In depth


Interview with Lilia Yusupova and Elena Vilenskaya

Maëlle Savidan. Ricardo Almanza

Lilia Yusupova is a member of the "Memorial" organisation in Chechnya, and Elena Vilenskaya represents the "House of Peace and Non-violence" organisation and the "Mothers of Saint Petersburg soldiers". Both activists work for Human Rights, against war, injustice and impunity in Russia and Chechnya. On the International Women's Day for Peace and Disarmament, the two activists were invited to Barcelona by the organisation "Dones x Dones" ["Women x Women"] with the support of the "League for Peoples' Rights" as part of the project "Together for a peace of our own".

Lilia Yusupova and Elena Vilenskaya

Lilia Yusupova and Elena Vilenskaya

"Memorial" Organisation

Can you tell us a little about your professional career?
I was a history teacher, and because of the changes that Perestroika brought about, I focused on topics on the history of the Chechen Republic, ethics, my country's traditions, etc. Then I was invited to work in the Ministry of Social Affairs, and with the help of my husband, who was a journalist, I started work as a secretary at the "Memorial" NGO. That job involved sacrifices for me, such as giving up being the principal at the school where I worked. In 2001 I was made head of the office in Gudermés, in Chechnya. The deep-rooted hate of Russia made the work very difficult, so I didn't limit my work to human rights aspects, which the "Memorial" organisation focused on, but instead I also worked for peace, such as cultural, educational and social activities in which the Russian military was invited to take part, to try and break down the stereotypes that existed between Russia and Chechnya.

What are the main difficulties that the Memorial organisation faces?
We have various problems. First, there is the lack of all types of media (newspapers, television, radio, etc.) For example, Internet access is now just beginning in Chechnya, although it is very difficult. We also suffer from a lack of financing, limits many projects, as well as the difficulties in raising the profile of our activities and projects. That is why the creation and dissemination of communication spaces is very important.

But our main difficulty is the social fear caused by the various reprisals by the Chehcen government, such as the many disappearances, torture in extra-legal prisons, psychological torture, etc.
How does the Memorial organisation keep going?
The various offices of the Memorial organisation remain open thanks to the Refugee Commission. We also receive help from many countries, like the Embassy of the United Kingdom, and from organisations and foundations institutions that support us, such as the "Open Society Institute".

What are the main programmes that the Memorial organisation has designed?
There are situations when people are falsely incriminated in criminal cases. In these situations of injustice, we have legal consultancy programmes for the public. Another area in which we work is our "Legal Initiative" programme, which focuses on cases that have been closed by the Europe Court of Human Rights, and gathers details of disappeared people. We also have programmes to provide medical help that are mainly for the displaced population and refugees.

What effect did the sad death of Natasha Estevirova, a member of the Memorial organisation, have?
The organisation was not willing to continue risking the lives of its activists, as according to figures from human rights organisations in Ireland, twenty-four activists were murdered in the world last year. Three of them were murdered in Russia and three more in Chechnya.

The terrible murder of our friend Natasha was a very hard blow. As a consequence, we did not work in Chechnya officially for six months, and we announced that it was impossible for human rights activists to do our job. Finally, we decided to leave Chechnya, which led to many activists being exiled abroad, and facing constant direct threats by the Chechen government. Fortunately, we are supported by various Russian organisations, which provide us with mobile squads of lawyers, to give us legal support to clear up the case.

"Mothers of Saint Petersburg Soldiers" Organisation
"House of Peace and Non-violence" Organisation

Can you tell us about your career?
I started working when I joined the Popular Front which started in the Baltic republics, and was founded to change the political situation. In 1991, with another woman, who was also in the Popular Front, we founded the organisation for the Mothers of Saint Petersburg Soldiers and I worked for it for three years. Later, 6 years ago, we founded the House of Peace and Non-violence because of the intrinsic relationship between human rights and non-violence.

How does the Mothers of Saint Petersburg Soldiers organisation work and what areas does it focus on?
Our organisation is mainly made up of women and we are supported by other organisations like the "Women in Black". Our objective is to raise awareness using narrative of the consequences of war and armed conflicts, focusing on education and the construction of pace.

In the education area, we organise workshops for primary and secondary school students, university students and teachers.

In the construction of peace area, we are involved in various "reconciliation" projects which mainly involve women and children who have suffered from the consequences of war and regional conflicts. In these projects, the participants share the difficult experiences they have lived through. An example is the literary competition "War in my life", sponsored and financed by the Government of Catalonia through the "Dones x Dones" organisation.

Our mission is to end the xenophobic and racist stereotypes that have been constructed and created in much of Russian society, which are often produced in schools.
Thanks to the help of tax objectors, we are also involved in the struggle to shed light on punitive armed violence, such as the events of 5 February 2000, when Special Police Units from Saint Petersburg killed at least 56 innocent civilians in the town of Aldi.

What media help you in raising the profile of your organisation's events?
We have a radio station in Saint Petersburg, which is more or less free, and we work with them sometimes. We also advertise in Novaia Gazet, which enables us to receive financial support from people who sympathise with our cause.