they brought me in, I denied everything,” says Ruslan – not his real name. Even now, he is frightened of being identified.
Homosexuality is taboo in deeply conservative Chechnya and, like Ruslan, men often marry to disguise their sexuality. But as the security forces hunted down gay men in Ruslan’s town, someone singled him out. He says that after being detained at home, at night, he was held for over a week, beaten and humiliated.
“If beating you with their hands and feet is not enough, they use electric shock,” Ruslan says. “They have a special black box and they attach wires to your hands or ears. The pain is awful. It’s terrible torture.”
His interrogators demanded the names of other gay men but Ruslan says he refused, and soon after his release he fled the republic. He had heard the police were hunting for him once again.
“They used to detain people before all the time to blackmail them,” he says. “Now [the aim] is the extermination of gay men, so that there are none left in the republic.”
There are six men in the safe house at the moment, though more than 60 have left Chechnya in recent weeks, helped by a hotline run by the LGBT Network group that organised the refuge.
Another man says he left Chechnya before he could get caught; other gay friends in the republic have gone into hiding.
“We thought it would calm down and someone would order a halt to this lawlessness. But instead, the officials say everything is fine and the extermination quietly continues,” says another man calling himself Nakhcho.
Human Rights Watch has also investigated and says the stories it has heard are consistent and detailed, suggesting an “unprecedented and organised campaign”.
But official reaction has ranged from outright dismissal to suspicion.
First, a spokesman for Chechnya’s leader said there were no gay people in the republic; this week, Russia’s top human rights officer said she suspected the whole affair was a provocation. She pointed out that no victim of abuse had filed an official response with police.
“Chechen people are not crazy! They will not go to the people doing the torturing to write a complaint,” exclaims Elena Milashina, the journalist who first uncovered allegations of abuse.
She says her team at Novaya Gazeta have now given Russian investigators a list of names of those who have disappeared. After thorough checks, she is convinced at least two gay men have been killed.
This week, someone sent envelopes of white powder to Novaya Gazeta marked “Grozny 666666”. And when the first article on the persecution claims was published, there was a call inside Chechnya for “retribution”, describing the journalists responsible as “enemies”.
“They announced jihad on all staff of Novaya Gazeta, that was pretty scary. We’ve never had a threat like that,” Ms Milashina says. “It reminds us of the situation with the Charlie Hebdo caricature, when fanatics can do whatever they want,” she adds, referring to the French magazine attacked by Islamist extremists.
As international concern over the situation grew this week, Chechnya’s strongman leader suddenly appeared on television sitting opposite Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
Ramzan Kadyrov’s powerful security forces have been accused of numerous human abuses in the past, all glossed over in the pursuit of Moscow’s priority in the North Caucasus – keeping a lid on over two decades of insurgency.
The Chechen leader said claims of a campaign against gay men were unfounded; President Putin looked stern, but made no comment.
Behind closed doors, some believe he may have ordered Mr Kadyrov to rein in his men.
“The chances of a proper investigation, punishing the perpetrators and protecting the victims, are possibly rather slim, based on our experience,” argues Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch. “But the chance that Russia’s leadership orders Kadyrov to stop the purge is there. It’s not everything, but it’s better than nothing,” she adds.
For Ruslan, though, there’s no way back to Chechnya.
“It’s not just the security forces, my own relatives won’t forgive me. It’s a permanent stain,” he says quietly, explaining the tradition of “honour killings” in Chechnya, which still exists. “Even if the security forces don’t deal with me, my own relatives definitely will.”
So, like many of the men now in hiding here, he wants to get out of Russia entirely and go to somewhere safe. Somewhere where being gay doesn’t carry the risk of being beaten or even killed.
“I don’t care where I go, I am tired of a fake life,” Ruslan says. “I want be myself. I am fed up with all the pretending.”