AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2007

A Frightening Ordeal   

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Freelance journalist Kelly McEvers had no inkling of the nightmare she was about to endure when she decided to go to Dagestan, a Russian republic on the Chechen border, as part of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. When, after a six-week wait, her request for a journalist visa was turned down, she chose an alternate route into the turbulent Muslim area that has become ensnared in the Chechen conflict.

In March, McEvers flew to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to do some reporting, and while she was there she applied for a business visa from the Russian Embassy. With that in hand, she headed to Dagestan.

After she finished her reporting, she took a side trip to the town of Khasavyurt, a 20-minute drive from the Chechen border, to attend a "Peace Through Books" festival. While there she made audio recordings of locals in costumes singing, dancing and drinking cognac. Later that day, the library director provided a car and driver to take her back to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, where she was staying.

On the way out of town, gun-toting officials stopped her car at a roadside checkpoint and took her to a police station. At first, McEvers thought the brusque interrogators were trying to scare her into not writing negative stories about Russia. Over the past year, she had reported from nearly all the republics that border Chechnya.

But much to her dismay, the yelling and accusations continued into the night. There were questions: Who do you work for? Are you an agent of the U.S. government? What is your real purpose here? Finally, McEvers, now 36, was told there was a problem with her documents. An English teacher who had served as her interpreter earlier in the day arrived to help facilitate the conversation.

"It was very scary and awful," McEvers says. "I cried for hours and hours and hours."

McEvers had an ace in the hole: She had tucked her cell phone in a pocket that her interrogators hadn't found. During a pause in the badgering, she asked to use the toilet, then frantically sent a text message to her husband in New York City. "Call CPJ. Things are bad," she told him.

At 4 a.m., her tormentors asked if she had any statement to make and then told her she was free to go. But the ordeal was far from over.

The next morning she headed by car to Dagestan's capital with a man who had accompanied her on interviews earlier in the week, "a big, brash opposition journalist," as she describes him. Once again McEvers was stopped at a checkpoint and ordered to drive to police headquarters, where she spent hours locked in an office.

Interrogators demanded the names and phone numbers of sources she had talked to during her stay. Then came the clincher. "They produced a phony-looking document that had arrived by fax. It said I had information about a terrorist attack in Chechnya, a place I had never been," says McEvers. The interrogators said the document required them to search the home where she had been staying in the capital.

"A gang of 20 goons descended upon the hostess. I watched as they took my laptop, tapes, notebooks and phone. The authorities said I was free to go, but they kept my passport and implied I would get hurt if I tried to leave Dagestan," she recalls.

On the third day, a man who said he was a prosecutor from Chechnya arrived for more questioning. "The interrogators said if I didn't do what they wanted, they would have to take me to Chechnya," McEvers says. "The meaning of that was very clear to me. People die there all the time. My body could be found in a ditch and they would say, 'It was the war, the terrorists.'"

The prosecutor, who typed steadily into a laptop and used a video recorder, showed the reporter a photo of a bearded man with a gun and asked, "Do you know this man?" When she said no, he switched on a tape recording of her voice on the phone saying, "Hello Timur. Can we meet each other?" McEvers was stunned that authorities had been monitoring her calls.

The prosecutor insisted she was talking to the bearded man in the photo. She insisted they couldn't prove the Timur she was talking to was the man in the photo, and even if he was, there was nothing illegal about it. He then asked if she had ever provided money or "electronic materials" to terrorists. At that point, "I laughed and told him no. I wasn't scared anymore. I realized they didn't have anything on me. I looked him in the eye and asked, 'When can I go home? I need my passport back.'" Within two days, she was at the Moscow airport boarding a flight to the United States. CPJ and American officials had been frantically working for her release.

McEvers believes her detention was part of a continuing effort by Russia to muzzle the press and demonize the West. In an article for The New Republic in May, she wrote: "Analysts call this Putin's 'enemy at the gates' strategy a nod back to Soviet times. It allows Putin to cast his nation's problems including the violence in Chechnya and Dagestan as products of outside intervention, rather than admit they result from his own failed policies... For me, the ordeal is over, but for our two countries, a new and chilly conflict may just be beginning."

As for the future, McEvers says emphatically, "I have no plans to go back to Russia." After what happened to slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, "reporters who are critical of the Kremlin aren't safe."