War Without Trace

War and beauty have a troubled relationship. Usually war is ugly. But war can also be presented as something beautiful in order to hide the dark episodes of history. Advanced weaponry often looks shiny, strong and powerful. To many young people, dying for a 'good' cause also may sound like a romantic idea. Beauty can be used to cover up the destruction of war, for example when beautiful cities are built on ruins and when heroic stories are made out of the horror of reality.

This is the story of Chechnya, where two wars left 150.000 people, one fifth of the population, dead. When Manon Loizeau, the maker of War Without Trace returns after several years, she wonders what has become of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and all the people she once knew. What she found was a completely different city; the glass-facade towers have erased everything and transformed the city into something that resembles a Caucasian mini-Dubai. Vladimir Putin is celebrated on all the walls, accompanied by Ramzan Kadyrov, the “young iron” Chechen president.

Although the first war started around 20 years ago, people are still looking for their missing family members. Even now people are arrested and disappear without a trace. The film shows the tragedy of an aged Chechen couple who suddenly has to take care of their grandchild when their two daughters and son-in-law disappear. A heart-breaking scene is when they – in tears and without the boy noticing – express their loss of hope for a better future.

Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, working for the committee against torture, illustrates how worried and desperate people are: “Unfortunately we are at the point now that when a young man disappears, the parents look for him everywhere and when they find him in prison they say: “Thanks be to Allah, he’s in prison!”” It means he is still alive and will come home one day.

Supported by Russia, Ramzan controls the population with the use of fear. A reign of terror where the ‘fight against terrorism’ becomes a carte blanche for a horrible regime turned against its own people. Igor Kaliapin, head of the committee against torture explains how arrested and tortured people are silenced. They are told: “We know each step your family takes so if you dare say we tortured you, those close to you will be harmed”. Earlier in the film Oleg referred to the suppression and unlawful punishments by stating “it’s like having a North Korea inside the Russian Federation.”

As we see more often after wars, death and destruction, the tired and desperate people are willing to accept anything. In the documentary you see people kiss Ramzan Kadyrov’s hand when they get the chance, and on national holidays, like the anniversaries of Putin and Kadyrov, people celebrate en masse on the streets. During the remembrance ceremony of victims of war, only the people who fought on the side of the Russians are honoured. Much is done to only present one side of history. “The regime doesn’t remember and most people have forgotten, only the trees remember.”