Research of socio-psychological and adaptation needs of wives, widows and children of killed and sentenced fighters in the North Caucasus
The armed conflict in the North Caucasus, one of the longest and the most violent in Europe, has almost abated. The jihadist insurgency in the North Caucasus has ceased to exist with most of the several thousand radicals who went to fight in the Middle East killed in Syria and Iraq. In recent years, Russia has been actively repatriating their children and some of their wives from the conflict zone. Returnee re-integration and rehabilitation, however, can take up to several years.
At the same time, there are tens of thousands of widows, wives and children of people whom the security services considered former fighters already living in the North Caucasus. Now that the situation has quieted, the government and society should revisit their attitudes towards these families and employ measures for their psychological and social support and social inclusion, instead of strict law enforcement control and stigmatization that has been the modal response so far.
The armed conflict in the North Caucasus, which started in Chechnya (1994–1996, 1999– 2009), and had spread all over the region by 2007, produced three generations of combatants. The first wave comprised mostly of secular separatists who fought with Russia for Chechnya’s independence in 1994, was then followed by the banned Imarat Kavkaz(1) group that aimed at creating a radical Sharia-based state in the North Caucasus. The most recent wave of fighters in the North Caucasus heeded the call of jihadist and other armed groups in Syria and Iraq and went to the Middle East to fight in 2012–2017. Each of those generations left several
thousands of widows and children behind.
Thousands of the men who engaged in fighting in Chechnya or joined jihadist armed groups in other republics were detained and sentenced to long prison terms, which also deeply affected their families. For many years, the children, wives and widows—severely traumatized, often unable to work in the public sector, socially vulnerable, stigmatized, scrutinized, and sometimes directly targeted by the law enforcement—have had to cope with their tragedy on their own.
This report is based on in-depth interviews with 40 women in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan and analyses how the loss of a husband and father killed during the armed conflict in the North Caucasus or in the Middle East, or sentenced to a long prison term for participation in an illegal armed group, affects the life of his immediate family. It also analyzes the experiences of several families that hosted widows and children who have returned from Syria and Iraq.
Interviews show that all the women were severely traumatized by the killing, enforced disappearance, or the long prison term of their husband, and in many cases this psychological trauma caused severe health issues. According to the respondents, the first months after the event they felt shock, fear, helplessness and a sense of loss of the meaning in their life. While many of the women did not see the arrest or death of their husbands coming, others contemplated such a possibility as they were aware of their husbands’ involvement with armed insurgency and their ideological views. Almost all women who did not re-marry said that their condition did not improve with time, and some acknowledged that the loss of their husband had completely crushed them.
Help from relatives has been the major source of support in the women’s adaptation to their new life. Faith and work were named as the second. Relatives offer material support, babysit, purchase school supplies for children and help to find housing solutions. However, several women were denied support both by their own family and by their husbands’.
Responsibility for their children helped most of the women overcome their state of helplessness. In Chechnya, two out of ten women interviewed had to fight for custody after their husbands’ death: the families of their husbands tried to take their children away from them as according to the Chechen traditions, after the divorce or death of the husband children stay in the man’s family. One of the women has not been able to win the custody over her son, and he has been growing up separated from his mother.
Only one of the women we interviewed deliberately sought help from a psychological counsellor. Another widow who had returned from Syria had counselling sessions during her pre-trial detention. Both spoke very highly about their counselling experience. Almost everyone else mentioned that they needed psychological counselling badly, but that such services were too expensive for them and/or unavailable in smaller towns and villages.
Over two thirds of our interviewees do not have permanent employment or a home of their own. Unemployed women mostly live off survivor’s pensions, support from their relatives or one-time charitable help. In Chechnya, some of the women interviewed have been denied survivor’s benefits on the grounds that their husbands fought against the state. Many women who have a job ask their relatives or neighbors to babysit or leave their little children unsupervised. According to the interviewees, their main needs include medical treatment and medications for their children, education and housing. Two thirds of these families cannot afford extracurricular or developmental activities for their children.
In most cases, our interviewees have not been denied medical, educational or other services. However, in two cases educational institutions officially denied enrollment to children. Nearly all women said that they had been barred from working in the public sector after what happened to their husbands. One of the women was dismissed from a kindergarten after her husband had attacked security officers. While generally the community has not been pushing these women and their children away, many of the respondents have encountered certain instances of prejudice on the part of their neighbors, fellow villagers or schoolteachers. Only a few of our interviewees complained of isolation and exclusion.
Today, the interactions between the government and former fighter’s wives or widows have been almost exclusively limited to law enforcement control and monitoring measures by the security forces. However, these measures towards fighters’ widows and wives vary between the republics in the North Caucasus. The situation in Ingushetia has been the most favorable so far: during our interviews, the respondents did not report any serious violations with security forces conducting interrogations and investigations and said they usually operate within the law. The relatively favorable attitude towards former fighters’ wives and children has been due to the radicalization prevention approach taken by Yunus-Bek Yevkurov who headed Ingushetia between 2008 and 2019. During his years in office, work with fighters’ families was prioritized and he created two public councils to this end. Although there were no public reports on any activities by these councils, the general policy of support instead of repression sent an important message both to the society and the security forces.
In Chechnya there has been no consistent attitude among security forces towards the widows and wives of the different generations of former fighters. Half of the Chechen women told us about pressure by the security forces, often very serious pressure; others did not complain about violations of their rights by the law enforcement officials. The women who mentioned having problems with law enforcement agencies had nothing in common: their husbands were killed or convicted at different times and belonged to different ideological strands in the North Caucasus insurgency. It seems that the fate of each family, including getting the survivor’s pension, often depends on the local official in charge and the higher rank their husband had had in the insurgency.
In Dagestan, the situation appears to be the worst due to the widespread introduction of the so-called “preventive registration” list in 2015 when around 16,000 people, including almost all of the widows and wives of the insurgency members, were registered as “religious extremists”. Although, according to the Interior Ministry in Dagestan, the “preventive registration” has not been operational since 2017, our interviewees noted that unofficially it was still operating.
According to our interviewees, under the “preventive registration” (profuchet) measures the police have significantly limited their rights to private life and freedom of movement: they were put under surveillance; their phones have been wiretapped; the law enforcement regularly monitored their whereabouts, called them in for questioning, checked their homes, and controlled their travel outside the location they live in; they have been fingerprinted, samples of their saliva have been collected, and their voice recorded; and they are de-facto barred from official employment in the public sector. Due to strong reaction by the civil society and the citizens themselves, in the last two years the scale of control and rough pressure associated with profuchet have been reduced. Many women said the surveillance and control had been particularly intense in the first months or years after their husbands’ arrest or death and had ebbed away later. Our interviewees in Dagestan admitted that over the last two to three years the situation around the “preventive registration” calmed down, with the authorities reducing the pressure while still maintaining monitoring and control. Only one woman told us that the authorities tried to talk to her about religion and radical ideologies, but it was done so unprofessionally that it did nothing but irritate her.
Putting the security forces nearly exclusively in charge of the relations with fighters’ wives and widows, the government can hardly expect any result other than pressure and restraint, resulting in feelings of frustration, anger and even hatred by these women and by association, of their children. Furthermore, such feelings can be conductive for radicalization. Law enforcement work with women identified as ‘high risk’ should remain within the strict confines of the law or else it will be counterproductive.
The “preventive registration” of children that singles them out among peers and thus stigmatizes them causes particular irritation and concern among women in Dagestan. Officers from juvenile departments meet with schoolteachers asking them to prepare references and visit children’s homes. Our interviewees said that their children had been summoned to the law enforcement agencies, photographed along with other fighters’ children, and talked to in the absence of their parents, including on religious topics. On the other hand, the local authorities and education staff in Dagestan told us that juvenile inspectors work for the benefit of the children, they try to make sure that such children receive a full secondary education, and in some municipalities the children were specifically enrolled in better schools where they could get better care and support. Similar work has been apparently conducted in Ingushetia, but in a more subtle manner; hence, it does not cause much annoyance. In Dagestan and Chechnya, teenage and adolescent sons of fighters can get into trouble with the law enforcement authorities, including unlawful arrests and beatings.
All prisoners’ wives keep in touch with their husbands although not all of them can afford visits to prison colonies. Most of the women talk to their husbands over the phone with varying degrees of frequency. Many women noted that after the arrest, their relationships with their husbands had not changed or in some cases even improved and they are waiting for their husbands to come back home.
While all children have been psychologically affected by the killing or detention of their fathers, older children who better remember their fathers suffer much worse than younger kids. The children who were old enough to comprehend the loss of their fathers have been impacted the most; those who were born afterwards, the least. Trauma affected the children’s health, school progress, development and socialization; however, only few had access to professional psychological counselling.
Many women are concerned about how to explain to their children what happened to their fathers, why they were killed or imprisoned. Some families in Ingushetia and Dagestan avoid talking about their father’s fate with their children. Consequently, the children learn about what happened to their dad from other people or the internet.
In Chechnya, families often told children that their father fought and was killed for his beliefs or his homeland. All Chechen prisoners’ wives reported that their children were proud of their fathers. Most of the children have a deep need to see their father as a positive figure, so the authorities’ attempts to portray fathers as villains can hardly be expected to be successful. A wider discussion about the post-Soviet Chechen history involving independent experts and eyewitnesses could help the younger generation in shaping critical views of the tragic events and forge a more accurate attitude towards what happened in the republic. They need to understand that all sides of the conflict committed grave crimes. Unfortunately, in contemporary Chechnya and Russia, organizing such open discussions is nearly impossible; however, they will have to take place in the future as without debate and mutual recognition of guilt, neither reconciliation nor sustainable peace will be possible. Promoting non-violent conflict resolution and anti-war initiatives could also help.
In Chechnya, the children of our interviewees whose husbands have been serving life in prison have the opportunity of long visits with their fathers. All the mothers mentioned that meeting their fathers in a prison setting was very harsh on their children. Psychological counselling before and after such trips could make them less traumatizing.
Most of the women said that their children demonstrated good or satisfactory results at school. Only two women in each republic reported being able to support the development of their children as much as they would like to. These women are the most financially secure due to having their own businesses or substantial help from their parents. The rest of the women cannot afford extracurricular activities for their children and/or are too busy to take children there with no one else being able to do that for them.
While the children who returned from the conflict zone in Syria or Iraq have much in common with the children of combatants who fought in Russia, they also have many specific challenges. The returning children have been traumatized more severely; some were injured. Their health and adaptation issues are more serious: little children cannot speak Russian well, whereas the older children have missed out on a significant period of school education. In Chechnya, where the community generally disapproves of cross-ethnic marriages, especially between a Chechen woman and an outsider, relatives might reject returning children born in such marriage. Moreover, while people often sympathize with widows of those who fought in the North Caucasus, they categorically disapprove of women who left for the Middle East and ostracize them.
Returning orphans are usually taken care of by their grandmothers — older women with health issues traumatized by the loss of their son or daughter. The grandmothers interviewed have not received full custody over their grandchildren yet, hence they are not eligible for child benefits and must support the children from their pensions. They are in dire straits, lacking money to pay for medications and medical treatment and lacking the resources to support their grandchildren holistically and fill the gaps in their education. They often do not know how to best support the children in coping with the loss of their parents, in addition to other tremendous challenges in the community or at school.
All the interviewees highlighted the need for adaptation programs for their families. For successful rehabilitation, such families need social and psychological support, charitable help, and assistance in educating their children and promoting their development. All interactions with the law enforcement agencies should operate strictly within the law. The work with such families should be transparent, delicate and non-stigmatizing. Specially trained advisors on radicalization prevention can be involved, if needed. Orphans who returned from the conflict zone in the Middle East require special rehabilitation and integration support. Lasting peace in the North Caucasus depends in a large part on how successful, psychologically resilient, and socially included the affected children grow up to be.
(1) The organization is recognized as a terrorist organization and banned in Russia