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16 September 2019

Heart-to-heart

Chechnya 2000-2003

Eva KONECNA and Johan FRIESTEDT

For three years, starting in 2000, the Council of Europe assured its presence in Chechnya under conditions which were unprecedented in the history of the Organisation. The context of a prevailing war in this part of the Russian Federation required exceptional security. A special forces unit of the Russian Ministry of Justice constantly watched over the personal security of the Council of Europe staff on rotation in the field, who also counted on the daily support of the Russian institution to which they were seconded, while relying on the assistance of the Chechen residents employed alongside them. A total of 13 Council of Europe staff members took part in the mission; among them were Eva Konecna and Johan Friestedt, who give us their testimony.

Nothing can forewarn us of what is to come.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, sand and stars (1938)


Grozny, Monday 21 April 2003. The blast of a powerful explosion lifted several vehicles in an official convoy off the ground as they passed through the centre of the ruined city. Everything happened very quickly. The loud explosion. The noise of metal crushing against the gravel. The blinding dust settling in a deafening silence. The blood-splattered faces that engraved themselves in our memories. It was of course a bomb, no doubt set off by remote control. An everyday occurrence in this Russian republic in the northern Caucasus. What was less of an everyday occurrence was the fact that, for the first time, a convoy of the Council of Europe team working in Chechnya had been hit.

On that day in April, I, Johan, was in Strasbourg. I had left Chechnya only a few months earlier. When I heard what had just happened and that the bomb had exploded very close to the vehicle in which Eva was travelling, there was only one thing I wished: that I had been there, by her side. There was nothing I could have done to prevent it happening, but I would have been there.

Despite being overcome by a terrible feeling of powerlessness, I was not really surprised. I was very familiar with the risks involved in the mission from the very start. In 2000, two years before I met Eva, I had been offered the opportunity to be a member of the first team of Council of Europe staff to be seconded to the newly established Office of the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for Human Rights in Chechnya. Council of Europe staff members were to have the dual task of providing advice and assistance in Chechnya itself and of informing the Secretary General of the Organisation of what was really happening on the ground. The Council Europe was to be the only international organisation with a permanent presence in Chechnya and that was the case as of June 2000.

At the time my mind was full of questions. The mission was to take place in a conflict zone. I wondered how a handful of Council of Europe staff could do anything to help in such conditions of constant insecurity. And how could we grasp the reality of what was happening on the ground in such circumstances? Were we not putting the Organisation’s credibility on the line in the end and creating what some people in the corridors of power call a “smoke screen”, which would allow the conflict to continue?

I remember that there were very few people in Strasbourg who had any faith in this mission, which nevertheless owed its existence to Álvaro Gil-Roblès, the very first Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, and arduous negotiations between Walter Schwimmer, the then Secretary General, and the Russian authorities. Once we were in Chechnya, the mission was prone to all types of dangers. The real surprise, if I may say so, was that what happened on 21 April 2003 had not happened earlier, during the very first months of the mission.

The beginning of a new era

In 2002, we, Eva and Johan, noticed a few changes that seemed to indicate the beginning of a new era. Vladimir Kalamanov, the first Special Representative, who came from the Moscow region, left his post and was replaced by Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, a Chechen. The Office of the Special Representative was moved from Znamenskoye, a small town in the north of Chechnya, to Grozny. The team stayed in Znamenskoye, which was considered to be safer.

It is difficult to forget the first moments we spent together in Chechnya. It began on a summer’s day in August 2002. Our convoy was passing through the famous gate on which the words “Tchetchenskaïa Respublika” were engraved in wrought iron. We were now in the Chechen Republic. Through the windows we admired the green sun-drenched landscape. We crossed the Terek River, that wild river that once upon a time marked the boundaries of the ancient Russian empire. And then we reached our new home in Znamenskoye.


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Eva KONECNA
Eva has been working for the Council of Europe since 2000. Her first major experience within the Organisation was in the field, as part of the Council of Europe’s presence in Chechnya. After being recalled to Strasbourg, she worked in various operational departments dealing with the protection of fundamental rights (secretariat of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities; human rights co-operation programmes; the Department for the Execution of Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, and so on.). Since 2015 she has been involved in co-ordinating co-operation programmes through partnerships with the European Union within the Directorate General of Human Rights and Rule of Law.


Johan FRIESTEDT
Johan began his career at the Council of Europe in 1999, in the Secretary General’s Monitoring Unit, which was responsible at the time for verifying compliance with member states’ commitments under the Committee of Ministers’ monitoring procedures. In 2004 he joined the secretariat of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and 10 years later moved to the team responsible for setting up GREVIO, the monitoring mechanism for the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention). He returned to the CPT at the beginning of 2017.