Written by Zanab J.S.
Reports of something happening to gay men in Russia's southern province had slowly begun arriving in February.
By the first week of March, state forces had clamped down on major activists in the region, reports of youth being arrested during protests regarding the situation in Chechnya trickled across the globe. Protests in Moscow erupted overnight, and demonstrators in a handful of foreign countries gathered at Russian embassies. The situation, once unclear, was becoming clearer: gay men were being detained in Chechnya.
And then, there was silence. No word from activists. No tweets, no letters, no photographs. No more unconfirmed reports about the something that was happening to gay men in Chechnya. Headlines changed, newsroom discussions changed, front pages of the newspaper changed.
It wasn't until April that the theories surrounding arrest, registration and detainment of gay men in Chechnya was connected: concentration camps had been set up in Chechnya for gay men. At least a hundred had been kidnapped and forced into these torture camps. Three, possibly, had been killed already.
According to the Russian newspaper Noyova Gazeta, tens of boys and men had disappeared simultaneously from their homes, workplaces and lives in the region, ranging from the age of sixteen to fifty years old.
The newspaper reported that authorities and key players in the roundups had posed as single men online looking for male partners. Those who responded vanished accordingly.
"In Chechnya, the command was given for a ‘prophylactic sweep’ and it went as far as real murders,”
--Novaya Gazeta, March
The report went on to describe concentration camp-like detainment centres where the selected men were imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and even killed.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the provincial and--for all intents and purposes--the symbolically independent leader of Chechnya, vehemently denied such claims.
According to the Kadyrov administration, gay men simply did not exist in Chechnya. And thus, Chechen authorities could not fathom to commit such atrocities to gay people in the region, because those people, according to the provincial leader, did not exist in the first place.
Denial of the atrocities was never rooted in the inability of government forces of kidnapping and torturing gay citizens, but rather in the non-existence of homosexuality in Chechnya.
Such rhetoric is not foreign in Chechnya; the muslim-majority province is hyper-aligned with Russia's overarching restrictions on the LGBTQ+ population, and regularly denies the existence of such a community.
Speaking to The Independent, Tatyana Lokshina of Russia's Human Rights Watch confirmed the fears of families and friends when she explained the situation had been directed under the order of the Kadyrov administration over the span of weeks.
“They beat them up viciously, they torture them, they humiliate them, and there are reports that three people have been killed,” -- Tatyana the Lokshina in March
The roundups were presumed to be a response to the increasing presence of gay pride organizations such as GayPride.ru, an advocacy group seeking permits for pride-month related events.
Several men detained and tortured in the concentration camps had been returned home with one grisly condition: their family would have to perform an honour killing.
Those who survived and were able to flee the region described torture sessions, electrocutions and interrogations in which they were forced to out other gay Chechens.
Life as a gay Chechen has always been an extremely private affair: closeted online socialization with other gay citizens is as discrete as possible. Those who meet each other and date online do not reveal even their names to one another.
This crackdown and torture campaigns marks a pivotal moment in Chechnya's landscape. Whereas once a private, secretive life as a gay citizen was possible, it no longer seems feasible.
HRW and other advocacy groups have attempted to rescue released gay men from torture prisons by smuggling them across borders, or into different areas of Russia. As the Kremlin augments its support for the Chechen leadership, the latter, however, seems to only be a temporary fix.
Policy watchers expect Chechnya's legacy of concentration camps to act as the initiator for a wave of national anti-gay legislation. As the heads of state gear up to further support the statements of Kadyrov and his administration, the fear of greater and widespread campaigns similar to the one in Chechnya is looming and not at all unrealistic.