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The bravest woman I have ever met


You would have missed - not noticed - Natalia Estemirova on a bus.

She was very quiet, dark-haired, willowy, with an academic air. You could imagine her being an Anglo-Saxon scholar, perhaps, spending her days bent over old parchments about Beowulf and the like. And about that, you would be dead wrong. She was probably the bravest woman I have ever met.

Brave, because she was following in the footsteps of Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in the lift in her Moscow apartment in 2006 on the birthday of the then-President, now Prime Minister, of Russia, Vladimir Putin.

Brave, because Natalia - half-Russian, half-Chechen - used to be Anna's translator in Chechnya and after Anna had been killed she knew exactly the risks she was running.

Brave, because Natalia lived in Chechnya, and the local boss there is Ramzan Kadyrov, who critics say is a psychotic warlord. They say he feeds the tigers at his very own private zoo with members of the opposition, that he tortures and rapes and kills at will, with impunity.

Mr Kadyrov, who I'd love to meet one day, denies all that but has been reported to have said: "I've already killed who I should have killed. And I will kill all of those standing behind them, as long as I myself am not killed or jailed. I will be killing as long as I live," which is very nicely put. If only he were my MP.

Mr Kadyrov has specifically denied allegations from the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and others that he was personally responsible for Natalia's murder, saying, "I don't kill women".

Natalia had been working for Memorial, on cataloguing allegations of killing, torture and abuse in Chechnya, many blamed on the Kaydrovites, an armed gang led by you-know-who.

Memorial said that at 8.30 in the morning she was forcefully taken from her home in Chechnya into a car. She was heard to shout out to passers-by that she was being kidnapped. Her body was found in woodland near Nazran, the main city in neighbouring Ingushetia, about nine hours later. She had bullet wounds to the head and chest.

Why move the body from one autonomous region to the next one along? When I last went to Chechnya in 2000, not entirely with the local authorities' permission, there were seven checkpoints between Ingushetia and Chechnya.

With killings and terror still high, I would be astonished if there were not several armed military police checkpoints on that road today.

It was as if whoever killed Natalia was making the simple point that the killers had nothing to do with Chechnya because the body was dumped in Ingushetia, forgetting the slightly more complicated point that whoever did the killing has the power to cross that border at will with a either a corpse or a kidnap victim in the boot.

I met Natalia once in 2007, when I was chairing the very first Anna Politkovskaya Award for the Reach All Women in War campaign at the Frontline Club in London. She was graceful, honoured by the award and somehow - and I struggle to find the right words - shy, abashed at all the fuss that put her at the centre of all this attention.

She was also absolutely firm that she must be exact, accurate in how she did her job. I sensed that what saved her from being overcome, paralysed by fear was her concentration on detail: what time did the men come, what did they look like, precisely, what did he/she hear, see, smell.

The more accurate her cataloguing of hopelessness, the more difficult it would be to deny the detail of the allegations. It was probably that accuracy, that insistence on getting it right that made her such an enemy of whomsoever wanted her out of the way.

Documenting human rights abuses sounds like a very boring and worthy thing to do. But what it actually means is sitting down with someone whose heart is bursting with fear to talk about a loved one.

And the witness can be desperately conflicted. By telling the story the witness may end up dead him or herself. By telling the story he or she may worsen the lot of the loved one - who may be tortured more, or even killed.

So the witness has to put an awful lot of trust into the documenter - and that was Natalia's great strength, and that great strength is the thing that got her killed.

"There is no shred of doubt that she was targeted due to her professional activity," said Tanya Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch in Moscow. Amnesty International's boss, Irene Khan, described Natalia as 'a courageous and inspiring woman,' adding: 'Human rights violations in Russia, and especially in the North Caucasus, can no longer be ignored. And those who stand up for human rights need protection.'

Mariana Katzarova, of Reach All Women In War, put it more simply in an email to me: "They killed Natalia Estemirova today...it is sickening. We lost our Natalia.'

May she rest in peace.


  • Comment number 1.

    Please exuse the spelling for the following but i need to make this observation ...

    I was genuinely disturbed by the content of your programme on PTSD - the probable result of your uneducated approach will undoubtedly have an extraemeny negative and possibly dangerouse effect on all genuine sufferers of this terribly debilitating disease.

    Your reporter states that he suffered PTSD - but to what extent??

    As a 17 year old boy sailor i was held on a royal Naval warship for over one and a half years and beaten to within an inch of my sanity on a daily basis.

    I was eventually discharged from service for psychiatric reasons - the MOD does not recognise bullying and claimed that i had a personality disorder (blaiming me for what i had been put through).

    For over 25 i said nothing to anyone of the terrible happenings that i had been subjected to
    - seeing one psychiatrist after another - until in 2002 when i was seen at Addenbrook's hospital in Cambridge and was diagnosed with Complex PT SD (something your reporters know nothing about)

    during a claim for a war pension - and under the data protection act i obtained my service record - only to find a report by the ships captain that he had known about what was going on for the whole of the time that it was happening but did absolutely nothing.

    I have been seriously ill for almost a lifetime - how will it make me worse or prolong my terrible illness by getting recognition for what happened to me.

    your programe belittled the illness and the terible suffering that it causes (along with the wrecked lives that it creates) - you should think youselves lucky that you have never been where I and so many others are -and not belittle it

    PS - The MOD operate a longstanding and official policy of making sure that veterans who suffer disability through violent bullying in service are bared from pensions

  • Comment number 2.

    There seems to be nowhere to comment on the BBC site about the PTSD story you ran, by reporter Allan Little. Where would be the best place to submit a comment please - can you advise? Thanks.

  • Comment number 3.

    "Documenting human rights abuses sounds like a very boring and worthy thing to do. But what it actually means is sitting down with someone whose heart is bursting with fear to talk about a loved one."

    John, this may seem non-sequitur but it reminded me that a follow-up programme on scientology is overdue - and I know how much fun you had making the last one! But this time it should focus squarely on human rights abuses, as this is where the church is currently at its most vulnerable. Events have moved on apace since 2007, and there is now OVERWHELMING AND COMPELLING EVIDENCE of systematic abuse at the Int base near Hemet. The problem with your last report was that it tried to generalise the attack onto the whole subject of Scientology, which weakened your impact. You can't attack a belief John, however strange you may find it. It would be like doing a programme on Jim Jones' Jonestown and interlacing it with odd quotes from the Old Testament, making the bible seem "weird". People should have the right to study and believe what they want - but nobody, including Miscavige, should have the right to:

    Regularly beat and attack his subordinates, including the highest level management staff
    Encourage others to do the same
    Subject staff to degrading and humiliating "group confessionals" whereby one individual must "confess his crimes" publicly to the other staff members while the others yell and berate him
    Demand money with menaces from parishioners
    Keep senior managers of Scientology locked up in inhuman conditions as punishment.

    THIS is the real story in scientology right now. Contact me and I will put you directly in touch with those who have the WHOLE story from the inside.


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